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THE SACRED KEY TO ALL ROOK ENDINGS
THE LUCENA POSITION
 

Most players feel helpless when they enter a Rook endgame. This is quite unfortunate since Rook endgames occur often - in fact, they are more common than any other kind of endgame.

One thing that keeps players from studying such endgames is their apparent complexity. Who can understand such things? Who can memorize such things? And which endgames are important, and which ones are complete wastes of time?

In this article we will learn (yes, you will completely master this particular ending in the next few minutes!) the Holy Grail of Rook endings; the sacred key that allows you to know what to avoid when defending a pawn down Rook endgame, while also giving you the knowledge to know what to head for if you have the superior side.

This is one of those bits of chess knowledge that EVERY player MUST possess. It's that important.

The LUCENA POSITION, first published in 1634 by Salvio (for some reason it wasn't in an earlier work by Lucena), is a simplified position where one side has a Rook and a pawn, while the other side just has a Rook. The diagram shows us the particulars.


WHITE TO MOVE

White wins no matter who has the move, though for instructions sake we'll give White the move here. The key feature of the Lucena is the extra pawn on the 7th rank, one square away from turning into a Queen. Also, both Kings are joined in battle, with the White King in front of his pawn and the enemy King as close to the area of battle as possible. Clearly, White needs to do two things if he wants to win:

1) Move his King off of d8 so he can push his pawn.

2) Promote the pawn to a Queen.

Simple goals indeed, but is it really that easy? Of course not! The problem is that White's King is blocking his own pawn and, at the moment, the Black King and Rook are preventing it from getting out of the way. Since the Black Rook can't be budged, White must force the Black King to give ground. The first way to try and accomplish this goal is:

1.Re7+?

Many players try this, but it simply doesn't get the job done. After:

1.Kf8

And not 1.Kf6?? 2.Ke8 followed by 3.d8=Q with an instant win.

2.Re8+ Kf7 3.Re7+ Kf8 White is getting nowhere fast.

Since this fails, White should play:

1.Rf2+!


MAKING BLACK'S KING LEAVE THE SCENE OF BATTLE

This is far more to the point! Since 1.Ke6?? allows 2.Ke8 followed by 3.d8=Q, Black has to step to the side and give the White King room to wander.

1.Kg7

Now comes a key moment. Of the following moves, which one do you think is correct?

2.Ke8

2.Ke7

2.Rf4

2.Rg2+

Let's take a look at each choice (and DO study the flaws of every move since it will help you acquire a clear understanding of what to avoid):

WRONG:

2.Ke8?

Threatening to promote the pawn.

2.Re1+ 3.Kd8 Rc1 and White hasn't made any progress at all.

WRONG:

2.Ke7?

Again threatening to promote the pawn. This is the move almost everyone tries!

2.Re1+ 2.Kd6

It seems the White King is at last free to roam. This is true, but its inability to support its pawn in the face of the upcoming relentless barrage of enemy checks makes the whole idea invalid.

2.Rd1+ 3.Ke6

And not 3.Ke5?? Rxd7, draw.

3.Re1+ 4.Kf5


NOT GOOD ENOUGH

White's King is safe. Is he going to win?

4.Rd1

No, this brings White back to reality. The pawn can't safely advance, and it's threatened with capture. White has no choice but to defend with his King.

5.Ke6 Re1+ and White's again making no progress.

WRONG:

2.Rg2+?

This silly move helps Black by allowing him to move back to f7, once again rendering the White King immobile.

Thus, the RIGHT move for White is:

2.Rf4!


"BUILDING A BRIDGE" IS THE WINNING IDEA

This certainly looks odd, doesn't it? The idea is to use the Rook to shelter its King from upcoming checks. The legendary Nimzovich described this maneuver as "building a bridge." Let's see how it works:

2.Rc2

Black can't improve his position so he marks time.

3.Ke7

Only now should the White King leave the cover of the pawn. Since promotion is threatened, Black must go into checking mode.

3.Re2+ 4.Kd6 Rd2+ 5.Ke6

Don't toss the win out the window with 5.Ke5?? Rxd7, draw.

5.Re2+ 6.Kd5 Rd2+ 7.Rd4!


THE "BRIDGE" HAS BEEN BUILT

The bridge has been built and the pawn's promotion to a Queen can no longer be prevented. Black resigns.

We can now sum up the winning ideas:

1) Force the Black King away from the action via Rf2+.

2) Prepare to use your Rook as a check-blocking ("bridge-building") agent with Rf4.

3) Move your King away from the front of the pawn.

4) Block the opponent's desperate checks with the Rook, which effectively ends the game.

Congratulations! You have now mastered the Lucena Position.