What Many IMs Don't Know
Rook and bishop vs. rook endgames might not happen too frequently in a chessplayer’s practice. However, once you get such an endgame in a tournament game then you better know what you are doing or otherwise you will appear a fool. I got an inspiration to write an article on this topic during the recent Canadian Open tournament where I participated. In round 7 the two last games played in the Open section featured rook and bishop vs. rook endgames. Both endgames ended in a loss for the defending side and both players defending were International Masters.
As I watched the games live through the internet in my room I realized that I have no idea how to defend-- or any idea at all about this endgame. I remember reading about a "2nd rank defense" but what it is and how to construct it I could not remember. The first thing I did after getting home was to research this endgame. What I wanted was some practical guide and checking out the chess.com video archive, sure enough I found these two excellent videos by GM Josh Friedel: “R+B v. R: the Defense!” and “R+B v. R: Pressing!”. Josh is an expert on the R+B vs. R endgames because as he explains he is very good with grasping the typical patterns of the position. And R+B vs. R endgame is all about patterns. If you have not watched his videos please do so because they are excellent.
First things first… You need to know 2-3 theoretical positions in order to have some sort of direction. These positions will serve like landmarks to you. The first important position to know for the defending side is the Cochrane position (diagram below). Let’s take black to have rook and bishop and white to have a rook. The defending side’s rook pins the bishop and does not allow the attacker’s king to get to the 3rd (6th, f or c) file. In order to unpin black has to move the king either way then the defending side’s king (previously aligned with the black king) steps in the opposite direction. Then black moves the bishop away and the white rook gets to the 2nd (can be 7th, b or g) file and creates the 2nd rank defense about which we will talk later.
The second theoretical position to know is probably the most important one – Philidor’s position. It happens when white gets the king to the 3rd (6th, c or f) file while the black king is in opposition and cut off on the last rank. The bishop guards the white king from rook checks. The only exception to the Philidor’s position is when the kings are located on the b- (g-, 2nd or 7th) file, then the position is drawn as white does not have much rook maneuverability. It took me a while to learn Philidor’s position – it is not easy. But without it you cannot really move on with the R+B vs. R endgames. Play it out, try to guess moves or analyze it – you need to get a good feel for it. The 5.Bb3! idea is essential and absolutely must be memorized. I took the position from Dvoretsky’s “Endgame Manual”.
The last theoretical positions are the Shen and Lolly defenses. Here I show just the positions and will look more into them as we look at practical examples. However, you have to know that with the kings on the g-file (b, 2nd or 7th) the position is a draw.
Now, let us proceed to the practical examples. The first one is an example of the 2nd-rank defense. The white king and rook stay at the 2nd, 7th, g and b files. White wants to place the rook and the king one square apart on squares opposite in color to that of the black bishop. The white king can safely step onto the last rank only on condition that it will return to the 2nd rank the very next move.
There was not a single point in the game where Karjakin was in danger. This is especially impressive as this was a blitz game and with time shortage one can make all kind of mistakes, but not Karjakin. The next example is from the blitz game of number 1 in the world Carlsen. He erred only once in this 5-min game – a mistake that could have cost him half a point. Svidler up to a certain point defended very well. Clearly, he knew the Cochrane position but I am not sure why he did not use the 2nd-rank defense as Karjakin did in the above example. Defending on the last rank is much harder because one slip will cost you the game, while a mistake during the 2nd-rank defense can be less deadly.
Dramatic game. You have to take into account the players' shortage of time; and probably you will have very little time when this endgame happens in your practice. This is why it is important to know the Philidor’s position almost by heart, as well as the Shen and Lolly defenses. Next week we will finish the topic of R+B vs. R. with some more examples from recent practice.