How to Understand Pawn Races

How to Understand Pawn Races

| 29 | Endgames

Many beginners tend to assume that pawn endings are easy to master. After all, with material so limited, how hard can it be to untangle the complexities of any given position?

The answer, as any endgame maven will tell you, is unequivocal: very, very hard.

Not only are pawn endings subtle and tricky, but they also frequently involve long variations that culminate in pawn races featuring simultaneous promotion. To even visualize the position after such a protracted line is a daunting task, let alone to evaluate the resulting queen endgame.

How do endgame specialists consistently win pawn races and trick their opponents even in the most hopeless-looking pawn endings?

It is crucial to internalize the golden rule of pawn races: You should never assume that simultaneous promotion leads to an immediate draw.

In the vast majority of cases, the side that promotes first can either win the queen, deliver checkmate, or favorably trade queens by force. 

The following game is a textbook illustration:

Many pawn endings end precisely this way. From a distance, it is often difficult to perceive that a simultaneous promotion does not equate to an immediate draw.


In the following game, prominent 20th-century master Edgar Colle vanquishes his strong and tenacious opponent with some very precise calculation. 

The game was adjourned after 72.Kg3, but Colle had to correctly evaluate the pawn race when making his 65th move. An impressive feat.

At times, the play leading up to the pawn race -- and the race itself, of course -- can be unfathomably complex.

In the following game, GM Sergey Erenburg overlooked a gorgeous maneuver that would have enabled him to transpose into a winning pawn race.


First, let's take a look at the game continuation: 

Black's success in the pawn race depended on two factors: his ability to quickly advance the a-pawn to a4, and his capacity to set up the f6-g6 pawn formation. As a consequence, White had to spend two golden tempi capturing on g5, and then removing the self-obstructive king from the g-pawn's path.

With all of the kingside pawns gone, Black reached a theoretically drawn position in the nick of time. But can this setup be prevented? 

As you can see, things become very complex, very fast! When calculating pawn endings, it is crucial to be methodical and to  remember that investing a tempo to induce a concession (i.e. 42.Kh3) can pay serious dividends in a pawn race.

As usual, I have only covered the tip of the iceberg. Pawn endings in general, and pawn races in particular, are tremendously thorny concepts, requiring weeks of study to fully master.

Even then, it is impossible to avoid miscalculations 100 percent of the time. Nonetheless, I hope that I have succeeded in demonstrating just how important precise calculation and attention to detail can be! 


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