Rook vs Pawn Endgames: 8 Must-Know Concepts
GM Gabuzyan shares the 8 most important concepts of Rook vs pawn endgames such as shouldering, outflanking, anchoring!
GM Gabuzyan shares the 8 most important concepts of Rook vs pawn endgames such as shouldering, outflanking, anchoring!
Out of all chess endgames, which is the most frustrating one for you?
If you’re like most chess players, you’d probably say “Rook endgames!”
Really. They happen to be the most complicated ones, but also the most important too. And they occur the most out of all of them.
So, it’s very important to learn Rook Endgames. Or, at least the must-know theoretical positions and the main ideas.
So from where should you start?
Right, we need to start from the foundation.
And if you’ve tried learning Rook Endgames, but they’re still very confusing for you, you might have started from the wrong place.
There are many books and courses about Rook Endgames.
But any experienced coach will start by teaching you from the foundation.
In our case, it’s Rook vs Pawn endgames!
Often while playing Rook endgames, you and your opponent will have passed pawns on separate sides of the board.
You’ll push your pawn, they’ll push theirs.
At some point, one of you will need to give up the Rook for the pawn and then push the passed pawn.
And if you don’t know any concepts about Rook vs pawn endgames it’ll be very tough to evaluate and calculate variations during the game, having limited time.
Consider the following position:
White’s a pawn up, they have the a7 pawn which will soon be promoted and win Black’s Rook.
Meanwhile Black will try to grab White’s pawns on the kingside and push their own.
Now if you played with the White pieces, what would you play?
1.Kb8 with a8Q? Give up both of the pawns – g3 and h4, and try as fast as possible to bring back your King? Okay, something you’ll need to calculate precisely.
Or will you play 1.Rg7 with the idea that after 1...Kg3 2.Rg6 Kh4 3.Kb7 you will then try to promote?
Well, in the 2nd case, you grabbed a pawn but lost time.
While in the first case, the opponent will have 2 pawns, but you won time.
So, which one should you choose?
If it’s a training position and you have unlimited time, you might sit comfortably in your chair, move the pieces and try to understand what’s happening.
But, you won’t have the luxury to move pieces over the board.
All of these decisions will need to be made in your head before you make a move. Eeek.
You’ll have to calculate and evaluate each position.
It can be time-consuming and sometimes you might not find the best continuation.
That’s why you need to know some important concepts in the Rook vs pawn battle. This way you will:
• Improve your intuition and save time by calculating the right variations, based on the concepts.
• Know which endings are winning and which aren’t.
• Make better decisions in Rook endgames
Otherwise, you’ll always struggle in Rook endgames.
Now that you know that Rook vs pawn endgames are the foundation of understanding Rook endgames, let’s look at some important concepts you need to know in Rook vs pawn endgames.
Rook vs pawn sounds like a situation where the side with the pawn is playing for a draw, doesn’t it? Not at all!
Sometimes there are situations when the side with a pawn is playing for a win.
Let’s see how it works, in the position below it’s White to move:
White’s King is in check. But if we manage to find a square with the King which will not allow Black’s Rook to give further checks and prevents it from stopping the pawn then White will win.
If we go to the 7th rank 1.Kc7 then 1...Re7 will pin the pawn. Black will give away the Rook and make a draw.
If White plays 1.Kd5 then Black will go to the first rank to 1...Re1 followed by Rd1 and again will stop the pawn.
For this reason, White should play 1.Kc5 Re5+ 2.Kc4 Re4+ 3.Kc3 Re3+ 4.Kd2!
Let’s take a look at what happened now:
The White King came to the magical square. Now, Rd3 is not possible, and the Rook cannot go to a lower rank as the King controls all the squares.
The pawn will be promoted and White will win.
Let’s now see a position arising from a beautiful study:
The last move of White was King to c2. You may say, isn't it the same example as the previous one, but with the pawn shifted one file to the left?
Yes! But, there’s a difference.
Now, what would you do if Black plays 1...Rd4?
Will you play 2.c8Q? Then, after 2...Rc4+ you will have to sign the scoresheet with a draw due to stalemate.
