Classic Confusion

You’ll recognise this position, I’m sure. If not, then you should certainly read on. At least one book describes this much anthologised position as the most important pawn ending ever.

If you have any knowledge at all of chess history you’ll know this is Cohn – Rubinstein (St Petersburg 1909) with Black about to play his 25th move.

The game concluded as follows:

25.. Kf6
26. Kd2 Kg5
27. Ke2 Kh4
28. Kf1 Kh3
29. Kg1 e5
30. Kh1 b5
31. Kg1 f5
32. Kh1 g5
33. Kg1 h5
34. Kh1 g4
35. e4 fxe4
36. fxe4 h4
37. Kg1 g3
38. hxg3 hxg3

White resigned here as he’s going to lose his e-pawn.

So far so good, but I’m more interested in what would have happened if, instead of 35. e4, White had tried 35. fxg4 instead.

The annotations on MegaBase (seemingly based on Kmoch and Alekhine) give this variation:

35. fxg4 hxg4
36. Kg1 f4
37. exf4 exf4
38. Kh1 g3
39. hxg3 fxg3
40. f3 g2+
41. Kg1 Kg3
42. f4 Kxf4
43. Kxg2 Ke3

But there’s a big problem with this. Or rather two big problems. Do you see what they are?

Set the position up, pour yourself a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or whatever you prefer, and see what you come up with.

As it happens, Black could also have won with either 35.. fxg4 (probably simplest) or 35.. Kxg4 but I’d like you to analyse this position.

When you’re ready we can take a closer look.

36. Kg1 f4
37. exf4 exf4
38. Kh1

is fine so far. Now Black should play 38.. f3! followed by moving the king round to the centre of the board. If White tries to take the opposition Black always has the spare move a6 at his disposal. You should confirm for yourself that this is winning.

38.. g3?
39. hxg3 fxg3

and now, instead of 40. f3?, the suggestion of MegaBase, White can play:

40. fxg3! (40. Kg1 also draws) hxg3
41. Kg1 Kf3
42. Kf1 Ke3
43. Ke1 Kd3
44. Kd1 Kc3

when White can draw by playing 45. a4!. Again, confirm for yourself that you understand exactly why this is a draw, and also 44. a4 would also have drawn.

So the analysis in MegaBase is inaccurate, with Black’s 38th move and White’s 40th move both being mistakes, as I hope you discovered for yourself.

Now let’s fast forward 106 years and look at the conclusion of a game between two strong GMs. This is Hillarp Persson – Ragger (Helsingor 2015).

Black had just played 44.. f4 here, and White, no doubt remembering the Rubinstein game, foolishly chose to resign.

Not a good idea as the position is completely drawn:

45. Ke2 Kg3
46. Kf1 f3
47. gxf3 Kxf3
48. Ke1 Ke3
49. Kd1 Kd3
50. Kc1 Kc3
51. a4! Kxb4
52. axb5 axb5
53. Kb2!

Extraordinary. I suppose Tiger remembered the position but forgot the details of the analysis and didn’t stop to check it out. It’s good to know that even grandmasters are human.

This article is based on p187 of Zlotnik’s Treasure Trove (New in Chess 2023), which I’ve reviewed here. If you’re a Chess Improver you may well find this book worth reading.

Richard James

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Richard James

Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy ( or and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through View all posts by Richard James

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