Sports & Games

Chess 101: What Is a Rook Endgame? Learn How to Win In Rook Endgames

Written by MasterClass

Jul 31, 2019 • 3 min read

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There’s no better way to understand the power of individual chess pieces than by studying endgames. Whereas rooks spend most of the opening and midgame pent up behind other pieces, it’s the ending where they reveal their true potential.

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What Is A Rook Endgame?

Sometimes also called rook and pawn endings, these situations can be highly choreographed affairs, often requiring dozens of moves before checkmate can be achieved. There are hundreds of manuals out there explaining endgame tactics, and it may be worth your while to pick a few and study the practice positions and puzzles you find there.

That said, there are a couple of general principles you can keep in mind. One of the foundational ideas in chess endgame theory is the Philidor Position. Discovered by the French master François-André Danican Philidor in the late eighteenth century, this technique shows how a defending side with a king and a rook can defend to a draw against a king, rook, and pawn advance.

The principles of the position go like this:

  1. The defending king must be on the queening square of the advancing pawn.
  2. The attacking pawn cannot have reached the sixth rank (the defender’s third rank).
  3. The attacking king is beyond the sixth rank (defender’s third rank).
  4. The defending rook is on the third rank.

The main idea here is that the attacking side wants to promote their pawn to a queen. To get the defending king off the queening square, though, the attacker will need to create a threat. What the Philidor Position demonstrates, though, is that with careful play the defender can force a draw by threatening to check the attacking king from behind.

How to Win In Rook Endgames

Sometimes the best you can hope for in a rook and pawn endgame is a draw. If you find yourself on the side with the pawn in a rook and pawn endgame, you might be able to play for a win with the Lucena Position. Where the Philidor can force a draw for the defender, the Lucena can force a win for the attacker with the pawn.

The principles of the Lucena position are:

  1. The pawn can be on any file (except the a- or h-file)
  2. The pawn must have advanced to the seventh (defender’s second) rank
  3. The attacking king must be on the pawn’s queening square
  4. The attacking rook must block the defending king from the pawn by at least one file
  5. The defending rook is on a file on the other side of the pawn

The main idea here is for the attacker to either promote his pawn to a queen or force the defender to exchange her rook for it. In either case the attacker winds up with a decisive advantage in material. The trick is for the attacker to get her king off the pawn’s queening square while also protecting the king from a vertical attack by the defending rook.

The best method involves “building a bridge” from the attacking king to the attacking rook, which can be used to shield the king from the defending rook while the pawn promotes. This involves moving the attacking king in a kind of zig-zag motion toward the attacking rook on the fourth rank. The defending rook will attempt to continually threaten check, but if the defending king is at least two files away, the rook won’t be able to stop the attacking rook and king from connecting, eventually leaving all the attacker’s pieces on the same file.

Real Examples of Rook Endgame Positions

Former World Champion Garry Kasparov has encouraged new players to study as many endgame positions as they can find. Here are a pair of actual endgames taken from some of Kasparov’s own victories. See if you can use the king to find a winning strategy for black.

Chess board diagram in black and white 1

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This first example comes from Kasparov’s victory against the Soviet grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi. Here Kasparov’s active king wins after 1...Ke5 2. d6 Re6+ 3. Kd7 (3. Kf7 Rxd6 4. Rg1 Rd2 wins for Black) 3...Rxd6+ takes advantage of white’s overworked rook.

In this next example, black moves again. See if you can find a winning pin or skewer using the black rook. (There are a couple of possibilities.)

Chess board diagram in black and white 2

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This example comes from Kasparov’s 1996 victory against the former World Champion Veselin Topalov. Kasparov won after 1...c2 and if 2. Rc3 Rc5 is by far the easiest. The 2...Ra3 pin also wins, but there’s some work left to win after 3. Rxa3 c1=Q. Instead, after 2...Rc5, then 3. Rxc5+ Kxc5 4. a7 c1=Q 5. a8=Q Qh1+ skewers the king and queen.

Learn more about chess strategy and endgame positions in Garry Kasparov’s MasterClass.