Perhaps you’re thinking “oh it’s a draw” after the move Rd4. Not at all!
There’s a winning plan for White. Can you find it?
White promotes 2.c8R!!
Now the threat is Ra8 with checkmate.
After 2...Ra4 which prevents a checkmate White plays another brilliant move 3.Kb3!!
Now the Rook on a4 is hanging and there’s the threat of checkmate with Rc1. Black can’t face both of them and White wins!
There are many situations when we try to stop passed pawns with our Rook and King in order to win. Let’s take a look at a few of them and try to figure out the main differences.
As is almost always the case in chess, a pawn on the edge of the board is treated differently. And on this occasion, it’s not favorable for the defending side.
To win this position White needs to push the Black King to the first rank and try to checkmate them.
1.Rh3+ Kb2 2.Kb4 a2 3.Rh2+ Kb1 4.Kb3
Now the threat is Rh1 checkmate so promoting the pawn into a Queen doesn’t work.
The only option left is 4...a1N+
But, after 5.Kc3 the Black Knight doesn’t have any moves, so Black either loses it or gets checkmated from the h1 square.
What do you think, will there be a difference if the pawn is on the b-file?
Again Black can’t promote a Queen since there’s the checkmate threat of Rh1.
So instead, Black has to play 1...b1N 2.Kd3
And you may ask, what’s the difference? Well, now there’s a square on a3 for the Knight since the pawn isn’t at the edge.
Even with the King on the first rank, this position is drawish as the Rook isn’t able to beat the Knight.
Let’s see another position where White is in danger of making a draw against a pawn.
What would you play as White? How can you take the pawn and win this endgame?
If you decide to go through the h-file, you’ve made a big blunder as after 1.Rh2 Ka1 with the threat to promote on b1, 2.Rb2 is a stalemate!
For this reason, White should instead play:
1.Ra8+ Kb1 2.Rb8 Ka1 3.Kc2! (note that 3.Rxb2 is again a stalemate)
White comfortably takes the pawn and wins the game.
Be aware that with a c-pawn instead of a b-pawn, these kinds of stalemate ideas aren’t available since there will be an extra square available on the a-file.
Let’s go ahead and learn some very important concepts which are essential for you to know.
Shouldering is a commonly used defensive technique in Rook vs pawn endgames. The idea is that the King of the defensive side ‘shoulders’ its counterpart to protect the advance of the passed pawn. Once you see an example, you’ll understand this much clearer.
In the Rook vs pawn endgame position below, it’s White to move. As the pawn is still on c5 we still have a long while before we can promote it. What would you play?
If you try to push the pawn 1.c6 Kf5 2.Kd5 Rd8+
(if 2.c7 it will be lost after 2...Rc8)
Black gets access to the e6 square with their King and is in time to stop the pawn.
If White tries 1.Kd5 Kf5 2.c6 it transposes to the position we’ve just seen.
But, there is a way to survive. White begins with 1.Ke5!
The idea is very simple. While advancing, White restricts the Black King from joining the game. This is shouldering!
And if Black plays 1...Re8+ 2.Kd6 Kf5 3.c6
White has an extra tempo compared to the previous example which allows them to make a draw. Very often this trick saves half a point and proves a powerful tool in endgames!
Let's go ahead and learn a few ideas for the side with the Rook.
The technique of outflanking in Rook vs pawn endgames is used by the side with the Rook. Its main goal is to attack and stop the passed pawn by bringing the King over from the other side.
In the position below it’s White to move. How will you try to win?
If you play in a logical way with:
1.Ke6 f4 2.Ra4+ Ke3 3.Ke5 f3 4.Ra3+ Ke2 5.Ke4 f2 6. Ra2+ Ke1 7.Ke3
We get the same drawish situation after promoting to a Knight as we have seen previously.
But instead of just accepting this reality we can be smarter and begin with 1.Kf6!!
The White King goes from the other side and outflanks the Black pawn!
1...f4 2.Kg5 f3 3.Kg4 f2 4.Rf5 Ke3 5.Kg3
White stops the pawn and wins the game!
