USCF Home arrow Chess Life Magazine arrow 2010 arrow January arrow The Lazy Person’s Guide to Endgames
The Lazy Person’s Guide to Endgames Print E-mail
By GM Ian Rogers   
December 19, 2009
Don’t like to study endgames?
Here is a painless method to help you in this often-avoided area.

Part 1


Most chess players don’t have the time or the inclination to study endgames. They hold the view that endgames don’t turn up too often and, if they are unlucky enough to be forced to play one in one of their own games, they should be able to work out what to do over the board.

Endgame books tend not to appreciate the sort of information which could be useful for a reluctant endgame player. Rather than fill their heads with methods of winning certain technical positions, your endgame- averse player would rather know what chance they have to work out the right moves in actual play. When swapping off pieces, the essential advice needed is whether the resulting position will be easy to win or draw, not whether it can be done by stringing together a series of excellent but impossible-to-find moves.

Luckily, most technical endgames can be divided into three broad groups: easy, easy if you know what you are doing, and difficult. Positions from the first two groups can be solved over the board with knowledge of general ideas or certain positions to aim for. The latter group requires advanced techniques (i.e. specific moves) to win or hold, which a lazy endgame player should avoid as they may cost valuable time and brain cells. In this article I will survey the basic pawn-free endgames, most of which are much easier than they look. In later parts I will introduce pawns and show many common types of endgames which can also be played on auto-pilot.

Queen versus Rook
Status: Win
Assessment: Easy
Two decades ago GM Walter Browne accepted a bet that he could beat a chess computer in this endgame but Browne failed to win within the 50-move rule. Although the six-time U.S. champion was successful on his second try, the endgame subsequently gained an undeserved reputation for being quite difficult. In fact it’s hard to go wrong with the queen.

Diagram 1

Once you have brought up your king and reached the position in diagram 1, Black will be forced to move the rook away from his king and you should be able to pick it off with a series of checks. (If you find that you have reached the diagrammed position with White to move, you can lose a move through 1. Qe4+ Kg8 2. Qa8+ Kh7 3. Qe8.)

Diagram 2 shows the only type of trap into which White can fall—Black has perpetual check because of the stalemate trick 1. Kh6 Rh7+! 2. Kg6 Rg7+ 3. Kf6 Rg6+!.

This trick also works one file to the right.

Diagram 2

Rook versus Bishop
Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy, if the defending king runs to the correct corner.

Diagram 3

Comments: If the white king runs to a corner not covered by the bishop, there’s nothing the rook can do. It is worth playing on with the rook, but only until your opponent’s king is at the right corner.

Rook versus Knight
Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy
Keep the knight near your king and nothing can go wrong—even if your king is stuck on the back rank, the knight can usually check the opposing king away whenever it tries to set up a mate by taking the opposition. With the rook, this endgame is only worth playing from a favorable starting position; e.g. when the knight and king have been separated.

Rook and Bishop versus Rook
Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy, if you know the key defensive position

Diagram 4

Comments: To defend, keep the rook on the opposite side of the board to your king and use it to pin the bishop. When your opponent’s king tries to unpin, head in the other direction with your own king. (e.g. 1. ... Kf4 2. Kd1 Bd4 3. Re2 and the white king can leave the first rank. White will probably soon reach a rotated version of diagram 4 when the king gets to a4.)

If trying to win with the rook and bishop—and it is certainly worth a try—you will need to know certain techniques which, unfortunately, border on the difficult zone.
Diagram 5

In diagram 5, White has allowed the bishop and king to move too close to his own king but after 1. Kf1 there is only one way for Black to win: 1. ... Rf2+ 2. Ke1 Rf7! and now White will be mated after both 3. Rd6 Rg7! and 3. Rd5 Re7+! 4. Kd1 Rh7, or 4. Kf1 Rg7.

Rook and Knight versus Rook
Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy
The knight is weak at covering checks from the back; so weak, that if the defender is alert it may never be necessary even to retreat the king to the back rank. For the attacking side, this ending is barely worth playing unless the defender’s king is already near a corner.

Queen versus Two Bishops
Status: Drawn
Assessment: Easy, but handle with care.
Set the bishops next to each other and your king and the opposing king will not be able to break through the barrier. This ending is definitely worth playing on with the queen. The queen should try to tie down a bishop by pinning it—you may force some lack of coordination in the defending camp and be able to move in with your king.

