Here’s an extract from a game between two of Richmond Junior Chess Club’s less experienced members. Black, the older and stronger of the two boys, has a rook, knight and pawn against his opponent’s lone king, as well as the advantage of the move. It should be easy to win, shouldn’t it?
Mr Silicon Knowall announces mate in 4 here, starting with the rather improbable 46.. Rd4 47. Ke8 Nd8, but your first thought might be just to push f5 as the white king is behind the pawn. Black did indeed push his pawn, but only one square. (It’s interesting how often less experienced players forget that pawns can still move two squares on their first move when they reach the ending.) Still winning easily, of course, but no need to lose the knight unless your pawn’s going straight through. It looks like Black failed to ask himself the vital question “If I do that, what will he do next?” before making his move.
Anyway, White took the knight and Black continued his plan of advancing the pawn: 47. Kxe6 f5 48. Ke5 Re4+ 49. Kd5. But now came 49.. f4, repeating the same mistake from three moves ago and this time losing his important rook and ending up in a drawn KP v K ending. Most children soon learn to check that they’re moving a piece to a safe square, but what they find a lot harder is to see when they’re leaving another piece unsafe, for example, as here, by moving a defender. A minimal position such as this provides a graphic illustration of the problem. Black understandably wants to promote his pawn, but again fails to ask himself “If I do that, what will he do next?”.
So, 50. Kxe4 Kg5, reaching the next diagram.
A critical position with White to move which every serious player needs to know and understand. Most beginners’ manuals start off their coverage of KP v K with the rule of the square, but this sort of position is far more important. You’ll almost always find in practice that the kings start off close to the pawn, as here. Let’s see whether our two novices knew what to do.
The next two moves were natural and fine: 51. Kf3 Kf5 52. Ke2 (here any move to the second rank draws, but one rank down and only Kf1 would draw, which is why I teach children always to retreat to the same file as the enemy pawn) 52.. Ke4 Now White has to play Kf2 to draw, but if you don’t know this and you lack the skills to work it out it’s natural, I suppose, to play 53. Kf1 instead, which is what happened.
Now Black has two winning moves. Everyone should know that the position after 53.. Kf3 is won with either player to move. It might be harder to remember that the position after 53.. Ke3 is also won regardless of the move. But Black, again naturally if you don’t know the position, played 53.. f3 instead. It may be counter-intuitive but you have to remember to get your king in front of the pawn. Now White has one way to draw: 54. Kf2! Kf4 55. Kf1! Not knowing this, he played 54. Kg1 instead and after 54.. Ke3 55. Kh1 f2 Black managed to promote his pawn and eventually win the game. (White’s 55th move is strange but here it doesn’t make any difference. Inexperienced players often move their king away from the pawn in these endings and if you ask them why they’ll tell you that if they keep near the pawn they might get checked.)
Two important lessons for all novices (and all who teach novices) from this. Always ask yourself the question “If I do that, what will my opponent do next?” to avoid losing pieces by moving or blocking defenders. And make sure you know the basic KP v K endings, backwards, forwards and inside out, blindfold and with your hands tied behind your back.