I guess this was probably new to you, wasn’t it?
Let’s go to the next part and see another exciting idea.
Anchoring is an endgame concept whereby you gain a tempo by forcing the King of the inferior side into a passive position.
In the position below the King is too misplaced to try to outflank.
But if we just try to bring our King closer...
1.Ke3 b3 2.Rc8+ Kd1!! (if 2...Kb1 White will be on time to win with 3.Kd2)
With this move, Black shoulders the White King. As the next move is b2 there’s not much to do for White other than to accept the draw.
However, at the starting position White could instead play:
1.Rc8+ Kd3 2.Rb8
You may ask what’s the trick?
The thing is that after 2...Kc3 3.Ke3 b3 4.Rc8+
White is winning a tempo!
Black’s King is no longer on c2 and the life-saving move Kd1 in order to shoulder is no longer possible. Black has to go to the b-file and after the White King goes to d2, it’s in time to stop the pawn and win the game.
Now imagine that once upon a time outflanking and anchoring met because in the next part I’ll introduce you to their baby
The position below is very interesting. White has a unique option to win this game. As you already know the title of this section, can you find it?
Simply trying to outflank will not work this time – it’s too slow!
But anchoring can help (as you know it wins a tempo).
White plays 1.Rd2+ Ke4
(if the King goes to the c-file it will be slowing down the pawn and the White King will easily join the game so it doesn’t work)
2...Kd5 3.Kd7 c5 4.Kc7 c4 5.Kb6 Kd4 6.Kb5 c3 7.Kb4
Now let’s look at positions where the side with a Rook tries to make a draw, but against 2 pawns!
In the position below it’s White to move. What’s your evaluation?
Ok, let’s see!
The idea is to play King to f7 and just promote the pawn. If Black just waits for it and plays a move with the King, Kf7 is winning because of g8 promotion.
So Black has to play 1...Rb8!
The idea is as simple as it is strong. Black just prevents Kf7 as the pawn on b7 is hanging with a check! And if White tries to go 2.Kd6 threatening Kc7, Black goes to the other side of the board!
Let’s now shift the pawn on g7 to the f-file and see if there’s a difference.
What do you think, in the position below is it still drawish for Black?
In reality, it doesn’t matter whose move it is.
Assuming it’s White’s turn after 1.Kd6 do you see any defense?
Black doesn’t have any! If the Rook goes to f8, White will go to e7, and if to b8 then to c7 winning the game!
So if pawns are this close to each other it’s already winning.
As we can see in the position below, a lonely Rook can’t stop 2 connected pawns supported by the King:
No matter what, Black will just play e2 and d2 promoting the pawns.
However, the situation changes if the White King is already nearby!
Now, if Black pushes the d-pawn then White gets a square on e2 for their King. With the King in front of the pawns, it will be easily winning.
If we make things a little more complex, what do you think about the position below? Is it winning if it’s Black to move?
If you remember the idea from the earlier section, you might be tempted to play 1...f3 2.Rxg3 f2
And now after being checked, the Black King will go to the 7th rank and the promotion of the pawn will be unstoppable.
However, the problem with this idea is that after 1...f3 White isn’t forced to take and can play a much stronger move!
Now if the Black King goes to e3, we can just take the g3 pawn and pin the other one.
Or if White goes to the 5th rank we again take and Rf3 is the next move so it’s drawish again.
But does this mean that the position at the beginning is drawish.
Not at all!
Since the White King is too far, Black has enough time to go with the king to g2 and push the f-pawn, with this idea eventually winning Black the game!
We’ve seen several ideas about Rook vs pawn endgames which will form the foundation on top of which you can build your knowledge of Rook endgames. If you want to see more, you can find them in our course Rook vs Pawn.
There I’ve covered these topics in more depth along with other examples and key concepts you need to know.
P.P.S. Also, you may find it useful to read GM Avetik's article on Endgame Roadmap where you'll discover 9 key chess endgame strategies that'll help play this final phase of the game!
Originally published Jul 13, 2021