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Endgame Fundamentals: Why Study Rook Endings?

By Donny Gray

Chess students probably get tired of hearing their teachers go on and on about studying rook endings.  Why study rook endings?  Why do teachers constantly harp on the rooks?  The other day I found an interesting table of a breakdown of possible endings.  Out of the top ten most common endings, rooks are in seven of them!  And in fact, rooks are in 17 out of 33 on the list!

As you can see in the chart below, the most common ending of all is rook vs rook endings, coming in at over 8% of games played.

 

33-0

 

So what does this mean to a chess player?  It means your chess teacher is right!  The more you study endings with rooks in them, the better you will become.

Some of the most famous books written about this subject include:

Rook Endings, by Levenfish & Smyslov (224 pages)

Secrets of Rook Endings, by John Nunn (352 pages)

Encyclopedia of Chess Endings, Vol 2, devotes 92 pages to rook endings!

Now lets review some of the most famous and important rook endings.

First up is the basic king and rook mate.  If you take lessons from me, the first thing I find out is if you can mate with a king and queen, and then if you can mate with a king and rook.  If you cannot, we work on those two items until you can.  It is my belief if you have to think very much at all in doing these two basic mates, then you really don’t know them as well as you should.  Thirty seconds on the clock is all you should need to do either one of them.

A basic rook checkmate will look something like the following two examples:

 

Black is mated in the corner.

 

 

33-1

 

Black is mated on the edge.

 

33-2

 

Now for a brief look at some of the more advanced rook endings.  Let’s start with what is known as Philidor’s Position.

Philidor’s position demonstrates an important drawing technique in rook endgames. It works when the defending king is in front of the pawn and the attacking king and pawn have not reached their sixth rank. Black keeps his rook on his third rank to keep the white king from reaching that rank.

 

33-3

 

White can try but he can’t win.

1. e5        Rb6
2.e6        Rb2
3.Kf6      Rf2+
4.Ke5      Re2+

White cannot get away from the checks.  Another try might go:

1. e5        Rb6
2.Ra7      Rc6
3.Ra8+   Kf7
4.Ra2      Ke8

White can make no progress.

If he pushes the pawn…

5.e6        Rc1!

And black prepares for infinite checks as in the first try.

Our next example can occur very frequently and is good to know.

 

33-4

 

As you can see, white’s king is stuck on the a file and cannot get out of his pawn’s way.  Or can he?  Let’s take a look at the winning method.

1.Rb8        Rc1
2.Kb7        Rb1+
3.Ka8        Rc1
4.a7           Kd6
5.Kb7        Rb1+
6.Kc8        Rc1+
7.Kd8        Rf1
8.Rb6+     Kc5
9.Ra6!       Rf8+
10.Kd7      Kd5
11.a8-Q+ and wins

Next let’s take a look at the Tarrasch rule.  It is a general principle that applies in the majority of chess middle games and end games. Siegbert Tarrasch (1862–1934) stated the “rule” that rooks should be placed behind passed pawns–either yours or your opponent’s. The idea behind the guideline is  (1) If a player’s rook is behind his passed pawn, the rook protects it as it advances, and (2) If it is behind an opponent’s passed pawn, the pawn cannot advance unless it is protected along its way.

The original quote, from page 57 of his book The Game of Chess (1938) is:

“In complicated Rook endings the most important rule is one laid down by the author: The Rook’s place is behind the passed pawn; behind the enemy pawn in order to hold it up, behind one’s own in order to support its advance.”

 

33-5

 

The best example is from an actual game from the 1927 World Championship match between
Alexander Alekhine and Jose Capablanca.  The diagram above is after white made his 54th move.

54. Ra4      Kf6
55. Kf3       Ke5
56. Ke3      h5
57. Kd3      Kd5
58. Kc3      Kc5
59. Ra2      Kb5
60. Rb2+   Kc5
61. Ra2       Kb5
62. Kd4      Rd6+
63. Ke5       Re6+
64. Kf4       Ka6
65. Kg5       Re5+
66. Kh6      Rf5
67. f4          Rc5
68. Ra3      Rc7
69. Kg7      Rd7
70. f5!        gxf5
71. Kh6      f4
72. gxf4     Rd5
73. Kg7      Rf5
74. Ra4      Kb5
75. Re4!     Ka6
76. Kh6      Rxa5
77. Re5       Ra1
78. Kxh5    Rg1
79. Rg5      Rh1
80. Rf5      Kb6
81. Rxf7     Kc6
82. Re7      Resigns

In closing, let’s look at probably the most famous rook ending of all:  The Lucena position.  The winning method is also called “building the bridge.”

 

Position 17

 

1.Rf1+    Kg6

Here black could try Ke6, but after Ke8 white queens next move.

2.Rf4         Rc1
3.Ke7         Re1+
4.Kd6        Rd1+
5.Ke6         Re1+
6.Kd5        Rd1+
7.Rd4 and wins

 

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