Chess endgames – Pawn endgames principles



Last year I have had the pleasure of playing in the 2016 edition of the Zalakaros Chess tournament. 

In the first round I have had the opportunity to play the Israeli International Master, Ben Artzi Ido.

In the game, he wasn’t very familiar with the opening. Also, he probably underestimated me a bit and for the most of the opening and the middle game I have had the upper hand.

Unfortunately, I haven’t capitalized on those chances. And managed only to reach an equal endgame.

An equal endgame, in which I got completely trashed.

After the game, I was completely furious and unobjective, and kept blaming my opponent for playing such a tedious, boring chess.

Afterwards, after he won two rook endgames against Grandmasters in the same tournament, I was amazed.

Because I realized that winning in the endgame yields as many tournament and rating points as winning in a brilliant attack.

And considering that majority of players don’t like to play simple and dry positions, perhaps such an approach is even more effective.

Therefore, understanding the quote from the title by Stephan Gerzadowicz is one of the more useful lessons I have learnt throughout my chess career.

Or perhaps I should say, “career”.

Ben Artzi Ido
The Israeli International Master Ben Artzi Ido, from which I got free “Importance of endgame play” lesson


At this point a natural question, written multiple times on this blog already, arises. What is the best way for a beginner to start?

Apart from resisting saying “In the beginning” for the umpteeth time, I will also suggest that starting out with pawn endgames is the most common approach.

I have often seen trainers seting up the chessboard and removing all the major and minor pieces from their starting positions before letting the students play.

Some players might question such an approach considering that pure pawn endgames don’t arise that often in actual chess games, compared to for instance rook endgames.

However, I still think that starting with the pawn endgames is perfectly reasonable because of the following two factors:

  • SIMPLICITY – because of reduced material, pawn endgames are considered as the simplest endgames. The king becomes a major factor which makes learning his typical maneuvres much easier. And those typical maneuvres are applicable for any type of endgame in general. (As Reuben Fine once remarked : “The king is a strong piece. Use it!”)
  • COSTLY MISTAKES – in a typical pawn endgame, playing one bad move usually means the difference between a draw or a win, or even a loss or a win. Additionaly, due to simplicity, learning key maneuvres is less complicated task compared to other types of endgames.

Therefore, I thought it might be a good idea to cover basics of pawn endgames before proceeding to more complicated chess endgames.

I have no idea what the background has to do with chess… but I like the photo nevertheless 😀

One final remark has to be added to complete the picture. The simplicity of the pawn endgames is sometimes double edged. Because often chessplayers fall in the complacency trap and don’t bother to calculate variations in pawn endgames, thinking that everything is self evident and playing on autopilot.

Personally, I don’t know how many games, especially in blitz, I have lost in various tournaments in such a fashion. Which led to the inevitable destruction of the whole inventory of the hotel room I was staying in.

I am just joking though.

I don’t have money for hotels.


Firstly, let’s look at the “simplest” chess position of all times.

This position is very common and indicates that sometimes, being a pawn up might not be enough to win a chess game.

In the diagram position it is clear that if it is Black to move, the game ends immediately with a stalemate (if you forgot what a stalemate is, here is a reminder).

However, if it is White to move, he wins by moving his king to the side:

1 Ke6 (1 Kc6 is more or less the same) Kc7

2 Ke7

The point is obvious now. White first promotes his pawn, then proceeds to checkmate the adversary king. Since the queen checkmate is the fastest and the easiest, it makes sense to promote to a queen, although a rook will also do, as we have also seen on this blog already.

A situation with the flank pawn results in completely different situation.

We see here that there is no way for White to win. Even when he removes his king with

1 Kb6

Black’s king still doesn’t have anywhere to go. Except if you listen to Boris Spassky, who liked to joke that “The king would have gone to a9 if possible”. 

Therefore, the aim of the stronger side is to achieve a position where he is able to win, and avoid all those stalemate draws along the way.

That is why it’s important to be familiar with the typical king maneuvres that constitute the basic pawn endgame principles.


The King Opposition

The opposition of the kings is a position when there is a only one square between them and they restrict each other’s movement.

A typical example of the opposition is shown on diagram below.

This is an example of the so called vertical opposition. We see that the side on the move can’t move it’s king on the squares c5,d5 or e5, and therefore has to move back.

One can also encounter horizontal…

…and diagonal opposition.

The importance of the opposition in the endgame play can never be overemphasized. The opposition is a recurring theme in almost any endgame that appears on the board. And as already mentioned, with limited material on the board, it is probably the key maneuvre in many positions.

