Before we go any further, I must bring up something that I have noticed to be a major problem for some amateurs. I call it chess maturity. If you are going to succeed in these positions, you have to have some level of chess maturity, and the first step to chess maturity is recognizing and admitting that you are worse, and that a win is pretty much out of the question. This is regardless of what happened previously. In this case, White had two far superior moves at move 21 that would have been virtually winning for White, and a move at move 23 that would have kept at least a small advantage. This is neither here nor there. We are at White's 34th move, and White is clearly worse. Black has a Bishop and three Pawns for a Rook, and it's not like White has any compensation to show for it. The Knight on e1 is stuck playing a defensive role of g2, and either the Rook on f1 or the Rook on e5 is likely going to have to babysit the Knight for a while to avoid the loss of the piece. In actuality, if perfect play were made by both sides, Black would win this position. Therefore, if you are sitting down at the board playing White here, and the first thing you say is that you think you have winning chances, you need to find a different game. Chess is not for you.
However, we have to keep in mind that while Black is winning with perfect play, humans are not perfect. So what we want to talk about here is how to induce imperfection in the opponent. Sometimes, this might mean playing a riskier move, or sacrificing material to achieve certain patterns on the board. This is where the human element of understanding the endgame is better than that of a computer (outside of tablebases, but those don't exist above 7 pieces and the position we have here is 15 pieces). A computer is going to say that move X leads to a -2.09 position, move Y leads to a -2.31 position, and move Z leads to a -2.54 position, and so therefore, move X must be White's best move. The problem is, move X leads to routine play that is easy for Black while move Y or move Z adds the element of human complication, and so this is why you might find on message boards of sites like chess.com having comments from high rated players stating that computers are not great at openings or endgames, and that their real superiority is middle game play and calculation of deep tactics, which in those two areas, the computer blows away the human brain.
So with all of that said, let's take a look at the position, and see if we can figure out features of the position that White must pay very close attention to. What are some features that White must recognize in order to give Black the greatest challenge? Let's list some of them out here:
- First things first. What is the top priority for White? Stopping and eliminating the c-pawn! Now you might be asking why the c-pawn is any more important than the a-pawn. For starters, the c-pawn is farther advanced than the a-pawn, but there are other factors that will be mentioned in the other bullets. For now, we need to stop the c-pawn.
- While "general concepts" say that the player down material wants to trade pawns and the player up material wants to trade pieces, that is not always true. Typically, the side up material in these types of positions want to have at least one heavy piece on the board, often referred to as "The Conductor" of the attack, and here, Black would like to have the Rook to get behind the passed pawn, or it's second preference if that can't be achieved is to cover the 2nd and 1st ranks to tie White down and aid the c-pawn to promotion. Therefore, in addition to eliminating the c-pawn, another item on White's checklist should be to try to trade off a set of Rooks.
- While the first two bullets are immediate, you have to look long term as well. The first "long term" item that should come to mind is the situation with the opponent's Bishops and Rook Pawns. Black has one Bishop, and both Rook Pawns. A well-known drawing technique is that a wrong color Bishop and Rook Pawn against a King is a draw if the King can get in front of the Pawn. The way to determine if the Bishop is the wrong color is to compare the Bishop with the promotion square of the Pawn. If the color complex that the Bishop occupies and the color square of the promotion square are the same, you have the right color Bishop. If they are different, you have the wrong color Bishop. Looking at the current position, we see that Black has his Light-Squared Bishop. The Rook Pawn that promotes on a dark square is the a-pawn. With Black having three extra pawns compared to White, White doesn't have time to go chasing after all of them, but one thing to keep in the back of your head is that if we succeed in achieving the second bullet, the Rook trade, and we eliminate the Black Knight, then as long as we can block the a-pawn, we don't need to go chasing after it. This is why we go for the c-pawn, and try to defend the 3-on-2 on the Kingside, and not even try to capture the a-pawn. All we want to do is block it for now.
