The Evolution of Modern Chess Rules: The 50-Move Draw

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Former US Chess Federation President John McCrary
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Former US Chess Federation President John McCrary

 

The question of whether chess was invented or evolved from earlier games may never be settled. Part of the discussion is semantic, since evolution and invention are two sides of the same coin! Evolution is a series of new inventions that build upon or combine earlier designs. Inventions are steps in evolution.   

Chess rules and customs, even today, are constantly evolving. Through research into old chess literature, I've made some original discoveries regarding how modern rules and customs have evolved to reach their current state. This series will explore some specific rule changes for chess that have evolved over the past few centuries.  

Click below for earlier chapters of John McCrary's Evolution of Modern Chess Rules series:

Part One: Draws

Part Two: White Moves First

Part Three: Castling

Part Four: Pawn Promotion

Part Five: En Passant

Part Six: Stalemate


THE FIFTY-MOVE DRAW: 

The 50-move draw rule, which today states that a draw can be claimed if no capture is made and no pawn is moved for 50 consecutive moves, took centuries to reach its modern definition.

In early chess treatises, there were rules that addressed the problem of players who reached a basic, theoretically won endgame but lacked the skill to achieve a mate. A king-and-two-bishops versus a king, or perhaps a king-and-queen versus a king-and-rook, even the basic king-and-queen versus a king poses problems among beginners. The player with the won endgame might make an interminable number of moves without progress, but also without consenting to a draw. Early rules acknowledged a limit to the number of moves allowed to reach mate in basic endgames, though differed on that number, ranging from 24 moves up to 50 and more.

Agreed upon around the mid-1800s was the enforcement of a 50-move limit when it was unclear that a player could reach mate. But difficult was defining those endgames in which that limit was appropriate, given the vast possibilities of situations. In his book The Chess Player in 1841, George Walker listed as one of the ways a game might be drawn:

"By the stronger party possessing the mating power, but not knowing properly how to direct its application. Thus the King with two Bishops, against King alone, has force sufficient to mate with; but if he cannot give mate in fifty moves (double moves) according to the law, his adversary is justified in claiming a draw. So again, King and Queen against King and Rook have the mating power, but the superior force must not vex his adversary by persevering too long in attempting that which he is evidently too unskillful to accomplish." 

Walker focused much on pawnless endgames in which one side had an advantage that was theoretically sufficient to force mate, though he added more grounds to begin a 50-move count with "perpetual checks, or reiterated attacks involving the same forced moves in answer" -- that is, a king who was being chased around the board by a player who didn't know how to achieve mate.

 

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50-move draw rule, in The Chess Player by George Walker
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An excerpt from "The Chess Player" by George Walker in 1841.

 

Also in 1841, Howard Staunton published the following law from the code issued by the London Chess Club:  

"If a player remain at the end of the game, with a Rook and Bishop against a Rook; with both Bishops only; with Knight and Bishop only; he must checkmate his adversary in fifty moves on each side at most, or the game will be considered as drawn; the fifty moves commence from the time the adversary gives notice that he will count them. The law holds good for all other checkmates of pieces only, such as Queen, or Rook only, Queen against a Rook."  

This London Club code required a player to give prior notice that he was counting the 50 moves, and also implied, by using the words "of pieces only," that only pawnless positions with some material superiority were appropriate for such a count to be imposed.    

But players in that time found the criteria cited by Walker and Staunton too limiting. Arguments were made for the 50-move rule to apply to more situations where a player didn't have the skill to win a won endgame, or played endlessly without making progress in a drawn endgame. But there was no clearly worded definition of when a 50-move limit might be appropriately demanded.

Some suggested that bystanders should rule if a position was appropriate for a 50-move count, since defining the kind of position was too vague in the general laws – but what guidelines were the bystanders to use? Staunton in 1847 said: "The law on the subject of fifty moves at the end of the game is too indefinite".   

