Last week, we looked at how to promote a pawn in an endgame where King and pawn were up against a lone opposition King. With a little practice, the beginner will easily master this concept and win by carefully coordinating their King and pawn. However, in the real world, our opponent may also have a pawn on the board. They’re planning on promoting as well so things get a bit more complicated. Remember, there are always two plans involved in a game of chess, your plan and your opponent’s plan. Both plans will clash with one another which is what makes chess so fascinating. Only considering your plan will lead to disaster! Always consider your opponent’s plan when creating your own!
With an opposition pawn trying to reach its promotion square, you have to work twice as hard in the endgame. Why? Because you have to get your pawn to the other side of the board safely while preventing your opponent from promoting their own pawn. It’s a delicate balancing act that beginners have great trouble with. How do you protect your own pawn and stop the opposition pawn? King activity and King opposition are the watch words of the day! It’s the King that must do the crucial work!
To quickly review two key points from last week’s article, you must activate your King to protect your pawn and use King opposition to keep the enemy King away from key squares. Activating your King means getting him into the game. When you’re down to pawns and Kings, the King must become both defender and attacker or you lose the game! Too often, beginners leave their Kings on their starting rank during the endgame because they want a safe King. However, once there’s been a large reduction of material, the King can join the battle. As soon as the board is void of the majority of pawns and pieces, bring the King out! Of course, anytime you bring your King into the game, you have to be aware of the opposition’s nearby material. To win the endgame, your King must be an active participant.
King opposition means just that, having the King’s facing one another. Of course, they cannot be on immediately adjacent squares, but they can hold each other at bay as long as there’s a full square between them. The point to King opposition is simple: Since King’s cannot occupy squares immediately next to one another other, an invisible barrier is created that neither King cannot cross. This barrier can be used to stop the opposition King from controlling a square your pawn needs to occupy in order to promote. Set up a board and practice King opposition with just the two Kings. You’ll start to see how powerful a tool opposition can be in the endgame!
There are many positions that occur but one in particular tends to cause the beginner problems, pawns that are stuck facing one another (locked) with only their Kings to clear the way.
It goes without saying that this is an example of whoever has the first move has the advantage and the game! In endgame play, whose turn it is becomes a decisive factor. In the above example, it’s white to move. You’ll often see endgame positions in which the only two pawns in the game are locked up and it’s up to one of the Kings to free up the position. Unfortunately, beginners tend to move the two Kings in an endless circle around the locked pawns until one player blunders the position (as opposed to a carefully calculated move). King opposition is the key here! Both Kings are one square away from their own pawn and the opposition pawn they want to capture. Now you can see why whose move it is really matters. However, having it be your move can also work against you, as we’ll discuss shortly.
On move one, 1. Kd7, white moves right next to the pawn he’s got to eliminate. Of course, black isn’t going to sit back and let this happens and plays 1…Kf5. Both players have their target within their sights. This is where beginners start their endless King circling of the two pawns because they don’t fully understand basic endgame principles. However, white plays 2. Kd6, which still maintains an attack on the black e6 pawn while protecting his own pawn in e5. This is an example of the King as an attacker and a defender. Black will now lose his pawn no matter where he goes. Beginners must always consider the squares the pawn they’re trying to promote is attacking when determining where to move their King because that pawn can greatly aid its King.
A term you should become familiar with is Zugzwang. Zugzwang occurs when one player is forced to make a move when they’d rather pass on making that move. Because you have to move when it’s your turn, this concept can be extremely powerful, especially in the endgame. In our example, black is forced to move because it’s his turn. To make matters worse, black’s choices all force him to lose his pawn, allowing white to win the game. Black plays 2…Kg6 and white grabs the black pawn with 3. Kxe6. Had black been able to pass on his turn, leaving the King where it is, things would be different. However, rules are rules and the funeral bells are ringing for black! Note that white’s capture of the black pawn allows white to gain the opposition against the black King.
It should be duly noted that a beginner fortunate enough to be in this position as white can still throw the game away. Why? Because all they see is the promotion square and a new Queen! Tunnel vision sets in which always lead to positional misery! The person playing black in the position is going to try and get his King to the promotion square which is why black plays 3…Kg7, heading for e8. It’s at this point, that you must slow down and think very carefully about your response. Of course, the experienced player knows exactly what to do but the beginner sees only his pawn on the promotion square. The key here is to remember that invisible barrier that keeps the Kings from occupying immediately adjacent squares.
This is why white plays 4. Kd7. This allows white to control the e8 square and keep the King close enough to its pawn in case black makes a run at that pawn. Now, there is nothing black can do to stop the pawn promotion. Again, this last move by white is the key, controlling the promotion square with the King. Set up this position and play it through a few times.
Of course, it comes down to whose move it is in these types of positions so had it been black to move, things might have turned out differently (I say “might” because you never know with beginners). Keep the concept of Zugzwang in mind when considering a move. When playing an endgame position, having less material on the board might make you think it’s easier to win. However, less material makes losing what you do have that more devastating. This means you have to calculate carefully and take your time. Always look at the position from your opponent’s point of view. What would you do if you were on the other side of the board? Next week we’ll look at one last pawn and King example before moving on to the introduction of minor pieces to endgame play. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!