Are We Done Yet? (When To Resign)

I bet you have been there

You’re completely winning. Not just winning, completely winning. You could win the position in your sleep. And your opponent still hasn’t resigned yet…

Okay, I stalemated my opponent twice in that situation. Once when I was 900, once when I was 1800. Both games were against girls. I insist, however, that correlation does not imply causation.

Stalemating someone when you are several pieces up is extremely rare. At say the 1500+ level it could be a one or two time per career thing. These things, however, show that humans are humans.

Okay, stalemates aside, when is the right time to resign?

“Play until checkmate, you have nothing to lose,” many say.

NO! That kind of stuff is often heard, and it is wrong.

It’s a waste of time. Really, in positions where the chances of swindling your opponent are essentially zero, it’s better to just resign. Don’t waste your and your opponent’s time playing it out. There’s no shame in resigning.

You get a break before your next game. That half hour spent dragging on the game until checkmate could have been spent eating, relaxing, or preparing for your next game. Even if it’s the last game of the day, you can spend that half hour doing something productive.

It’s also disrespectful. If you are playing a strong opponent, trust him, he can checkmate you with a queen or two.  One thing for sure, he won’t have much respect for you. Do you want to analyze after the game? Playing it out until checkmate is not the way. If you do that, your opponent will be annoyed and will probably just walk away and not even talk to you. Not today, not next time.

Still, this philosophy is heard a lot, especially among chess parents. At the beginner level, anything can happen, and I don’t think resigning is appropriate. At higher levels, however, things are different.

Recently, I played a kid who played until mate in a position K + 3 (connected) pawns vs. K. He was intentionally walking into mates in 1, and it was clear he wanted it to be over. Was he told to play till checkmate? I don’t know, but it seemed so. Okay, maybe I wasn’t the nicest guy when I ignored mates in 1 a few times and went on to promote to a knight before mating him, but hopefully I got the message across.

Playing till checkmate is not a beginner or kid phenomena only. There are 2300 players who do just that. To grandmasters. Yeah, I know. I saw a fine example during the Amateur Team East 2016. The 2300 was a queen, a rook, and a bunch of pawns down, and he let his clock tick down until he had maybe 3 seconds on it. The GM checkmated the guy and then refused to shake hands. Can you blame him?

Okay, playing until checkmate is one extreme. However, if I resigned every time I had an objectively lost position, I would have blown so many half and sometimes full points. Where is the balance?

It mainly depends how easily the position can be won. That is not necessarily proportional to what evaluation the computer would give it. That’s your job as a defender: make your opponent’s life as hard as possible, even if your play is not objectively best. Give your opponent some chances to mess up.

A simple example. You have two options as a defender. In option a, you are down a piece without any real compensation. In option b, if your opponent finds a key move, you are getting mated, while all other moves lead to a draw/loss for him. The computer may rate option a as +5 versus forced mate, but I would almost always choose option b. It depends how hard it is to find the key move, but your opponent can’t afford to make a mistake or two. In option a, however, as long as your opponent doesn’t blunder anything major, he should be pretty much winning no matter what he does.

If you’re sitting in option a (a piece down) and your opponent is strong enough, just resign. Your opponent should win no matter how inaccurately he plays. There’s no point for you to drag things on. If you’re sitting in option b, however, let your opponent find the key idea. If he figures things out, then you’ll have no real choice but to resign. However, if he messes up, then you’re (hopefully) going to swindle him. No need to resign there!

More recently, I witnessed a prime example of the stalemate phenomenon. It was in August 2016, and I was pretty much having the worst tournament of my life. Meanwhile, Praveen Balakrishnan needed to score 1 out of 2 on the final day to get an IM Norm. He was playing two GMs.

His game against GM Magesh Panchanathan was pretty wild, but at the end it was Magesh who got the winning position. Out of nowhere, I heard insane amounts of laughter coming from the other room. Yes, they were BOTH laughing. It was after the time control and my position was lost (and I did eventually lose), and I decided to take a peek at what happened. I soon found out why they were laughing…

Priceless!!! I also couldn’t resist laughing! White is completely winning (Qd5+ is mate in 10 according to my silicon friend), and he blundered into a stalemate. Magesh was lulled into thinking Praveen needed to blow off some steam and fell into the last trap. That is a rather convoluted version of scenario b, but the moral of the story is clear. If you still have a realistic chance for a swindle, try it!

If you think you’re lost, but you can’t find anything concrete for you opponent, play on. By not finding anything concrete, I don’t necessarily mean a knockout punch, but an effective way to continue. Usually, if you don’t see anything for your opponent, it’s a good sign. And if you end up losing at least you will learn how to play in such positions.

You may want to play on a bit if your opponent is in a bad time situation. Maybe complicate matters in the hope he blunders. In completely lost positions, your opponent’s time situation may not be a huge factor with delay or increment, but it is common knowledge that there is no such thing as resignation in bullet. Still, if your opponent starts messing things up, it’s a good idea to play on for a bit to see if he messes up a bit more.

When you blunder something, it’s totally okay to play on for a few more moves, even if you are completely lost. Blow off some steam. Get used to the fact you’re lost before you actually shake your opponent’s hand. As one master I know once put it, “In those situations I play on a few more moves… so I don’t say anything bad to my opponent”.

In conclusion, once you reach a certain level, don’t play until checkmate. Playing until a move before checkmate as some people do doesn’t make any sense either. Just resign at a reasonable moment. If you think your opponent will still need to work to win, play on. If there are some tactical complications and swindling chances, play on. There’s just no need to make your opponent do the stuff they could do in their sleep.

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