As an illustration, take a look at an elementary position shown on diagram below:

It is obvious that the kings are in vertical opposition. Usually in such a position, the side that has to move is in an unfavourable situation. Here this is true as well.

A) Black to move

1… Kc7 2 Ke6

We see that Black has to allow the advance of the White king.

From here, Black can choose multiple continuations, but neither leads to the salvation:

A1) 2… Kd8 3 Kd6!

White grabs the opposition once again. After Black moves, say

3… Kc8 4 Ke7

And the advance and promotion of the pawn is inevitable.

A2) 2… Kc8 3 Ke7

And we have reached the position from the previous diagram one move sooner.

B) The situation is completely different if it is White to move. His king can’t advance, and the position is drawn.

1 Ke5 Ke7!

The only important thing to remember is not to go for the diagonal, but rather vertical opposition. After 1… Kc7?? 2 Ke6 a position winning for White, already examined, would have been reached.

2 Kd5

And White doesn’t have anywhere to go.

Finally, more complex, but still rather understandable type of opposition is the so – called distant opposition.

Consider the following position:

Here, white plays

1 Ke2

Achieving the distant opposition.

We can see that the number of squares between two kings is even.

The play continues

1… Ke7 2 Ke3 Ke6 3 Ke4

And now a vertical opposition is reached:

3… Kd6 4 Kd4!

Not hurrying. 4 Kf5 would allow queening of both pawns at the same time. You can check for yourself.

4… Kc6 5 Ke5

And White will win a pawn and the game.


The Square Rule

The square rule is a rule that gives the answer to the “Can my king catch a pawn” question.

Consider the most primitive position:

The rule is quite simple. First, we draw a square where distance of the pawn to the promotion square is the base, as demonstrated on the diagram above.

If Black’s king finds itself inside the square after finishing his move, then the king will be able to catch the pawn.

In the diagram position, this happens if it is Black to move:

1… Kc3 2 h4 Kd4 3 h5 Ke5 4 h6 Kf6 5 h7 Kg7

We see that even in the final position Black’s king is inside the square.

It has to be mentioned that some of the most beautiful chess studies try to defy the square rule by proving that king can sometimes catch a pawn even when it seems impossible.

The famous Richard Reti study is the most prominent example, but there are others, of course.

The Triangulation

The final principle we will examine is the paradoxical triangulation king maneuvre.

The triangulation refers to the situation where king moves in the “triangle” shape with the intention of losing a tempo. This is typicaly done in endgame positions in order to achieve the same position, only with the opposite side to move.

And before you start bashing me with all kind of “Why the hell would i gief anything to opponent, I am hir to play” questions, take a cookie and take a look at the following position:

This is a position from the Alburt – Kasparov 1978 game.  Here Kasparov was a “mere” 15 year old boy, but already very strong player. Here he outplayed an experienced grandmaster, and finished the game with the help of triangulation.

In the following position, it is important to understand why would Black want to lose a tempo in the first place.

If he tries to be active with:

1 … Kf4 2 Kf2

He can’t make any progress.

Therefore, the right move here is

1… Kf5!

Black tries to lose a tempo.

2 Ke1!

White tries to be clever. If 2 Kf2 Kf4 White’s king is forced back.

2 … Ke5! 

continuation of the triangle maneuvre.

3 Kf1 Ke4!

The starting position is achieved, but with White to move. The arrows form a triangle shape. The triangulation is complete.

White is helpless.

A) 4 Ke1 Ke3 (The opposition!!) 5 Kf1 f2

The Black pawn promotes.

B) 4 Kf2 Kf4 5 Kg1 Kg3

And the h-pawn is falling, which makes the winning task straightforward.


We have arrived to the end of this post. I hope that some of the basic pawn endgame principles are more clear now. In the future posts we will focus on the more complex endgames.

Try not to break any hotel rooms until then 🙂

4 thoughts on “Chess endgames – Pawn endgames principles”

  1. What a nice post you have done. I really enjoy reading your comments on the “simple” pawn endgame, and I fully agree that all new players should concentrate on endgames. Actually there are great possibilities to pick up some easy wins, if you know the endgame well. It is a question of patience and often (in my opinion) a question of knowing where to put your pieces. I understand you were upset with your game against the Israelian IM. Without any analysis it seems to me, that you had the better position for a long time, but suddenly he tricked you. I know the feeling….
    Nice post Vjekoslav, looking forward to the next one….

    1. Yeah well, taking losses in chess is the hardest skill a chessplayer should learn.
      I was, and still am, lacking objectivity in that aspect. Only after sobering after the game can I take a critical look and identify my flaws and shortcomings.
      I will hopefully cover other types of endgames in due time

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *