One of the first principles that an early, intermediate-level chess player learns is that rooks on the seventh rank are powerful. In Russian we call the seventh (or second) rank “obzhornyi” (обжорный ), roughly translating into ‘a gluttonous’ rank. All the pawns are initially located on the seventh rank, and there is a good chance that many will still be there later in the game.
Rooks on the seventh rank are also powerful attackers. The eighth rank is typically guarded by the rooks, whereas the sixth rank is guarded by the pawns that are still on the seventh rank. But think about that seventh rank - rarely is it well defended. Moreover, in endgames the threat of a back-rank checkmate is ever present with the opponent's rooks on the seventh.
The topic of the seventh rank is especially popular with tactics books. Here we will study it from a positional standpoint by examining Carlsen's games where he managed to get his rooks to the seventh or the second ranks. There are four examples and most of them are from the later stage of the game. It is hard to find an example from an early middlegame because one does not typically develop the rooks that early. Hence, all four examples feature positions where the queens are off the board.
Carlsen understands the power of the rooks on the seventh rank and uses this strategic tool whenever the opportunity presents itself. He clearly feels well these type positions where initiative counts more than material. From practical perspective, he won several drawish endgames by putting pressure on the opponents and avoiding rook exchanges.
Carlsen has an extra pawn, which is not much of an advantage because it is a doubled pawn and we're in a rook endgame. Such endgames have drawish tendencies and being a pawn up does not guarantee an advantage. The major plus for White is that all four rooks are present at the moment. Moreover, Carlsen's rook has already reached the sweet seventh rank from where it threatens the a7- and f7-pawns. The world champ left the other rook behind to defend, for the time being.
Radjabov, who is playing Black, also has rooks that are fairly active. Ra6 is attacking the a2-pawn, whereas Rb8 is located on an open b-file and can enter the game from the eighth rank if needed.
Carlsen clearly formulates his plan in his ChessBase annotations: the only way for White to play for an advantage is to attack the black king. Hence, the pawn storm f4-f5 is an ideal way to break Black's pawn structure and to open up the third rank for the rook swing to the kingside. Radjabov did not put up the toughest resistance and we can clearly see in the game Carlsen's plan coming to live.
After the plan was implemented, Radjabov ended up with a poorly placed king on the eighth rank. Even though Carlsen managed to infiltrate the seventh rank, the position was still far from winning. With several precise moves Black still could have achieved a drawn endgame. This example shows that it might be harder than it looks to defend against the rooks on the seventh rank, as a player of Radjabov's caliber did not manage to hold this endgame.
In the next example it is Carlsen who has to defend against Loek van Wely's rooks for a while. From the critical position after the 21st move, Carlsen played a series of precise moves that allowed him to win a pawn, while maintaining a pawn majority on the queenside. After the bishop transfer to f6, 30... g5 ensured that the bishop could not be deflected from the defense of the g7-pawn.
After making sure that his king is safe, Carlsen organized a pawn storm on the queenside that resulted in a dangerous passed c-pawn. However, if Van Wely wouls have kept his rooks on the seventh rank instead of moving them to defensive positions, he could have achieved a draw without much trouble. After all, rooks on the seventh are powerful and one should not underestimate their potential.
I included the following position because it fascinates me how quickly a slightly a worse position can collapse once the opponent's rooks infiltrate the second rank. Nakamura's position is clearly worse as his pawn structure is inferior. His major defensive idea is to exchange a pair of rooks. This will ease the defense because the white king will not be threatened.
With a pawn majority on the kingside, where the white king is located, one always has to be careful not to end up under a surprising attack. After the pawn majority starts moving the king can become quite uncomfortable. White's major mistake was displacing the rook to the a-file. It did nothing there, and it gave up the b-file. Carlsen used this file to transfer his second rook to the second rank after which White's position became hopeless.
And finally, the last position is from an older game between two Norwegians. Carlsen has a significant initiative due to more active pieces and extra space thanks to two strong pawns in the center. Nevertheless, Hammer manages to find the best defense which involves a pawn sacrifice. After the minor pieces got off the board, Black had a choice: how to take the f- and e-pawns? It was crucial not to let the white rook on f1 get to the seventh rank. By capturing the f- and only then the e-pawn, Hammer let the white rook to get to the seventh rank via f5-e5-e7. Instead, capturing the e-pawn first would have led to a position where the white rook is tied to the defense of the f-pawn. It was close to impossible to hold the endgame where the white rook was maneuvering along the seventh rank.
Next week we will continue with this series on exploring Carlsen's games.