The 50-move rule encountered other issues and much more debate throughout the 1800s. There were arguments that supported changing it to 60 moves, and others to abolish the rule altogether. Some began to question whether the count be started anew with each capture, since captures changed the obvious nature of the endgame. And surprisingly, pawn moves were not often addressed in these early debates, despite their ability to alter the nature of the endgame, especially when involving promotion.

Additionally, the requirement that one player demand the 50-move count in advance created a unilateral situation that could cause its own problems. Suppose the player who demanded the count changed his mind because he saw a way to win during or after the 50 moves? Could his opponent hold him to his prior demand for a count and insist on the draw?  

The 5th American Chess Congress, held at the Manhattan Chess Club in New York City in 1880, issued a code that attempted to address these various issues with the following law:  

"If, at any period during a game, either player persist in repeating a particular check, or series of checks, or persist in repeating any particular line of play which does not advance the game, or if a 'game-ending' be of such doubtful character as to its being a win or a draw, or if a win be possible, but the skill to force the game questionable, then either player may demand judgement of the Umpire as to its being a proper game to be determined as drawn at the end of fifty additional moves, on each side; or the question: 'Is, or is not the game a draw?' may be, by mutual consent of the players, submitted to the Umpire at any time. The decision of the Umpire, in either case, to be final. And whenever fifty moves are demanded and accorded, the party demanding it may, when the fifty moves have been made, claim the right to go on with the game, and thereupon the other party may claim the fifty-move rule, at the end of which, unless mate be effected, the game shall be declared a draw."   

This elaborately worded law adopted at the 5th American Chess Congress was used in the following Congress in 1889, where an important game proved there was still ambiguity. An endgame was reached in a game between Russian Mikhail Chigorin and American Max Judd, with Judd calling on the law’s wording “if a game-ending be of such doubtful character as to its being a win or a draw.” The American demanded a 50-move count, which was authorized by the umpire to begin.

But during the next 50 moves, the nature of the endgame experienced a significant shift, with both sides queening a pawn and several more pawns exchanged -- though Judd claimed the 50-move draw anyway, noting that the law made no reference to exchanges by pawns or their promotions. Chigorin insisted the game continue, since those same promotions and exchanges had changed the position significantly. But Judd maintained that his choice of moves had been influenced by his belief that an automatic draw would be given if mate had not been delivered in 50 moves.  

Both Chigorin and Judd posed reasonable viewpoints given the ambiguities in the law, though the umpire directed the game to continue. In protest, Judd refused to finish the game, and Chigorin was awarded a forfeit win by the tournament jury -- which proved major significance to the event, where Chigorin finished in a tie for first place. Using the game as an example, the Congress players later unanimously approved a change in the law, allowing the umpire to determine if a game was a draw after the 50-move limit had been reached.

The Judd-Chigorin dispute would not have occurred had the 6th American Chess Congress instead used the "Revised International Chess Code," which was published for the London 1883 international tournament. That code stated: 

"A player may at any time call upon his adversary to mate him within fifty moves (move and reply being counted as one). If by the expiration of such fifty moves no piece or pawn has been captured, nor Pawn moved, nor mate given, a draw can then be obtained."  

This rule is closer to the modern rule, in that it (finally!) made no attempt to define which kinds of endgames the rule should be applied, and ended any 50-move count with a capture or pawn move. The law remained unclear, however, on which player could then claim the draw -- if the requesting player perhaps changed his mind and withdrawn his demand during the 50 moves. Furthermore, it required that a player must demand the 50-move count before it began, while today’s modern rule allows retrospective counting.

Despite being close, this "Revised International Code" did not receive immediate widespread acceptance, published only for "the consideration of chess players and especially of the managers of future international chess tournaments."   

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Korchnoi-Mecking 1974
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After 56. Bxe4 in this 1974 Quarterfinal World Championship match against Henrique Mecking, Victor Korchnoi finally conceded a draw after 99 moves, seeing no way to achieve mate within the 50 move count that began in this position.

