Let’s take a look at a final pawn and King endgame in which both players have two pawns each. The problem is that the pawns are locked in place, the Kings oppose one another and the pawns next to each King belong to the opposition. I could spend the next thirty articles writing about pawn and King endgames and still not cover everything. However, if you wish to improve your basic endgame skills, I highly recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s Endgame Course to aid you in your quest. His examples are excellent and he explains ideas in terms a beginner can easily understand. His book is mandatory reading for my older students! In fact, one copy travels around the globe with a well known musician I teach chess to.
As mentioned in the last two articles, King Opposition is a critical factor regarding pawn promotion. Using your King to keep the opposition’s King off of key squares (such as the promotion square and squares your pawn must travel through) is the only way to ensure the promotion of a pawn. However, there is an exception. If the opposition King is too away from the pawn trying to promote itself, his majesty will lose the race to capture the runaway pawn. How do you know if the opposition King is within striking range? Take a look at the example below:
In this example, we have a white pawn on a2 and the black King is on h8. Can white get the pawn to the a8 promotion square before the black King can catch it? You could simply play through the moves in your head, but that can take time which isn’t good if your chess clock is winding down. The easiest way to determine whether or not the pawn can make it to a8 is to create an imaginary box on the chess board whose perimeter runs from a3 to a8, then from a8 to f8, then from f8 to f3 and back over to a3. If the opposition King is outside of the box, white promotes. In this example, the opposition King is well outside the box so even if it were black’s turn, it wouldn’t matter. However, if it was black’s turn and the King was on the f8 square, the pawn would be a goner! The box method will save you time and energy but always remember, whose turn it is can change things around I the endgame.
Now on to our featured example. This is a tough one for the beginning player because, not only are the pawns locked up but both Kings seem to be behind the wrong pawns. After all, shouldn’t the King’s be guarding their own pawns? When I show this position to new students, they don’t understand what’s going on! Their first thought is usually that I’ve accidentally set up the position incorrectly because I’m an old geezer! When I tell them it is set up correctly they start trying to figure out a way to get one pawn to its promotion square (as white) before black does likewise. With my newer students, the answer seems impossible to find even when it is so obvious! Beginners think chess is extremely complicated, which it is to a certain extent. However, that doesn’t mean a simple solution can’t solve a complex problem. Beginners often think that this type of position requires some complicated endgame play. The correct first move in this position brings up a point I’ve been trying to make regarding endgame positions: Whose turn it is will often determine who will win the game, provided they make the correct move.
In the above example, it’s white to move. Had it been black to move, black would have the advantage. The two Kings are facing one another. Had they been in direct opposition, with a single empty square between them, this would have been a different endgame. Kings cannot occupy immediately adjacent squares so our invisible barrier would force white to find another path to victory. However, in this position, there are two squares between the Kings. This means that white can directly oppose the black King with 1. Kb5. Now white has closed the gap so the black King cannot advance up the b file. If it was black to move first, he would have done the same (1…Kb4).
The point to 1. Kb5 is that the White King now attacks both of black’s pawns and the black King can’t do anything about it. Black plays 1…Ka3 hoping to grab white’s a4 pawn if the opportunity arises but this move does no good. Black could have move to c3 but the result would be the same. White plays 2. Kxa5 and now white has a two to one pawn majority. Pawn majorities, having a greater number of pawns than your opponent, is a huge advantage in the endgame. With 2…Kb3, black’s King sits between the two white pawns hoping to at least capture one of them but it will not work because white plays 3. Kb5 putting the Kings in direct opposition once again. Now you can see why King opposition is so important and powerful.
Black is utterly lost in the position because white will be able to send one of the two pawns up the board to its promotion square. Black plays 3…Kc3 with the idea of trying to get to his own pawn and capturing the white c4 pawn. It is at this point that beginners can get into a spot of trouble, even playing white in this position. Believe it or not, I’ve seen beginners turn this into a drawn game!
The beginner playing white will think “hey, my opponent is going to try to get to his pawn as well as taking my pawn on c4. I should use my King to do something about that!” Wrong thinking. This idea has been considered by some of my endgame beginners because, after all, the King has been very active in the endgame examples they’ve studied. They think about moving the King which wouldn’t bode well for them. The white King is absolutely perfect where he is. He guards both the white pawn on c4 and the black pawn on c5. The black King cannot make any headway trying to either capture the white pawn or chase the white King away. Besides, the black King has bigger problems after white plays 4. a5! Black cannot catch the runaway pawn because of White’s King. The White King covers a4 and b4 so that side of the board is closed to the black King. The key point here is to remember that the King can defend as well as attack and in this case, the white King has a great defensive position that shuts out the black King. At this point, it’s all about promoting the pawn and then mating the opposition King. Since the pawn is free to move up the open a file, there’s no point in moving your king, especially since he’s on the perfect square!
In closing, when you see a position like the one above, the first thing you’ll want to look at is how many squares there are between the two Kings. That was the key factor. Use your King to defend squares that make it impossible for your opponent’s King to catch up to one of your pawns heading towards the its promotion square. Consider simple solutions before entertaining complex ones. Lastly, use the box method to determine whether or not your pawn can safely reach its promotion square. Next week, we’ll throw some minor pieces into the mix, starting with those sneaky and dangerous Bishops. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!