Pawn Endgames - The Definitive Guide

King and pawn endgames have the look of the simplest endings in town but beware. These harmless looking epilogues can be filled with well camouflaged booby traps. If you can see the traps coming and avoid them you can reduce these endgames to a systematic math test.

The Kings are the central players in the plot. They wrestle for dominance and the right to push forward. They look to penetrate through to the key squares where they can pave the way to victory.

Outside passed pawns will also swing the pendulum in your favor. Fixing entire wings with one timely pawn advance can allow you vital time to operate on the other side with your King. These endgames are chess in it's purest form.

King and Pawn vs King

King and Pawn vs King

Pawn Endgames: Play for the Key Squares - White to move will play Kc5, taking the opposition. After Black moves White will then be able to move his King on to one of the 3 key squares, winning the game

Winning a key square for your King is the key to a successful conclusion to this endgame. With it he can make inroads into the defending King's position and force the promotion of his pawn.

Let's say your pawn is still in your half of the board. The key squares are the three squares, two ranks ahead of the pawn, on the same file as the pawn and on the adjacent files. When your pawn moves into your opponent's half it now has six key squares. The three on the rank in front of the pawn, on the same file and the two adjacent files, and the three directly in front of those.

You need to get your King in front of the pawn and on one of these key squares to win. Don't advance the pawn to the 6th rank before the King or you'll never be able to get him in front of the pawn. The victory will slip through your fingers.

King and Pawn vs King and Pawn

King and Pawn vs King and Pawn

King and Pawn vs King and Pawn - White to move wins through opposition, slowly driving the Black King away from his pawn before capturing it and promoting his own

If you end up in a King and Pawn vs King and Pawn endgame, there are a few parameters that can influence the result. If they are on different files and are not adjacent to each other then it comes down to a race. King positioning will often have a decisive effect.

If they are on adjacent files and are not passed then it should be a draw. If the pawns are on the same file and meet head on, the Kings will have a major impact on the outcome. Opposition in it's various forms, zugzwang, outflanking and triangulation can all come into the mix as the Kings try to push one another away from their pawns.

Trebuchet often seals the deal. The player without the opposition might be advised to let his pawn fall and get his King into position to assume the opposition, preventing progress of his opposite number on to the key squares.

Pawn Races

Reti's Composition

Pawn Endgames: Reti's Composition - The game goes: 1.Kg7! h4 [1...Kb6 2.Kf6 h4 3.Ke5 h3 4.Kd6 h2 5.c7 Kb7 6.Kd7=] 2.Kf6! Kb6 [2...h3 3.Ke7 h2 4.c7 Kb7 5.Kd7=] 3.Ke5! Kxc6 [3...h3 4.Kd6 h2 5.c7 Kb7 6.Kd7=] 4.Kf4 h3 5.Kg3 h2 6.Kxh2=

A lot of pawn endgames are decided by pawn races. Both sides might have an unassailable passed pawn. The pawns in question are in distant lanes and do not interfere with each other. The Kings are out of position and can't effect things.

It simply comes down to who promotes first. Victory is usually a formality. If the second pawn promotes directly after the first on the very next move this often means a draw.

The beautiful thing about pawn endgames is that there are some exceptional circumstances that can turn this usually dependable rule of thumb on it's head.

In Reti's Composition with White to move, it seems the Black pawn is unassailable and the vulnerable White pawn is covered. But pawn endgames look so simple and yet conceal the most marvelous complexities. The apparently won game is actually drawn. Incredibly White can save it.

Passed Pawns

Passed Pawns

The Passed Pawn wins the game for Black

Passed pawns are extremely valuable at any stage of the game because they force your opponent to devote resources to block it. It becomes worth it's weight in gold in the endgame and especially in a pawn endgame.

The passed pawn is often sacrificed for a greater purpose. It can drag a defending King out of position when he is forced to capture it to prevent promotion. This allows the attacking King to move in on the enemy pawns, gobble them up and secure promotion for his own.

Sometimes when both sides have passed pawns the game is decided by the pawn that is furthest away from the action. We call this pawn an outside passed pawn. This is the best passed pawn because the King is forced to travel the farthest to deal with it and you can get your own King back to the main battle quicker. This should win you the game.

Rook Pawns

Rook Pawns

Pawn Endgames: Rook Pawns don't always win you the game

Rook pawns give rise to all sorts of anomalies due to the lack of scope on the edge of the board. They are easier to defend against than any other pawn. If the defending King can get in front of a rook pawn he cannot be forced out and the game is drawn.

Even if the defending King can't get in front of the pawn he can still thwart the stronger side sometimes. If the attacking King must clean out a defending pawn in front of the rook pawn, the defending King can often trap his opposite number in front of his own pawn, preventing promotion.

There are some themes including lock downs, stalemates and shuffling that a defending King can use to keep a rook pawn at bay. Generally they only tend to promote if they are passed and the defending King is caught behind the pawn or on the other side of the board.

Holding Out for a Draw


Gligoric - Fischer: Black to move plays 57...Kb8! Any other move would have lost. But the text move allows Black to step in and take the opposition on the next move when the White King steps into the fifth rank. Black will then step in directly opposite denying White access to any of the 3 key squares on the sixth rank. White agrees to draw.