 

The requirement that a count be demanded in advance was removed in the 1897 American Chess Code, thus clarifying that either player could claim the draw after 50 moves. It allowed retrospective counting, with each capture restarting any 50-move sequence, and made no attempt to define the kinds of positions to which it might apply. But still the code made no reference to the influence of pawns, something that did not show up until the Cambridge Springs International Chess Tournament in 1904, which required a count to start anew after any capture or pawn move. 

Finally, in 1918, the International Chess Code was published with today’s modern understanding of the 50-move draw rule: The count was not required to be demanded in advance, and it would restart after captures and pawn moves. Even still, the FIDE rules continued to evolve as recently as 1931, attempting to clarify that a player could demand a 50-move count, though could also claim the draw even if a count was not previously demanded. This redundancy was later removed.

Even today, the modern rule still is subject to question, having seen certain kinds of endgames that need more than 50 moves to be won by force, without capture or pawn moves. Furthermore, the 50-move rule still does not prevent players from dragging out hopeless endgames, when occasional captures or pawn moves extend them.  

The 50-move draw rule may have more evolution yet.  

 

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The Chess Player by George Walker

Comments

I believe the future evolution of chess rules will be to reduce draws. As regards the 50 move rule, that evolution would be: Any player who completes 50 consecutive moves without moving a pawn, capturing, or checkmating loses immediately regardless of what the other player has done.

Speaking of draws, I've always thought draws should be scored differently. A stalemate should count as 3/8 of a point for the stalemated side and 5/8 for the side not stalemated. A perpetual check should be 3/8 for the side delivering the checks and 5/8 for the other side. All other draws should be 3/8 for both players. This system discourages draws by agreement and gives more credit to the stronger side in draws by stalemate and perpetual.

If you can't checkmate your opponent or capture a piece or move a pawn within fifty moves, then the game must be declared a draw. I believe that the 50-move rule will be with us for some tie to come. It has evolved over the years, but the current rule is here to stay.

A competitive draw can be as interesting as a decisive game. But non-competitive agreed draws, solely for the sake of tournament prizes by two players who are content in advance with the half-point and don't try to win, are unique to chess. I've seen Class B players reach an obviously-prearranged draw in the last round to win an extra $25 prize. They may not realize that they're cheating themselves of real games which may mean much more in the long term than will those prizes. Recently I've enjoyed going back through old games I played as long as 50 years ago, newly annotating these games. Needless to say, any non-competitive, prearranged draws (of which I played none) would afford no such memories. I enjoy composing simple "task" endings to illustrate novelties like underpromotions and other unusual situations. It's interesting how the different kinds of draw (stalemate, insufficient mating material, forced repetition of position) interact so that they often all appear in different variations of the same ending. One line may lead to a stalemate, while alternative moves in the same ending may culminate in perpetual check or insufficient mating material. This interplay of different forms of draw within the same ending make me think we should keep all the different kinds of draw as they are in the rulebook.

To illustrate the ways that the different draw rules can interact in a complementary way within one endgame, consider this position: White has Pawns on b7 & h7, and King on h6. Black has knight on d8 and King on h8. White to move wins by 1 b8(B). But consider White's alternatives that allow draws. If 1 K any, Black draws by insufficient mating material after 1...Nxb7 & then a capture on h7. 1 b8(Q or R) stalemates. 1 b8(N) Nf7+; Kg6 Ng5 draws either by insufficient mating material after Kxg5, or by the 50-move rule eventually if White refuses to capture the knight or accept the draw. If 1 b8 (B) Nf7+; 2 Kg6 Nd6; 3 Bc7 wins; but the alternatives 3 Bxd6 stalemates; and 3 Ba7 Nf5; 4 Bc5 Ne7+ draws either by perpetual check (forcing a triple-occurrence), stalemate, insufficient mating material, or an eventual 50-move claim, depending on White's moves. Thus all the draw rules appear in the different variations in a complementary way. I composed the above endgame over Thanksgiving weekend 1969, when I was a new doctoral student who was just engaged to another doctoral student, and facing the Vietnam draft lottery the following Monday. I learned a valuable skill: composing endgames and problems is a great way to take your mind off stress. John McCrary

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