Queen versus Bishop and Knight
Status: Win
Assessment: Easy
With one exception, the bishop and knight cannot set up a permanent barrier to the attacking king.
Diagram 6

Diagram 6 is Black’s perfect blockade—there is no way for White to bring in his king and Black will play ... Kg8-h8-g8 or ... Bg7-h8-g7 ad infinitum. In most cases it should not be a problem for the attacker to prevent this position from arising.

Queen versus Two Knights
Status: Win
Assessment: Easy—for the defender!
As with the two bishops, the defender should put the knights adjacent to each other and the king next to the knights. Keeping your king in front of the knights to head off the attacking king also makes sense. The queen has an easier job when the knights merely protect each other—they tie each other up and the attacking king can often walk around them.

Queen and Knight versus Queen
Status: Draw
Assessment: Difficult, for the defender
The knight is very good at sheltering a king from checks, so an immediate perpetual for the defending side is rarely available. Checks will however tend to distract your opponent from the task of building a cage around your king. When playing with the queen and knight, an opponent’s king on the edge can constitute a winning advantage as in diagram 7, a Troitzky study.

Diagram 7

After 1. Ne6 Black is helpless because the checks run out after 1. ... Qb4+ 2. Kf6 Qc3+ 3. Kf7 and running with the king is not an option—1. ... Kh4 2. Qg5+ Kh3 3. Nf4+ and mate next move.

None of this would be very difficult to work out over the board.

The tricky part is Troitzky’s main line which runs 1. ... Qc1 2. Qh3+ Kg6 3. Qg4+ Kh6 4. Qh4+ Kg6 5. Nf4+ Kf5 6. Qh7+! Kg4 7. Qh5+! and Black’s queen will be lost.

Once aware of this theme—John Nunn calls the knight on f4 an ‘unguarded pivot’—playing for a win with the queen is easy and may be worthwhile.

Queen and Bishop versus Queen
Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy
The bishop is hopeless at stopping checks so given a free move the defender can almost always secure a perpetual check. With the queen and bishop, if you can’t force a win directly, don’t bother playing this out.

Part 2

Queen Endings

Lazy chessplayers tend to be scared of queen endings, believing that they require hard work to win or draw. While this may be true occasionally, if a player can overcome their fear of checks and acquire knowledge of a few general rules, queen endgames should prove much easier to play than rook endgames.

Rule 1: An outside passed pawn almost always wins, unless the defender has perpetual check.

Rule 2: In a queen endgame, there is no such thing as perpetual check.

Clearly rule 2 is not universal, but it is true more often than not and should give the lazy player confidence that, even if you can’t calculate a way out of a series of checks, an escape will present itself sooner or later.

Example 1

Status: Win
Assessment: Very easy
With rooks instead of queens, White would probably not be able to win but with queens on the board White’s life could not be much easier—White pushes the a- pawn and then moves the queen out of the way and creates a new queen. Black can try to whip up counterplay but against White’s perfect kingside pawn structure he has no hope, e.g. 1. a4 f6 2. a5 g5 3. hxg5 fxg5 4. a6 h4 5. Qb7+ Kg6 6. a7 h3+ 7. Kxh3 Qxf2 8. a8=Q and Black has no more than some checks (Rule 2).

When the kings are more exposed than in example 1, it is necessary to implement Rule 3—A centralized queen is the best insurance against perpetual check.

Status: Win
Assessment: Easy
The kingside pawns are not particularly relevant—they provide no protection for either king and White would win just as easily without them. The winning technique involves White’s king charging up the board to c7 whereupon Black’s checks will run out due to White’s many cross-checking possibilities.

Example 2

Example 2 is typical of most Q+P versus Q endgames—even a pawn much further back can slowly advance supported by the king. The winning technique is as easy as it sounds— escape the checks and push the pawn.

The exception is a lone a- or h-pawn, which provides less protection against checks. In that case a lazy player might quite reasonably decide that he should not bother trying to convert the extra pawn into a point, while a more motivated player could try maneuvering their king close to the opponent’s king to increase the cross-check possibilities. Even then, a win is not guaranteed—unfortunately Rule 2 does not always apply.

So how should a lazy player defend a queen versus queen and pawn endgame? Since perpetual check will rarely be possible, the key is to maneuver your king to a useful square, as in the following two examples:

Example 3

Assessment: Easy
If the defender manages to get his king in front of the pawn the draw should be safe. Once the defender begins checking, a queen interposition or cross-check can usually be answered by an exchange of queens and a drawn pawn endgame.

