I've started playing chess a little more using an app on my phone, and frequently run into the situation where I'm dominating the computer opponent (on an easy difficulty level) to the point where he can't make a legal move (e.g. I've got 5 queens or something like that). Of course, this is a stalemate and it's a draw.

From Googling around, it seems like it's common for most beginners to feel like they're being "cheated" in this situation (as I do), while most experienced players "agree" with the rule.

I've yet to see an explanation that makes me feel like I'm not being cheated. The explanations all seem to say "it's a draw because the rule say it's a draw", or only slightly better, "the rules say that to win, you must put your opponent into check (such that he can't get out), and since you didn't do this, you didn't win, so it's a draw." I don't mean any offense, but this just seems like circular reasoning to me.

Draws make intuitive sense to me when there are few pieces left and neither player has enough of an advantage to checkmate the other (a simple example would be when there are just 2 kings left), but I'm having a hard time seeing how "anywhere I move would put me in check" and "I'm in check and anywhere I move would leave me still in check" aren't really equivalent concepts.

Take the theoretical case above (say black has 5 queens and a king, and white just has a king, and they're positioned in such a way that white can't move without putting himself in check). How can a beginner be convinced that black hasn't dominated so thoroughly that he should win?

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  • True, it is not entirely crazy to view this as a prank rule. It could have been otherwise, after all: why is stalemating any worse than checkmating? :) Well, ... by this year, it's just that it's a standard rule, and there we are. Jul 31, 2022 at 16:52

7 Answers 7


If you were dominating so much, you should have checkmated him. It's not the fault of the game that your mistakes may mean you don't win.

The appeal of chess comes partly from the fact that it is hard. One of the reasons for that is that there is quite a large drawing margin -- you may have a great position at some point, but there may still be many ways to defend tenaciously in endgames, and a good opponent can make it very hard for you to win even if he does make a big mistake early on.

Those ways include eternal check, the fact that you can't checkmate with a single bishop or knight against a lone king, fortresses, and also many ways to defend based on stalemate.

For instance, king + pawn vs king (where the pawn isn't immediately lost) would be a trivial win for the pawn without stalemate, but with stalemate it's sometimes a forced win and sometimes it's possible to hold a draw. Because you need to see which it is before you trade down to that endgame, that makes the game deeper and harder.

I don't think chess would have become as popular as it is without rules like stalemate. It would be a shallower game.

You just didn't play well enough.

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    It seems like this is like a hypothetical rule in soccer that says that if one team is up 5-0 (and exactly 5-0) at the end of time, then the game ends in a tie. If the team with 5 was dominating so much, they should have scored at least another goal. If one team is losing 3-0, they can defend tenaciously by scoring two goals on themselves, making it 5-0, and forcing the other team to try to score another goal.
    – Jer
    Apr 22, 2019 at 23:56
  • May as well ask why in soccer if there are 5 attackers in the box and only the goalie to defend, the goal doesn't count if someone ran forward at the wrong time. The point should be easy to score, but the attack still has to follow the rules.
    – D M
    Dec 17, 2023 at 18:48

If a stalemate would count as mate, it would make winning much easier for the stronger side. As it is now, stalemate can be used as a defensive resource for the weaker side, which keeps endgames suspenseful, and requires deeper knowledge and calculation from both sides.

Take the theoretical case above (say black has 5 queens and a king, and white just has a king, and they're positioned in such a way that white can't move without putting himself in check). How can a beginner be convinced that black hasn't dominated so thoroughly that he should win?

There are a lot of positions where the side with less material wins. It is the very nature of chess that material isn't everything, but only one factor of many. Imagine a chess-like game where everything is over just because you lost a pawn (as the material imbalance would inevitably lead to a loss). Would you like to play such a game?

Stalemate and other kinds of draws make it harder for stronger side and keep the game interesting. And of course, don't forget that you can use these rules to your own advantage if you're about to lose.


Weird Chess Rule Number 1 - you HAVE to make a move

This is a fundamental rule of chess and in quite contrast to real war/battle like situations. In a real battle, you may not want to make a move if you're sure that the move will cause you harm. You may choose to keep your soldiers in the exact same position and wait for the enemy to move and then react accordingly. Unfortunately, in chess, you cannot do that. You cannot say "pass" and give up your turn.

Consider this position -

     [FEN "8/8/8/8/8/K7/B7/k7 b - - 0 1"]
     [Event "Black to move cannot avoid putting the king in check"]

Here, it is Black to move. The Black king can technically go to g8, g7, or h7. But if it moves to either of these squares, it will walk into a check and thus be threatened with capture. So what should the outcome of this game be? We aren't allowing Black the option of not making a move and at the same time forcing Black to make a move that would move the king into check, when in fact the king is quite safe in the corner and White has no way of winning.

Thus, to be fair to Black, this position has to be declared a draw.

Unfortunately, this is not true for every position where Black (or White for that matter) has no moves that do not lead to putting the king in check.

