The Importance of the Endgame Nine

It’s well enough and good to know some basic endgame ideas and concepts. It’s even better to employ them in your games! Beginners often spend hours practicing positions they learn via instructional books and DVDs. They memorize the specific patterns involved in common endgame checkmates and feel confident going into the endgame. Then they get hit with a position in which things get a bit sticky. The mating pattern they’ve mastered suddenly turns into a positional nightmare. They get into a position where they have a pawn one square away from promotion, a Rook and their King against a Rook and King. Piece of cake, right? It might be unless you find yourself in one of those sticky situations!

We’re going to look at one of those sticky situations that tend to throw the beginner’s winning position into the ashcan of defeat. The first point to consider regarding bad positions is the simple idea that you have to slowly and carefully work your way out of them. The beginner tends to see positions in very black and white terms. By this, I mean that beginners look only for big attacks or big advantages. They don’t think in terms of building up small advantages, slowly and methodically. If there’s no big attack to launch they’re at a loss as to what to do. In the endgame, they tend to look for moves that check the opposition King or push his majesty towards the edge or corner of the board. It’s all about the big moves for the beginner. Of course, this occurs because the beginner only knows the most basic of endgame play in which moves are very forcing.

When the beginner finds him or herself in a position in which there are no big moves they tend to try to force big moves which more often than not, leads to the loss of the very material needed to deliver mate. The key to these sticky positions is to play slowly and carefully, trying to gain that small advantage that will turn the tide.

Another point to consider here is the idea that whose turn it is often determines who comes out with the advantage. In chess, we call this Zugzwang. What this means is simple; the player who has to move is put at a disadvantage by having move. Since you can’t pass on making a move in chess, Zugzwang can be very powerful in the endgame! Again, since beginners look for big powerful moves, they don’t understand or appreciate the power of “waiting moves,” those moves that force their opponent into Zugzwang. Let’s take a look at a position that would send the beginning player into the flames of defeat, the positional ashcan, even though they’re up by a pawn and that pawn is one square away from promotion. That’s right, just a single square away from promoting into a Queen.

In the example below, our beginner (playing white) has a pawn on the seventh rank, a Rook and a King against a Rook and a King. It sounds like an easy win but take a look at the position below.

The major problem here is the black Rook on b1. The Rook keeps the white King from moving around the white pawn on a7 and allowing it to promote. The seasoned player will look at this position know exactly what to do. However, the beginner will try all sorts of crazy maneuvers with the h8 Rook, big attack thinking, and fail at all of them. I had roughly 50 beginners play through this position as white and only three of my beginning students found the correct first move. It should be noted that those three students were the students that did extra homework (yes, my chess students do homework regardless of student and parent complaints – I run a dictatorship rather than a democracy) and paid close attention to my lessons. So what is the correct first move? Believe it or not, a “in your face” challenge!

The first move has to be 1. Rb8 which says to black “either trade Rooks, in which case I’ll promote my pawn, or move your Rook.” The key point here is that white will never get King out from behind the a7 pawn unless the Black Rook is moved off of the b1 square. From black’s viewpoint, losing his or her Rook is going to leave them in a losing position, so the Rook moves with 1…Rc1. Why move the black Rook to c1? Black knows that the white King is going to make a run for the b file so he or she wants to keep the Rook close to the action. Moving the black Rook to d1 would allow a dreadful skewer by white (R. d8+). You should always consider your opponent’s best response to your move. If you’re playing the white pieces and you see that the Black Rook has decided to remain in the game rather than trading himself for the white Rook, you have to ask yourself “if I’m going to make a run for the b file with my King, what is black’s best response?”

White plays 2. Kb7, making a break for freedom. You have to play slowly and methodically during sticky endgame positions, always considering your opponent’s best response to your move. What is blacks best response on move two? To check the white King with 2…Rb1+. It’s here that beginners often fumble, returning to the King’s starting square, a8. The correct response is 3. Kc8. While this may seem counter intuitive, we’ll see that there’s a good reason for this move. That reason is that the white King is now out of his pawn’s way and is also protecting his Rook. Black checks with 3…Rc1+. White moves his King in opposition to the black King with 4. Kd8 and black counters with 4…Rh1.

This position must be handled with care because if white plays incorrectly he or she will be the one mated! If black had a free turn, the Rook on h1 would move to h8 and it would be game over. While this might look like a precarious position for white, white has a good response in 5. Rb6+! What makes this move good is that simple fact that it forces the black King off of the sixth rank, ending black’s attempt at mate. Black will move his King to a square that attacks the white Rook with 5…Kc5. What does white do with the Rook? How about serving up a nasty sacrifice that, if black accepts the seemingly free Rook, will lead to an even nastier skewer that wins the black Rook on h1. Take a close look at the next move.

Rather than moving the Rook to a safe square on the sixth rank, white plays 6. Rc6+. The beginner playing black might think the Rook is hanging without protection, free for the taking. However, if black takes the the seemingly free Rook, white promotes the a7 pawn into a Queen on a8, checks the black King (a skewer) and after the black King moves out of check, wins the Rook on h1! This is why black plays 6…Kb5.

White plays 7. Rc8, being keenly aware that black will check with 7…Rh8, which he does. No worries after 8. Kc7 and 8…Rh7+. This check proves to be pointless because white plays 9. Kb8 and the black Rook can’t check the white King. Why? Because it would take two moves to get the Rook to b6 in order to check. It will take white one move to promote the pawn! Black can do nothing to stop white from promoting the a7 pawn except for trading itself for the a7 pawn which would be a losing move.

The key to this type of position is to play with a cool head, slowly and carefully. The winning move here was challenging the black Rook with white’s own Rook, forcing it off the b file. Endgame play is first learned from book and DVD examples. We practice these endgame positions until we know them. However, we must always remember that there will be those sticky endgame positions in which a solution may require slowly working our way through the position. Keep a cool head, play for the small positional advantages and you’ll come out a winner. While it’s necessary to study endgame principles remember this, theory works best in textbooks and doesn’t always pan out in the real world where the rubber meets the road (as my favorite chemistry professor used to say). Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).