If the defender’s king is behind the pawn, there is only one chance to make a comfortable draw:
Example 4

Status: Draw (but only just!)
Assessment: Easy, if you know how.
Generic positions such as this, with Black’s king badly offside, tend to be lost and a slack move such as a random queen check or 1. ... Ke3, allowing 2. f5, would doom Black to a painful and probably unsuccessful de- fense. However 1. ... Qb1+! 2. Kg7 Ke3! hangs on to the back of the pawn and, by tying up the White queen, forces a draw. White can do nothing with his king alone, e.g. 3. Kf6 Qb2+ 4. Kf7 Qb1! and White can make no progress.

Part 3

Opposite Colored Bishop Endings

Lazy chessplayers usually enjoy endgames where the bishops run on opposite colors.

Winning or drawing plans tend to be obvious, pawns are easy to protect and blockade, and kings can often charge up the board without challenge. Even better, the lazy player is rarely challenged if they reduce brainwork and calculation to a minimum by agreeing to a draw, since everybody knows how drawish opposite bishop endings are.

While this is an understandable attitude, some of these draws can be turned into wins and painful defense made easier with knowledge of just a few key principles and positions.

Principle 1
Two connected pawns should not be sufficient to win unless the pawns can reach the sixth rank.

Corollary 1a
There is only one, far from obvious, drawing technique, so if you have the connected pawns it is always worth testing your opponent’s knowledge of the technique.

Example 1

Black to play

Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy, if you know how—easy to lose if you don’t.
Countless games have been lost from this type of position because Black assumed that preventing e4-e5+ was the necessary strategy. However this is merely a delaying tactic—if the black bishop goes to the f4-h2 diagonal with 1. ... Bg3 White would have the simple plan of 2. Ke2-f3-g4-f5, after which e4-e5+ cannot be stopped. The correct defense involves maneuvering the bishop to the front of the pawns, i.e. 1. ... Ba5!! 2. e5+ Ke7 3. Ke4 Bc7 4. d5 Bb8 and White can make no progress. Note how the bishop not only holds up d5-d6+, it also attacks one of the pawns and ties down the white king. (Unfortunately this defense does not work once the pawns reach the sixth rank as the black pieces run out of space.)

Positions with more pawns may involve some work but there are a few principles which have a general application.

Principle 2
If the attacking side can create two widely separated passed pawns which cannot be controlled by a bishop on a single diagonal, a win is usually assured.

Corollary 2a
Passed pawns do not provide serious counterplay for the defending side if they can be stopped by the opposing bishop on the same diagonal that it uses to defend its own pawns.
Example 2

Black to play

Status: Win
Assessment: Tricky
An exception to 2a which is worth knowing. It would be easy to believe that Black can make no progress, until you see 1. ... g1=Q! 2. Bxg1+ Kg2!!. Now White has run out of moves, and giving up his prized pawn only delays the inevitable after 3. a8=Q Bxa8 4. Kg4 Bb7! 5. Kh4 Bf3.

Principle 3
When your opponent has an outside passed pawn, use your bishop to stop the pawn only when you can use your king to block the opposing king. (Otherwise the king will walk in and win your bishop.) In most cases you will need to use your king to stop the passed pawn and your bishop to guard the other flank. (If the bishop can’t do the job, you are probably losing.)

A typical example is the following:
Example 3

White to play

Status: Draw
Assessment: Reasonably easy
White seems to have a perfectly secure kingside but he cannot afford to sit tight, since if Black achieves the plan ... Ke6-f5-g4, ... f7-f6 and ... g6-g5 he will be able to create a winning second passed pawn. Realizing that Black’s plan involves ... f7-f6 and ... g6-g5 makes the defensive plan rather easy to find: 1. Bb6 f6 2. Bd8! Kf5 3. Be7 g5 4. Bd8 and there is no danger of Black creating a second passed pawn so a draw is inevitable.

Bishops have much more trouble holding a pawn chain from the back.

Example 4

Black to move

Comments: The technique for winning the g-pawn is straightforward and is worth remembering: 1. ... Kf3 2. Kb2 Ke2 3. Bc3 Kf2!. That was quick—the slower part is creating a second passed pawn, but after 4. Bf6 Kxg3 5. Bg5 Kg4 6. Kc3 Kh5 7. Bf6 h6 8. Bg7 g5! the goal is achieved. Black will eventually win the bishop for the f-pawn and win with the b-pawn.

