Every Russian schoolboy (and girl) knows that if you have just a king, and your opponent has a rooks pawn along with a bishop which doesn’t control the promotion square, you can draw if your king can reach the corner.
Let’s look, for example, at this position from a game in the 1991 Richmond Junior Championship.
Black was winning easily but erroneously queened a pawn on a1, which White captured with his knight. Black’s bishop took back, and White played his king from e2 to f2, reaching this position. You’ll see that he could have drawn most simply by playing g4, moving his king to h1 and waiting for his opponent to shake hands. But no matter: this position is still drawn.
Let’s play on a few moves.
This move or g3 will draw: other moves lose.
3. Kh1 Kf2
Now the white king is safely in the corner everything draws.
If you don’t know this ending it might look natural to head towards the pawn, but this move loses. Instead Kh1 and g3 are both easy draws.
Now it’s up to Black to find the winning plan. At this point there are seven winning moves to choose from: five safe bishop moves along the h2-b8 diagonal, Kg1 and h6. His choice, as you’ll see, isn’t the quickest, but it’s good enough.
It’s crunch time. Black now has only one winning move. Did he find it? Can you find it?
The only winning move is 6.. h6. The plan is to defend this pawn with the bishop and then force White’s king away.
A sample variation: 6.. h6 7. Kh5 Bf4 8. Kg4 Be3 9. Kh3 Kg1 10. Kg3 Bd2 11. Kh3 Be1 12. g3 Bd2 13. Kg4 Kg2 14. Kh4 Bc1 15. g4 Bg5+ 16. Kh5 Kg3 17. Kg6 Kxg4
He didn’t find this plan, though. Instead the game continued:
Now White has one drawing idea: 7. Kg5 Bg7 8. g4. Without this pawn Black would be winning, but now he has no way of making progress.
Now Black’s winning again. He has the same seven moves as two moves ago, and this time finds the quickest win.
Black again has seven winning moves – bishop moves on the h2-b8 diagonal, Kf1 and Kg1. Bg3 is the neatest and quickest move, forcing White to play g5 and covert the h-pawn into a g-pawn, mating in 14 moves. Bf4, to defend h6, takes one move longer.
Alas, he chooses something else:
9. Kh2 Kf2
There’s still nothing wrong with hiding in the corner: Kh1 is once again an easy draw, but this should stll give White a half point.
Now the white king can’t return to the corner. There are two legal moves: a 50-50 shot. White still doesn’t really want to force the black pawn onto the g-file, does he? Perhaps he should try the king move instead. What do you think?
The wrong decision: after 11. g5 hxg5 it’s an unexpected stalemate! If Black plays anything else the draw is also clear.
Now Black made no mistake. The game continued 11.. Bf4 12. Kh3 Kf2 13. Kh4 Kg2 14. Kh5 Kh3 15. Kg6 Kxg4 and White resigned.
If you like the sort of endgame questions like those I posed here, you’ll find a lot more, all based on games from the RJCC database, in CHESS ENDINGS FOR HEROES. The first draft of both this and CHESS OPENINGS FOR HEROES will be completed this summer.