In order to become a good endgame player in chess, you need both knowledge of essential endgame guidelines and precise calculation skills. The slightest inaccuracy can be the difference between a win and a draw. A single tempo can make a significant difference in the endgame.
Jose Raul Capablanca, the fifth World Chess Champion, declared that despite endgames involving a single rook and pawns being the most common, few chess players have mastered them thoroughly. Never mind thoroughly, how many chess players have even the most basic knowledge of rook endgames?
A surprising number of chess players know opening theory to the extent they can play the first fifteen or twenty moves in minutes but do not know the Lucena or Philidor endgame positions. Ask them about the Philidor position, and you are more likely to end up discussing the Philidor Defense opening.
There is no doubt rook endgames require a lot of study, but as your understanding of them grows so does your understanding of chess. Striking a balance between practical and theoretical endings is crucial. Here is a video of such an endgame presented by GM Bryan Smith, from his excellent Endgame Renaissance course:
Reaching the Endgame Safely in Chess
Siegbert Tarrasch once said, “Before the endgame, the gods have placed the middlegame.” Until you reach the endgame, all the valuable endgame knowledge you have acquired cannot be applied.
There is a transition from the opening to the middlegame and from the middlegame to the endgame. Mastering these transitions is not as easy as it sounds, but it will serve you well in chess.
Even the strongest players have transitioned to an endgame and found themselves regretting this decision. Peter Svidler misjudged the position when he chose to transition to the endgame against Magnus Carlsen.
Magnus Carlsen (2801) – Peter Svidler (2754) 2009.11.17, 1-0. World Blitz Championship Round 28, Moscow RUS
Transitioning to an endgame in chess is not the end of it because exchanges within the endgame usually transition to another type of endgame. Exchanging minor pieces might leave you in a king and pawn endgame or a rook endgame.
Exchanges cannot get undone, so you must carefully consider them before entering into them. The more endgame knowledge you have in chess, the easier it is to judge if the transition will favor you.
Although it pays to be careful when transitioning, it can work in your favor. You can eliminate your opponent’s counterplay in the middlegame by entering an endgame you know how to win.
Take as much time as you can to carefully evaluate the resulting position.
Extending the Rule of the Square
In a king and pawn ending, calculating if the king can catch the pawn involves creating a square. The size of the square depends on the number of squares the pawn has to cover until it reaches the promotion square.
For example, in a king and pawn endgame, a black pawn on e4 is three squares away from promotion. The square extends from e4-b4-c1-e1, or e4-h4-h1-e1. If the white king can enter the square, it will catch the pawn.
White to play secures the draw with 1.Kb4 e3 2.Kc3 e2 3.Kd2.
Black wins if it is his turn because the square becomes smaller by a rank and a file after 1…e3. Now the square becomes e3-c3-c1-e1.
However, if white has a rook controlling the promotion square, things get more complicated. Then the square gets extended by the number of squares it takes for the black king to control the promotion square.
In this example, the extended square is six – the pawn is on the fourth rank, and the king is two squares from defending e1. Now the square gets extended from e4 to e6 because we must include the two moves of the black king.
This means white can win if it is his move because the king can reach the sixth rank and enter the square.
The game ends in a draw if it is Black’s move. Advancing the pawn or the king reduces the square from the sixth rank to the fifth rank, and white is a tempo behind.
The Exception to the Extended Square Rule
The above holds true if the king entering the square can march forward unopposed. Sometimes the defending side can block the king by bringing their king across in front of the pawn.
In this position, the white king enters the extended square after 1.Kg6, and if black reacts carelessly with 1…Kb3, then white wins. Play might continue 2.Kf5 c3 3.Ke4 c2 4.Kd3, and the king is in time to help win the pawn.
The correct move for black is 1..Kc3! There might follow 2.Kf5 Kd3 when it is crucial for black to keep the white king away and meet 3.Rd1+ with 3…Ke3. Similarly, 3.Rh3+ gets met with 3.Kd4 earning a draw.