Divided pawns are harder for the bishop to defend, but it is easy to get overconfident.

Example 5

Black to play

Status: Win
Assessment: Easy—if you see White’s threat
The obvious try 1. ... Kf4 2. h5! Kg5 3. Bf7 Kf4 4. Bd5 leads nowhere for Black, so it becomes easy to find the winning line: 1. ... h5! 2. Bf7 (otherwise ... Ke3-f4-g3 wins the h-pawn) 2. ... Kxf3 3. Bxh5+ Kg3 when the White h-pawn again falls and the White bishop will be lost for the f-pawn.

Part 4

Rook Endgames

Lazy players have terrible trouble with rook endgames. There are so many tricky techniques to learn that it is tempting to throw your hands up in the air and say “Too much information! I’ll work everything out when I get there.”

Luckily there is one rule—secretly guarded by grand- masters who want to maintain the mystery of their profession—which enables a lazy player to defend most rook endgames without calculating any variations.

Rule number 1, 2 and 3 of rook endgames is ...

Put your king in front of their passed pawn.

See—that wasn’t so difficult was it?

The corollary to the rule is that if your king is cut off from their passed pawn, you are likely to be in trouble, possibly big trouble.

To show how this rule works in practice, here are a few examples. (Truly lazy players, however, do not need to read any further.)

Position 1

Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy

This one is simple—with a side pawn (h, g, b or a) and his king in front of it, Black can defend passively with no danger. Drawing with ... Rc8-b8- c8-b8; you can’t get lazier than that!

With a more central pawn, passive defense fails so you’ll need some other method.
Position 2

Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy

With a pawn closer to the center, you can’t be completely lazy—1. ... Ra7?! 2. Kf5 Ra5+ 3. e5 Ra7 4. Rh6! sets problems that a lazy player doesn’t want to have to solve.

Here the main goal is to stop the white king from moving in front of the pawn. Thus 1. ... Ra5! 2. e5 Ra1! draws, since Black can now start checking along the back rank.

Position 3

Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy, if you know how

Once White’s king gets too close to yours, the defender has a problem. The problem can be solved by hanging on to the back of the pawn as follows:

1. ... Re1! 2. Rh8+ Kc7 3. Kf6 Kd7!

Suddenly White has no good move. The pawn cannot advance while rook moves along the h-file allow Black’s king to jump back in front of the pawn. If White waits, through a move of the rook on the eighth rank, Black can wait on the e-file.

Position 4

Status: Draw
Assessment: Difficult, but this is your last chance!

Things are looking worse and worse for Black. His king is being forced away from the pawn and the hanging on defense no longer works (e.g. 1. ... Re1 2. Rd2! Re3 3. Rg2+, forcing the Black king away, after which the white pawn can keep advancing.)

Fortunately the last line of defense, the check from a distance defense, is still enough, i.e. 1. ... Ra7+ 2. Rd7 Ra8!!

The key is to prevent White’s king reaching the back rank.

So many defenses, so much to remember, I hear you cry. However don’t forget that any one of these defenses is enough to hold the draw—it doesn’t matter which one you implement.

Once your king is separated from the passed pawn, you are in big trouble. Your first task is to see if you can sneak your way back in front of the pawn.

Position 5

Status: Draw
Assessment: Easy, if you know how.

Black’s only hope lies in 1. ... Re8! when White must either swap into a drawn pawn endgame—even a lazy player should know this much!—or allow your king to run in front of the white pawn.

Position 6

Status: Draw
Assessment: Difficult

Since the white king has moved ahead of the pawn, a pawn ending is not going to save you now. Your last hope here lies in the “hanging on to the pawn from the front defence”, preventing White from pushing his pawn.

This can be achieved by checking the white king, and whenever it moves away from the c-file, playing ... Rd8. If White then tries to protect the pawn with Re4 you must be ready to knock the rook away with ... Kf5.

Analysis after ... Kf5

This is probably too challenging for most lazy players, so it is better to follow rules 1, 2 and 3 and avoid the position unless absolutely necessary.

See the conclusion of this article, examining endgame injustices and ones with more pawns, in the February 2010 Chess Life.