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While researching an answer for another SE.chess question (Has a position being a draw under FIDE 5.2.b before a forced recapture ever come up in a tournament?), I stumbled across the following issue.

The FIDE Arbiter’s Manual annotates the Laws of Chess. The 2022 edition (and also the 2021 edition - I haven't checked further back) contains an enigmatic comment regarding dead position:

"1.5 If the position is such that neither player can possibly checkmate the opponent’s 
king, the game is drawn (see Article 5.2.2)."

If neither player can win then the game is automatically decided as a draw. The arbiter
should therefore step in to declare this when:

(a) neither player has mating potential, or
(b) the position is such that neither player can get checkmate (known as a ‘dead 
position’).

The simplest example of (a) is K v K.

The following, where white has just played h5, is an example of a dead position:    
[Title "Dead Position"]
[FEN "8/2b1k3/7p/p1p1p1pP/PpP1P1P1/1P1BK3/8/8 w - - 0 1"]

Article 5.2.2, which has no annotations in the manual, states:

"5.2.2 The game is drawn when a position has arisen in which neither player can checkmate the opponent’s king with any series of legal moves. The game is said to end in a ‘dead position’. This immediately ends the game, provided that the move producing the position was in accordance with Article 3 and Articles 4.2 – 4.7."

(Articles 3 & 4 cover movement rules and touch-move respectively.)

So what is the undefined and otherwise unreferenced term "mating potential" meant to mean?

2 Answers 2

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As far as I can see, categories (a) & (b) are the same. Reading 1.5 & 5.2.2, which are not complicated, the given example KvK obviously is a dead position.

Maybe the intention is to distinguish between positions which have "insufficient material" for checkmate, in the old phrase, and those which are blocked positions. But this is very unclear.

In any case there are other kinds of dead positions, namely those which are inexorably headed along a sequence of moves (e.g. forced capture) which lead to (1) insufficient material (2) stalemate or (3) blocked position. These three fates are not mutually exclusive. There are known positions whose fate may branch but still inexorably leads to either (1) or (2). Similarly positions doomed to reach (2) or (3). Stalemate itself is not a dead position, as it is covered by separate laws, and I suppose the game is evaluated to be mate/stalemate before any examination of deadness.

I suggest to arbiters the following annotation to replace the current one:

"1.5 If the position is such that neither player can possibly 
checkmate the opponent’s king, the game is drawn (see Article 5.2.2)."

If neither player can win then the game is automatically decided as a draw by dead 
position. The arbiter should therefore step in to declare this.

Examples include:

(a) KvK, KBvK, KNvK,

(b) The following, where White has just played h5:

[FEN "8/2b1k3/7p/p1p1p1pP/PpP1P1P1/1P1BK3/8/8 w - - 0 1"]

(c) The following, where White has just played Qxd7:

[FEN "3k4/3Q4/8/8/8/2K5/8/8 w - - 0 1"]

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It is perhaps worth starting by pointing out that the FIDE Arbiters Commission and the FIDE Rules Commission are two separate entities. This FIDE article defines what the roles and responsibilities of the different commissions are.

Here is what it says for the Arbiters Commission (ARB):

ARB has the following ongoing responsibilities:

  • Licensing of arbiters (National, FIDE and International level)
  • Evaluating title applications and classification of arbiters in categories to be presented to the FIDE Council or the General Assembly
  • Supervising of FIDE seminars and workshops for arbiters (endorsement, advertisement, archiving)
  • Administration of the FIDE arbiter’s database
  • Initiating and leading new projects to support arbiter development
  • Organising seminars, workshops and joint training courses with other Commissions
  • Designing the curriculum for arbiter seminars and examinations
  • Providing reference documents for trainees and lecturers
  • Producing official publications (Arbiters Manual and Arbiters Magazine), which may be printed and distributed
  • Advertising seminars and development projects and initiatives on their official website and social networks
  • Enforcing the Disciplinary Regulations for Arbiters
  • Selecting Arbiter Panels as required by the Arbiter Appointment Regulations

Here is what it says for the Rules Commission (RC):

RC defines and updates the Laws of Chess and Online Chess Regulations, in consultation with players, event organisers and other Commissions, to provide a standard set of rules for chess to be played worldwide. ... RC is responsible for suggesting amendments for the following regulations to Council, and applying them in their ongoing responsibilities:

  • Laws of Chess
  • Online Chess Regulations
  • General Regulations for Competitions

So, when the ARB publishes its annotated copy of the FIDE Laws of Chess its annotations are simply clarifications, advice and suggestions. Only the Rules Commission can actually specify what the rules are. They should not be quoted as if they have the same force as the actual Laws themselves (as has been pointed out to me when I have done so in front of senior international arbiters).

So what is the undefined and otherwise unreferenced term "mating potential" meant to mean?

Very simply, if white has "mating potential" then white has the "potential" to deliver mate. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "potential" as:

existing in possibility : capable of development into actuality

Clearly in the kind of blocked position you give in your question there is no "existing possibility" of mate. In other words there is no mating potential. Similarly in K v K or KN v K or KB v K endgames. Similarly in KQ v K when the queen is unprotected next to the opponent's king and the only legal move is KxQ.

All the annotation is doing is restating 5.1 in a different form. Whether it is a clearer form is another matter.

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  • 1
    Thanks Brian. So what distinction is there between cases (a) & (b), in your view? Why is only (b) "dead position"?
    – Laska
    Aug 23, 2022 at 14:05
  • @Laska In case b) both sides have mating material but no potential / possibility of delivering mate. In case a) neither side has checking material, let alone mating material. The rules commission usually has a native (UK) English speaker playing a significant role checking the language before publication. I'm not sure the arbiters commission is similarly well served which could explain their confusion between "potential" and "material". In any case, what you ask in your comment is different from what you asked in your question.
    – Brian Towers
    Aug 23, 2022 at 14:15
  • Case (b) is basically what is already defined in the rules. Case (a) is a new case invented by the arbiter author and according to them while not dead position yet covered by the dead position rule. I ask for the meaning of “mating potential” in the context of these other terms. I still think the author is confused and confusing
    – Laska
    Aug 23, 2022 at 15:49

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