- Another thing to look at is pawn patterns and King routes. Many know that Rook Pawns are the exception to many endgame rules. However, Knight Pawns are also tricky, particularly when talking the topic of blocked pawns. Let's say you put a White Pawn on d4 and a Black Pawn on d5. The White King is on d3, and the Black King is on h8, trapped there so it can't help the d5-Pawn. How can White use the King to get at the d5-Pawn? He can go to his left via d3-c3-b4-c5-d5, or he can go to his right via d3-e3-f4-e5-d5. He has room to go around either side of the pawn. However, let's pretend these pawns are on b4 and b5 with the White King on b3 and the Black King once again blocked off on h8. Now how can White get the pawn? He only has one way! He must go to his right because there is no room on the edge of the board to get around the blocked Knight Pawns. He has to go b3-c3-d4-c5-b5. So keep this in the back of your mind about blocked Knight Pawns.
- Observe for backwards pawns and whether the pawns are on the same or opposite color of the opposing Bishop. Here we see Black having all of his Pawns on the Kingside on light squares, namely f7, g6, and h5. What if we could entice Black to trade h-pawns, and then get our pawn to g5? f6 is a dark square, and so the Bishop can't help in the backward Pawn's advancement. The Knight or the King would have to do that. Now let's say we achieve the g5 vs g6-f7 Pawn structure. The Bishop can't get to g8 or h7, and if the Black Knight is eliminated, and White gets his Knight to f6, it's his to occupy. Black can take for ever to get his King around to the g5-pawn, and since the Bishop can never disrupt the h7-square, when the Black King wraps around, we move the Knight to h7, guarding g5. This is the critical idea of why the Knight Pawn forces the King to wrap all the way around the long way. If these were f-pawns, White could come down the other side to harass the Knight. Here, the Knight has a safety net.
Ok, so what does this all mean we need to do as White. Here's the checklist:
- Eliminate the c-pawn.
- Trade a set of Rooks.
- Entice the trade of h-pawns out of Black.
- Get the g-pawn to g5 to block the Black Pawns despite the 2-on-1.
- Eliminate the Black Knight, even at the cost of the Exchange.
- Get the White King over to the Queenside to block the a-pawn.
- Get the Knight to f6 to put a stranglehold on the Kingside.
Now one thing to keep in mind is that Black gets moves too, and everything that Black does could alter the checklist. That said, in this endgame that we are about to look at, Black walks right into White's plan.
White starts off by attempting to trade the Rooks right off the bat.
Black, of course, correctly declines the trade. Now here is where the mentioning of computer moves not being best in an endgame comes into play. White can try to play the "computer move" of 35.Kh2, but it does nothing to execute White's checklist given above. Instead, White goes for the 3rd move given by the computer, which is evaluated at -2.45 instead of -2.12 (after 35.Kh2).
White takes the opportunity to offer the trade of Rook Pawns while it also attacks the Knight, making by-passing with 35...h4 impossible.
Already Black errors. This is not a blunder, and Black is still technically winning, but he is inching closer to that drawing zone that White is looking to achieve, and is playing right into White's hand. A stronger idea is 35...Nd4, putting the Knight in a better spot. If White plays a benign move like 36.Kh2, then he can trade pawns on g4 and it would then be Black's move as White wasted time with the King move. The other option for White is to take on h5, which Black should continue to ignore. After 36.gxh5 Nf3+! 37.Rxf3 Bxf3 38.hxg6, once again, Black should not take, and play 38...f5! with a completely winning position in the R+B vs R+N endgame. The g-pawn will fall, putting Black up two pawns, and White is not in position to execute the checklist given above. Remember, we said the starting position is winning for Black, and that our plan is a manipulative way to try to reach the draw, not a forced sequence that guarantees success. With correct play from the starting position above, Black should win!
Once again, 36...Nd4 was superior.
The e5-Rook has to guard the Knight, and so the Rook on f2 has to do the job of guarding the g-pawn and going after the c-pawn.
Again, one of our checklist items. Get the King over to the Queenside to stop the Rook Pawn. This can also contribute to the chase down of the c-pawn. At this point, Black is still better, but compared to say, 35...Nd4, his advantage has gone down from almost -3 to about -1.4.
38...Ra2+ 39.Ke3 Bc8 40.g5!?
This move is interesting. From a computer's perspective, and in something like correspondence chess, this move would be outright stupid and White should continue with the suffering after 40.Rc5 Bxg4, but in over the board play, tricks can be pulled. It should also be noted that while there is a 15 second increment per move here, White has under 2 minutes and Black has under 3 minutes, so neither side has time to do a full analysis on the position.
