By the author of the book Beat That Kid in Chess: Jonathan Whitcomb
I’m a chess tutor in living in Murray, Utah, and am active in the chess club of the Harman Senior Recreation Center in West Valley City. Recently I played an endgame there against one of the stronger players in the club. If you play at a beginner or intermediate level (or even higher), you might find the following an instructive chess lesson.
Diagram-1: White has a number of acceptable moves here
I was playing against Dennis, one of the stronger players in our chess club. After only twenty-one moves, we found ourselves in a rook-and-pawn end game, and I was a pawn ahead.
Being one pawn ahead in an end game, when handled properly, can lead to a win, but rook-and-pawn endings can be difficult. In fact, some of these end games allow the defender to draw even when a pawn behind. I knew I needed to play patiently and precisely against Dennis, to have any reasonable hope of winning this game.
One of my first thoughts was this: I wanted to prevent my opponent’s rooks from becoming active, especially I wanted to keep them off my first and second ranks. My rook in the middle of the board, on the e5 square, already controls the e-file. The only way Black’s rooks might infiltrate my position appears to be through the d-file, so I moved my other rook to d1:
22) Rd1 Raf8
Diagram-2: Black just moved over his rook from the upper-left corner
White now controls both the d-file and the e-file, but Black has doubled his rooks and threatens to win White’s pawn on f2. I could have protected my pawn with one of my rooks but I saw that moving that pawn to f3 would be more efficient and allow my king to soon get closer to the center of the board.
23) f3 g6
24) Kf2 Kg7
Diagram-3: Both kings begin to approach the center of the board
I was not surprised that my opponent was playing well, bringing his king closer to the center like I was. In his younger years, Dennis was rated at almost 2000 by the United States Chess Federation, and he has a lot of experience and understanding of chess.
My next objective was to exchange one pair of rooks. With all four rooks on the board, it could be difficult to always prevent both of my opponent’s rooks from becoming activated and aggressive, for the pawn structure would surely become more open before I would be able to advance a potential passed pawn very far.
25) Red5 Re7
Diagram-4: White to move will cause a pair of rooks to be exchanged
26) Rd7 . . . .
This forces a capture of one pair of rooks but it does not force Black to begin that exchange on his move. In fact, it would have been a serious mistake for my opponent to capture first, for that would have led to the exchange of the other pair of rooks, making it much easier for me to win this chess end game.
Diagram-5: Black now has five reasonable options
26) . . . . Rff7
Dennis was wise in getting that rook protected rather than capturing my rook.
27) Rxe7 Rxe7
Diagram-6: How can White make progress in this rook and pawn end game?
I wanted to progress with my kingside majority, which naturally first involves advancing my f-pawn. Yet, with this kind of rook-and-pawn ending, no simplistic advancing of pawns will both create a passed pawn and cause it to reach the final rank to become a queen. Still it appeared to me that this was a good time to begin advancing my f-pawn.
28) f4 Kf6
29) Kf3 . . . .
Diagram-7: Black to move, should he advance a pawn?
Black’s best move here may be to advance his h-pawn two squares: h5. This could eventually open up the h-file, perhaps allowing the black rook to become more active. In general, it’s best to exchange pawns when you are behind in material. Pawn exchanges cannot be completely avoided by White, in this particular end game, but some exchanges might be even better for the defender than other exchanges.
White’s rook and king are perfectly placed for keeping the black rook away, in the above position, but an open h-file would more likely be useful to Black than to White.
Notice that if the black king advances with Kf5, it could immediately be driven back after White’s pawn move g4+.
Diagram-8: Black moved the h-pawn up only one space
29) . . . . h6 (?) Black might have done better with h5 instead of h6.
White should now move g4, preparing for an eventual advance of the f-pawn.
30) h3 (?) a5
31) a4 g5
Diagram-9: White should now move g4
Perhaps my opponent would have done better with h5 instead of g5, but it now becomes obvious that I should have, a little earlier, moved g4 instead of h3. My best move, in the above position, is probably still g4, but I decided to keep my king on f3 a little longer, preventing the black rook from moving to e2. My move (fxg5+) was probably an error.
