Final Moves #2: Your Guide to Endgames

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"The Curse of the Rook Pawn"

Update 8/17/2008: Repaired images and diagrams. You may have to reload this page 1-2 times to get all 8 interactive diagrams to appear.

Every Wednesday, visit my column to learn a new endgame.

Some consider possessing a rook pawn a curse, because despite the extra material, the stronger side often must settle for a draw.

 Center Pawn:  51% drawn.  Bishop Pawn:  43% drawn.
 Knight Pawn:  35% drawn.  Rook Pawn:  54% drawn.

Today, I'll show you how to play this ending accurately so you'll always get the best possible result--whether that means scoring a victory, or holding a draw. You'll do especially well against the average player who forgets that 46% of rook pawn endings aren't drawn!

 A Bag of Tricks

Edge Trap

When you're aiming for a draw, a neat trick is to trap your opponent's king against the edge of the board in front of his pawn. In this position, a draw is almost certain.

 Divide and Conquer

Another trick is to put your king between the enemy's king and pawn--that's often enough for a draw. But do calculate a few moves ahead, because there's a big difference between drawing and almost drawing.


The Fundamental Rules of Rook Pawn Endings

 Key Squares

When those tricks don't work, the game turns into a king race.


In the diagram above, White's goal is to move his king onto one of the RED squares. Whomever reaches the RED squares controls the pawn's promotion square.

Black's goal is to reach either the YELLOW or the RED squares. Standing on the right-most YELLOW squares, he directly blockades the pawn. Standing on the left-most YELLOW squares, he threatens to move onto the RED squares on his next turn.


  Critical Squares

Calculating which king will reach one of its 2-6 key squares first can be time-consuming and error-prone. After observing over 1000 rook pawn endings, I discovered each king has exactly one critical square, as pictured below. 


Armed with this knowledge, I developed a rapid technique for evaluating rook pawn positions, which I'm sharing here for the first time.

  1. Count how many moves the white king is from its critical square
  2. Count how many moves the black king is from its critical square
  3. If White is closer, White wins.
  4. If Black is closer, it's a draw.
  5. If they're both the same distance, whomever has the move gets the better result.
 De Jongh - Krevinko, Motor City 1985

Let's apply this to the first position we looked at. White is three moves from his critical square. Black is also three moves from his critical square. Therefore, White to move wins, Black to move draws. Here De Jongh played the blunder 59.a4??. Clearly, White should have moved his king towards its critical square. 59.Kc5, 59.Kb5, or 59.Ka5 would have accomplished that and won. 

When you're ready, try your hand at the puzzles below to test your knowledge.

Enjoy, and see you next week!



Endgame Puzzles



 Below: White to move--win or draw? Visualize the answer before you move any pieces.


 Below: Black to move--win or draw? Visualize the answer before you move any pieces.

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I love endings and helping others learn to play. I placed 5th in my section at the World Open, won a recent U1600 with a perfect score, and aim to one day be a chess master. :)