You can’t understand chess openings unless you understand middle games. You can’t understand middle games until you understand endings. And you can’t understand endings until you understand pawn endings. If you’re in a rook ending you need a constant awareness of what’s likely to happen should the rooks get exchanged, so that you know whether or not you should be aiming for a rook swap.
Now some pawn endings can be extremely complex, defeating even strong grandmasters, but there are also some basic principles which will aid understanding. A recent game of mine which resulted in a pawn ending got me thinking about positions where one player can create an outside passed pawn.
Consider this position:
At the start of the game we like to keep our pawns near the middle of the board. ‘Capture towards the centre’, we’re told. At the end of the game, though, there’s a lot to be said for having pawns on the side of the board.
This formation favours White in pawn endings. We hope to play h5, forcing an exchange and creating an Outside Passed Pawn (OPP), trade our h-pawn for the black f-pawn so that our king will reach the queen-side first. But it all depends where the kings are. Here, White’s king is further up the board so we have the additional idea of immediate infiltration on the queen-side.
I’d suggest you play these positions out, firstly with white to move and then with black to move, before reading on. If you’re a chess teacher give them to your pupils to play out. You might want to get them to score the games so that you can ensure they really understand what’s happening.
With White to move we can just follow our plan with 1. h5 and win easily.
With Black to move White is going to have to be slightly more subtle. After 1… Ke6 Black can meet 2. h5 with Kf7, so instead we’ll play on the queen-side first, for instance with 2. c4. If Black plays Kf7 at some point we’ll play Kd5, and if he plays Kd6 we’ll reply with h5. We do have to be a little bit careful here, though: 2… Kd6 3. h5 f5+ when we have to play 4. Kf4 rather than 4. gxf5 gxh5 when Black gets the OPP.
Now let’s tweak the position a bit so that the black king is further advanced. Again, play it out yourself with both colours, or give the position to your pupils.
With White to move it’s still a trivial win as long as we exercise a little care. We’re going to follow the same plan: push h5, create an OPP, trade our h-pawn for the black f-pawn and get across to the other side of the board first.
With Black to play, though, it seems to be only a draw with best play as Black can approach the white h-pawn from in front of the f-pawn. A sample variation:
1… c4+ 2. Ke3 Ke5 3. h5 gxh5 4. gxh5 Kf5 5. Kd4 Kg5 6. h6 Kxh6 7. Kxc4 f5 8. a4 f4 9. Kd3 Kg5 10. b4 f3 11. Ke3 Kg4 12. Kf2 Kf4 13. c4 Ke4 14. c5 bxc5 15. bxc5 Kd5 16. Kxf3 Kxc5 and White will get back in time to draw.
So we can draw a couple of basic principles. Having a potential OPP is good. Having your king nearer the centre is also good. With both advantages you’ll probably be winning the game.
Next time we’ll add some more pawns and make it a bit more complicated.