One Classic, Tricky and Timeless Rook Endgame to Master

Some weeks ago I was leafing through my old chess mags when suddenly I spotted a classic rook endgame which called my attention. I don’t know where you live, but in the year 1994 not many of my neighbours count on a computer at home —not to mention a chess software. If this is your case accompany me on these notes, we’ll come back to this point at the end.

Surely, rook endgames are the cornerstone of the quintessential chess player. Nevertheless, not many of us dedicate enough time to comprehend the inner laws involved at the core of this matter. The following diagram says something about your knowledge on this particular type of endgame.

This position was part of an article published in the celebrated Spanish magazine OchoxOcho (year I, number 4). It was entitled ‘Five Standard Positions on Rook Endgames’, written by former World Champion Boris Spassky’s second GM Nikolai Krogius. In those days (1994) engines definitely weren’t the first nor the last word of an endgame. Old good days.

Do you accept the draw offer or you smile at it and proceed to crush your opponent’s defense? Let’s put it other way if you prefer. Can White win this rook endgame? I like to think that ninety-nine and nine tenths of the players would play on this position until the very end while only a short bunch of Masters would agree a draw. 1.Kd5isn’t Chess beautiful?

1…Rd8+, going for the draw. Mr Krogius claimed White should win the diagrammed position after 2.Kc6 Re8 3.Kd6 Rd8+ 4.Ke7 due to the lack of minimum distance between the defending rook and the pawn (three squares). But what he forgot was the fact that no more than two files should separate the pawn and the rook in order to achieve victory. Should we move the entire position one square to the left and White would be just winning.

Who would bet in Black’s position with his king cut away from the defense and White’s monarch so deeply involved in the attack? We could propose geniuses like Lucena and Tarrasch as good answers without fear of error. But contemporaries as Karsten Müller and Frank Lamprecht could also be doubled down on the basis of their monumental work ‘Fundamental Chess Endings’ (Gambit). 4…Ra8 5.Rf6+ Kg7 6.Rd6 Ra7+ 7.Rd7 Ra5 8.e6 Ra8 9.Rd6.

Aronian-Carlsen, Tal Memorial 2006 (6), position after 73.Rd6

GM Axel Smith included this same rook endgame in his good book ‘Pump Up Your Rating’ (Quality Chess). There he wrote: ‘The reason I have included this endgame is that it’s quite simple to learn the rules, and yet experience tells me that many strong players don’t know them’. So be not surprised to learn that no other than World Champion Magnus Carlsen lost this position to the Armenian GM Levon Aronian (Tal Memorial, Moscow 2006).

9…Ra7+?, a rather natural check, isn’t it? But it loses on the spot (9…Kg6-g7-g6 draws). 10.Ke8! and Carlsen resigned due to 10…Ra8+ 11.Rd8 Ra6 12.e7 Ra7 13.Rd2 Kf6 menacing the pawn ( the alternative is 13…Ra8+ when 14.Kd7 Ra7+ 15.Ke6 Ra6+ 16.Rd6 Ra8 17.Rd8 and eventually Black will run out of checks ) 14.Kf8 what a move! 14…Rxe7 15.Rf2+ Ke6 16.Re2+ winning the rook.

Call me a romantic but I enjoy thinking of those times when Masters would sit at the light of candles unveiling obscure endgame’s secrets for the mortals. Engines didn’t exist though the precision and correctness of those studies make one get goosebumps. That’s part of the magic of chess. Nowadays there’s this abuse of modules and a lack of respect for the artists.

It doesn’t matter your chess strength. Turn off your engine and sit in front of the board to revise these kind of positions, just as GM Nikolai Krogius did in 1994 to write his article on this rook endgame. You can go right or you can go wrong, but definitely you’ll be nearer the truth than watching the machine do it. In Dana Mackenzie‘s words: ‘Once you have looked at the computer, in my opinion, you forfeit your right to say anything negative about the human players.’

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