Thrill of Victory and Agony of D-raw

by admin on May 27, 2013

Yesterday I drove Linnea to the Best of the West tournament in Santa Clara. She is playing in the 1300-1499 section, and she had to play in the two-day (Sunday and Monday) schedule because as you know, we had our own unrated tournament in Aptos on Saturday. So she had to play four games yesterday, and she will play two more today.

The first three rounds went very smoothly, with three wins. This was her most difficult position.

FEN:3r2k1/5p2/p4pp1/1p6/3P4/7P/P4PP1/3R2K1 b – – 0 1

Linnea is Black, and her opponent offered her a draw here or hereabouts. She correctly declined. Black clearly stands better here. She has the potential for an outside passed pawn, which would ordinarily make her better in a king-and-pawn endgame. (But there are some pitfalls! See comments below!) Also,  White has an isolated queen pawn, which makes Black better in a rook-and-pawn endgame. Either way she’s happy.

I do not, however, like the way that she played here. She played 1. … f5?! 2. Kf1 f6?! These errors went unpunished, and in fact her opponent played far worse than she did. He coughed up the d-pawn without a fight and then allowed a trade of rooks, which led to a completely elementary endgame win for Linnea. I don’t remember the exact moves.

It’s tempting to say, “Great! I won!” and not scrutinize the game any further. But in fact the above position is very interesting, and there are things going on here that I did not even suspect.

First, what is wrong with Linnea’s idea? I have two main objections. First, it takes her five tempi instead of four to get her king to d5. In rook endgames, every tempo matters. Also, it loses the tempo for no good reason. I don’t like the accumulation of weak Black pawns on the sixth rank. In a rook endgame, weak pawns are targets, and the more targets you create, the better your opponent’s chances to win or draw. I think her opponent could have taken advantage of this waste of time in a fairly straightforward way with 3. Ke2 Kf7 4. Kd3 Ke6 5. Rc1.

Position after 5. Rc1 (analysis).

FEN:3r4/8/p3kpp1/1p3p2/3P4/3K3P/P4PP1/2R5 b – – 0 5

I think White’s chances for a draw have improved quite a bit. He’ll play h4 and g3 and just keep his king and rook where they are. Any time Black plays … Kd5, he’ll get checked back with Rc5+. Any time Black’s rook leaves the back rank, Rc8 will happen and all of those weak Black pawns will start coming into play.

This position brings up an important point about isolated pawn positions that I have not seen mentioned in books (but maybe I don’t have the right books). The important point is that these games are often decided not by who controls the file the pawn is on, but who controls the adjacent files, which are very often open. Usually you can’t win an IQP position just by loading up on the d-file. Your opponent does the same thing, and it’s a standoff. You win an IQP position by exploiting the c- or e-files. And we can see that here; White has gotten control of the c-file and so it will be hard for Black to make progress. (Here a draw counts as a “win” for White.)

This tells us, then, that Black should grab the c-file at his first opportunity! For that reason 1. … Rd5 would not be a very good move either. I very much like a suggestion of Thadeus Frei: 1. … Kf8 2. Kf1 Rc8!

Position after 2. ... Rc8! (analysis)

FEN: 2r2k2/5p2/p4pp1/1p6/3P4/7P/P4PP1/3R1K2 w – – 0 2

Black seizes the c-file before White can! Notice that White cannot seize the e-file as “compensation,” because 3. Re1 runs into 3. … Rc4! 4. Re4 f5 and now White either has to give up the d-pawn or move his rook to a very bad square. Also, 3. Rd2 does not impress because Black now plays 3. … Ke7 4. Ke2 Kd6 5. Ke3 Kd5 and gets exactly the kind of position he wanted: king blockading the pawn on d5, rook on the open c-file. Now the a- and b-pawns are ready to advance.

The best move for White is 3. Ke2!, and this leads to the unexpected subtleties of the position that I did not realize yesterday.

Position after 3. Ke2 (analysis).

FEN: 2r2k2/5p2/p4pp1/1p6/3P4/7P/P3KPP1/3R4 b – – 0 3

I had figured that Black would answer 3. Ke2 with 3. … Rc2+ 4. Rd2 Rxd2+ 5. Kxd2, trading into a won king-and-pawn endgame. Isn’t that the point of 2. … Rc8?

