The Draw

I started our yearly summer program last week that runs until August. Every year, we do eight one week training camps for junior chess players. We divide the students into two groups, beginners and more advanced players. At the end of each week we have a non rated, informal tournament for each group to test their knowledge and our teaching program. I’ve kept records for the last four years of these weekly tournaments, including detailed information on the games themselves in an effort to see where I need to provide more educational information. For example, in the beginner’s section, there are a large number of games won employing the scholar’s mate. Thus, I know that our teaching staff needs to further reinforce defending against scholar’s mate. This last week, we had a large number of draws in our beginner’s section. While I expect a few draws here and there, the number we had was large enough to sound an alarm bell! Something was wrong!

From years of playing, teaching, coaching and working as a tournament arbiter, I’m pretty good at determining whether a position is drawn or not. With my advanced students, real drawn positions are reached. With my beginning students, what they consider a draw is often far from an actual draw. Let’s look at ways in which games can be drawn.

Perpetual check occurs when one player checks their opponent’s King repeatedly which can lead to a draw. You see this a great deal in the games of beginners who haven’t learned that pieces must work together, such as a King and Rook or King and Queen against a lone King. Beginners have a bad habit of checking the opposition King with their lone Queen as opposed to using their Queen with another piece (such as their King). The King gets checked and moves out of check. The King gets checked again and moves out of check and so on. Dozens of moves later and checkmate is no closer. Perpetual check actually leads to either a draw by threefold repetition or a draw under the fifty move rule (both discussed later on).

Stalemate is another way to draw the game. It occurs when one player’s King is the only piece that can move (the player in question can’t move any of their pawns because they’re stuck or immobile) but any square it moves to would place it in check. This is an extremely frustrating position for the beginner to be in because they often have the material necessary to win the game but don’t use that material correctly.

Then there’s having insufficient material to deliver checkmate. This problems arises when both players either trade all their material off the board, leaving just the opposing Kings or they only have their Kings and a Bishop each or a Knight each. This occurs in many young beginner’s games because they’re concentrating on capturing material. You can often hear young beginner’s say “I’m winning because I have more material!” This thinking leads to this kind of drawn game.

A draw by repetition means that both players make identical moves that produce the same position over the course of three complete game turns for both players. So one player makes a move followed by his opponent’s move and these exact moves are repeated two move times. Thus the term Draw by three fold repetition. Beginner’s who are not accustom to this rule often fall victim to it because, due to a lack of experience, they cannot find another way out of the position.

The fifty move rule is one that, surprisingly, I hear many of my young beginner’s claim as the reason for a draw. The rule states that if fifty consecutive moves have been made without a capture or pawn move then the game can be claimed drawn. Young beginners often translate this incorrectly, thinking that if no checkmate has been made in fifty moves the game is drawn. However, they often capture pieces and move pawns so the rule cannot apply.

Drawing the game by agreement is the young beginner’s way of saying “I can’t figure out how to checkmate my opponent and he or she is no closer to mate as well.”

With a few basic definitions provided we’ll now look at what happened with my beginning students and see how these rules actually applied. It should be noted that when many of these players started their summer session with me they only knew how to move the pawns and pieces, the most basic rules of the game.

In one game, one player had a Queen and King against an opposition Rook and Queen. Because I had two instructors watching the two sections for me, beginner and advanced, I caught the position when a draw was requested. The first question I asked was “why do you think this game is a draw?” Both of my young (1st grade) students replied that they didn’t think they could deliver checkmate because every time one of them checked, the other would simply move the checked King. Because our tournament was not rated, I offered a suggestion to both, you cannot checkmate with a lone Queen or lone Rook. Teamwork, pieces working together, is the only way to deliver a checkmate. While both players took this idea to heart, making an effort to coordinate their pieces rather than attempting further solo piece checks, they eventually requested a draw which I gave them. The fact that they tried counted for a lot!

In another game, when the request for a draw came up, one player had a Queen and a King against a lone King. Of course, this is an easily winnable endgame for the average player but remember, I’m working with very young children new to the game. I had given a lesson in basic endgame checkmates earlier in the week and suggested to the student with the Queen and King to think back to the lesson before considering a draw. “A lone piece cannot deliver checkmate. It has to work with another piece.” Both students went back to their game. When I walked by the board a bit later, I noticed some solid progress as King and Queen worked their way towards the lone opposition King. Sadly, the game ended in a stalemate. However, this was a legitimate draw.

There was a claim of the fifty move rule early on. I told my students that I wanted to see them play for a while longer so I could make sure they understood the true meaning of this rule. Not surprisingly, both players captured pieces and moved pawns only to then claim they’d adhered to this rule. When I asked them for their definition of the rule, they said “if you don’t deliver checkmate in fifty moves it’s a draw.” When I explained that they got the rule wrong, one student said his father told him the above so it’s true! Diplomatically, I explained the correct definition. Eventually, after they played for a while longer, I declared the game a draw because they would have ended up with a three hundred move game that got no where.

The overall reminder I got from this experience was that children new to chess don’t have the playing experience and knowledge required to know if a game really is drawn. They often reach a position beyond their scope of knowledge and don’t know what to do, which leads them to think the game cannot go on and is thus a draw. While this is the first time I’ve had a large number of draw requests in the beginner’s section it serves as a strong reminder that teaching programs must be flexible. These same students who I’ll work with during the coming week will start that week with a full two days of basic endgame situations and a thorough examination of what leads to a drawn game. While we did cover this during the previous week, obviously we have to provide further training. Teaching is an evolving process, one that can always be improved upon. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).