The Chess Endgame Every Beginner Should Know
Chess is a game of dramatic possibility.
Within a few moves, the number of potential positions is in the millions. Soon, there are more permutations than a human could count in a lifetime. This is well known; you sometimes hear that there are more chess moves than molecules in the universe. Still, it always surprises me. Even when players follow theory 20 moves deep, chances are that at some point, someone will make a new move.
Novelty is not the point here. Nor is it likely a new strategic philosophy. The same double helix of logic -- move connected to countermove -- has been encoded in games for hundreds of years. But inevitably, a mutation appears.
As unimaginable as the immense potential of every game is, though, what surprises me even more is how quickly, predictably, and naturally games are resolved. Pieces are traded; the squares clear; the position simplifies. Within a matter of moves, you have a position that the mind can evaluate completely. From something original emerges something that any regular chess player has seen before. A white king, for instance, and a white pawn and rook; a black king and a black rook.
Not only is that position familiar, but it’s easy for a good chess player to glance at and see if it’s won, lost, or drawn. She can recognize the patterns in the position intuitively, without laborious calculation. She can tell immediately if she achieve a particular position with proper play, in which Black will be helpless to stop her from queening her pawn. The setup is so standard that it even has a name, the Lucena position.
If she can achieve that position, the game is as good as won. History reasserts itself over randomness.
The basic idea is that the white pawn has advanced to the seventh rank, but it is blocked from its queening square by its own king. The white rook, meanwhile, cuts off the black king from the pawn by at least a file, while the black rook sits on the file to the other side of the pawn. As long as the pawn is not a rook pawn, the white player can use her rook to shield the king from harassing checks, using a method known as “building a bridge.”
If the rooks are traded, the white pawn will easily queen.
Few players will figure out this method over the board. Instead, they learn it, the same way they might learn about opposition or Catalan theory. The past guides the present. The tested techniques can be studied. The ghosts of old players are generous; their lessons live on. That’s the idea, at least.
Except for me, Lucena has not been a friendly ghost. More like a personal tormentor.
I once sat at a kitchen table with a rook and pawn vs rook and spent more than an hour trying and failing to defeat myself. The ghost of Lucena laughed mercilessly the whole time. I have not only struggled to convert the Lucena position to a win during play, but I have managed to lose my rook and so the whole game. I have confused Lucena with his rook-and-pawn cousin, Philidor. I have wanted to run and hide at the very moment my opponent has resigned.
But there is no hiding from a haunting.
Who was Lucena, anyway? I wondered one day, after a particularly frustrating encounter with the Lucena position. His name was Luis Ramirez de Lucena. His book, Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez con 101 Juegos de Partido (“Repetition of Loves and the Art of Chess with 101 Games”), was published in Salamanca, Spain, around 1497.
Image: University of North Carolina.
It is the oldest surviving chess book -- and one of the least known. Only a few copies still exist. It was written when the rules of chess were being codified in modern form, and it is, apparently, filled with errors. Much of it, some commentators suggest, was also plagiarized from an older book that has since been lost. I cannot say what connections Lucena found between love and chess, since it has not been translated into English. Instead breaking the power that Lucena held over me, my investigation only made him more mysterious.
What’s more, Lucena’s book did not include the Lucena position. It first appeared in Alessandro Salvio’s Il Puttino, published in 1634.
Perhaps that is appropriate. After all, every game is a false echo of a game that came before. There is something alluring about that to me, the promise of taking something ancient and making it new. I can follow a path and cut my own.
But not until I learn the Lucena position.
You can practice the Lucena position against the Chess.com computer in this drill.
Louisa Thomas is an American writer, author of two books (including Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams), a regular contributor to NewYorker.com, former writer and editor at Grantland.com, and "obsessed" with tennis and chess. You can follow her on Twitter.