Well, as it turns out, the endgame after 5. Kxd2 is winning … for White! The reason is that Black is powerless to stop h4, g4, and h5, which create two passed pawns — one on the h-file, one on the d-file. Black cannot stop both of them. Nor can he prevent this plan with 5. … f5, because White very patiently plays h4, g3, f3, g4, h5. The fact that White can create a passer on the kingside in spite of the 3-versus-3 pawn balance is of the utmost importance. It means that Black must keep rooks on the board. And it also means that White can actually seek out a rook trade.

So in the diagrammed position, Black should continue improving her king position with 3. … Ke7. Now notice that if White seeks a rook trade with 4. Kd2 Kd6 5. Rc1 Rxc1 6. Kxc1 it doesn’t work, because the pawn falls after 6. … Kd5. Or if White plays more conventionally with 4. Kd3 Kd6 5. Rd2 Kd5, again White cannot trade rooks with 6. Rc2 Rxc2 7. Kxc2 because the d-pawn falls with 7. … Kxd5. This is a vivid illustration of why every tempo is critical in a rook-and-pawn endgame. If Black’s king had arrived at d5 a tempo later in either one of these lines, White could “threaten” the rook trade, Black would have to abandon the c-file, and then White’s position would be much more defensible, as in diagram 2.


  1. In rook and pawn endgames, every tempo matters.
  2. In rook and pawn endgames, you should avoid creating pawn weaknesses unnecessarily.
  3. In isolated pawn positions, very often control of the adjacent files to the isolani is crucial for both attacker and defender.
  4. Always evaluate a transposition to a king-and-pawn endgame with the utmost care. They can backfire on you.

Well, I didn’t expect to write so much about this position! Very quickly let me mention what happened in Linnea’s fourth-round game. She went into the round tied for first at 3-0, and she got a beautiful, nearly mating attack on the kingside. Not only that, her opponent was in time trouble. But her opponent defended ferociously and ingeniously, and the position got messy, and then eventually they got to an endgame where Linnea was a piece up. Easy win, seemingly, but her pieces were passive and there were not many pawns remaining. Eventually, they got to this position:

Position after 1. ... f3!

FEN: 8/8/8/8/3Kp3/5pkP/6P1/5B2 w – – 0 1

And here Linnea was shocked to realize that she has nothing better than a draw, because she has the “wrong color rook pawn.” The game concluded 1. Kxe4 fg 2. Bxg2 and now, of course, Black does not take the bishop becausae 2. … Kxg2?? 3. h4 allows the pawn to queen. Instead he played 2. … Kh4 and there was nothing to do but agree to a draw.

Linnea was very disappointed because she missed a million ways to win, and she felt that it was just her laziness that led to the draw. I’m not sure that I completely agree, although I didn’t see the whole game. I think her opponent deserves a lot of credit for remaining mentally engaged even when it looked hopeless for him, and for envisioning a standard drawing motif that he could at least attempt to reach.

In any event, I think this will be an extremely instructive game for Linnea to study if she can bring herself to do so. Maybe I’ll even show some highlights on my blog, if I can get a chance to see the whole game score.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo May 27, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Isn’t the final position winning for white? After 1. Kxe4 fxg2 2. Bxg2 Kh4 3. Kf5 Kh5 4. Kf6 Kh6, white has 5. Be4, and the black king will never make it to the corner.


admin May 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Hi Simon, Good try, but now White can’t advance the h-pawn. 5. … Kh5 6. Bf5 (hoping for 6. … Kh4?? 7. Bg4 and White wins) 6. … Kh6 and White is stuck for a way to make progress. Either she plays 7. h4 Kh5 and the pawn falls, or she plays 7. Bg4 Kh7 and Black’s king makes it to the corner. (Or she gives up and plays 7. Bg6, stalemate.)


Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo May 27, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I don’t believe that. Play 6. Bd3 instead of Bf5 so that you can respond to 6…Kh6 (or Kh4) with 7. Bf5 Kh5 8. Kg7, and then slowly push the black king back until you can support the pawn with the king. For example, 8…Kg5 9. Bg4 Kh4 10. Kg6 Kg3 11. Kg5, and the pawn marches.


admin May 27, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Aha! You’re right! What I failed to see was that the position after 6. Bf5 would be a win for White if it were Black to move. So all that White has to do is lose a tempo. Your move 6. Bd3 is one way, and even the simple 6. Bg6+ is another way. (King moves, then 7. Bf5.)

