Can A Chess Game Go On Forever?

Chess games can go on for quite a while. In fact, there have been many occasions in chess history where players have paused the clocks, got some rest and returned to the board to pick up the previous day’s game. But can a chess game be played for an infinite amount of time or is there a rule (or more than one rule) in chess that stops this from happening? We think the answer to this is quite fascinating.

Can a chess game go on forever? In theory, a chess game could go on forever but in practice it is not possible. There’s a limit in terms of the lifespan of the players involved and most games are played with specific time restrictions which limit their length. Rules such as the 50-move limit and the rule of repetition also prevent chess games from going on forever.

Let’s take a look at the length of chess games in theory and practice.

Can a chess game go on forever? - ChessPulse.com
Can a chess game go on forever? – ChessPulse.com

The Theory Of The Infinite Chess Game

Ian Stewart, of the Mathematics Institute at the University of Warwick, has mathematically proven that it is possible to play an infinite game of chess. His proof, however, is that it’s possible to play a game that goes on forever in which the rule of repetition (that is that the same position may not appear on the board with the same available moves more than three times without the game resulting in a draw) is never broken.

His proof does not allow for the 50-move rule. That is the rule that says a pawn must move or a piece must be taken every 50 moves. Given that there is a finite number of pawns and pieces, eventually one of these conditions must be breached (though it might take a very long time to get to that point).

A Terrible Game Of Chess Goes On Forever

It also acknowledges that the game that this proof would produce would be, well to be kind, a lousy game of chess. It would require a series of utterly bizarre moves not in keeping with the desire to play the game to win in order to manipulate the pieces to deliver an infinite chess game.

So, while the idea of a never-ending chess game is, in theory, practical if you were to remove the 50-move rule from chess (and you can agree rule variations in chess and, in fact, new conditions are often agreed between players of great disparity in strength through a process known as “giving odds”, which we’ve written about here) in reality, you would have to be working to produce an infinite game to produce one.

The Intellectual Exercise Is Interesting: The Game Will Never Happen

We can’t imagine that anyone would want to do this except as an intellectual exercise to prove that you could keep a chess game going on forever and thanks to Ian Stewart, we don’t need to play that game because mathematics has shown that this game exists.

So, the truly infinite chess game will never occur on the board in a game where players are conforming not just to the rules of the game but also the spirit of the game – that is to seek a position in which your opponent is in checkmate. We don’t think any game, including chess, is very interesting if the players aren’t playing to win. Right?


The Three Rules That Limit The Length Of A Standard Chess Game

There are three rules that place restrictions on the length of a chess game:

  1. The rule of repetition. We’ve touched on this briefly already. This rule states that an opponent may require a draw if the position of the board (including all the same possible moves – if the moves are different e.g. en passant was possible once and no longer is, then the position is not considered to be repeated) repeats 3 times. However, they are not forced to require this draw and the rule allows the position to be repeated 5 times before an arbiter should require the draw.
  2. The 50-move rule. This is exactly as we’ve already mentioned. You must either move a pawn forward or capture a piece in the last 50 moves or the game may be declared a draw. In FIDE rules, your opponent does not have to claim the draw at 50 moves and the game can go for 75 moves before the arbiter declares the game a draw.
  3. The time limit. Not all games are covered by a time limit but the majority are and particularly in competitive chess. This limit is enforced by a rule or group of rules governing the tournament and a chess clock (more on these here) that is used by both players to track the time remaining to them. If either player runs out of time, their opponent may claim victory in the game.

Thus. by definition a chess game cannot go on forever unless you choose to modify the rules above. We would recommend that you don’t modify these limits unless you seeking to test out an idea that requires the rules being modified – creating an artificially long game of chess is a fairly pointless exercise.


The Longest Possible Game Of Chess

The longest possible game of chess is calculated based on the hard limits of 5 repeated moves (because the 3 moves do not have to be claimed by either player) and the 75 moves without moving a pawn forward or taking a piece from the FIDE rules for the same reason.

This produces a game of a maximum length of 8848.5 moves long (with the final move of the game falling to white rather than black). In practice, of course, this game will never occur though it is possible to get computer games to generate games of this length.

If you were to play this game and use FIDE’s mandated time controls, it would take 6.31 days to complete! That’s a very long game of chess by any standards and certainly, it’s longer than any competitive match played between human beings so far.


The Longest Chess Game On The Clock In History

The longest game between two human players is recorded in The Guinness Book of Records and it as between Nikolic and Arsovic in Belgrade in 1989. Their game took 20 hours and 15 minutes and resulted in a mind-bogglingly dull draw after 269 moves had been played!

The longest game resulting in a win came between Danin and Azarov in the Czech Leagues. Danin took the record in 2016 when he won the game he’d been playing after 239 moves! Sadly, for him, this still didn’t result in a win for his team as they drew and were relegated from the league because of this!


The Longest Game Of Correspondence Chess?

Sadly, for us, there is no record of a longest single game of correspondence chess and the record is held by Dr Rheinhart Straszacker and his friend Dr Hendrik Roelof Van Huyssteen who began playing their first game in 1946. Over the years they would complete 112 games with each other, and they were exactly equally tied when Straszacker died and their game came to an end 53 years after it had begun in 1999!

We suspect that some correspondence games have gone on for nearly as long for a single match, but we cannot prove this.


Conclusion

Can a chess game go on forever? Yes, in theory. It is mathematically possible for there to be an infinite number of moves in chess without infringing the law of repetition (though it must, by definition, eventually break the 50 move rule). The good news for players is that you can’t mimic this proof in a real chess game.

Chess games are finite, and the most common restriction placed on the length of the game is a mutually agreed restriction in terms of time on the clock. Though, in days gone by some correspondence games could for years due to problems getting your move through communications networks to your opponent, in the days of e-mail this is no longer an issue. You could agree to abandon any time limits on a game, but this would still limit the game to the length of the players’ lives.

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