What’s The Difference Between Stalemate & Checkmate?

Nearly everyone has heard the expression “checkmate” often even if they don’t play chess because the meaning of “win” has been adopted in many other walks of life. But when you get into chess you will hear another common term: “stalemate”. Is it the same thing as checkmate or is it something else?

What is the difference between stalemate and checkmate? Checkmate is a winning position in the game of chess. It is achieved by placing an opponent’s king in check and the opponent being unable to move their king out of check (or to remove the threat of check) on the next turn. A stalemate happens when a player cannot make any move that does not put their king into check. This is a draw, so neither player wins nor loses.

Let’s take a look at the two things in more detail.

Explained: Stalemate vs. Checkmate - ChessPulse.com
Explained: Stalemate vs. Checkmate – ChessPulse.com

What Is Check In Chess?

Before we can understand what checkmate is in chess, we need to take a look at the condition of check. This is precursor of declaring checkmate and an important part of the game as it introduces a new rule.

A king is said to be in check when it is threatened by another piece such that the piece could take the king on its next move.

No piece can take a king in chess. This is a fundamental rule. However, because of this rule, when a king is in check there is a rule which requires the player with the king in check to move out of check on their next move.

A king can move out of check in one of three ways:

  1. The king is moved to a position where the square they land in is not under threat from another piece. It is worth noting that a king may not castle out of check.
  2. The piece which is attacking the king is taken by another piece. This does not need to be the king; the player may use any piece on the board that can legally take the piece to take the piece.
  3. The piece which is attacking the king is blocked by another piece. Obviously, this is impossible if the attacking piece is a knight or if the attacking piece is on a square adjacent to the king. Otherwise, any of the player’s pieces that can legally move to a square between the king and the attacker may be moved to that square.

A player may carry out any of these three options in order to move out of check. The rules of chess do not specify a preferential order as to which to use (as we discussed in our article on whether the king must move if it is in check).


What Is Checkmate In Chess?

Checkmate is the condition under which a player’s king is in check and none of the three options to move the player out of check are available or if executed they reveal another form of check. If the king cannot, in a single move, be moved out of check, this is checkmate.

This is the objective of chess. To place your opponent’s king in checkmate whilst you keep your own king away from being put into checkmate.


What Is Stalemate In Chess?

Stalemate is a different condition. In this condition the opponent’s king is not in check but they cannot make any move on the board without putting themselves into check. Stalemate is a condition which results in a formal tie of the game – a draw.

Beginners are particularly prone to accidentally putting an opponent in stalemate rather than achieving a checkmate when they have a material advantage because they fail to consider the positioning of their pieces properly.

A Worked Example

If you would like to see an example stalemate, you can set up the board as follows:

White: King (on G2), Queen (on F7), Pawn (on A4) and Pawn (on B3)

Black: King (on h8), Pawn (on B6) and Pawn (on A5)

It is black to move. As you will see, the black pawns cannot move as they are blocked by the white pawns and neither pawn can take the other pieces. At the same time, the king has only 3 squares to move to and each of them is under threat from the white queen.

Thus, the black player is unable to move without putting his king into check, though his king is not in check – it’s a stalemate and this game is drawn.

The Key Difference Between Checkmate And Stalemate

So, there is, in fact, only one difference between checkmate and stalemate – in checkmate the king is in check and the player cannot make any move which does not result in check, in stalemate the king is not in check and the player cannot make any move which does not result in check.


Are There Other Ways To Win At Chess Than Checkmate?

Yes! In fact, there are three other ways to win a game of chess:

  1. Your opponent resigns. A player may at any point during the game offer to concede and this means that you have won. Resignation typically comes when an opponent feels that they have no hope of winning but there is no limit on reasons why someone may resign in chess.
  2. Your opponent runs out of time. In competitive chess, each player is given a certain amount of time to make all their moves. If they run out of time before the game has ended, their opponent may claim the game as a win.
  3. Your opponent is disqualified. This never really happens even in tournament play but if someone’s actions during a game are so reprehensible that they cannot be allowed to continue the game, the arbiter may award the game to their opponent.

Are There Other Ways To Draw At Chess Than Stalemate?

Yes, in fact, there are three other ways to draw at chess:

  1. Your opponent offers a draw and you accept. Your opponent may offer a draw if the game seems to be going nowhere, if they feel that they are at a disadvantage but do not wish to resign, or for any other reason. You are not obliged to accept this offer but once you have shaken their hand, the draw is deemed to be accepted.
  2. The 3 repetitions rule. We’ve explored this rule in detail here but the essence of the rule is that you may not repeat the same board position (that is all pieces in the same place and with the same available moves – so watch out for castling, en passant, etc.) 3 times. If you do then your opponent may claim a draw. They are not obliged to do so. However, in competitive chess if a position is repeated 5 times, the arbiter is required to declare the game a draw. This rule also encompasses the idea of a draw by “perpetual check” (which eventually must force the same 3 positions over again).
  3. The 50-move rule. If a game goes 50 moves without a piece being taken or a pawn moving the game must be declared a draw. 

Do People Ever Play To Get Stalemate?

Yes, if you are in a losing position then a draw is better than losing. In addition, you might play for stalemate if you are playing a series of matches and a draw would give you enough points to win the series.


Conclusion

What is the difference between stalemate and checkmate? Checkmate is the only way for a player to win the game of chess through their play. There are other ways to win at chess, but they all rely on the opponent or the arbiter to come about. It is, essentially, placing the other player into a position where they cannot move without their king being able to be taken on your next move.

Stalemate is when your opponent cannot move any piece on the board without placing their king into check, but the king is not in check on the square that it currently rests on. It is a fairly common way for unskilled players to end up with a draw from a winning position and there are circumstances in which even higher skilled players make seek out a stalemate.

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