Why Chess Players Resign (But You Probably Shouldn’t)

If you’ve ever watched competitive chess at a high level or even games between friends, you will quickly come to realize that most games don’t end in checkmate. Instead, they end when one player decides to resign and they knock their king over and offer their hand to their opponent. But why do they do this? Is it really how the game should be played?

Why do chess players resign? In the majority of cases, chess players resign because one player believes that they are no longer able to win the game. However, many chess players, particularly beginners may resign far too early and while the option to resign is always open to you (whether you are winning or losing) you might want to think twice before you do so.

Let’s take a look at resignations in chess in more detail.

Why Chess Players Resign - ChessPulse.com
Why Chess Players Resign – ChessPulse.com

Why Do Players Resign?

There are three key strategic considerations in a chess game. The first is the position of the board – this determines the overall attacking/defending capability of each player. This is the most important consideration. If you have a king pinned on the backrow and the next move is guaranteed to land you in checkmate – your position is clearly a losing one.

Points Scores And Resignation

Then there is the “points score”. Though chess doesn’t have an official points score enacted on scoreboards, there is a points value attached to each piece. (1 for a pawn, 3 for a knight or bishop, 5 for a rook and 9 for a queen). The more pieces of the opponents you take, the fewer points he or she has and vice-versa.

Sometimes, a player will consider the points deficit between themselves and the other player too great and resign even if the board position is not, yet, hopeless.

Time Flies Towards A Resignation In Chess?

There is also a rather more nebulous concept of “tempo” which is the idea that the time spent developing your game shouldn’t be wasted. Thus, if you move a piece to one square and then are forced to move it back again – you have lost a “tempi”.

In theory, if you waste too much time on pointless moves, your opponent should gain a substantial advantage over you and thus, at some point, this advantage becomes large enough to guarantee a loss (assuming no errors on their part).

We’ve never heard of a player resigning over the loss of tempi but it’s entirely possible that it’s happened – chess is a sport so widely played that it almost certainly has happened, in fact.


Why Do Good Chess Players Resign?

OK, so we’ve seen three reasons why a player might resign based on the idea that they are losing. But why do good players resign? (We need to note here that we consider “good players” to be those of a significant FIDE ranking, these are players for whom their game is substantially polished and which might, one day, become Masters of the sport).

Handshake over chessboard - ChessPulse.com
The handshake over the chessboard is a sign of respect – ChessPulse.com

Surely, given that there is always a possibility that your opponent might make an unforced error, the logical thing to do is to play the game until checkmate actually takes place?

The Two Most Quoted Reasons To Resign In Chess

Well, their arguments will tend to several things. Firstly, when they know that their opponent plays to a similar standard, the odds are fairly good that they won’t make an unforced error having been handed a large advantage and thus, they’re going to lose.

Secondly, it respects the other player’s time and that’s important in a sport which has decorum inextricably linked to its play, this is something that is “the done thing.”

The Most Important Reason Top Chess Players Resign

Finally, and probably most importantly, most high-ranking players when you see them are playing at a competitive level. Each game that they play is mentally taxing. To see a losing game through to the end means spending mental energy that could have been saved for the next game, when they might have won, instead.


4 Good Reasons Not To Resign When Losing A Chess Game

If you’re asking whether or not you should resign, chances are that you won’t have reached the level of “master” of the game. That means that there are good reasons for you to not knock over your king but, instead, to play on to the end of the game.

1. It’s Less Entertaining

Playing chess is not just about the winning or losing, it’s about the game itself. Play is fun. That’s why we all play sports.

Can you imagine going to see a soccer match, say Manchester United vs Barcelona and then in the first 15 minutes Barcelona smash three goals into the net in quick succession and, instead of doubling down and fighting back, Manchester United just shrugged their shoulders and said, “we  quit” and then shuffled off to the dressing room?

There would be a riot and deservedly so. We don’t expect football to result in what we want but we certainly expect our teams to at least try to win, don’t we? The same should be true of chess players.

2. Your Opponent May Not Know How To Capitalize On Their Advantage

Then there’s the issue that when you’re a beginner, you’re not likely to be playing against Magnus Carlsen (the world champion at the time of going to press) but rather a friend who isn’t that much better than you are.

They may not notice that you’ve made a fatal mistake. We’ve all seen plenty of games end up in stalemate even when they should have been a guaranteed win for the other player.

3. The Advantage May Not Be As Great As You Think

We’ve also seen plenty of players win chess games when they are massively behind on points (material). Just because the other guy has taken a bishop, it doesn’t mean that they are suddenly able to smash through your lines and leave your king smashed on the back row.

4. There’s Learning Opportunity

And finally, by allowing games to run on longer, whether you win or lose – you will find yourself in new positions and tackling new ideas and when you think the stakes are lower (because you believe you’ve lost), you may become more creative in your play and learn to take a few extra risks.

For anyone under the level of expert – you shouldn’t resign in chess, you should see the game through to the end and often, you’ll be very glad that you did.


How Do You Resign In Chess (Respectfully)?

Before we end this article, we ought to touch on the basics of how you resign during a game of chess.

While, certain players have broken the grounds of courtesy (notably Alexander Alekhine, for whom the Alekhine’s Defense is named, who upon losing to Ernst Greunfeld in Vienna back in 1922 decided to resign by hurling his king all the way across a room) but the usual way to resign is simply to lay your king flat on the space it currently resides in.

You may also make a formal verbal announcement such as “I resign.” Then it’s traditional to offer your opponent your hand. Given that shaking your hand is an acknowledgement that the game is ending on your terms, it is OK for your opponent just to confirm, “Did you resign?” before accepting the handshake.

You are not required to offer any reasoning as to why you resigned and, in fact, you are free to resign even if you think you are in a winning position (though it would be dreadfully unsportsmanlike to do so).


Conclusion

Why do chess players resign? When a grandmaster resigns it is almost certainly because they know that they have made a mistake from which their game will never recover. It is a sign of respect for their opponent’s skills and it makes sense, particularly in longer competitions, not to try and draw a losing game out forever but simply to proceed to the next game.

However, in the case of many lesser-skilled players, a resignation is often a sign of a mistake in itself. It is rare that a beginner player is playing someone of so much greater skill than themselves that defeat becomes inevitable. In fact, their opponent may be just as prone to making a mistake and handing the game back to the “losing player”. So, early in your chess career – you might want to stay the course rather than resigning at the first hurdle.

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