The Art of the Quick Checkmate


What really happens in a game that ends in checkmate in a few short moves, say under 16 moves?  It does happen, even among masters, though very rare. 


First, what is checkmate?  If a chess piece or Pawn makes a move which attacks the opposing King, the King is said to be in “check.”  When that King has no legal move to get out of check, then it is “checkmate.”  Checkmate is the ultimate goal of chess if you are trying to win.


There are hundreds of checkmate samples, often right out of the opening.  Someone had to make an error (usually a tactical mistake) to fall into checkmate.   The worst error is to fall for checkmate in two moves.  This is known as Fool’s Mate, and the pattern is usually 1.g4 e6 2.f4?? Qh4 checkmate.  The loser (White) was just not paying attention to the safety of his King,  He exposed his King too early to a Queen check, did not have an escape move for the King, could not put a piece or Pawn in front of his King when it was in check.


Fool’s mate could easily happen to Black, leading to checkmate in three moves.  That pattern is usually 1.e4 g5 2.d4 f6?? 3.Qh5 checkmate.  The loser (Black) was not paying attention to the safety of his King.  He thought his g-pawn had to be defended against the threat of 3.Bxg5, and played 2…f6 to defend the g5 pawn, overlooking the Queen check and no escape for the King.


The player that got checkmated early failed to visualize the threat against his King and perhaps left a piece unprotected or tried to protect another piece, failing to protect the most important piece of all, the King.   Sometimes it is pure greed that a player gets checkmated.  He sees he can win a piece, such as the Queen, overlooking that by taking the piece, he gets checkmated.  The pattern is usually 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bc4 a6 4.Nc3 Bg4 5.Nxe5 Bxd1?? (winning the Queen, but falling for checkmate) 6.Bxf7+ Ke7 7.Nd5 checkmate.


Many checkmates fall into well-known patterns.  The player who remembers or recognizes the common checkmate patterns will have an advantage over the one who doesn’t recognize the common checkmate patterns, especially in the opening.


Most early checkmates are done with the combination of the Queen coming out early.  A player must recognize the power of the Queen, but still not ignore the threat of other pieces.  An example pattern of checkmate without an early Queen moves is 1.f4 e5 2.fxe5 d6 3.exd6 Bxd6 4.h4?? Bg3 checkmate.  White saw the threat of the Queen coming out early and wanted to prevent 4…Qh4 check, but overlooked the simple 4…Bg3 checkmate threat.


Early checkmates are due to one player making a mistake early in the opening, and another player staying alert and calculating a combination accurately that leads to checkmate.  It takes pattern recognition and calculation skills to see the checkmate, and lack of pattern recognition and calculation skills to get checkmated early. 


The reasons for getting checkmated early include neglecting king safety first, misjudging threats against the King, neglecting opening development that protects the King, premature attacks or greed, miscalculation of the position, or just laziness and basic inattention to the position.


Now everyone makes mistakes in chess.  There is no perfect chess player or chess program.  The difference between the mistakes of a novice and a grandmaster is that the novice makes more mistakes in a game and the mistakes come sooner in the game.  And the ultimate mistake is the one that leads to checkmate.  Mistakes also appear when there is less time to examine the board and think about all the possibilities.  Many players who got checkmated early just played too fast and did not put enough thought into the game.


The first few moves in chess are probably in chess opening books and may not be any mistakes.  But sooner or later, someone is going to deviate from the opening book.  The sooner they deviate from opening theory, the more likely a tactical mistake will be made.  If the mistake is serious enough, it can lead to checkmate.  And there are hundreds of actual games played that resulted in checkmate in just a few moves after the book moves.  Some of the greatest players in the world have been checkmated in less than 15 moves.  Frank Marshall was checkmated in 11 moves.  Paul Morphy was checkmated in 12 moves.  Capablanca was checkmated in 13 moves.  Emanuel Lasker was checkmated in 14 moves.    So study your openings, pay attention, stay alert, and recognize those checkmate patterns