My student Eric (currently rated USCF 15xx) showed me a recent tournament game of his in which a rather fascinating ending came up. As Black, he had a Bishop and four Pawns versus White’s five Pawns. At first it seemed obvious that this ending should clearly be a win, but actually, it is not so obvious, because the semi-blocked nature of the position meant that it was not completely trivial for Black to break through White’s wall of Pawns. It turned out that he did come up with a very clever idea that is part of a good winning plan, but he did not manage to follow up on it, and seeing no way to make progress, accepted a draw with his opponent.
Winning an ending given a material advantage is very important, because at some point during one’s chess development, one plays well enough in the middlegame to get a material advantage, but if one is not able to convert in the endgame, it is a shame. In particular, when up more than two Pawns, there is usually a way to win, by taking advantage of imbalances on the board appropriately.
Looking at the game position carefully, we worked out a winning plan for Black. I think it is instructive because it brings together many important principles in endgame play. There are not any forced variations until the key transformative positions are reached. There may be other ways to win than the method I explain below; I would welcome feedback on other ways to win!
First, let’s look at the initial position. The fundamental material imbalance:
- Black has an extra light-squared Bishop.
- White has an extra King-side Pawn, a g-Pawn that therefore could potentially be converted to a passed Pawn. However, Black is not in any danger of losing, because Black’s Bishop can easily sacrifice itself if necessary to prevent successful Queening.
Other interesting features:
- White is lucky to have most Pawns on dark squares, out of attack from Black’s light-squared Bishop.
- Black’s Pawns are currently all blocked up and therefore Black can win only by using an active King somehow to penetrate White’s position and either win some more Pawns or transform the position in order to create a passed Pawn.
- But while activating the King, Black has to be careful about not letting White’s g-Pawn Queen. However, note that Black’s Bishop control’s the g8 Queening square.
An active King
The single most important lesson in endings is that an active King is critical. Where can Black’s King go? I think Eric was led astray because he was looking for a way to use the Black King to get through on White’s King side, but that is where White is actually strongest and has an extra Pawn. But if we look at the whole board, we see that Black can try to reach c4 or a4 in White’s position, to attack the d-Pawn or the b-Pawn with the King. Granted, White’s King could move over to the Queen side to defend the Pawns, and at least prevent Black from getting to c4. Black could get to a4, but then White can protect the b-Pawn with a3 and protected the a3-Pawn with a King shuffling between a2 and b2. These static considerations make it look like Black’s King cannot make progress.
Eric was also worried about how to get the Bishop involved in case of going over to the Queen side, because what if the Bishop got too far and White played g6 and then g7? We’ll see later how to address this concern.
Notice a Pawn asymmetry
However, Black has another imbalance to use: the Pawn situation on the Queen side is not symmetric. This is important. White has a b-Pawn while Black has an a-Pawn. This means that if Black can prepare the Pawn break …a5, if White ever trades the b-Pawn for Black’s a-Pawn, then White ends up with a passed a-Pawn but Black can then use the second Pawn break …c5 to create either a passed c-Pawn or passed d-Pawn. In an even-material ending, the “outside” passed Pawn (White’s a-Pawn in this situation) is advantageous, but with Black having an extra Bishop, there is no advantage to having the outside passed Pawn, because Black’s Bishop can cover it while Black’s King is free to press on with its own “inside” passed Pawn.
If White protects the b4-Pawn with a3, then Black can just trade Pawns, leaving White with a weak b4-Pawn. In that case, the ending is easy to win for Black, because Black can simply gain the opposition (using waiting moves with the Bishop) to break through and win either the b-Pawn or the d-Pawn.
Therefore, our conclusion is that if Black can safely manage to get the King to b6 or b5 in order to prepare a5, the game is a win. Note that no calculation of sequences of moves is necessary to come to this conclusion: all that is needed is
- Fundamental understanding of Pawn breaks and passed Pawns
- Understanding how to win by “taking the opposition” (in a King and Pawn setting)
The final question then is, how to perform this King manoeuvre while preventing White from trying to Queen the g-Pawn?
A clever Bishop manoeuvre
Eric hit upon a clever Bishop manoeuvre that, if followed up, would have worked great.
First, he played …f5 to force White to play g5. Then he moved his Bishop to d3, a6, c8, e6, and finally f7, in order to protect the g6 and h5 squares from White’s King invasion. This was a fine creative plan.
Unfortunately, he agreed to a draw shortly after this manoeuvre, not being able to find the winning plan that involved activating the King and using two Pawn breaks. He saw that after getting the King around, if he ever tried to bring the Bishop around, that would risk White’s g-Pawn advancing. This is in fact a valid concern, but the missing part of the picture was the importance of the …a5 Pawn break and the subsequent follow up. It turns out that there is something very subtle for Black black needs to do to time that Pawn break just properly, to avoid a draw.
The concept of triangulation is very important in endings. The main idea is to “waste time” in order to force the weaker side to reach a position on the move from a position in which the stronger side is on the move (but does not want to be on the move). In the analysis below, a critical position arises in which Black needs to prevent White’s King from becoming too active after a planned Pawn break. By triangulation, Black forces White’s King to the rim at a3 before playing the Pawn break …c5.
Control of the Queening square
It is also important to note that Black can wander just far enough with the Bishop to win White’s a4-Pawn, because of the control of White’s Queening square g8. Black’s Bishop has enough time to make it back to d5 after White plays g6 and g7, to stop White from Queening on g8. Whew!
I thought this was an instructive ending to work out, because of the many themes necessary to understand and integrate in order to create a winning plan.