What Is Threefold Repetition in Chess?

Ever found yourself in a worse chess position, and the only way to salvage the game is by repeating your previous move? The problem is that, in the former case, the match can continue endlessly.

That’s when the threefold repetition rule comes to the rescue. The question is this: what is threefold repetition in chess?

As the name implies, threefold repetition is a rule that allows players to claim a draw due to a position occurring three times in a game. Continue reading to learn about openings that force the former rule!

What Is Threefold Repetition in Chess.?

According to FIDE’s Laws of Chess, article 9.2, the threefold repetition rule states that players can claim a draw if a pattern appears three times during an ongoing match.

That doesn’t only mean repeating the same moves consecutively. The former also applies if the same board position has appeared for the third time throughout the match.

However, there are some requirements for this chess rule. For a position to be the same, all the pieces occupying the same squares must be of the same kind as before. Additionally, all possible moves should also remain unchanged.

For instance, if a player had a castling right but lost it due to moving the rook or king, the repetition rule isn’t valid. That’s because you can’t castle even when returning either piece to its default squares. In that case, the board position isn’t the same.

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Likewise, if you can no longer capture an en passant pawn, that’s considered a new pattern. So, you can’t claim a draw if the position appears afterward.

Is the Threefold Repetition Rule Important?

Yes, the threefold repetition can be useful on some occasions. You see, chess is about progress. When players repeat a move or a board position three times, that means the game isn’t heading anywhere.

Since chess contains billions of possibilities—10 to the power of 120, to be precise—the game could go on forever. Consequently, one of the contenders might tire out and lose focus, increasing the chances of a loss.

For that reason, rules that allow players to end games on a tie, like threefold repetition, are vital.

That’s especially true in increment games. A player could repeat moves indefinitely to gain time and flag his opponent.

However, that’s not the only use of the repetition rule. The former can be a savior, especially in losing positions.

Chess players at a disadvantage can use the threefold repetition to end a game in a draw. They do so by using a series of checks that force their opponent to respond with the same move over and over again.

How Do Players Claim a Threefold Repetition?

Unlike the fivefold repetition or the 75-move rule, the threefold repetition doesn’t automatically end the game. Either player, when it’s their turn, must claim the draw by informing the referee.

The player making the move can draw the match if the same pattern is about to appear for the third time. He can write his play on the scoresheet and inform the arbiter of the threefold repetition.

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Alternatively, the active player can call the arbiter before making his move and claim the draw. Regardless, the clock remains ticking until the referee rules the game a tie.

In online tournaments, however, the rule applies automatically whether the position appears three times or you repeat the same move consecutively.

Examples of Threefold Repetition

To help you understand the rule better, let’s look at some games and draw combinations that usually lead to threefold repetitions!

Opening Lines

In some cases, GMs can play a particular opening to force a draw using the repetition rule. That can be handy since an early draw by agreement is frowned upon. In some cases, the former is banned in tournaments.

The problem is that some championships end in a dead rubber, meaning that the result is already determined, and the upcoming matches don’t affect the outcome. So, playing for the win might have no value. In that case, a draw is a better option since it saves time and effort.

Here’s a well-known opening to end the game quickly in a tie:

Berlin Defense

The Ruy Lopez-Berlin defense is notorious for being a drawing weapon for black. This opening is also a solid defense variation for players who like to reach endgames.

The former variation starts like a typical Spanish opening, but as of move three, black plays Knight to f6. White then castles the king’s side, leaving the e4 undefended and captured by the f6 knight. Following this opening, the game follows the following sequence:

  • Moves 5: pawn to d4, knight to d6
  • Moves 6: d4 pawn takes e5, knight takes bishop on b5
  • Moves 7: pawn to a4, threatening the b5 knight, knight to d4
  • Moves 8: knight exchanges
  • Moves 9: white queen takes d4 knight, pawn to d5
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After white takes the d5 en passant pawn, followed by the black queen taking d5, a threefold repetition occurs. White keeps checking the black king, with the queen blocking the check to prevent losing castle rights.

Checkmate Threats

Aside from drawish openings, threefold repetitions often happen due to perpetual checks to stop a checkmate threat. The 2013 Tata Steel game between GMs Anish Giri and Mangus Carlsen is a great example of the former.

Although Carlsen was at a disadvantage, he managed to salvage the game by reaching a position that led to a series of checks. After exchanging queens, Magnus played the rook to b3, threatening checkmate on a3.

To counter that move, Anish played the rook to c2. Of course, if Carlsen went as planned, white could block the checking rook, and after exchanging the pieces, black would be in a worse position.

Instead, the five-time world chess champion played the rook to b1, forcing the white king to a2. The former move happened three times, leading to a draw.

Wrapping Up

So, what is threefold repetition in chess?

The threefold repetition is a chess rule that allows either contender to draw a game once a position occurs three times.

The former helps prevent games from dragging on forever. Additionally, it provides an opportunity for players in a losing position to end a game in a tie.

So, whether it’s to save effort in a dead rubber match or avoid losing in a worse position, the threefold repetition can be a strategic tool that’s great to add to your arsenal!