32) fxg5 hxg5
33) Rd5 Kg6
34) g3 Kf6
Diagram-10: White should now move c5!
Now I had an opportunity to make a breakthrough and get a clearly winning position by moving c5. I missed it, however, making the obvious but inferior move h4.
35) h4 gxh4
36) gxh4 . . . .
Diagram-11: Black has an opportunity to activate his rook: Re1
It seems that my opponent now had an opportunity for drawing chances by moving Re1. He instead chose to attack and block my h-pawn. (A deep computer-chess-engine analysis gives Black’s best move in the above position: Rf7. Yet few chess players would have found that move over the board; even experts and masters can miss such a subtle move.)
36) . . . . Rh7
37) Kg4 Rg7+
38) Kf4 . . . .
Diagram-12: Black’s best chance for a draw is now Rg1 or Rg2
The defender in this rook and pawn end game has a limit on how long he can play passively. Now is probably the best time to get his rook activated behind enemy lines, for if he passively blocks White’s h-pawn, another opportunity for a harassing defense may not come up until it’s obviously too late.
38) . . . . Rh7
39) h5 Rg7
Diagram-13: White has three good moves here; what would you choose?
According to the chess engine Stockfish, White has three moves that are about equally good. Yet chess engines are not always at their best in these kind of end games. The best chess players often look for the best plan before looking for the best move. Chess computer programs, on the other hand, generally do nothing like thinking; they calculate. Of course calculating is often critically important in playing chess, yet some endgames have too many possible moves for computers, when the calculations require very deep analysis in the number of moves looking ahead. A little human wisdom can add wonders to good chess calculations in an end game.
One of the three moves top moves chosen by Stockfish, however, also looks good after human pondering of the above position. In fact, I chose c5 in my game against my friend Dennis, in this end game that we played in West Valley City, Utah, on August 24, 2016. The other two moves recognized as good by Stockfish are Rf5+ and h6.
40) c5 Ke6
41) Re5+ . . . .
Diagram-14: Black has three legal choices. What would you choose?
Actually my opponent had two major choices: Move the king to the right or left. Moving the black king toward my h-pawn would make it more difficult for me to promote that pawn, but it leave the two black pawns vulnerable. That is actually the better choice for Black, but my opponent chose to move his king toward his own pawns.
41) . . . . Kd7
42) cxb6 cxb6
Diagram-15: White’s best move here is h6
43) Rb5 . . . . I was too cautious here, thinking this would make it easy to win.
By moving Rb5, I made it impossible for my opponent to have any real counter play. The black king will be tied down to defending the b6 pawn, and my king would aid my h-pawn in its advance towards promotion.
43) . . . . Kc6
44) Kf5 Rd7
45) Re5 Rd3
46) Rb5 . . . . overly timid
46) . . . . Rh3
47) Kg6 and Black resigned
It was not exactly a master performance on either side, but this end game can be instructive, a chess lesson for players who play below expert level.
Jonathan Whitcomb, author of Beat That Kid in Chess, is now offering lessons in the Salt Lake Valley, with no travel charges for him to drive to your location, if you live in the central communities of the SLV. The $25 chess lessons include one free copy of his book and other materials of instruction. A getting-acquainted meeting is also offered and this first meeting is free, with no obligation for the student.
Can a chess book prepare a club player for an end game? It depends on both the book and the game. Basic principles of the end game can be learned from chess books, to be sure, but experience over-the-board and careful pondering of possibilities can count for much.
Last month I looked through the chess library in the Harman Senior Recreation Center, West Valley City, Utah. (The senior-citizen chess club meets on Wednesday afternoons, from 12:30-3:00.) I found 102 chess books, some of them published in recent years.
I’ve enjoyed watching Youtube videos by Derek Grimmell, instructional productions on various aspects of the queen-versus-rook end games of chess. I don’t recall even one of them that would not be of great value to an average (or above average) tournament player who might want to be more proficient in this kind of end game. Be aware that very few chess books teach anything about queen versus rook endings.