When Is It Okay to Resign?

by admin on May 12, 2019

Last week I was talking with one of the chess parents at the Aptos Library Chess Club, and she asked me a really good question: “When is it okay to resign?” She has never been part of the chess world before, and she was genuinely curious: What is the common practice among chess players? I eventually came up with a pretty good answer — I think.

First, it obviously depends on what level you are at. Because most of the kids in my chess club are at a beginner level, it’s actually really easy to answer the question for them: Don’t resign. Play to checkmate. Even if you’re way down in material, there is a very real chance that your opponent will put you in stalemate instead of checkmate. Or make other blunders that will get you back in the game.

But what about kids who are starting to play in rated tournaments? There, I think that the question is more nuanced. I think that it is reasonable to presume that someone with an 800 rating knows how to win a K+Q versus K endgame. (Is this correct?) So I started to frame an answer to the chess mom in terms of material. Maybe, I told her, it would be okay to resign when you get a queen behind.

But the moment the words left my mouth, the idea seemed wrong to me. Because even queen-down positions have some variety. Most of them are completely hopeless, granted, but some are not so hopeless, and some are even won (although this usually happens only if the material was sacrificed deliberately).

You also have to add in the psychology of the players, and how they are feeling about the position. This is extremely important. I’ve watched games between kids, and you can often tell who is going to win just from the body language. One kid will be down a rook or a queen but he has positive body language: “I’m going to fight and I’m going to win.” His opponent has negative body language — all he does is defend and defend and try to hold on to his extra material. Then he loses some material, and his confidence starts to collapse. Eventually, the kid who believed in himself wins.

So then I gave the chess mom a two-part answer. First, we have to talk about the PRE-resignation stage, when you are know you are behind. No matter what has happened before, no matter how disgusted you may be with yourself, you have to put it behind you. You have to dig in your heels and say that, from now on, you are going to make every step as hard as you possibly can for your opponent. You take a vow of infinite resistance. On every move, your goal is to make your opponent think.

When you look at the pre-resigning stage in this way, then the answer to the question of when to resign becomes self-evident. You can resign with honor when there is nothing more you can do to make your opponent think.

By the way, this is your call, not the opponent’s call. Quite often the player in a superior position will think that there is nothing further to think about, but in his complacency he will miss something. In fact, when you are in a bad position that is something to watch for. A complacent opponent is a vulnerable opponent.

If there is anything you can make him think about — even if it’s just making him choose between two winning plans — do not resign.

By the way, I think that the context of the mother’s question was that she saw her kids giving up too quickly in games against each other. Their attitude was, “Oh, I messed up, I resign, let’s play another game.” That kind of behavior must be nipped in the bud, because it is a form of denial. Kids can be quite creative in their ways to deny that a loss happened. It’s understandable, because it is a blow to their ego. Nevertheless, the loss must be acknowledged. When you pretend the game never happened, you deprive yourself of the chance to learn from your mistakes.

TL;DR. Before resigning you must complete the pre-resignation phase with grit and with honor. Practice infinite resistance. Make sure that every move poses your opponent a problem. When you run out of any conceivable way to make your opponent think, then you can resign with honor.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Dunning May 12, 2019 at 11:15 pm

I am a mid-level club player. As a rule of thumb, I will resign when I am satisfied that my opponent knows how to win the position. Thus, I might play on in K vs KNB as he may well not know the mate at our level. There are positions I know are lost, but he seems to be playing aimlessly so I continue. But then there are times when it is clear he knows what he is doing, and then it is a good time to shake hands.


Mary Kuhner August 18, 2019 at 8:04 am

My personal rule is that I resign when I can no longer cause my opponent problems, and not before. My favorite draw ever came when I spotted one last swindle in a dead lost K+P endgame, and my FM opponent, who was somewhat bored by that point (it took me a long time to work out the swindle!) banged out his next five moves, walked into it, and had to grovel for a draw.

Many of the local kids are forbidden to resign by their coaches or parents, but for the stronger ones, at least, I think this is a bad policy. I had a WCM apparently play a helpmate against me because she did not want to play out a queen-down endgame but was not allowed to resign. I think that if you know it is hopeless, you can resign with dignity. (Like last night–gosh, I win his queen, what is he getting for it? Oh. A rook, two bishops and two pawns. I looked carefully at his position for any weakness my queen could exploit, found none, and resigned.)


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