40...Ng4+ 41.Rxg4 Bxg4 42.Kd3
Opportunity Number 2 to put White away.
Once again, Black doesn't completely blow it, but far stronger was 42...c2!, answering 43.Nxc2 with 43...Bf5+ and 43.Rc5 with 43...Ra5!! 44.Rc6 c1=N+!! 45.Rxc1 Rxg5 with a completely winning, 3-Pawn up Rook and Bishop vs Rook and Knight ending. Black should be able to play from here on out in his sleep.
So what have we achieved thus far? We eliminated the c-pawn, we traded h-pawns, we got the desired 2-on-1 pawn structure on the Kingside, we've eliminated the Black Knight, and we've gotten our King in range with the Black a-pawn. Black is still winning here, but there are only two items left on the checklist. Trade the set of Rooks, and get the Knight to the Kingside. Black must stop at least one of these in order to have any shot at winning.
So what's the first thing Black does? Offers the Rook trade! Better is 43...Bf5. That said, this still isn't a draw yet for White. White slips one more trick on Black.
Taking on e2 is not best as the Knight is close to being dominated. White would rather execute the trade on e5, or if Black just sits there, White will trade next move now that his Knight is out.
And Black just complies. Again, last chance to play 44...Ra2 and keep the Rooks on. This is about to be a nightmare position for Black.
The necessary square for the Bishop to keep the White Knight out of d7 and g4, both of which lead to the Knight heading to it's target, f6.
46.Kb2 a4 47.Ka3 Bb3 48.Kb4
White should immediately play 48.Ng4 or 48.Nd7.
48...Kf8 49.Ng4 Ke7 50.Nf6
Mission Accomplished! Just look at what White has pulled off. White is down two Pawns, but yet, he has narrowed down Black's attempts at any type of win down to one thing, which we will see takes Black 41 moves to realize. Observe the position and note the following items:
- White has the desired Wrong Color Bishop and Rook Pawn scenario on the Queenside with the King on a3 that can toggle between a3, b2, and b4 (provided the Black King can't get to b2.
- On the other side, the Knight can't be touched because it's on a dark square against a Light-Squared Bishop, and the King must come all the way around to attack the g-pawn. At that point in time, the White Knight can go to h7, guarding the pawn, and for the King to harass the Knight, he has to come all the way back around via f5-e6-e7-f8-g7, at which point the Knight simply goes back to f6, pretty much at any point during the walk by the Black King as long as g5 is not attacked, so as early as the moment the King goes to e6. The h7-square is totally safe as there is no way for the White Bishop to get behind it's own pawns on f7 and g6.
- White has two ways to toggle, and so Zugzwang is impossible. If the Black King is on the Kingside, harassing the g-pawn, White can toggle the King. If the Black King comes running to the Queenside, threatening to enter at b2 if the White King moves, then White can toggle the Knight harmlessly between f6 and h7
Therefore, there is only one thing left that Black can do, and that is to advance the f-pawn while the King is attacking the g-pawn, forcing the Knight off of f6 and onto h7. We will see Black tries this 41 moves later. It should be noted that during this stretch of 41 moves, White was constantly analyzing the score sheet, looking for three-fold repetition scenarios, but with all the triangulating by Black, any position that possibly occurred three times that I could find occurred with opposing sides to move. A position that occurs 3 times, but with one side to move in 2 of them and the other side to move in the 3rd is not three-fold repetition. It must be the same position with the same player to move, both sides having the same legal options. During that time, I heard Black comment that it's not 50 yet, thinking I was counting moves, and I think that might be what drove Black to the advancement of the f-pawn later on. Not recognizing that it is literally his only try, but recognizing that he was nearing 50 moves. He probably thought at first that he could win by triangulating the King at first.
All of this said, White is not completely out of the woods yet, but Black has a LOT of work to do now to win compared to the earlier scenarios where White could resign in 3 to 5 moves, and with Black's inability to execute the simpler tasks earlier, White should expect more of the same inferior play by Black at this point.
