Endgame: two pawns versus a rook

eindspel_300Should lower rated chess players bother about endgames? Jeremy Silman is very clear about this subject in his excellent book ‘Silman’s Complete Endgame Course’. Players in the elo range of 1000 till 1200 only need a very basic knowledge of endgames. Simply because they usually don’t reach an endgame. 

This statement is supported by some statistics. The average game duration on for instance chess.com is about 25 moves. Probably most games end in some sort of tactical disaster. But as a player’s strength grows, chances are he will end more often in endgame situations. For stronger players it makes a lot of sense to study at least the most common types of endgames. But what are the most common endgame types?

Most common are:

  • rook endgames (8,01%);
  • second come bishop versus knight endgames (3,09%);
  • and third are queen endings (1,73%).

I found these statistics in ‘100 Endgames you must know’. (Jesus de la Villa). Of course in most cases these endings also involve one or more pawns.

Wrong way of thinking
There is a widespread misconception about endgames. A lot of people say ‘to play an endgame in the proper way is largely a question of intuition’. This was the topic of a funny discussion on PlayChess between Daniel King and some kibitzers. Quite a lot of people suggested moves based on their gut feelings and not based on concrete calculation.

Daniel turned against this idea of playing moves based on your gut feelings. He is absolutely right. Every situation is different and you have to analyse meticulously. Even the slightest difference in a position can change the outcome radically. Correct calculation is key! Which is by the way my Achilles’ heel.

Fooled by a general rule?
See the diagram below. White to move. A chess friend showed me this position. What’s your idea? Is white lost? Or can he draw?

Diagram 1

My chess friend reported with a sad face that he resigned in this position. He asked me ‘what would you do in this position as white?’ It took me a couple of seconds to answer his question: ‘I think 1. Ke4.’ Of course you guessed it already: I made this assumption based on my intuition. But for once my assessment was correct. ☺

But even if you don’t completely grasp the position 1. Ke4 seems quite logical. White attacks the f-pawn and black can’t promote his g-pawn, because white sacrifices his rook for the pawn and his king will pick up the remaining pawn (Rxg1 and Kxf3).

Black king moves don’t help either. For instance: 1. Ke4 Ke2 2. Rg7 and if 2… f2 then 3. Rxg2 and the f-pawn is pinned and white draws on the next move by sacrificing his rook for the pawn. Black can’t make any progress. The position is drawn.

Two connected passed pawns on the sixth rank
Being tired or maybe general reasoning was the culprit for this disaster. He might have thought ‘two connected passed pawns on the sixth rank win from a rook, so it is over!’ After he resigned his opponent pointed out he had just squandered half a point. Wouldn’t you pull all your hairs from your shaken skull?

Indeed: usual a rook is powerless against two connected passed pawns on the sixth rank. See the diagram below.

Diagram #2Either 1… b2 or 1… c2 will win. One of the two pawns promotes into a queen. If white checks the black king from the side, the king will walk towards the rook and the game is won after white runs out of checks.

Sometimes, when the attacking king is too near to his pawns, the monarch can be even a liability.  See the next diagram.

Diagram #3

Black to move wins, but not without some problems. The black king is in an unfavorable position. If for instance 1… c2 then 2. Rxb3+ Kd4 (2… Kd2 3. Rb2) 3. Rb4+ Kd5 (3… Kc3 or 3… Kc5 4. Rb8 and 5. Rc8+) 4. Rb8! and white draws. Black needs to rush back to his pawn. A blunder would be 4… c1Q?? 5. Rd8+ and 6. Rc8+  and white wins .

Therefore the only try is 1… b2 2. Ke5! Kf3! White tries to exploit the awkward position of the black king. After 2… c2 he will play 3. Rb3+ and 4. Rxb2. After 2… Kd3 we reach a position we are already familiar with: 3. Kd5 Kc2 (3… c2 4. Rb3+ Kd2 5. Rxb2 is also drawn) 4. Kc4 and it is a draw.

3. Kf5 Ke2! 4. Ke4 Kd1 5. Kd3 c2 6. Rh8 c1N! followed by 7… b1Q and black wins.

But not all positions with two connected passed on the sixth rank are won. Sometimes it even doesn’t help when the king of the side with the two connected passed pawns is in the vicinity of the pawns. See the next diagram.

Diagram #4

The black pawns reached the sixth rank, but in this case black is lost. What should white do?

The only reasonable move he can make is with his rook. Best is 1. Rh1 (rule of thumb: get as much space as possible between the rook and the opposing king in this sort of situations). Now black has two possibilities: 1… Ka3 and 1… Kc4

The first defense with 1… Ka3
1… Ka3 2. Rh4
white needs to activate his rook immediately, after a waiting move like 2. Rg1 black will slip off the hook: 2… c2+ 3. Kc1 Ka2 4. Rh1 (the rook needs to stay on the first rank, otherwise 4… b2+ and 5. b1Q+) Ka1! 5. Kd2+ Kb2 6. Rg1 (6. Rc1 wouldn’t help either, for instance 6… Ka2 7. Kc3 – after 7. Rg1 Kb2 white didn’t make any progress – 7… b2 (of course not 7… Ka3 8. Ra1#) 8. Rxc2 Ka1! draw or 6… Ka3 7. Kc3 b2 draw).

Ka2 7. Kc3 c1Q+! 8. Rxc1 b2 9. Rc2 Ka1! and it is a draw. This draw is only possible with the b- and c-pawn. In other positions there is no stalemate.

After 2. Rh4 black has to move one of his pawns. For instance 2… c2+ 3. Kc1 b2+ 4. Kxc2 and the game is lost for black.

White could also achieve his aim with 2. Rh8 Kb4 3. Rc8 c2+ 4. Kb2 Ka4 5. Rb8 and white will pick up the pawns.

The second defense with 1… Kc4
1… Kc4 2. Rh8 Kd4 3. Rb8 Kd3!
sets up a nice trap. 4. Kc1! Not 4. Rxb3? Kd2! and it is a draw. 4… Kc4 5. Rb7 and one of the black pawns has to move. For instance 5… b2+ 6. Kc2 Kd4 7. Rc7 and white wins both pawns.

The rook on it’s own is not capable of stopping the pawns on the sixth rank. He needs the help of his king. In the last diagram the idea is to force a pawn move. After the pawn move the king can aid the rook.

Diagrams 3, 4 and 5 and the analysis are taken form Awerbach Lehrbuch der schachendspiele (second volume).
Cartoon by Marijke van Veldhoven

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