The last time we met, we looked at a simple King and Pawn against lone King endgame position. While this combination of material is common, it’s more likely that both players will have at least one pawn each. This changes things up a bit because both of you must promote a pawn and stop an enemy pawn from promoting. I went through a few endgame studies, based on real positions, and found an example that you’ll most likely find in your own endgames.
No matter which phase of the game you’re in – opening, middle, or endgame – chess is a combination of offense and defense, attacking and defending. Of course, you’re better off when you’re attacking more than defending. There are times when you must do both, switching from one to the other with each move you make. This occurs a great deal during endgame play. In reference to the endgame, when I say attacking, I mean gaining control of a square or squares.
Set up the following position on a chessboard: The White King on c7, a White pawn on e5, the Black King on g4, and a Black pawn on e6. It’s White to move. When my beginning students see this position and are told that it’s White to move, they think that it will be easy to get rid of the Black pawn, promote the White pawn, and win the game. Beginners tend to see endgame studies as a much easier undertaking because there are fewer pawns and pieces on the board. The opposite is true.
The key here is to get the White King into a position where it can stop the Black King from accessing either pawn. There’s a term you should learn, Zugzwang. It means that whoever’s turn it is, is going to have to make a move that they don’t want to make. As simple as this position looks, it is ripe for moments of Zugzwang. When I ask my students what White’s first move should be, they suggest 1. Kd6, a very direct approach. However, Black responds with 1…Kf5. Now, White must abandon its pawn and Black will be able to promote. Try making these two moves and then see if you can save White’s pawn on the next move. It cannot be done! I told you this wasn’t as easy as it looks!
The right move is 1. Kd7. After Black plays 1…Kf5, White can now move to d6, with 2. Kd6. How do White’s first two moves change things? By White first moving the King to d7 and then d6, black is the one who must abandon their pawn. Black is in a state of Zugswang. In pawn and King endgames, you need to do very careful calculations. You also need to come up with the best possible response move your opponent can make to counter your candidate move. It also helps to clearly define the task at hand. In our position, the task is to capture your opponent’s pawn and then promote your pawn. However, you need to consider ways in which your opponent can stop you from completing your task before committing to any move choice.
White was able to force Black into Zugzwang by not immediately moving to d6. The only way to develop your endgame skills is to play through a lot of positions. Always keep the idea of Zugzwang in mind when considering a move. Really take a good look at the position after White’s second move. Take a mental snapshot of it. The thing to really take in is the position of both Kings. In this type of position, this is the material arrangement you want to achieve. Black cannot make a move that keeps it connected to its pawn. Every move available to Black separates it from its pawn. Meanwhile, the White King can both capture the Black pawn while protecting its pawn simultaneously.
Play continues with 2…Kg6, 3. Kxe6…Kg7, 4. Kd7. Remember, you need to also gain control of the promotion square, otherwise you will not be able to promote your pawn. Black plays 4…Kf7. At this juncture, the White pawn stops Black from being able to control the e8 square. White plays 5. e6+, followed by 5…Kf8, 6. e7+…Kf7, and finally, 7. e8=Q+, and White goes on to win the game. A key point is the idea that Kings cannot sit on squares directly adjacent to one another. In our example, the White King was able to sit on d7, preventing Black’s King from moving to e8, White’s promotion square. Of course, the same could be said about the Black King: It keeps the White King from moving to e8. Thankfully, White has a pawn to march up the board to its promotion square.
Next week, we are going to add a few more pawns into the mix. The ideas we touched upon this week will be seen in our next week’s example. Here is some homework: Take the two Kings and two pawns and randomly place them on the board. See if you can get a pawn to its promotion square. This time, alternate between Black and White moving first. Doing this simple exercise will teach you a great deal about pawn and King endgames. It will also get you ready for our next lesson. See you then.