Back to Basics: Check, Checkmate and Stalemate

By CEO National Master Evan Rabin 

Last week I was teaching curriculum classes at one of our partner schools and a student asked me to learn about the Sicilian Defense, something I typically would not teach until students are rated 1200+. A few minutes later, he was playing against another student and attempted to capture his opponent’s king after he made an illegal move that did not get him out of check. He did not remember that kings never get captured in chess. Inexperienced chess coaches will often jump to instructing basic strategy, openings, endgames, etc. before students know all the rules. Knowing all the rules does not just mean piece movement; before students learn any strategy, they should know how to castle and know the exact definitions of check, checkmate, and stalemate.

Often when I ask beginners what checkmate means, I will get answers like “It is when the king cannot move anywhere”, “It is where anywhere the king goes, he will get captured”, “The king is surrounded”, etc.  All these answers are incorrect and will cause confusion to students when they are playing. Two years I was directing one our tournaments and a child raised his hand. When I went over to his board, he was excited as he exclaimed. “I won!” He thought it was checkmate as his opponent’s king had no legal moves but it was not in check. I told them to play on and a few moves later he made the exclamation. However, I had to be the bearer of bad news and explain to him why it was stalemate and how he only would get a ½ point for the round. I felt bad as he left the room crying but of course the rules were rules. While it may take a while for students to fully grasp the differences ad be able to independently describe the differences of these three related terms, this lesson must be done before students continue their chess study.

Check means “the king is in danger”. This means that the king is in a direct line of fire from one of his opponent’s pieces. If the king were any other piece (pawn, rook queen, bishop or knight), it would be able to get captured on the next move). In beginner classes, I will often say “Raise your hand if when your in check, you should get out of it”. Usually most of the beginners will fall for the trick and raise their hand…… One must get always get of check; it is not something he should do. As Nikki Church likes to say, ” the whole world stops until you get out of check.”

Checkmate means “the king is in check and there is no way to get out of check”. Every other type of answer may be close but is not correct. When a students says “checkmate is when there is no where for the king to go”, I will ask “is the king in checkmate in the starting position of a chess game?”.

Evan ready for a new round at a Tournament in Kiryat Ono, Israel in August 2018

“Of course, not”, the student will generally reply. He gets surprised when I explain to him how according to his definition of checkmate, the king would be in checkmate in the starting position.

Students will often suggest “checkmate is when the king is in check and there is no way for the king to run.” This is a better definition but is also not correct…. Is this Pirc Defense an opening that loses on the spot?

If white could play 2. Bb5#, I don’t think many top players like ….. would play 1….d6.

However, of course this would not be checkmate as black can easily block the check with 2…c6.

I then remind students of the acronoym of CPR as the three ways to get out of check:






Stalemate means “the king is not in check and the player has no legal moves”. Today I set up this stalemate position in a class (Black to play).:

I asked the class why it was stalemate and not checkmate.  Most of the kids kept explaining how the black king had no legal moves. However in either checkmate or stalemate, black would have no legal moves. I had to tell them that the reason that it was stalemate, not checkmate, was that the black king was not in check. I repeatedly tell students “if the king is not in check, a position can never be checkmate”.

It is often difficult to teach young students the differences of these three important terms because it can require unteaching some previous bad habits, like capturing kings and thinking you a win a game because “the king is trapped and has no moves.” Chess teachers will often move on and start teaching basic strategy becuase it can take several weeks for children to fully grasp the difference of check, checkmate and stalemate; however, it is necessary that students know the exact differences to get the results they desire.

7 thoughts on “Back to Basics: Check, Checkmate and Stalemate”

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