Today we will talk about rook endgames where one side is trying to create a passed pawn. The first example will show having a rook behind passed pawn is a very big advantage. The second and the third examples show that while the rook in front of the pawn is not that well placed it still can support the pawn well. Sometimes getting an advanced pawn costs nothing, but there are cases when you have to sacrifice pieces to get to a position where your pawn is on the 7th- rank. In the last two examples the defending side had the knight and the rook – not a good combination if you are fighting against far advanced passed pawns. I hope that the following three positions will clarify the process of passed pawn creation.
I think of equilibrium when I look at this position. White is about to transform the potential energy of the position into kinetic by the means of a pawn break. What positional attributes allow him to do so? In my opinion there are two factors that give white an edge: an extra pawn on the queenside and a rook behind that pawn. If black is given time he would advance the kingside pawns with f5-f4, where the advanced e and f – pawns would compensate for white’s b and c pawns.
Notice how white made a window for the king at the very last moment. On the other hand black made sure to create one during the earlier stage of the game which proved to be a fatal mistake. There was no immediate threat of checkmate for black but the threat of the c-pawn promotion was very immediate and black had to parry it with a rook retreat to the 8th rank.
In the above example white’s rook was located perfectly – behind the passed pawn. What about the cases where the rook is in front of the passed pawn? The next example illustrates precisely this scenario where it looks like white is far away from getting any advantage from the position. If black achieves the Rc7-Kd6 blockade on dark squares then it would be very hard for white to break through. The bishop on e8 is under attack and it looks like after Ba4 and Rc7 the position is dead equal. However, it is white to move and there is an option of pushing the b- pawn right away – it is a risky decision as white is losing a piece but if the pawn gets to b7 it would be very hard to stop. A very important factor in evaluating the correctness of the b5- push is to notice that the knight is pinned after K:e8, which is the equivalent of playing without a piece. Let us see how white managed to push the pawn and how far it went.
By the time black unpinned the knight white got the pawn to b7 and practically forced black to give back the piece. White decided to force the events with Ra8 but instead he could have obtained the very same position but with an extra pawn. Also white had to be careful about not ending up in a drawn Q vs. R+N endgame as was the case after Rd8+. Having the rook in front of the advanced pawn might not be as bad as classical endgame books teach. Poor rook position is compensated fully with the strong pawn location tipping the weight for the side with the passed pawn.
Advanced pawns can be weaknesses if the rook does not support them. In the next example the pawn on h6 looks like a weakness as it will fall sooner or later. However, black would need a move to capture it, and as we all know time is very precious and therefore the pawn can be used as a deflection to create play on the queenside. If white does not do anything radical now then black will indeed take the pawn and be better. With the bishop sacrifice white has an unusual opportunity to create another passed pawn on the queenside. The passed pawn on the queenside can turn out to be two passed pawns moreover-- rook-supported, too. The knight on c7 will get in the pawns' way. As we already saw in the previous example-- having knight and rook stopping the pawns is not the best combination as the knight comes under pawn and rook attacks. On the other hand, a bishop would do a better job stopping the pawns as it is a long range piece and it is better in moving away from passed pawns.
The example showed that even a weak passed pawn plays a significant role in endgames. White deflected the black rook to the kingside with it while pushed the b- and c–pawns on the queenside. Two pieces could not cope with three passed pawns.
Next week we will look at how passed pawns are created in minor-piece endgames where rooks are not present.