Rook and Pawn endings are considered by the experts to be amongst the most subtle, tricky and difficult of all endings to master. Within this genre there stands out one class of positions where top level Grandmasters — even World Champions — fail time and time again.
Often, just when a theoretical draw has been reached on the board, the defender frequently manages to lose it! It can be notoriously difficult to find the most precise moves when the clock is ticking. Many championships — national and international — have been won and lost in this ending.
For this reason I like to call the Rook and Knight-Pawn versus Rook ending the The Grandmaster Killer.
Rook and Knight-Pawn vs Rook
This is a 2-part series on this theme. I will assume that the reader already has some instruction on the basic practical concepts, both for the defender and the attacker, especially of the published work done by Grigorieff (1937).
( If not, many endgame manuals offer excellent coverage of this ending. I recommend Basic Chess Endings (R.Fine), Practical Chess Endings (P.Keres), Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (Dvoretsky) or Understanding Rook Endings (Mueller/Konoval) as a good place to start. )
This ending is so DIFFERENT from its cousins: the Rook and Bishop-Pawn vs Rook or the Rook and Centre-Pawn vs Rook. For starters, the ideas of long-side and short-side are just not relevant. And then — while for its cousins cutting the King off by one file is frequently enough for victory — with the Knight pawn one often needs two files (and sometimes even 3 files) for victory!
Next, to make matters worse, the ending with the Knight-Pawn occurs in practice more frequently than both the Center-Pawn and the Bishop-Pawn combined! So you really need to know your stuff.
Finally, these endings are more demanding to calculate over the board, often the variations are longer and contain more finesses. The margin of error is very small: precision, focus and alertness are required at every instance.
My approach in this 2-part series is to present the difficulties in this ending first thru the experiences of Evegeny Bareev — one of the strongest Grandmasters in the world — and then next thru the experiences of Bobby Fischer, perhaps the strongest player of all time.
A personal approach can perhaps give insights that are sometimes lacking in the cold and precise approach of theoretical manuals and might help to deepen your understanding of this imporant ending.
While material is equal for the moment, the Black h-pawn will eventually be lost. For the moment the White King can not advance to h4 because Black will give a check and force it back.
However, White can win the pawn by the following manoeuvres: (a) put his Rook on f3 to defend his pawn, and then (b) advance his King to h4, and finally (if necessary) play Rf3-f6-h6.
As we see, this will take some time for White to achieve, and Black will be able to slide his King towards the Kingside. Objectively the position is drawn, but it is the defender who must prove it.
Remember that the defender needs to get close to the White pawn, within 2 files, for there to be drawing chances. This is an excellent example of Black’s drawing chances as the Black King is really far away on the other side of the board.
Very good technical play by Bareev! An excellent example of how a single slip in this ending by the defender can make all the difference between a draw and a loss. The same story is repeated in the next example…
Spiridonov,N – Bareev,E Budapest 1988
(position after 59 moves)
Another excellent technical demonstration by Bareev. And once more one small slip by the defender is all that it takes to ruin the drawing chances. Never the less, Spiridonov played very well apart from that error.
As an aside, what did we see here? Bareev won two drawn games? Perhaps, but this just emphasizes why this class of Rook endings can be called ‘The Grandmaster Killer!’