Not every chess game finishes in a spectacular checkmate.
Sometimes all the pieces are traded off one by one and you end up with only kings left on the board.
If both players only have a king left, the game is automatically a draw. But if one player has only a king and the other player has several pieces, the game will continue.
Let’s see exactly what happens if you only have a king left.
Can you win chess with only a king left?
It is not possible to win a chess game if you only have a king left.
This is because a king can only capture pieces directly surrounding it. But a king is also not allowed to move into a check.
So if you would want to check or checkmate your opponent with your own king, you would have to move your own king into a check first. This would be an illegal move.
This means that two kings are never able to get close enough to check each other, as shown in the diagram below.
What happens if there are only 2 kings left?
If there are only two kings left on the board, the game ends immediately in a draw.
This is because a king can’t attack another king without making an illegal move; when you check your opponent with a king, you also place your own king into a check.
As a result, if there are only 2 kings left on the board, neither player can possibly checkmate the other and the game is drawn.
What happens when you only have a king left?
If you only have a king left but your opponent still has several pieces, you can no longer win the game. However, that doesn’t mean you should directly resign the game, since you can still try to play for a draw.
There are 6 different way to draw in chess. And your chances of keeping a draw really depends on how many pieces your opponent has left.
Let’s look at all the ways you can draw, so you can still fight even with only a king left.
1. Draw offer
The first way to draw the game is by simply offering a draw. You can offer a draw after you make a move.
Of course, your opponent doesn’t need to accept the draw. But if your opponent also thinks there are no winning chances left, they might agree to your draw offer.
Only offer a draw if you think your opponent might actually accept it, since your opponent might complain with the arbiter if you offer a draw on ever consecutive move.
2. Insufficient material
As a mentioned before, if you only have a king left, it’s impossible to checkmate your opponent.
But even if you have a king and bishop or a king and knight, it’s impossible to force a draw.
Read our article on checkmate to see which pieces you need to checkmate a king.
When a position like this occurs on the board, the game is automatically drawn due to insufficient material.
3. 50 move rule
A king and two bishops or a king and a rook are enough to checkmate your opponent.
But there is a certain amount of endgame technique you need to be familiar with to force a checkmate.
If your opponent doesn’t know how to checkmate, they might start to move their pieces around without any goal in mind.
This is where the 50 move rule kicks in.
If 50 moves are played without any pawn moves or captures, either player can claim a draw.
4. Move repetition
You can also claim a draw if the exact same position is on the board three times. This normally happens due to a move repetition when there is only one good move in the position and every other move loses.
In the position below, the game ends in a draw after:
1. Kh1 – Rh2+
2. Kg1 – Rhg2+
3. Kh1 – Rh2+
4. Kg1 – Rhg2+
Although in this case there are still plenty of pieces on the board, a threefold move repetition can happen with only kings left on the board as well.
A stalemate occurs when a player has no more legal moves to make but is not currently in check. This is different from a checkmate, in which you are in check and can’t escape.
Stalemates often occur in endgames with few pieces left on the board. And when a stalemate happens, the game ends in a draw immediately.
The position below shows an example in which white is in a stalemate.
You can check out my article on stalemate positions if you want to know more.
6. Time out
If you only have a king left and your opponent runs out of time, the game also finishes in a draw.
Normally, you would win if your opponent runs out of time. But in this case, the game finishes in a draw, because you can’t possibly checkmate your opponent with only a king.
Frequently asked questions
How many moves in chess when only king is left?
The 50 move rule states that either player can claim a draw after 50 moves without any captures or pawn moves. So if you only have a king left, your opponent has to checkmate you within 50 moves or else the game is a draw. But the move count is reset if your opponent makes any pawn moves. Note that the game immediately ends in a draw if both players only have a king left.
How do you win with only the king?
It is not possible to win a chess game with only a king left, because a king can never check(mate) another king. However, you can still play for a draw with only a king left.
Why is it a draw if only the kings left?
If the two kings are the only pieces left on the board, the game finishes in a draw. This is because you can’t attack your opponent’s king with your own king, without moving your own king into danger. Moving your own king into a check is an illegal move in chess.