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Knight Mates

Endgame Fundamentals: Knight Mates

By Donny Gray

Basic mates are those that you can force with the barest of material with your king. Examples would be king and queen, king and rook, king and two bishops, and everyone’s favorite: king and bishop plus knight. What you don’t see in this list is the mate with king and two knights. The reason it is not in my list is because you cannot force it!

No matter how hard you try, you just cannot force a mate with only two knights. It is a crying shame to be up two full pieces and still not win, but that is chess! Grand Master Edmar Mednis once stated that this inability to force checkmate with two lone knights is “one of the great injustices of chess.”

Having this ending come up in real games does happen more than you would imagine. At one of the past Land of the Sky tournaments in Asheville, NC, I had to play Grandmaster Alexander Stripunsky. For those that do not know, GM Stripunsky is not your everyday run-of-the-mill Grandmaster. He won the USCF Grand Prix in 1998 and tied for first in the 2005 U.S. Championship!

During our game he pretty much pushed me around for about 20 moves, became bored, and apparently went to sleep. Without warning, and to both our surprise, I made a terrific tactical shot and was up material!!

The excitement grew with each move as I saw no way for him to save the game. But all of my joy went out the window when he made a brilliant sacrifice and all I could do was stare in wonder. If I accepted the sacrifice, he would–on purpose–leave me two entire pieces up!! However, they would be knights and I would not be able to win. To my dismay, the game ended in a draw. He was able to save the game and not lose because he knew about the two knights’ inability to checkmate.

It is possible to set up positions on the board where two knights can checkmate the opposing king. But you just cannot force it. It is an easy defense. The reason it is so easy is the player simply has to avoid moving into a position in which he or she can be checkmated on the next move, and always has another move available in such situations. The player with the lone king simply has to make a horrible blunder to fall into mate.
The great Grandmaster Paul Keres once showed the following example:

 

34-1

1.Nf8    Ng8
2.Nd7   Kh8
3.Nd6   Kg8
4.Nf6+ Nh8??
5.Nf7++

But as stated before, there is always a move that does not allow mate.  So WAY better was
4.Nf6+ Kf8

And there is no mate or any progress. Back to square one.

Once during a game between two famous Grandmasters, Pal Benko and David Bronstein, the following position occurred on their board.

 

34-2

 

Here we pick up the game Benko vs. Bronstein. It is white’s turn after 105 moves!

106.Nh2+

This knight move not only forks the black king and one of the knights, it sacrifices itself for no compensation. But after black played a quick Nh2, the game was called a draw, as black was left with two knights.

But not all is hopeless if you have the two knights, as long as your opponent has something else on the board. In fact, if you have just one knight some amazing things can happen. In the following example, at first look it seems white should just call it a day and resign. After all, black has three connected passed pawns storming down the board! But looking a bit deeper we find that white can force a win with his lone knight!

 

34-3

 

1.Ng4+ Kh1
2.Kf1     f3
3.Kf2    h2
4.Kf1    f2
5.Nf2#

Mate with two knights against a lone king, as we have found out, is indeed impossible to force. However, if your opponent has something else on the board, then things change. In certain cases, if the other side has a pawn, the way to victory is to block the pawn with one knight and use the king and other knight to force the opposing king into a corner. Then when the block on the pawn is removed, the knight can be used to checkmate.

 

34-4

 

Our last example is a famous position. This mate would not be possible if black did not have the pawn.

1.Ne4    d2
2.Nf6+ Kh8
3.Ne7   d1-Q
4.Ng6#

 

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