Currently, a stalemate is considered a draw. But prior to the 1800s, this was seen as a victory for the losing player. These rules depended heavily on the region in which the game took place, and as stated in Harold JR Murray’s A history of chess, a win in a stalemate was generally considered an “inferior victory,” and any player who won a competitive chess match in this manner would only receive half of their winnings. Since then, chess experts have gone back and forth when it comes to the rule. As recently as 2009, Grandmaster Larry Kaufman argued in the 35th issue of Chess life that a stalemate shouldn’t be a draw, because it’s a “any move where you take your king” situation.
The stalemate remains a draw due to the propensity of chess to create draws. Implementing a rule change on this scale would render hundreds of years of endgame theory unnecessary.
The advantage of the white side
Reviewing competitive chess matches from the years 1852 to 1932, chess theorist William Franklyn Streeter found that out of over 5,000 games played, the white party was slightly more likely to win. As stated in Chess review in May 1946, this trend has continued to this day despite changes to the rule set.
Since the tournament matches were recorded, White has been calculated to have around 5% more chance of winning than the opponent, as they get the first shot – something statistics and theorists have agreed throughout history. If the white side can build an opening that retains their innate advantage, they can provide that boost for the rest of the game. It’s up to the black side to build a defense that will bring the initiative back in its favor and fight for a draw if that is not possible.
The offensive and defending sides are decided when the game begins. Over time, players – including Grandmaster Larry Kaufman in his 2004 book The advantage of black and white chess: the first movements of the great masters– argued that, if played perfectly, the white side should always win. You cannot take a piece while playing purely defensively, whereas you can when you are still the aggressor. It’s hard to imagine a change in the game that would adjust this without giving one side an option the other doesn’t.
But is such a change necessary? While the numbers suggest the game is tilted towards the offensive side, it’s still a theory that doesn’t always work when humans are involved. If given infinite time, a top chess player might guess the best move – but most competitive chess formats limit players’ time. Most of the rule changes these days, or “patch notes,” relate to the use of the clock and the way players and referees (or referees) conduct themselves in the game. For example, you may not have an electronic device capable of communicating during a competitive match.
A human touch
The human aspect is what shapes competitive chess. If everyone made the right move instantly, the game would play out the same – but very few of them can play perfectly with a stopwatch, and even fewer are able to find the best move at all. Modern chess rule sets are different because of what goes around the game, rather than in it – something that is rarely seen in esports, where players are bound by the code of the game.
Blitz chess is a subcategory that includes any format where players have less than 10 minutes to complete their moves. Ball failures, with one minute per side, are the fastest of them. Stricter deadlines push players to make mistakes. With such limits in place, new strategies emerge – you can complicate the game board to give your opponent something to think about, or start simplifying it so that a standard victory becomes more achievable.
But does that make chess balanced? The white pieces always advance in front of the black ones. The attacker could start with an opening, and the defender has yet to respond. The time limit can make things easier, but if all other things are equal, the proactive player would still win most of the time if they made the best move mathematically. There is a finite number of board states in chess, but this number is so vast that it is impossible to go through them all in a reasonable amount of time. Someone might be able to drive a strong opening in the rest of the game, but if the defending player understands how to complicate it, they can still struggle with control on their own. Chess has always been that way; changes over the centuries have made the rooms more interactive. If both players open by moving opposing pawns, they come into contact with two hits instead of four hits in older versions of the game.