Enigmatic Chess Tactic: The Lifeline

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  • GM Johan Hellsten GM Johan Hellsten

Enigmatic Chess Tactic: The Lifeline

Find out how to defend against multiple threats in 1 move using the lifeline tactic. GM Johan Hellsten shows 16 examples on this chess tactic.

Tactics | 6 min read
Enigmatic Chess Tactic: The Lifeline

Chess tactics are full of different ideas and methods. We all know about forks in chess and pins in chess, discovered checks, and so on. But there are other, lesser-known ideas, which nevertheless hold great importance in practice.

One tactical idea which has always caught my eye is when you offer the exchange of one of your pieces for an undefended enemy piece, to escape from an adverse situation.

In his great book "Pump up your Rating", Swedish GM Axel Smith examined this tactic and dubbed it "the lifeline" – a name I believe to be very fitting!

In this article, I’ll show you some examples of successful lifelines which helped to save or even win the games in question.

Let's start with a simple one, which will give you a concrete idea about how this method works:

16 examples of the lifeline tactic in action

Example Position

As you can see, Black's Queen is attacking the Rook on b1 and the Knight on f3 at the same time. How can we save both of them?


The lifeline! We offer the exchange of Rooks to indirectly protect the Knight.

1.Rb3? trying to give back material, fails to 1...Rd1+ 2.Kg2 Qh3 mate.


Of course 1...Qxf3? would run into 2.Rxd8+. That’s why it’s so important for us that the Rook on d8 is undefended!

2.Qxd1 Qxb5 3.Nd4

White is playing for a win.

Reinoso D.-Quishpe M., Riobamba 2013

Reinoso D.-Quishpe M.

Knowledge of the lifeline would have saved White here. How can they deal with the pin along the a1-h8 diagonal?


The game continued 25.Bd2? Rxd2! 26.Rxd2 Bxc3 and White resigned.

25...Rxd8 26.Rd1!

Contrary to the previous example, here the Rook on d8 is defended, but the lifeline works fine anyway! 26...Bxc3?? would now run into 26.Rxd8, while 26...Rxd1 27.Nxd1 leads to an equal endgame.

Mamedyarov S. - Carlsen M., Qatar Masters 2015

Mamedyarov S. - Carlsen M.

Black is up material, but the Rook on d6 is hanging, and the natural 25...R6d7? would allow 26.Rxd5! Rxd5 27.Ne7+ getting back the material. However, the World Champion found a much stronger move.


Another indirect lifeline! The Rook on c1 is not really undefended at this moment, but it would be after the planned 26.Rxd5? Rxc1+. No better is 26.Rxc6 bxc6, so Mamedyarov resigned.

The previous examples featured the Rook as the object for the lifeline. In the following ones, we will see the Queen in this role:

Example Position

The pinned Bishop on d4 seems to be doomed, for example, 1...c5? 2.e3. Time to look for a lifeline!

1...Qd5+! 2.Kg1 Qc5!

Unpinning the Bishop with tempo, thanks to the Queen on c2 being undefended. Black is OK, for example, 3.Qxc5 Bxc5 with an equal endgame.

Lema A. - Silva F., Riobamba 2014

Lema A. - Silva F., Riobamba

White seems to be in deep trouble, but if we look carefully we can see that the enemy Queen on c5 is undefended. Let’s exploit this fact!

22.Qd4! Qc7

After 22...Qxd4 23.Ncxd4 White has everything defended. The game instead went 22...Nxf3+ 23.Bxf3 with a slight edge for White, since the Bishop on f3 obviously can't be taken.


White defends.

Ajitimbay C. - Vallejo A., Riobamba 2014

Ajitimbay C. - Vallejo A.

The double threat of 26.Bxa8 and 26.f4 seems hard to meet, but there’s a narrow escape. Can you spot it?


The lifeline. Instead, the game went 25...Rab8? 26.f4 c4+ 27.Kh2 and White went on to win.


After 26.Qxa5 Rxa5 both White's threats are gone, and 26.Qb2 Rab8! isn't productive either.

26...Rab8 27.f4 Nd7

Black is fine.

Stevic H. -  Plenca J., Croatian Ch. 2020

Stevic H. -  Plenca J.

White launched a winning combination, partly relying on a lifeline.

21.Qf5! g6 22.Qf6

Installing the lethal threat of 23.Nh5, which can only be prevented in one way.


In effect, other moves such as 22...Qb4 run into 23.Nh5 gxh5 24.Rg3 mate.


This lifeline nets a whole piece.

23...Qxf6 24.Rxf6

White soon won.

De Jong J. - Bartel M., ECC Open 2019

De Jong J. - Bartel M.

Black has just unfolded the nasty 11...Nb4! Things look bad, but White can avoid material losses, by using a lifeline.


Of course not 12.cxb4?? Bc2, while 12.Nf1? Nc2 was what happened in the game.


After 12...Nc2?! 13.Rb1 Black is the one who is in trouble.

13.Qe1 Nd3

De Jong must have thought that this meant losing the exchange, however...

14.Bxd3 Bxd3 15.Qe5!

The lifeline.

15...Qxe5 16.dxe5 Nd7

16...Bxf1? obviously fails to 17.exf6.


White is definitely missing his light-squared Bishop here, but worse positions have been saved in chess history!

