Perhaps my all time favourite chess book is Chess Curiosities, by Tim Krabbé. There’s a chapter in this book about strange occurrences in queen endings.
The other day I was looking at games played by some of my friends in the recent London Chess Classic FIDE Open when I came across something which reminded me of this chapter.
Former RJCC star Richard Cannon was being outplayed in a queen ending by an opponent rated 300 points below him when this position arose.
It’s been a long struggle but now, on move 89, White is on the verge of victory with three extra pawns, one of which is about to queen. He can win at once with Kf7, when Black has to trade queens to avoid immediate mate. Instead he played 89. Qh5+, which is still winning easily. After 89… Kg8 he could centralise his queen again with 90. Qd5+ and then push his pawn to d7. But instead he pushed at once: 90. d7 Qa3+ 91. Ke6 Qa6+. Now White regrets leaving his queen offside. He’s either going to lose his d-pawn or lose his queen and promote his d-pawn (after, say, 92. Kf5 Qb5+ 93. Kf4 Qxh5 94. d8=Q+) when he’s going have to start the winning process all over again. Not fancying this he tried to keep both his pawn and his queen by playing 92. Ke7, only to find that, completely out of the blue, he’d lost his king instead when Black produced 92… Qf6+ 93. Ke8 Qf8# giving Richard a rather fortunate point.
It’s very easy to make this sort of mistake, and Krabbé gives examples of strong grandmasters suffering embarrassing defeats in this way. It’s been a long game, you’re feeling tired, you’re running short of time or perhaps playing on increments. You’ve long since switched out of Middle Game Mode and into Endgame Mode where you’re thinking about king activity and assuming there won’t be any possibility of checkmate.
I know from personal experience just how easy it is because almost a year ago I lost a game myself in the same way. There were some fascinating tactics earlier in the game, which I might share with you some other time, but for now consider this position.
I had the white pieces and, just as in the previous example, was trying to promote my d-pawn in a queen ending. The problem was that my king had nowhere to hide so I could expect no more than a draw. With not much time left I pushed the pawn here after which my young opponent swiftly demonstrated a mate in four: 44. d7 Qh1+ 45. Kg4 f5+ 46. Kf4 Qe4+ 47. Kg5 h6#
Note that the mate only worked because 44. d7 unpinned the black f-pawn by cutting off the white queen. Instead any sensible move such as 44. Qe7 would have drawn as long as I didn’t run out of time.
So I looked through some games played in 2013 in BigBase 2014 to see what else I could find.
I guess White was a bit unlucky in this one. You might think someone with a 1988 rating should have done better, but if you’re sitting there with the clock ticking it’s not so easy. Black has just delivered a check and White has to consider how to parry this. With 71. Qf3 he’d have had every chance of exploiting his two extra pawns but instead he played 71. Kg4 Qxg2+ 72. Kxh4 confident that Black didn’t have any dangerous queen moves. Correct, but instead he found a dangerous king move: 72… Kh6 with the deadly threat of g5#. Seeing that 73. Qg3 would be met by 73… g5+ 74. Kg4 Qxe4+ and mate next move he resigned.
In this example Black has a queen and a pawn on the seventh rank against his opponent’s queen. White’s been checking him for the last ten moves so he now decided to head for safety in the south east corner of the board, playing 92… Kg3. Not a good idea: suddenly White mates in two moves with Qf4+. Easily done, but Black, with a rating of 2084, is, by most standards, a pretty strong player.
Even grandmasters are not immune from this sort of thing. Here’s Kazakh GM Anuar Ismagambetov in action. He’s a pawn down but as his queen is securely blockading the extra pawn there should be no way his opponent can make progress.
75. Kc6 is fine for a half point, but 75. Kd6 Qb6# left White looking rather foolish. Ismagambetov? I’m not sure whether or not his gambit is off but in this game his ending certainly was!
So next time you reach a queen ending, don’t forget to look out for snap checkmates. Learning some queen and pawn mating patterns is also going to help you.