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How to play chess: Draws

Sometimes, it can become impossible for either player to win the game, and in these situations, the game ends in a draw. At the very highest levels of competitive chess, over half of all games end in a draw because the players make so few mistakes. Don't worry, though - at less exalted levels, draws are much less common, although they do still happen from time to time. Here you will learn about the different ways a game can end in a draw.

Draw by mutual agreement

The two players can agree to end a game in a draw at any time, regardless of the position on the board or how many moves have been made. Usually this happens when neither player can see a way to make progress, or both players realise that the game will eventually end in a draw anyway so there is no point carrying on.

It's usually considered bad form to agree to a draw very early on, and grandmasters have been criticised for agreeing to draws after only a handful of moves. In some cases, players are even known to pre-arrange a draw between themselves - for example, if they are playing in a long tournament and want to conserve their strength for the later rounds, they may agree to a quick draw in order to have a day off. These so-called 'grandmaster draws' are an issue of some controversy in chess, and some tournaments even go so far as to ban players from agreeing to draws before a certain number of moves.

Insufficient material

In chess, 'material' refers to all the pieces a player has on the board. If so many pieces get captured that neither player has enough left to checkmate the enemy king, the game is drawn due to insufficient material. How little material does there need to be, in order to draw a game this way? The following four combinations of pieces all result in an automatic draw:

  • King vs king with no other pieces.
  • King and bishop vs king.
  • King and knight vs king.
  • King and bishop vs king and bishop of the same coloured square.

Is that all, you may ask? How does a player checkmate if they have just a pawn left? Well, remember that a pawn can become a queen if it reaches the other side of the board. Plus, you'd be surprised how little material it takes to set up a checkmate. Take a look at the board below - black has only a king and bishop, but the white king is still in checkmate.

Normally, though, if you have only a king and bishop, you can't force the opponent into a checkmate - on the board above, if the white king had stayed out of the corner, then black would have no way to win. There are quite a few combinations where it is technically possible to create a checkmate position, but in practice it would require co-operation from the opponent in order to achieve. In these cases, the players will normally agree to a draw rather than carry on. Notable examples include:

  • King and two knights vs king.
  • King and rook vs king and rook.
  • King and rook vs king and bishop or king and knight.

In a later tutorial, we will look at all the basic checkmates, and you will be able to see which piece combinations are enough to force a checkmate whatever the opponent does.

Stalemate

Perhaps the most famous type of draw, stalemate is in fact very rare in practice. It occurs when the player whose turn it is to move is not in check, but has no legal moves. You can't skip a turn in chess, so if you have no moves and it isn't checkmate, then the game ends in a draw. When you're winning a game and your opponent has few pieces left, it's best to take care that you don't accidentally cause a stalemate. On the board below, it is black's turn, but there are no legal moves available, so it is stalemate.

Threefold repetition

If the exact same position occurs three times, with the same player to move, then either player can claim a draw by threefold repetition. The game doesn't end in a draw automatically, so you can carry on if you want to, but if either player claims the draw, then the game ends immediately even if the other player wants to carry on. A common type of threefold repetition is known as 'perpetual check', in which one player checks the other repeatedly. This is sometimes used to force a draw when the player giving the checks would otherwise lose. Use the arrows on the board below to see an example of perpetual check.

The 50 move rule

If 50 moves have passed since the last pawn move or capture, then either player can claim a draw by the 50 move rule. Like threefold repetition, it isn't an automatic draw, so if a player wants the draw then they have to claim it. Of course, this means keeping count of moves, but in tournament chess the players are normally required to record their moves in case of disputes so this normally isn't a problem. This rule is necessary to stop a game going on forever if neither side is making progress. The players may be happy to shuffle their pieces around until kingdom come, but tournament arbiters want to go home to bed at the end of the day! Thanks to the 50 move rule, even if your opponent insists on playing on in a position that neither of you can win, you can rest assured the game will be drawn eventually.

Now we've covered all the rules of chess! In the final part, we'll summarise what you've just learned, and then you'll be ready to play your first game of chess!

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