Buksa N. - Studer N., Gibraltar Masters 2020

Buksa N. - Studer N.

White's cavalry seems to be in some trouble here, however...


The lifeline does the trick again.


Black should have preferred 21...Qh6 22.Nf5 Qe6 with a repetition of moves. You might be surprised to find out that this position has been on the board more than 60 times in practice!

22.Qxe6 Nxe6 23.Ng4

White later converted her extra pawn into victory.

Urkedal F. - Pantzar M., Offerspill International 2020

Urkedal F. - Pantzar M

White has played in the spirit of the tournament's name (Offerspill = sacrificial play) and it appears that he will soon get back the material. But a closer look reveals that the Queen on

c5 is undefended, thus subject to a lifeline...

23...Qa7! 24.Rac1

No better is 24.Qxa7 Nxa7.

24...Bb6! 25.Qc4 Ne7 26.Qxb4 Nf5 27.Nxf5 Bxf2+ 28.Kg2 Bxf5

Black had a crushing advantage and went on to win.

Rapport R. - Yu Y., Hainan Danzhou 2020

Rapport R. - Yu Y.

Also, the Bishop can be the object of the lifeline. Here Black could have kept the balance by exploiting their opponent's undefended Bishop on a2.


The game saw 26...Qf5?! 27.Qxf5 gxf5 28.h3 and Rapport later converted his positional assets into a win.


After 27.Bxd5 Qxd5 the Knight on e5 is untouchable due to the back rank mate!


Black is just able to hold it, e.g. 28.Ne4 Qe6 29.Qd4 f5! 30.Nf6+ Kf7 again exploiting the back rank motif.

Even in the endgame, lifelines sometimes show up. Here is one example:

Ramirez Alej - Svetushkin D., Paleochora op 2019

Ramirez Alej - Svetushkin D.


A typical breakthrough to create a distant passed pawn.

43...bxc5 44.Bxa5 Ne7

After 44...Bxh4 45.Bb6 the a-pawn costs Black at least a piece. But now, what should be done about the d5-pawn?


The lifeline!

45...Bxc7 46.Nxc7 Kg6 47.a5!

The two advanced passed pawns is one too much for Black.

47...Kf6 48.a6 Nc8 49.d6! Nb6 50.a7

In view of 50...Kf7 51.d7 Ke7 52.Nd5+! Nxd5 53.a8Q, Black resigned.

Svidler P. - Anand V., Morelia/Linares 2007

Svidler P. - Anand V.

White is a clean pawn up, however, Svidler forgot about one small detail...


After 32.Rc5! Bd3 33.Rb7 White would have excellent winning chances.

32...Rxc6! 33.Nd4 Rb6!

The lifeline! Black can thank his stars that the Rook on b1 is undefended!


No better is 34.Rxb6 cxb6 attacking the other Rook.


Black is fine, and the game was later drawn.

Lifelines sometimes turn up in the opening as well. Here’s one example from the French Defense:

Handke F. - Gonzalez R., Capablanca Memorial 2003

Handke F. - Gonzalez R.

What should Black do about their Knight on b4?


Nothing! Thanks to the enemy Bishop on e2 being undefended, Black takes the opportunity to swap their “bad” Bishop. Instead 13...Nc6?! 14.Be3 followed by Rac1 would have favored White.

14.Kf1 Bxe2+ 15.Kxe2 Nc6 16.Bd2 Rc8

It’s now White who’s sitting with the "bad" Bishop. Black went on to win.

Here’s a typical example from Reti’s Opening:

Pantsulaia L. - Haldorsen B., Pro League 2018

Pantsulaia L. - Haldorsen B.

The last move Black played 11...b5?

Correct was 11...Nb6. Black must have missed the upcoming lifeline.

12.dxe5 dxe5 13.Qd6!

A devastating move!

Much less was achieved by 13.Nd6 Re6 14.Nxc8 Rxc8 15.Bh3 Ree8.

13...Qxd6 14.Nxd6 Re6 15.Nxc8 Rxc8 16.a4

Softening up the enemy queenside. The immediate 16.Bh3 was also strong.

16...b4 17.Bh3 Re7 18.Rad1 Rc7 19.Nd2

Preparing Nc4, with a huge positional advantage. Those Bishops cut like knives!

And here is an early case from Trompovsky’s opening.

Yakubboev N. - Sindarov J., Uzbekistan Ch. 2021

Yakubboev N. - Sindarov J.

The position in diagram occurred after 1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 c5 3.d5 Ne4 4.Bf4 e6 5.f3. Where should the Knight go?


Nowhere! Thanks to this lifeline, Black accelerates their development and eliminates their opponent's "good" Bishop, since 6.Bc1?? Qh4+ is not advisable for White.

6.Bxd6 Nxd6 7.Nc3 b5 8.e4 b4 9.Na4 Qc7

A complex battle lies ahead.

Bonus Lesson

I hope you enjoyed these lifelines, and that you can soon use this knowledge in your games! Good luck!

P.S. Have you seen this pattern in your games before? Share your thoughts about the article in our forum.
P.P.S. Also, check out our course Tactic Ninja. This chess tactics course will teach you all the most important tactical patterns, give you the framework to notice tactics in a real game and so much more in a clear, structured form.

Originally published Jun 22, 2021

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