Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Don't Trade Your Rooks

I become frustrated with players frequently, but I only get angry in rare circumstances. One of those circumstances is when a player voluntarily trades his last piece to reach a lost king and pawn ending. Consider the following position that arose in the MSL Tournament:

Fig. 1

White is dead lost here. There are pawns on both sides of the board and Black has a healthy extra pawn. Since he can obtain a passed pawn any time he wants by ...a6 and ...b5, White has to keep his king on that side of the board to defend. That leaves the Black king free to run over to the other side of the Board and pick off White's g-pawn and h-pawn. If Black's extra pawn was doubled or backward, White might have a chance, but Black's extra pawn is healthy so the position is hopeless for White. If all the pawns were on one side of the board, White might be able to trade down to a drawn king and pawn verses king ending, but with pawns on both sides, that's not going to happen.

With a couple of rooks on the board, White chances are much improved.

Fig. 2

Black should be able to win this ending with his extra pawn and better pawn structure, but it is not a lock. At some point, Black will want to attack the White pawns with his rook, but if he is not careful, he will find his own pawns falling as well. Such endings are often drawn as a result of all the pawns getting traded off. Unfortunately, White played 1.d4 cxd4 2.Rxd4 Rxd4 3.Kxd4 and reached the dead lost position in Figure 1.

Here is another dead drawn position from the MSL Tournament:

Fig. 3

Black has more space and a more mobile king, but the White rook can prevent his king from ever getting close enough to the White pawns. All White has to do is put his rook on the 8th rank and keep the Black king cutoff.

About the best that Black can hope for is to reach a position like the following:

Fig. 4

Unfortunately, Black still can't take the f-pawn because he will lose his rook. 1...Rxf3 2.Ra2+ Ke3 3.Ra3+ Ke2 4.Rxf3.

So the position in Figure 3 should be drawn and the players in fact agreed to a draw after a couple more moves. Those moves were 1. Re1 Kd5 2. Rf1 Kd4 3. Rf2 Rd1+ 4.Rf1 Rxf1+ 5. Kxf1 Ke3 6. Kg2 1/2-1/2. Although the players agreed to a draw and the material is even, White is now dead lost.

Fig. 5

All Black needs to do is play 6...Ke2 and the White king must give way 7.Kh2 Kxf3. 8.Kg1 Kg3 9.Kh1 Kxh3 and all the White pawns fall.

It is never a good idea to trade off your last piece if the resulting king and pawn ending is a loser. You almost always have better chances of making a comeback with pieces on the board, even if those chances are only marginally better. With rooks, however, the chances are often dramatically better with Rooks. If you add a pair of knights to the position in Fig. 5, White's hopes would improve, but Black still would have excellent winning chances. However, if you add a pair of rooks, Black's hopes evaporate and the position is dead drawn.

Here's the lesson to remember: If your only reasonable hope is a draw, unless you can clearly see how you will get it in the king and pawn ending, keep the rooks on the board.


  1. A general rule with many exceptions: when trying to win, trade pieces; when trying to draw, trade pawns.

  2. I am happy to report that the player who traded down to a lost king and pawn ending at Conference managed to draw a rook and pawn ending at State despite being down two connected passed pawns. If I can get the score from him, I will post it. If I had known getting mad at him would work, I would have done so a long time ago. Unfortunately he is a senior and won't be back next year.