Who knew endgames could be so much fun? Although entering an endgame with a pawn versus rook is not recommended, salvaging a draw in such a fashion would be very satisfying.
The other thing to keep in mind is if you can save a game with such a significant material deficit, what other draws might you find in the endgame? When you lose material in the middlegame, resigning might not be your only option.
Bridge Building Is Useful in Rook Endgames in Chess
There are times when your king has supported your pawn to the seventh rank, and your opponent begins checking you with his rook. If your king must defend the pawn, there is no way to escape the checks.
A key element of successful chess is prophylaxis, and it is a vital element of succeeding in endgames as well. Rather than waiting until your pwn is about to promote, you can position your rook in readiness to build a bridge earlier.
The fourth rank is where you want to establish your rook!
The fourth rank is vital because your king can stay in touch with your pwn on the sixth rank and move to the fifth rank, where it protects the rook.
Another crucial consideration to keep in mind is you want to keep your opponent’s king at least two files away from your pawn. This prevents him from reaching your pawn before it can get promoted.
Remember, your king will likely be on the fourth rank after the rook gets exchanged. This is two squares away from your pawn on the seventh rank.
Here is an example of bridge-building during an endgame in chess.
A rook against a pawn is easily won if the side with the material advantage can keep their opponent’s king behind the pawn and stop it from crossing their fourth rank.
Active or Passive Defense in Rook and Pawn Endgames in Chess
When you know how to defend a rook ending a pawn down, you will know if your opponent makes an error. Recognizing these errors, or giving your opponents the chance to make errors, allows you to earn a victory.
The pawns left on the board determine whether you must play with an active defense or if you must save the game with passive defense.
If the remaining pawn is a bishop or central pawn (c to f-pawn), then you must use active defense to hold the position.
Remember to place your king on the shorter side of the board and rook on the longer side, with at least three squares between the king and rook. The three squares between your opponent’s king and your rook stop the king from attacking your rook without leaving the pawn hanging.
Take a look at this position from a game between Burn and Spielman in 1911.
Spielmann played …Re7 in this position, which is a losing move. White wins with Rg8+ …Kd7 (the only move) and Rc8. Fortunately for Spielmann, Burns played Rxc6+ when the game soon ended in a theoretically drawn position.
Amos Burn – Rudolf Spielmann, 1911.02.24, ½ – ½, San Sebastian Round 4, San Sebastian ESP
A knight pawn (b or g-pawn) allows you to use passive defense because your king can control the access squares on the shorter side of the board.
Always test your opponent’s endgame knowledge before offering or accepting a draw.
As long as Black keeps the white king from entering the seventh rank with Ka7, the game is a draw. However, if you are white and thinking of offering a draw first, deliver a check with the rook.
Many players will hesitate to play the king into the corner with the rook, king, and pawn so close. After Rb7+, Kc8 loses after Ka7, and offer a draw if your opponent plays …Ka8!
Rabinovich and Salwe agreed to a draw in this position. Rabinovich could have tried Rg7+ first to see if Salwe knew to play …Kh8.
The only other legal move …Kf8 loses to Kh7!
Abram Isaakovich Rabinovich – Georg Salwe, 1911.09.01, ½ – ½, Karlsbad Round 9, Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) AUH
Rook endgames are fascinating and well worth the time you spend studying them. Be warned that rook endings might prove humbling at the start of your studies as you discover how little you know.
There is a lot to learn about rook and other endgames. Mastery of the endgame will not happen overnight.
If you need extra motivation, it helps to keep in mind that your endgame knowledge can help save games and convert draws into wins. Endgames teach us how to get the most out of our pieces, which can only benefit our middlegame play.
We are taught there are three phases of the game in chess, but mastery of the two transition phases is essential. GM Bryan Smith has coached many players and brings all this experience into his course on transitioning to the endgame.
He will also provide you with the necessary understanding to play the different endgames once you reach them. This excellent course will deepen your knowledge of this critical phase of the game.