Beginners are not the only ones who need to brush up on the endgame. Many a titled player has blundered in the endgame.
Jose Raul Capablanca once said, “To improve at chess, you must, in the first instance, study the endgame.” Despite the study of the endgame in chess being crucial to improving our chess, it remains a neglected part of the game by many.
Thus, chess endgames one area where your investment of time and effort will produce significant dividends. By investing a little time studying the endgame in chess, you can gain an edge over your opponent.
However, studying endgames will help you improve other areas of your chess. By studying endgames, you will learn how to get the most from your pieces in the middlegame.
Because they are so common, king and pawn endgames make a great starting point for studying endgames.
Another advantage to starting with pawn endgames is that they are not very complicated, which makes the pawn endgame in chess an excellent starting point for beginners to improve their endgame play.
The Importance of Knowing Your Endgame Theory
Here is one example to show you that even the world’s best chess players get it wrong in the endgame, even in endgames that are called theoretical endgames.
Theoretical endgames are endgames where the result is already known. For example, if White has a dark-squared bishop and a passed a-pawn and the black king is on a8, it is a draw.
The bishop must be on the same color as the promotion square to promote a rook pawn. Otherwise, the opponent’s king will occupy the promotion square. If you know this theoretical endgame in chess, you will do your best to avoid reaching this position with white earlier in the game.
In this game, faced with losing a minor piece, GM Shankland resigned, yet even after losing the piece, he could have drawn the game simply by occupying the c8-square with his king.
The b7 pawn cannot get attacked by the bishop, and with the black king on c8, the white king cannot get close enough to capture the pawn.
Giri and Shankland were rated over 2700 when the game was played in the 2019 Tata Steel Masters tournament.
Anish Giri - Samuel Shankland, 2019.01.25, 0-1, Tata Steel Masters Round 11, Wijk aan Zee NED
The Endgame in Chess: Understanding the Opposition
In an endgame in chess, when two kings face each other, the term to describe it is “the opposition.” When you have the opposition, you are forcing your opponent’s king to back off.
The most common form of opposition is when the kings face each other with one square between them. Combined with the concept of crucial squares, having the opposition can mean winning or holding on for a draw.
A player is said to have the opposition if it is not his turn to move! The position above clearly demonstrates how strong opposition is in an endgame in chess.
If it is White’s turn to move, it is a draw, but if it is Black’s turn to move, then White is winning.
People tend to shy away from endgames because it requires a high level of precise play. Beginners can learn to play precisely by learning concepts like the opposition to guide them.
In the endgame in chess, the opposition is essential, even with kings far from each other. In these positions, it is called distant opposition. All that is required is an odd number of squares between the kings for the side who is not to move to have distant opposition.
White to move wins by pushing the pawn since the black king is too far away to stop the pawn from advancing. However, the game is a draw if it is Black to move.
Black can keep an odd number of squares between the kings with 1…Kb8 (5 squares) 2.Kc3 Kc7 (3 squares) 3.Kd4 Kd6 (1 square).
There is nothing White can do to prevent Black from getting the opposition and drawing the game. Of course, Black will have to demonstrate proper technique to draw, but this is not difficult if you understand the concept of opposition.
Crucial or Key Squares and the Opposition
The opposition becomes easier to understand when combined with the key squares of a passed pawn. Key squares are the squares two rows ahead of the pawn and to either side.
Think of a knight jump to the left and right of a passed pawn, including the square in the middle.
The crucial squares of the g3 pawn are f5, g5, and h5. In order to promote the pawn, White needs to place the king on one of these squares. Black will attempt to keep the white king from these squares by placing the king on f6, g6, or h6.
In order to save the draw, Black must keep the white king of these squares while having the opposition.
Both sides have brought their king towards the pawn. When attempting to promote a passed pawn in a king and pawn endgame in chess, the king needs to get ahead of the pawn.
Because it is White’s turn to move, the game is a draw since Black will simply move the king to keep White’s king from the key squares. For example, 1.Kf4 Kf6 2.Kg4 Kg6 3.Kh4 Kh6 4.Kg4 Kg6.
An important rule is to remember when a pawn enters the opponent’s half of the board. That is when a white pawn reaches the fifth rank, and a black pawn makes it to the fourth rank.
The crucial squares for a pawn that has crossed halfway are the usual key squares and the three squares directly in front of the pawn.
If it is White’s turn, Kf6 or Kg6 win, but 1.Kf6 gives your opponent a chance for a swindle with 1…Kh7. Be careful because after 2.Kf7 Kh8 3.g6 it is stalemate.
The correct winning sequence is 1.Kf6 Kh7 2.Kf7 Kh8 3.Kg6! Kg8 4.Kh6 Kh8 5.g6 Kg8 6.g7 Kf7 7.Kh7 and the pawn promotes.
Notice that when Black moved the king to f8, White gained control of the queening square by moving in the opposite direction to Black’s king! After 1.Kg6, if Black played 1…Kh8, instead of 1…Kf8, then White plays 2.Kf7 and the pawn is unstoppable.
Look at how Black manages to defend if it is Black’s turn to move in the same position.
There are three things to remember that make this defense a success:
- When the white king was not within reach of the crucial squares, the black king stayed in front of the pawn.
- Black met 6.Kf6 with 6…Kf8 and 9.Kh6 with 9…Kh8 – keeping the opposition.
- If you are defending against a passed pawn, you want the pawn to reach the seventh rank with a check!
Now you know how to promote or defend against pawns in the “b” to “g” files in the king and pawn endgame in chess.
Rook Pawns Are the Exception in Endgames in Chess
Rook pawns are much easier to defend against because there are only two crucial squares no matter where the rook pawn is on the file! It does not matter if the white pawn is on a2, a5, or a6.
The crucial squares for the a-pawn are b7 and b8, and for the h-pawn, g7 and g8. These squares allow a king that occupies them to control the queening square.
When the defending king reaches these squares, it can occupy the promotion square.
The attacking king can prevent the defender from blocking the promotion if it occupies one of these crucial squares.
Well aware that his king could occupy the crucial squares, Maxime Vachier Lagrave was not worried about losing his h-pawn. He knew his game against Hikaru Nakamura would end in a draw.
This time the 2700 chess grandmaster knew the theoretical endgame in chess. Theoretical endgames in chess can save you time, especially when playing an eighty-two-move blitz game.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave - Hikaru Nakamura, 2018.06.24, ½-½, Grand Chess Tour Paris (Blitz) Round 13, Paris FRA
Learning to determine the critical squares can mean the difference between getting half a point for the draw or no points for a loss. They can help you capitalize on your previous hard work by promoting your pawn and winning the game.
Of course, mistakes happen, and if a 2700 Elo-rated player can get it wrong, so can your opponents. When you are a pawn up, even if you know your opponent can earn the draw, keep playing until you reach a stalemate position.
Breaking down your endgame training into smaller chunks will prevent it from overwhelming you. A chess engine makes a great endgame training partner.
You can practice defending against the engine and learning how to promote your pawn.
In the endgame, it is essential not to rush and to play with precision. Playing a pawn endgame in chess will allow you to practice both.