Endings with rooks against passed pawns are often exciting and difficult to get right. I chanced upon this game from the first round of the Major Open in Leicester, between Jonathan Nelson (2175) and John Garnett (1831).
We’ll join them here, at the start of the rook ending, with Black to make his 43rd move.
Rook and three pawns each. White has connected passed pawns on the queenside, while Black has a passed pawn in the centre and a strongly placed king. Place your bets.
Black should play Kc4 here, going after the white pawns, which should draw. It’s very natural, as well, to push your passed pawn at once, which was the move he preferred.
The only winning move. We all know that PASSED PAWNS SHOULD BE PUSHED and the ROOKS BELONG BEHIND PASSED PAWNS. When Black pushed his passed pawn too soon, White correctly placed his rook behind it.
Unluckily pushing the wrong pawn. The best moves here were a5! and Kb3!
Stockfish tells me Black’s drawing moves here are g5, h5 and Kf6, none of which, I think, would be easy to find with little time on the clock.
Again White finds the only winning move.
47. a5 e2
The immediate b6 was also winning, as was a6.
It’s time to place your bets again. Can Black’s rook stop White’s pawns, or will White promote? What do you think?
He missed the winning move this time! 49. a6! was the way to go.
Unlucky! Last move it was the only way to win, but now it should lose. The only way to draw was 50. b6!.
Mate in 23 for Black, according to Stockfish.
51. Kc5 Kf2??
Black’s king moves in the wrong direction, transforming a winning position into a losing position. Black has quite a lot of winning moves here: the simplest and quickest is Kd3. The king helps the rook stop the white pawns: Black will then give up his rook for the two pawns and win the resulting pawn ending.
Again, the wrong king move, returning the compliment. The correct plan was Kb6 followed by Ka7 and the pawns go through.
The black king had to retrace his steps back to the queenside with Ke3! (Ke2! also gets there in time). Now the position should be drawn.
53. Kb7 Kxh2
54. a7 Kg2?
Losing a vital tempo. Black should push the pawns instead (either g5! or h5!: the resulting ending with queen against pawns on g3 and h3 is drawn.
55. a8Q Rxa8
56. Kxa8 h5
57. b6 h4
58. b7 h3
59. b8Q h2
Without the g-pawn this is a draw because Black has a stalemate defence. (If you don’t know this ending you need to read Chess Heroes: Endings or any other elementary endgame manual.) But here there’s no stalemate so White’s winning.
60. Qb7+ Kg1
61. Qb6+ Kg2
Probably playing on increments by this stage, White fails to take his chance. The trick is to force the king to h1 and play Qf2. Black has to move the g-pawn, when Qf1 is mate. I would guess he was kicking himself after the game for missing this.
63. Qe4+ Kg1
64. Qe1+ Kg2
65. Qe2+ Kg1
66. Qf3 h1Q
67. Qxh1+ Kxh1
A beautiful final position. I think all games should end like this.
Only a half for Nelson, then, but it could easily have been a full point – or a zero. You’ll agree that in this game we saw two very strong and experienced players missing many opportunities in this exciting ending. Would you have done any better, though, assuming you were playing on increments? I’m sure I’d have made even more mistakes than they did. I can only thank both players for producing such an entertaining and instructive ending.
Spend more time practising endings yourself. You know it makes sense.