21 October 2016

Playing with Rooks

Lessons for both my beginners and advanced students focused on rooks this week. For the beginners, the lesson focused on an elementary checkmate. The advanced students learned the basic plans for defending the Philidor Position.

Checkmate with Rook and King

White to move

I showed the students two methods and then asked them to practice with a partner. As several of these children are still learning how to set up and move the pieces, mastery of this skill was not expected. We will revisit this skill again later this fall.

First Method:

Drive the enemy king to the last rank, using check when the two kings stand in opposition.


Taking control of the fourth rank confines Black's king to half of the board.

1...Kf5 2.Ke2

White's king moves forward on the file adjacent to the Black's king's file.

2...Kg5 3.Ra4

When the rook is attacked, it runs to the other side of the board.

3...Kf5 4.Ke3 Ke5

White to move

The two kings stand with one square between them on the same file. We call this position opposition. Controlling the opposition is an important element in pawn endings (see "Opposition and Outflanking").

Here, it is time to move the rook forward, checking the king and driving him backwards towards the eighth rank.

5.Ra5+ Kd6 6.Ke4 Kc6 7.Kd4 Kb6 8.Rh5 Kc6

White to move


Moving the rook one square presents Black with a choice: move closer to an edge or take the opposition and be driven back by a check.

9...Kd6 10.Rg6+ Ke7

White continues repeating the same patterned moves, slowly pushing the Black king backwards.

11.Kd5 Kf7 12.Ra6 Kg7 13.Ke5 Kh7 14.Kf5 Kg7 15.Rb6 Kh7 16.Kg5 Kg7 17.Rb7+ Kf8 18.Kg6 Ke8

White to move

19.Kf6 Kd8 20.Ke6 Kc8 21.Rh7 Kb8 22.Kd6 Ka8 23.Kc6 Kb8

White to move

24.Rg7 Ka8 25.Kb6 Kb8 26.Rg8# 1–0

The first method is neither efficient nor elegant, but it has the virtue of being easy to learn. At least some students find it easier to learn. Others might find the second method, the one that I usually teach, just as easy.

Second Method

Confine the enemy king to an ever-shrinking box. Use the rook and king in coordination. A distinctive element of this method is that it can be performed without checks until the final checkmate. The stronger side forces the weaker side back by controlling the desired escape squares.


White's king moves closer. 1.Rf2 also works.

1...Kf5 2.Ke3 Ke5

White to move


In the first method, White would play Rh5+ here. 3.Rd1 confines the Black king to a box bordered by the d-file and the fourth rank.

3...Kf5 4.Rd4

Securing the box.

Black to move


Naturally, Black attempts to provoke an error. How can White make progress now?


White's move does not change the principal feature of the position--the box maintained by the rook. Now, Black must move away from the rook.


White to move


White makes the box smaller. Now the fourth rank and the e-file are the boundaries.

6...Kg5 7.Kd4 Kf5 8.Kd5 Kf6 9.Re5

Black to move

Compare Black's confinement to nine squares after nine moves to the other method where Black still has eighteen squares after the same number of moves.

9...Kf7 10.Re6 Kg7 11.Ke5 Kf7 12.Kf5 Kg7

White to move


Black's king is confined to four squares.

13...Kh7 14.Rg6

And now Black is confined to two squares. Do not confine the king to only one, however, for that would be stalemate.

14...Kh8 15.Kf6 Kh7 16.Kf7 Kh8

White to move

17.Rh6# 1–0

Philidor Position

The defensive technique known as the Philidor position was described in François-André Danican Philidor, Analysis of the Game of Chess (1777). See "Philidor Position: Historical Note" for his analysis.

For my students, I found two games played by chess masters more than a century ago where a Philidor Position arose and was played correctly. Naturally, the stronger side will play many moves in the hope that the other player goes astray due to boredom or time pressure.

My students are accustomed to coming into chess club to find a position on the demo board. They inquire as to who has the move, and then begin suggesting the move they think is best.

I insisten that they needed not a move, but a plan. First, they must ask whether White's position is better, equal, or inferior. Once they determine that it is inferior, they know that a draw would be a good result.

The plan: White occupies the third rank with his rook and maintains it until Black advances the pawn. Then White's rook goes to the eighth rank to endlessly check the enemy king.

Marco,Georg -- Albin,Adolf 
Monte Carlo (11), 1902

White to move


One student may have suggested this move instantly, but it is acceptable only after the plan has been articulated. A chess engine can suggest several moves that lead to a draw. With brute force calculation, the position is not yet critical. Humans need less calculation when they understand the plan.

52...Ra5 53.Rb3 Ra2 54.Rc3 Rd2 55.Rb3 Re2

White to move

Black tries to create complications by contesting the third rank.


The other element of the plan is to keep the king in front of the pawn. In order to play rook endings properly, a player must understand the fundamentals of pawn endings. White could lose here via 56.Ra3 Re3 57.Rxe3?? fxe3 58.Kf1 Kf3-+

56...Rh2 57.Kg1 Rh5 58.Ra3 Rd5 59.Rb3 Kf5 

White to move

60.Kf2 Kg4 61.Ra3 Rd2+ 62.Kf1 Rb2 63.Rc3 Rb4 64.Kg2 Rb2+ 65.Kf1 Kf5 66.Ra3 Rh2 67.Ra5+

Black to move

White is happy to check endlessly from the long side of the pawn. It is worth noting that checks from the short side do not work.


Black returns his king to refuge from checks.


White returns to the third rank.

68...Rd2 69.Rb3 Kf5 70.Ke1 Rd4 71.Ke2 Ke4 72.Ra3 Rb4 73.Kf1 Kf5

White to move

74.Kf2 Kg4 75.Rc3 f3

Having tried a few tricks that failed, Black advances the pawn.

76.Rc8 Rb2+ 77.Kf1 ½–½

Black saw no reason to continue. It had become clear that Marco was a student of Philidor, as all chess players should be.

The second example contains fewer moves.

Winawer,Szymon -- Weiss,Miksa
Vienna (32), 19.06.1882

Black to move


Knowing the plan, students quickly suggested and explained this move.

129.Rh5 Kc7 130.Rh7+ Kc8 131.c5 Rf6 132.Rh5 Rg6

Just shuffle the rook back and forth on the sixth rank as far from the enemy king as possible.

133.Kc4 Kc7 134.Kd5 Rf6 135.Re5 Rh6 136.Re7+ Kc8 137.Ra7 Rg6 138.Kc4 Rh6 139.Kb4 Rg6 140.Rf7 Rh6 141.Rf5 Kc7 142.c6 Rh1 ½–½

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