50...Ke6 51.Kc3 Kf5 52.Nh7 Be6 53.Kb4 Bb3 54.Kc3 Ke5 55.Kb4 Kd4 56.Ka3 Kc5 57.Nf6 Kd4 58.Nh7 Ke3 59.Nf6 Kf3 60.Kb2 Ke3 61.Ka3 Bd1 62.Kb4 Kd2 63.Ka3 Kc1 64.Nh7 Bd3 65.Nf6 Kd2 66.Nh7 Ke2 67.Nf6 Kf3 68.Kb4 Kg3 69.Ka3 Kf4 70.Nh7 Ke5 71.Nf6 Ke6 72.Kb4 Kf5 73.Nh7 Ke4 74.Nf6+ Kd4 75.Ka3 Kc3 76.Nh7 Kd2 77.Nf6 Kc1 78.Nh7 Kb1 79.Nf6 Bd1 80.Nh7 Kc1 81.Nf6 Kd2 82.Nh7 Ke3 83.Nf6 Kf3 84.Kb4 Kg3 85.Ka3 Kh4 86.Nh7 Bc2 87.Kb4 Bb3 88.Ka3 Kg4 89.Kb4 Kh5 90.Ka3 f5
This is the only road now to victory for Black, and it requires very delicate play by Black, and with 2 minutes left on each clock with 15 second increment per move, and with what Black has shown thus far in this endgame, that is never going to happen.
91.gxf6 Kh6 92.f7
Both moves lose for White with correct play. Both involve surrendering the a-pawn and both involve dominating the Knight. Knowing your endgame domination tricks is critical here. After 92.Nf8, Black has to start with a couple of only moves. 92...g5 (again, Black cannot let White sacrifice the Knight for the g-pawn as otherwise, we have the Wrong Color Bishop and Rook Pawn scenario, which we already know is a draw) 93.Nd7 Kg6 (again forced as otherwise Ne5, with or without f7, depending on Black's alternative move, will draw the game) 94.Kb4 Be6 95.Nc5 (Or 95.Ne5 Kxf6 96.Nd3 Bf5 and now 97.Kc1 g4 or 97.Nf2 Ke5 as the Knight is dominated) 95...a3 96.Kxa3 Bf5 97.Nb3 Kxf6 98.Nd2 g4 99.Kb4 Ke5 100.Kc3 Be4 101.Nf1 Kf4 102.Kd2 Bb7 103.Ne3 g3 104.Ke2 Be4 and White is in Zugzwang. If he moves his Knight anywhere where it can't just be immediately captured, such as 105.Nc4 or 105.Nf1, then 105...Bd3+ wins immediately, while if 105.Kd2, then 105...Kf3 is winning. Therefore, White went for the alternative route, testing Black against a Knight that is more centralized than going to f8.
92...Bxf7 93.Nf6 Kg5 94.Nh7?
More testing is 94.Ne4+ in which Black's road to victory is 94...Kf4 95.Nc5 Ke3 96.Nd7 g5 97.Ne5 Be6 98.Kxa4 Ke4 99.Ng6 g4 100.Nh4 g3 101.Kb5 Bh3 102.Kc5 Kf4 103.Kd4 Kg4 104.Ng3 g2 105.Ne5+ Kg3, winning.
Once again, domination of the Knight wins the game for Black after 94...Kf5! 95.Kxa4 Bg8 96.Nf8 g5 97.Nd7 g4 and the pawn can't be stopped. The King is already ideally placed.
Black had the opportunity again to play 95...Kg5 and if 96.Nh7, then 96...Kf5 and if 96.Ne4+, then 96...Kf4, as shown above.
96.Ng4+ Kh5 97.Nf6+ Kh4
97...Kg5 is better, elbowing out the Knight.
What Black does here is completely mind boggling. He must use the King and Bishop to distract the Knight and guide the g-pawn to promotion, completely abandoning the a-pawn and using the fact that the White King is out in Timbuktu to his advantage. Black just proceeds to move around now like a chicken with his head chopped off until he makes a complete bone head move on move 106, throwing away any remote hope at victory.
99.Ng5 Kf2 100.Nh7 Bc2 101.Ng5 Ke3 102.Ne6 Ke4 103.Ng5+ Kd4 104.Ne6+ Ke5 105.Ng5 Kf6 106.Nf3 g5??
Remember what we said earlier? All White has to do to draw is sacrifice the Knight for the g-pawn. First chance White gets, what happens?
Game Over! The White King will remain standing!
