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What does checkmate mean in chess?

checkmate in chess

In chess, the endgame position of checkmate is where the king piece is threatened with capture by an opponent piece with no moves it can make to escape the threat.

Checkmate ends the game with the player with the checkmated king losing to their opponent. Checkmate is often shortened to “mate”, with “check” being the preceding stage where a king is threatened but can execute a move that avoids the opposing piece. 

Do you want to know more about checkmate? Read on for a concise guide to checkmate which covers everything you need to know about the 

The “game over” of chess.

Though checkmating your opponent ends a game of chess, it is important to remember that the king piece is never actually captured. The king never leaves the board.  You cannot kill a king. Usually, in games where the king’s position appears irretrievable, the game is resigned before the checkmate occurs as continuing is considered bad form. 

Also, a game can be ended via stalemate, where though the king is not in check, all legal moves have been exhausted. This type of game ends in a draw. 

Where does the concept of checkmate come from?

To answer this, you need to dig down to the Indo-Persian root of the game, which is steeped in military strategy and ancient conquest. The word checkmate is derived from the Farsi or Arabic شاه مات‎ or “shāh māt”, which means “the King is helpless”.

The “māt”, which we recognize as “mate” means measured or traversed, alluding to the prowess of the opponent in taking the dominion in the game. An alternate theory relates the term “mate” to the Arabic word “māta”  meaning died or dead; not only that but staring, mouth agape, and stupified!

Other theories postulate that mate means “only I remain”. Dramatic stuff and a decisive end to the game!

checkmate in chess

Checkmate was not always the only way in which a game could be ended. 

In the earliest Indian versions of chess, the king would be captured, but it is believed that the Persians introduced the “check” stage of the game, to avoid games being ended prematurely or accidentally.

Also, early European players favored a version of chess where all other chessmen but the king would be captured for a win (known as annihilation or robado). 

Key types of checkmate

If you are a novice chess player or someone who plays intermittently for fun, giving your endgame and checkmate strategy some thought can strengthen your game.

If you are playing from move to move, knowing one or two of the basic checkmates will give you something to aim for during your midgame and build your confidence in being more assertive on the board. 

Basic checkmates that are commonly encountered

Here are 4 common checkmates that can take place when pieces are limited. If you and your opponent have both hoovered up the board, you can force checkmate with just a single additional piece, often a queen. Of course, the more chessmen you retain, the easier it is to pressure a king into checkmate. Let’s take a look:

  • Checkmate with a queen

A queen is a common agent provocateur for forcing a checkmate especially if a resilient pawn has made it across the board to be queened. A king and queen can be used for a checkmate towards any of the four edges of the board.

The queen faces the opposing king on a directly adjacent square, and the king of the same side is directly behind the queen. To take out the queen would force an illegal move (see our article can a king kill a king?).

Alternatively, if there is an opposition situation where two kings face each other, the queen can force a mate moving in the rank (row) or file (column) of the opposing king.

  • Checkmate with a king and a rook

Any of the four edges or corners of the board can be used to force a checkmate using a rook and a king in opposition. Checkmates using a rook can be forced in a relatively small number of moves and many books and tutorials exist on how you can integrate this strategy into your endgame. 

  •  Checkmate using two bishops

This is another well-known checkmate, where the king is in a corner. The bishops can cut off the options for a king that is being opposed by occupying the right and left diagonals adjacent to the king from any clear distance. 

Other well-known checkmates

Once you start to learn more and exercise the different basic checkmates, it is only a matter of time before you come across other classic checkmates that are well worth recognizing in your study and game analysis. Watch the videos below to see how these mates work out in over the board play. 

  • A corridor mate

Also known as a back rank mate involves a rook or queen moving into the back rank and trapping a king that cannot move because its way is blocked by a row of friendly pawns. 

  • A fool’s mate 

This is the fastest possible mate and involves the early release of a queen that mates the king on an exposed diagonal.

  • Scholars mate

The scholar’s mate is executed in four moves and sets up a definitive mate using the queen and a bishop on the diagonal. 

There is also a wide range of rare and unusual mates, which given the inventiveness of many chess players are constantly being added to, either in live play or as part of working out chess problems.

How can I improve my checkmate skills?

If this article has motivated you to brush up on your chess skills you have a range of options for developing your checkmate strategies. 

Why not devote some time to mastering the moves necessary for an inescapable mate every time. Studying chess theory will give you an all-around perspective and new insights on the game of chess and even if you don’t always have someone to play with you can work out chess problems to exercise your skills. 

Over the board play as part of a club is a great way to learn about checkmates as you will have the benefit of experience players who can tutor you and hopefully you will pick up good habits. Of course, online chess means you can put your moves into practice 24 hours per day!

Your move!