When you find yourself on the ropes in a pawn endgame, you might want to start thinking of ways to draw the game. You're looking to trigger themes that give you an escape route.

Let's say you've simplified down to a King and Pawn vs King endgame. Let's say the pawn is on the second rank. If you can't capture the pawn get your King in front of it. If possible prevent the enemy King from getting in front of the pawn. Force him back behind it.

If this is not possible get the opposition and prevent the enemy King from outflanking you, pushing you back. If you have the opposition you can prevent progress by shadowing the enemy King with your own. If all of that fails let's hope it's a rook pawn and your King can take up residence in the corner.

Pawns on the Same Wing

Pawns on the same wing

Pawn Endgames: White has a pawn majority and needs to create a passed pawn to win

If all of the pawns are on the same wing it comes down to who has a majority. If you and your opponent have an equal amount of pawns then it should be a draw assuming there is no structural defects.

If you're down one pawn you may still be able to hold for a draw. You must trade down to a drawn King and Pawn vs King endgame. You have to play for a position where you either hold the opposition with the enemy pawn not further than the fourth rank or you have the enemy King locked behind the pawn or in the case of a rook pawn you have access to the corner for your King.

If you find yourself winning one of these endgames you should only trade down in such a way that you end up with a passed pawn. Then you can either promote it or use it to drag the enemy King out of position, allowing your King to penetrate and get a winning position.

Pawns on Both Wings

Central Fight for Opposition

Both Kings will try to push the other back. The central control of squares by pawns will have a bearing.

When both sides have pawns on both wings and they are balanced the outcome will hinge on centralization. Both Kings have to race out of their bunkers and claim the center of the board.

The winner of the race to the center can break into the enemy camp and help himself to hostile pawns. He will then get one of his own pawns set up for promotion. If the two Kings reach the center at the same time it will come down to who can get the opposition and drive the other back.

The tussle for opposition can be influenced by the exact arrangement of the pawns. A pawn may be controlling a corresponding square that a defending King needs to stop his opposite number from taking a key square. That would be enough to turn the game in the attacker's favor.

Pawns on Opposite Wings

Pawns on Opposite Wings

Pawn Endgames: Usually when pawns promote one after another it's a drawn game. But here next to move wins as the newly promoted Queen will control the queening square of the enemy pawn

If you have pawns on opposite wings it should come down to a race. Things like King positioning and who has the most advanced pawn should be decisive. The nature of trades will not figure as the pawns are not directly facing each other.

Pawn majorities don't carry as much weight for the same reason. One advanced passer will beat three or four second rank pawns if the defending King is outside the square of the pawn.

A dominant King can turn the tide in your favor. Get your King in front of the enemy pawns and if one of yours can break away from the enemy King you're home and hosed.

Majority Breaks Through

Queenside Breakthrough

Black can force a breakthrough with ...b5!

When you have a pawn majority you want to create a passed pawn. Your opponent will try to trade down in a way that is favorable to him. What you need from any trade is to get a pawn clear of the enemy pawn chain.

The right pawn trade will create a passer. When your opponent takes and you take back, your capturing pawn will have a clear run free from the defending pawns. Or else the capturing pawn may leave a gap for one of your previously blocked pawns to take advantage of.

You will then be able to use this outside passer to either promote or preoccupy the defending King while you clean out his pawns. It should then be a simple case of pushing the remaining pawns down the board against the defenseless King.

Maneuvering for Position

Chess Strategy: Triangulation in the chess endgame

Pawn Endgames: If it is Black to move he loses. If it is White to move he needs a plan to gain opposition and force the win

Very often the Kings will centralize and battle for dominance. Who can drive the other back and penetrate? Who can lose a tempo when needed and inflict zugzwang?

Good technique is the difference in these positions. The ability to implement opposition, zugzwang, triangulation, outflanking all come to the fore. Recognizing some of the standard exceptional positions as they arise is also key.

Sometimes you have the perfect position. You just wish the other guy had the move. You can pass it to him using triangulation. Drop a tempo and return to the same position with your opponent to move. He is in zugzwang.

Good Rules of Thumb

Pawn Endgames Rules of Thumb

The Kings need to centralize

  1. Get your King on the front foot with centralization
  2. Get your King in front of your pawn
  3. Avoid unfavorable pawn trades if you have a majority
  4. Play for favorable trades if you have a minority
  5. Create passed pawns
  6. Passed pawns must be pushed

Moving On

Pawn endgames are unpredictable in a way that the uninitiated may not suspect. They look deceptively simple but conceal all sorts of surprising tactical bombs that can go off at any time. Enter with trepidation along with excitement.

When you can play pawn endgames you can say with confidence that you can play chess. This is the most simplified form in terms of material if not predictability. From here on out it will be a case of adding more characters to the mix and learning how they effect the game.

The first character we're going to add to our Kings and pawns will be the Queen. She's not the most regular guest star in the endgame but does of course play a part sometimes. Queen and pawn endgames have a few surprises of their own.

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