107...Kxg5 108.Kb2 Bb3 109.Ka1 Kf4 110.Kb2 Ke3 111.Ka1 Kd4 112.Kb2 Kc4 113.Ka1 Kb4 114.Kb2 Bd1 115.Ka1 Ka3 116.Kb1 1/2-1/2
The White King is never abandoning the corner, and the position is a theoretical draw.
Whether it be spectators at the end of a round in a larger tournament with my game being one of the last ones done, or it be at a small event or a club where maybe the pairing sheet is taken up and they are simply waiting for that last game to end, I have had many people, director or spectator, after asking about the result of a game, proceed to say "You Drew That?????" in a shock-type tone. Not saying that happened here, but that has happened many times. I also have the reputation at the club I'm in for pulling off a lot of BS draws. All of this is not by accident. If you know the various draw techniques, such as the various patterns of stalemate cages, piece configurations that are drawn, and known book draw positions like Philidor's Draw or the Short-Side Defense (both being scenarios of R+P vs R), then you know what to aim for when there are more pieces and pawns in an inferior situation. Now trust me, I lose many games that are lost because the opponent plays the right moves. There is nothing you can do about that. But just hearing people at the club mumble to themselves that they realize who they are playing and that they have to avoid the numerous cheap shot drawing tricks is just music to my ears, and that music just gets louder each time that my opponent fails to win!
So how can you do the same thing and get that same reputation at your club that I have? Remember the following items:
- First and Foremost! RECOGNIZE AND ADMIT that your position is worse. ACKNOWLEDGE that a win is out of the question, and know well in advance that what you are playing for is a draw. If you cannot get over the fact that pipe dream scenarios of winning are just not going to happen, you will never succeed in drawing lost positions. Sure, if your opponent blindly hangs his Queen, then maybe you have a victory coming and must adjust, but barring something like that, don't go into it with the mentality that you are playing for a win because you will lose quickly that way.
- Know ALL of your basic endgames with minimal pieces. That includes Bishop and Knight vs Lone King, Two Bishops vs Lone King, Rook and Pawn vs Rook (including all draw and winning techniques, such as Lucena's Position, Philidor's Draw, the Short Side Defense, the Long Side Defense, and the Vancura Position), Wrong Color Bishop and Rook Pawn, etc. Knowing these ahead of time can be a major aid to knowing what you need to accomplish when there are more pieces and pawns on the board. You might be wondering why I mention winning scenarios like Bishop and Knight or Lucena's position. You need to know these so that you know how to impose the most difficulty on your opponent in the Bishop and Knight ending just in case he doesn't know it, and so that means don't voluntarily walk into the corner that is the color of the opposing Bishop, and knowing what positions to avoid in say, Rook and Pawn vs Rook endings. If you are too lazy to study endgames, you will never get better.
- Visualize these scenarios based on the material that is on the board. In the game above, White recognized the best shot he had and achieved it. This doesn't mean this will always work as White was already lost in the first place, but the more problems you create for your opponent, the more likely it is that he will mess up.
- Know when to resign and when not to. A position like the game above, there were ways for Black to go wrong, and he did! However, something like King and Queen vs Lone King, or King, Queen, Rook, Knight, and Five Pawns vs King, Bishop, and 3 Pawns, give it up! There are no tricks. You are lost. Resign! There is a difference between imposing legitimate problems to your opponent, and simply wasting your opponent's time.
- Study a book that has lots of problems on endgames. For lower rated players, that could be finding a general problems book that includes at least a full chapter on endgame positions. For more advanced players, such as those over 1900, I would suggest going through Jacob Aagaard's book "Grandmaster Preparation: Endgame Play". I have read four of his books in that series thus far (Calculation, Positional Play, Strategic Play, and Endgame Play), and out of those four, Endgame Play was by far the most beneficial.
I will conclude this article by mentioning that those that want another example of the Wrong Color Bishop and Rook Pawn trick is encouraged to go through my Round 5 game from The Potomac Open back in the summer of 2018. You can get to it by clicking here.
Also, those of you that are interested in the other endgame articles I've written, they can be found here by clicking the topics below:
Opposite Color Bishops
One Pawn Up Rook Ending
Bishop vs Pawn and Same Color Bishop Endings
Til next time, good luck in all of your games.