So, in this position -

    [FEN "8/8/8/8/8/K7/2Q5/k7 b - - 0 1"]
    [Event "Black to move cannot avoid putting the king in check"]

Black has no moves, but that doesn't mean the fair thing to do is declare this position a draw. However, that's unfortunately the current rule in chess. It's no wonder that the stalemate rule has varied greatly throughout history. At the most, one could argue that it's not fair to ask Black to move the king into a position where it could be attacked, but since we insist on weird chess rule number 1, then the fair thing to do is to declare this position a draw.

There are also stalemates that can occur because the side is forced to capture its own pieces in order to make a move.

Changing the Stalemate Rules will Greatly Change Chess Endgame Theory

This is another reason why the flawed stalemate rule is allowed to exist. We have studied chess endgames with this rule in much detail. Changing the stalemate rule will significantly alter how we understand the game of chess and much of our acquired knowledge of chess will be useless and even misleading. For example, consider the simple case of king and pawn endgames. If stalemate is not a draw, endgames like these will have to be declared to be winning for the side with the extra pawn.

     [FEN "7k/8/8/8/8/8/6KP/8 w - - 0 1"]
     [Event "White wins if stalemate is not a draw"]

     1. h4 Kh7 2. Kg3 Kh6 3. Kg4 Kh7 4. h5 Kh6 5. Kh4 Kh7 6. Kg5 Kg7 7. h6+ Kh7 8.
     Kh5 Kh8 9. Kg6 Kg8 10. h7+ Kh8 11. Kh6 

Fundamental endgame positions like these will have to be re-evaluated and in turn those endgame studies which rely on these fundamental positions will have to be re-evaluated. In turn, our understanding of the middlegame will also have to be altered to fit this new endgame knowledge. Thus, it's very impractical at this point in history to change the stalemate rule.


We have decided not to change weird chess rule number 1. Stalemate is a by-product of that rule. It's not fair to force a side to move its king into check, thus, in this context, it makes sense to declare stalemate to be a draw.

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    It would not be difficult to write a stalemate rule which would award White the win in your second example but not the first. Simply say that a player is required to make a move if any move exists which would not endanger the king, and must otherwise pass. Stalemates could still occur in theory (situations could arise where neither side would have any legal moves) but would be unlikely in practice [BTW, did you like the example you linked?]. The ease of defining such a rule would not prevent it from devaluing centuries of research into the game, but defining the rule wouldn't be hard.
    – supercat
    Oct 10, 2014 at 19:33

Here's how I would motivate the beautiful stalemate rule to a beginner:

"Suppose that you lose a rook, and a lot of pieces are traded off. Time to give up, right? No, you've still got a cunning resource which makes the game very exciting. Basically, you have to make a move every time it's you turn. If none of your pieces can move, then you haven't lost: instead it's a draw! You've saved the game from apparent defeat! How cool is that? Imagine your opponent's face!

"Let's look at a few typical positions... etc."


Chess is a game of "war between two kingdoms". One potential war action is a siege. Sieges have a couple general outcomes -- either the kingdom under siege collapses and the kingdom is lost or it withstands the siege until the attacking army is forced to withdraw.

If the siege can be withstood, if there are sufficient resources to outwait the enemy, the result is a 'stalemate'.

That's essentially the underlying basis. It's not possible for the attackers to breach the defenses, and the defenders cannot escape but rather must stay within the defensive position.

  • Interesting comparison! :) Jul 31, 2022 at 16:55

The other answers imply that there is an external reason for the rule to be what it is. No! The rules are artificial, so we can choose whatever rule we want (as long as we stick to them). Why does the knight have to move in a 1,2 L-shape? No external answer either...

Here is an internal reason: a) The game is won when checkmate is given. b) To continue the game in his turn, a player must make a move. c) In a stalemate position, a player cannot move.

It follows that in a stalemate, the game cannot proceed, so it ends; however, no mate was given, so nobody wins; i.e., it has to be a draw.

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    the game cannot proceed, so it ends; however, no mate was given, so nobody wins; i.e., it has to be a draw. This last statement is a great reason!
    – justhalf
    Jun 24, 2019 at 21:53
  • The knight can be seen as a combination piece, between bishop and rook. It moves one square like a rook, along a rank or file; then it moves one square along a diagonal like a bishop. Or vice versa, depending on perspective. The unpredictable variability of order allows it to move essentially 'between' squares, appearing to leap over adjacent blocking pieces as a horse might jump a barrier. This is an order of abstraction just beyond thinking of it moving simply in a 'L' shape. There is logic in a knight's move that fits the game. Aug 1, 2022 at 18:17

Taking into account the fact that stronger side always chooses if the game ends in a stalemate or not, and that the stalemate is the result of recklessness, it is fair to declare the game drawn.

You are not cheated, because to win you must put opposing king into checkmate ( which you did not do -> checkmate is indefensible check ), you are just punished for being reckless. To me that is fair result since you were the only one who had control, not the opponent, and you blew it. Pay more attention next time.


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