Just to clinch the case, the Nalimov tablebase (which gives perfect play for both sides in any position with 6 or fewer pieces) says it’s mate in 20 for White after 2. … Kh4.

Boy, Linnea is not going to be happy to hear that she offered a draw in a winning position! At least she can take as consolation the fact that I was confused, too.


Praveen May 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm

I have a very imprecise and hand wavy comment to make, pulling it out of Kotov’s Think like a GM book. He mentions that if a pawn is not properly blockadable from rank n, then we could think of blockading it from rank n+1. Here, it is not quite the case, as we already have it blockaded.

Furthermore, white will not advance the passer until his king is ready to escort. Therefore, it makes sense to put the king, say on e7, and then improve the rook (as mentioned in the notes). That the rook trade fails is another matter altogether, but maybe the best that black can do is to park on the rank (c4 or c3) with his rook? I doubt if Rc3+b4 is good as it invites white to trade rooks with Rd3. A waiting strategy
might be indicated here. Once white moves the rook away, the black rook could try out the outpost idea (b5-b4, Rc3+a3, etc.). But this is too long winded and vague.

Or should black try to preempt the white’s kingside pawn push ideas with some move like g5? But usually when pawn moves like these are made, its like heads you lose, tails I win.


Mike Splane May 27, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Hi Dana,

I would have chosen the same plan that Thaddeus recommended. I’ve known for a long time that the files next to the isolated pawns are where the rooks belong. If your readers want a couple of other examples they can look at these games. In the first I have the IQP and use the files. In the second my opponent has the IQP and puts his rooms behind the pawn.

If Linnea is interested in analyzing her fourth round draw I would be happy to participate in the discussion. I think she made some instructive mistakes in her thinking processes that she can really learn a lot from if she gets some help from us. Some of her ideas in that games were very good and we can point those out for her as well.


Ashish May 27, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Nice analysis by Simon! A meta-lesson is to always think “show me” rather than agree to a draw. Shouldn’t feel pressure to “look smart” by knowing which positions draw for your opponent. Had Linnea played on a couple of moves, the winning sequence would have been a lot easier to spot. I invariably find that playing out “obviously” drawn endings is very educational – win, lose, or draw, even simple endings can have a lot of fight in them.

Another thought is that the move Bf1, whenever it was played, was a waste of a critical tempo that could have been spent tackling Black’s pawns.


Mike Splane May 27, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Ashish, I was there and witnessed what happened in the game.

I think Linnea lost her composure when her opponent offered a draw about thirty seconds AFTER MAKING HIS MOVE which broke her train of thought and caused the first of her three blunders in five moves.

Two moves before the diagram position the White bishop was on c4 and White king on c3. Black’s pawn was on f4 and king on g5. Black played 1 … Kh4 and White had an easy win with 2. Bd5 fe 3. g4! The g4 move could be hard to see. Instead she played 2. Bf1 Kg3 3. Kd4 f3

She did not take time to think about the position after Black played Kh4; she immediately accepted a draw. I thought she might still have winning chances, as was pointed out in the previous comments, but didn’t want to say anything to her . She was already quite upset by the result of the game and I didn’t want her confidence damaged any further. She still had two rounds left to play.


weng siow May 28, 2013 at 3:52 am

Dear Dana,

Thanks for the games. In the first game, what about “1…Rc8 seems to allow 2.d5 Kf8 3.d6 and if 3…Rd8 just 4.h4, always ready to answer 4…Ke8 with 5.Re1+ Kd7 6.Re7+”?


admin May 28, 2013 at 8:55 am

Yes, I didn’t comment on this but I felt that Black should play 1. … Kf8 before 2. … Rc8 because I didn’t want the d-pawn to be able to run too far after … Rc8.


Ashish June 13, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Some of the lines from Carlsen-Kramnik (Tal 2013) reminded me of Linnea’s B+RP ending. Around 10:09 of:


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