Pawn Endings in Practice (1)

I wrote last time about the importance of basic knowledge of pawn endings. There’s a point when students have learnt how to avoid simple tactical oversights but not how to form plans in the opening and middle game, when they suddenly find themselves reaching lots of endings.

Here, taken from the RJCC master database, about which much more in future posts, is a typical example.

But first, a tactical point. White to move: which way will you capture on c2, and why?

The answer that White has to break the pin on the d-file with Rdxc2, but instead he chose Rcxc2. For your next question, what’s the problem with that?

What do you do, I ask my students (as long as they’re boys) if you’re wrestling someone and you’ve pinned them to the ground? Do you let them get up or invite all your friends to come and kick them? It’s the same thing here. You have a pin so attack the pinned piece again with Bb5, winning the exchange, rather than, as Black preferred, entering a trading sequence with Rxd3 leaving him a pawn ahead with all the pawns on the same side.

Now we fast forward a few moves to this position. Black’s just offered a rook trade. Should White acquiesce in a swap or run away, for instance with Ra4?

An important idea that students need to learn at this stage in their development is that very few exchanges genuinely are equal. Before they reach this understanding they’ll just think “rook for rook is an equal exchange so I might as well play it”: there are so many games in my database where this sort of thing happens and a player, as here, trades off from a possibly tenable rook ending a pawn down to a lost pawn ending. The basic principle applies: when you’re behind exchange pawns but not pieces. It would need a stronger player than me to tell you whether or not Black can win the rook ending: he can certainly try, but White has obvious drawing chances over the board. The pawn ending, however, is clearly lost.

From here play went 35. Rxf5+ Kxf5 36. Kf2 h5 37. h3 (helpfully creating a weakness) 37.. g5 38. g4+ (helpfully allowing the black king in) 38.. hxg4 39. hxg4+ Kf4 and as Black has the opposition White has to give way: 40. Ke2.

Select a move for Black here.

As it happens, you can’t go wrong here. The simplest way to win is to use the opposition to go round the side. This is a very standard idea that everyone should know. If you go round the side in this sort of position you can attack an enemy pawn from two squares while he can only defend it from one square. So here, 40.. Kg3 41. Ke3 f5 42. gxf5 gxf5 43. Ke2 f4 and the f-pawn falls.

Another way to win is 40.. f6 41. Kf2 f5 42. gxf5 gxf5 and Black has the opposition.

In the game Black chose 40.. f5, which makes things harder but should still be good enough to win. White played 41. gxf5 and Black had a choice of two recaptures. Over to you again.

This time it does make a difference. Black can win instructively by playing 41.. Kxf5. Now White plays 42. Ke3 and Black has another choice. 42.. e5 is only a draw as long as White finds 43. Ke2, preparing to take the opposition after 43.. Kf4 44. Kf2. But instead Black can win by taking the opposition himself with 42.. Ke5. Now after 43. Ke2 Kf4 44. Kf2 Black uses his spare move to take the opposition again: 44.. e5. In this position going round the side is not going to help but Black will win if he chooses the right pawn to advance. After 45. Kg2, 45.. g4 wins but e4 only draws, while after 45. Ke2. 45.. e4 wins but g4 only draws. Following this line: 46. fxe4 Kxe4 47. Kf2 Kf4 48. Kg2 Kg4, which, if you’ve read Chapter 4 of Move Two!, you’ll know is a win for Black with White to move but only a draw with Black to move.

In the game, Black preferred 41.. exf5, which should only lead to a draw. White correctly took the opposition with 42. Kf2. Now Black can try forcing the king away and then retaking the opposition with f4 but it doesn’t win in this case because he doesn’t have access to the vital e4 square. Observe: 42.. Ke5 43. Ke3 Kd5 44. Kd3 f4 45. Kc3! and White cannot make progress. Instead, he created a passed pawn at once with 42.. g4. After 43. fxg4 Black has a choice, but students should be aware that (and why) both moves draw. 43.. Kxg4 44. Kg2 again would be a win with White to move but it’s only a draw with Black to move. 43.. fxg4 44. Kg2 g3 reaches what I tell my pupils is the most important position in chess.

Understanding this position underpins your knowledge of pawn endings, which in turn underpins all other endings. Embarrassingly for me, White, who was one of my private pupils at the time, went the wrong way: 45. Kf1, and allowed his opponent to promote. I trust you would have played Kg1 here!

Black failed to find the quick mate with 48.. Qc5 but then chose the ‘place your queen a knight move away from the king’ method which some teachers prefer for the king and queen mate. I, however, prefer to teach the ‘place your queen one row away from the king, then place your king two rows away’ method which is more efficient in most positions.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.