As I’ve said in previous articles about the endgame, beginners seldom know what to do when in this game phase. Of course, most beginner’s games end well before a proper endgame so I can’t fault them for lacking practical experience. However, one problem beginner’s face when they do end up in an endgame, in which Kings and pawns are the only material left on the board, is the use of their Kings. Beginners tend to leave their Kings sitting inactively on their starting ranks. King activity is absolutely a must in King and pawn endgames!
The beginner who has gained a small modicum of experience knows to defend their King in the game’s first two phases, the opening and middle-game. During the opening, the beginner castles his King to safety and develops his or her pieces actively. During the middle-game, our beginner keeps a watchful eye out for opposition attacks on their King while launching their own attacks on the enemy King. Then, if they reach the endgame, the beginner often attempts to advance pawns across the board to their promotion squares. However, they often do so without the assistance of their King. When the majority of you and your opponent’s material is off the board, you need to employ the power of the King!
When students ask me to analyze their endgame, asking who has the better chance of winning, I first look at the balance of material. If they have a superior force that can corral opposition pawns while helping to promote one of their own pawns, they’ve got the opportunity to win. If the position is equal, material-wise, I look at King activity. If their opponent’s King is active and their King is not, the opposition has better opportunities to win. Again, you have to get your King into the game if you’re going to deliver a successful checkmate!
King opposition is a key factor in endgame play! Simply put, Kings in opposition are Kings facing one another on a rank, file or diagonal with a single square separating them. You’ll want to have the opposition to gain the advantage. What do I mean by having the opposition? You have the opposition when the other King has to move. In other words, if you’re playing the white pieces in such a position and it’s black’s turn to move, you have the opposition. When the black King moves, he gives the white King the right of way so to speak. Look at the example below:
In this example, it’s black to move. The black King moves to f6. The white King now has two choices. He can move to f4, maintaining the opposition, or he can move to d5, outflanking the black King. Outflanking means getting past something by moving around its side. A key point beginners should embrace is the idea that the opposition King can never move to squares controlled by their King. This means that you’ll want to use your King to control squares you want to keep the opposition King off of. This becomes a critical idea when using your King to aid in the promotion of a pawn. Now let’s see these ideas employed in an endgame situation in which both players have their Kings and a pawn each.
It’s black to move, so white has the opposition. The black King moves to d7 (1…d7) in an effort to protect his pawn and go after the white pawn on f5. However, getting the white pawn will prove difficult. It is too soon for the white King to outflank the black King so white keeps the Kings in opposition with 2. Kd5. Black moves his King to e7 (2…Ke7) to prevent white from placing his King on e6. So far, white is dictating the play in this endgame! Only now does white outflank the black King with 3. Kc6. Timing is everything in an endgame scenario such as this. The white pawn on f5 cuts off the e6 square and, combined with the white King’s control of d6 and d7, the black King cannot get onto a good square. Note that the white King is on the same rank as the back pawn, preparing to go after that pawn. In our example, black plays 3…Ke8 which merely puts off black’s demise by a few moves.
White then plays 4. Kd6, heading toward the poor black pawn. One point that should be made about pawn and King endgames is that you should always consider your opponent’s best response to your move before you make it. When white moved his King to d6, he knew that black would play 4…Kf7, trying to protect the pawn. As a beginner, you should note that this type of endgame position relies completely on the Kings. Since the pawns are locked in place, it is up to one of the Kings to free his pawn by capturing the opposition pawn. White plays 5. Kd7 and this is the critical move, placing the King’s in opposition. Since it’s now black’s turn to move, white has the opposition and, because of the position of the Kings and pawns, black is forced away. Black plays 5…Kf8 and white will win.
The game continues with 6. Ke6. White is now next to the black pawn so black tries to hold onto it with 6…Kg7 but white has anticipated black’s move and now plays 7. Ke7. The black King cannot go to g6 because of the white pawn on f5 so he is forced away from the defense of his f6 pawn, playing 7…Kg8. White will now capture the black pawn with 8. Kxf6.
It is at this point in the position that I would tell a student playing white to slow down and think very carefully about the next few moves. Experienced players might say “oh, but this is such an easy win!” The problem is that beginners often see the end result, checkmate, and become so excited that they play quickly which leads to a blunder which leads to stalemate.
Black now plays 8…Kf8. Black is hoping to somehow block the white pawn’s advance but white should fear not because white has his King in front of the pawn. When trying to promote a pawn with the aid of your King, you want your King facing your opponent’s King, in opposition. You don’t want your King behind your pawn which leads to a draw. This means that white has to think carefully about the next move. White plays 9. Ke6, outflanking black’s King. This allows white to control two key squares, e7 and f7. Black plays 9…Ke8, trying to maintain opposition. After 10. f6, black plays 10…Kf8, desperate to stop the advancing white pawn. After 11. f7, black is lost because he has to move off of the white pawn’s promotion square (f8). Black plays 11. Kg7. Here white moves his King to e7 with 12. Ke7, which protects both the white pawn and its promotion square. With nothing better to do, black plays 12…Kh7 followed by white promoting his pawn to a Queen with 13. f8=Q. Needless to say, white will win!
You should always use the ideas of King opposition and outflanking in endgame play. Always bring your King into the endgame and always take your time during this phase. Rather than give you a game to enjoy, here’s some homework: Set up five endgame positions, using Kings and pawns, with your computer or human opponent. Play through them and practice the ideas I presented above. Enjoy your homework!