Pawn Endings

Pawn endings are also called “King-and-Pawn endings” or “King endings”. They are endgames where each player has only pawns, and obviously has their King as well.

Pawn endings are tricky. Beginners typically only understand the basics of pushing a passed pawn. Intermediate players often fail to understand the subtle play and nuances possible in these endgames. There is an immense amount of “theory” about endgames.

Some of the basic ideas in pawn endgames include:

  • Passed pawns: a passed pawn is one that can run to the end of the board, with no enemy pawn in front of it, and no enemy pawn on either side that could capture it.
  • Push passed pawns: the basic idea is to Queen a pawn, so if you have a pawn that can run to the queening square, then push it.
  • Block passed pawns with the King: if the opponent has a passed pawn, then try to get the King to that pawn. Maybe you can capture it, or you can at least block it with the King.

Some intermediate ideas on pawn endings include:

  • Rule of the Square: this is a way of determining whether the King will reach the Queening square of a pawn in time to stop it.
  • Centralize the King: the King becomes an attacking piece in the pawn endgames. It should come to the center.
  • Invade with the King: not only is the King good in the center of the board, but it’s even better in amongst the enemy pawns. If you can get your King into the enemy pawns, but keep the enemy King away from your pawns, that’s usually a won game.
  • Pawn Races: a lot of King and pawn endings involve each player attacking the enemy’s pawns on opposite sides. It’s then a race to see who can clear the path for one of their own pawns to queen. It’s a race.

Some of the more advanced ideas about pawn endings include:

  • Pawn majority vs pawn minority: It is important to know which side has a pawn majority or pawn minority. A pawn majority can often create a passed pawn. The procedure to create a passed pawn from a pawn majority must be understood, and also varies somewhat depending on the pawn configuration.
  • Doubled pawns: a pawn majority is often useless if it contains doubled pawns. An extra pawn often cannot become a passed pawn in a pawn majority with any pair of doubled pawns. This is the most important exception about pawn majorities.
  • Counting: the generalization of the rule of the square is to “count” how many moves each player needs to get a Queen. This applies to both a King stopping a passed pawn, and also to Pawn Races (how many moves will each player require to get a Queen; who Queens first?).
  • Supported passed pawns: the best type of passed pawns are ones that are not only passed, but also supported by another of your pawns.
  • Connected passed pawns: two connected pawns that are both passed can also be very strong. The King actually cannot win them, because they can “indirectly defend” each other.
  • Outside passed pawns: it is often better to have an outside passed pawn, such as a rook pawn or a Knight pawn, rather than a “central passed pawn” (unless your enemy has something even better like a “supported passed pawn”)

Some more advanced ideas include:

  • The Opposition: this is a zugzwang issue in King and pawn endings. There is also the important aspect of “spare pawn moves”. Often you can invade with your King if you can force the enemy King into the opposition, whence it must move aside to let your King in.
  • Swap pawns to draw: if you are losing (e.g. a pawn down), it is often best to swap pawns. But it depends a lot on the position. Sometimes the winner needs to swap pawns in order to create a passed pawn. This rule has a lot of exceptions in pawn endings.
  • Blocked pawn majority: a pawn majority is of little value if the enemy’s pawns are holding them back. There are many positions where a pawn minority can block up the position so that none of the pawn majority’s pawns can move without capture.
  • Vertically separated passed pawns are weak: if you have one pawn that is far advanced, and another passed pawn still back at home, they are both weak. The enemy King can usually hunt down the far advanced pawn, and then block or capture the other one.
  • Horizontally separated passed pawns are strong: the enemy King usually cannot win or block two passed pawns, even if they are separated by ranks (so they cannot protect each other). The rules about Kings versus separated passed pawns are complicated: it depends on how many ranks apart, and how far forward each pawn it.
  • Queen vs Pawn Endings: a lot of Pawn Races end up with one player Queening a move or two earlier than the other player. Then one player has a Queen, and the other player has only a pawn on the 6th or 7th rank, about to Queen. Counting of pawn races has to correctly identify whether both players will Queen on the same move, or whether one player will have a pawn left (on the 7th). Usually the Queen will then win in such positions, but there are important drawing exceptions.
  • Queening combinations: Even in simplified pawn endings, there are still some tactical tricks. It is important to learn some of the basic combinations whereby a Queen might be created in a non-obvious way.
  • King-and-Pawn vs King endings: Only one pawn left. Who wins? These simplified endings of “K+P vs K” often arise at the end of a King and pawn ending, after the other pawns have been swapped. The pawn can often win, but not always. Sometimes stalemate occurs.

Some of the very advanced ideas in pawn endings include:

  • Distant opposition and Related Squares: this is the generalization of “the opposition” to situations where the Kings are further apart.
  • Triangulation: this is a King manoeuvre to try to use extra space to get the opposition.
  • Pawn race tactics: There are a lot of tactical tricks in pawn races where both sides are rushing to create a passed pawns. Sometimes there are non-obvious tactical combinations. Typically, they involve a pawn sacrifice. It may be faster to get a Queen by sacrificing a pawn, rather than trying to use the King to eliminate all enemy pawns in the way. It is very important to correctly identify these ideas when using “counting” to assess a pawn race.
  • Fortress: Sometimes you can create a fortress where the enemy King can never enter your side of the board. This is a draw. Neither player can make any progress.
  • K+P vs K exceptions (stalemate defences): Some of the pawn endings will end in stalemate. The best known exception to the win is a “rook pawn” which draws by stalemate. But surprisingly, lots of other pawns can also draw by stalemate, depending on the King configuration. Generally, the King must defend its own pawn’s advance from the front of that pawn. The King must push the enemy King away before the pawn advances. If you just push a passed pawn, with your King behind, it will usually become a draw by stalemate.
  • Rook pawns are drawish: Because of the drawing defences to rook pawns, they are the worst pawns to have. Although a rook pawn can be a winner as an “outside passed pawn”, you still don’t want to be left with only rook pawns.
  • Small pawn majority beats large pawn majority: This is a very advanced strategy where each player has a pawn majority vs pawn minority on the opposite side of the board. Who’s going to win? The idea is simply that a small pawn majority like 2-1 beats a larger pawn majority like 3-2 or 4-3. And a 3-2 should beat a 4-3. The smaller pawn majority takes a shorter amount of time to create a passed pawn. (This assumes no doubled pawns or blocked positions preventing the creation of a passed pawn.)