Endgame Essentials: Battle of the Better-Placed Rook

In last Tuesday’s post, we discussed how the king is a vital resource in various practical endgames, and how it’s safety can shape the outcome. By trapping our opponent’s pieces with our activity, we offer ourselves good winning chances and the ability to press for a result. However, there are many cases where this is simply not possible. Perhaps the position is too simplified, or our opponent has too many avenues of play at his disposal. In such cases, it’s important to stay active and take note of small advantages like better-placed pieces. In today’s post, I wish to share four of Carlsen’s endgames to show how simply having a slightly better-placed rook can make a slight advantage decisive.

Carlsen in 2008

Our first example comes from Magnus’ win over the then reigning World Champion, Viswanathan Anand.

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White to Move

Carlsen – Anand, 2008

In this study-like endgame, Carlsen holds an extra pawn, but if he isn’t careful, Black’s passed d-pawn can become a major nuisance. To make the position a little simpler, Carlsen first stretches Anand’s defenses. This is the first step towards claiming an advantage. 40. h4 Kd4 41. h5 d5 42. h6 Ra7 43. Kf3 Rh7

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In just three moves, the balance of the game has changed. Black’s rook, now on h7, has much less scope than it did on a3. Sure, the h-pawn can no longer advance, but in driving away the rook, White’s king is more mobile and can target Black’s weak pawns. Before going through with this plan, Carlsen should protect the pawn on h6. Which option is better, Re1-h1 or Re1-e6?

44. Re6!!

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The most active choice, and the starting point of today’s lesson. While it may have seemed more natural to slide behind the passed h-pawn, Black has made it clear that this pawn is going nowhere. If Carlsen had instead gone to h1, his rook would have been just as passive as Black’s. By going to e6, not only does White protect the pawn, but he keeps control of the e-file while maintaining the ability to play on the sixth rank to slow Black’s d-pawn. Meanwhile, White’s king can aid the h-pawn on it’s journey to promotion – Anand’s rook defense is only temporary.

Admittedly, this isn’t that difficult to find, but in analyzing this position, we give ourselves a ground to compare pieces. In this case, the e6 rook is much better than its counterpart on h7 because it offers White more options to proceed with the game. Anand struggled for a few more moves, but the game is already lost.

44…Kc3 45. Rc6+ Kd3 46. Kf4

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And so we see another way to win an endgame. Rather than limiting our opponent’s play, we can stretch our opponent’s play across the board.

46…Rf7 47. Kg5 Ke2 48. Rd6 1-0

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Anand throws in the towel here, as the rook-pawn is enough for White due to the considerable distance from Black’s king. With simplification being the only real option, Anand confirmed what we knew four moves ago.

Our next example offers a little more material for each side, but once again, the better-placed rook is the deciding factor!

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White to Move

Carlsen – Leko, 2008

Already we can see that Carlsen has succeeded in making Leko’s life difficult, but even with some minor piece restriction, there’s still a little work to do. As you may have guessed, White will try to win Black’s d5 pawn to gain two queenside passed pawns.

46. Nc7 Bf8?!

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Black ditches his pawn, hoping that he can get his pieces into the game with some drawing chances. I was surprised that Leko didn’t try 46…Rd8  but after some forcing play from White, Black’s position is pretty hopeless too: 47. Be5 Rd7 48. Ne6 Bxe5 49. Nf8+ +-

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If Black tries to do too much with 47… Bf8, we reach the theme of paralysis once again with the move 47. Re2!, the idea being to infiltrate the 7th rank from a7, and all the sudden Black has to defend himself from ugly mating threats.

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So instead, Leko gives Magnus the pawn in the hope of putting up some resistance.

47. Nxd5 Kg7 48. Kf3

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Classic Carlsen. As we’ve come to learn in these last two posts, it’s extremely important to improve your position as much as possible before going forth with a winning plan. This move offers an example of consolidation while offering the King’s resources to the attack.

48…Kf7 49. Nb6 Rc6

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And now the position doesn’t seem so difficult to convert. From c6, the Black rook doesn’t really offer any function, while the e3 rook cuts off Black’s king.

50. Nd7 Bg7 51. Be5 Bf8 52. d5

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It would be an exaggeration here to say that Black’s defenses are stretched here, but his inability to create counterplay is Leko’s biggest burden. Carlsen decides to gain some tempi at the expense of Black’s passivity.

52…Rc4 53. d6 Rc6 54. Nxf8!

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An important trade, as Carlsen eliminates one of Black’s best “defenders”. Now the knight on g8 is trapped forever, and White will have as much time to improve his position as he needs. Watch how Carlsen refuses to push the d6 pawn until his c-pawn is advanced and his king is in the game.

54…Kxf8 55. Bf4 Rc8 56. Ke2 Kf7 57. Kd3 Rd8 58. c4 1-0

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Leko resigns as Carlsen’s intentions are clear. White’s king will march to d5, along with the c-pawn, which will quickly make way down the board. For Carlsen, I’m sure this endgame didn’t pose much of a problem, but from a technical point of view, it shows the overlap between better-placed pieces and limiting activity. If we can cramp our opponent’s pieces, we in turn have better pieces to stretch out their defenses. Should we stretch out the opponent, we can often limit their hand and thus dominate the board. Of course, chess isn’t so linear, but it’s always important to ask ourselves 1) how can we stop our opponent’s counterplay? and 2) how can I improve my position? While these are important questions to ask in each phase of the game, the endgame demands that we take these into consideration since timing is extremely crucial.

This next endgame is the most challenging position in today’s post:

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White to Move

Carlsen – Eljanov, 2008

White is two pawns up, but it’s not so easy to convert. As you may know, a 4 v 3 pawn and rook endgame is a famous theoretically drawn position, and here it’s not so clear how the added c-pawn will help with each side possessing a pair of rooks. Carlsen makes the practical decision to weaken Black’s structure.

31. Bxe6 fxe6 32. f3

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By trading the pair of bishops, Carlsen has created an isolani on e6. But the question remains, what has gained? Let’s take a look at a similar position:

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Just by taking off the c5 pawn, we have a drawn rook ending where White doesn’t even have the hope of creating a passed e-pawn. So arguably, you could say White hurt his winning chances, right? Let’s take a look at the game position again:

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 14.35.17

I’m sure Carlsen recognized that without the c-pawn he can’t win, but he needed more weaknesses to make the c-pawn more valuable. In the starting position, White couldn’t hope to queen his passed pawn against Black’s forces, and the f7-g6-h7 structure was too solid to really find a breakthrough. By trading on e6, White causes structural damage and hopes to execute the principle of two weaknesses. Carlsen cannot win by force, so he intends to do so by stretching Eljanov’s rooks to the defense of the e6 pawn and preventing the c-pawn’s promotion. Are the two weaknesses far enough? This is the debate for the next ten moves.

32…Rd2 33. h4!

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This move opens a route for Carlsen’s king, as well as offers potential kingside play with h4-h5 ideas. When trying to play against two weaknesses, it’s important to bring in as many pieces as possible to exert the most pressure.

33…Kf7 34. Rf2

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Before running to h2, Carlsen forces Eljanov’s rook on to a more passive square. From d2, Black could put pressure on g2 as well as control the d-file. This tempo costs White nothing, and in turn Black’s rook does much less on d1.

32…Rd1+ 35. Kh2 Kf6 36. Kg3 Rc6 37. Ra2

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White still has an advantage, but it’s extremely slight. Eljanov has done well to defend the two weaknesses, so White must continue to find ways to improve the position. Here Carlsen finds a superior square for the rook on f2, where it now has the ability to play down the board. It doesn’t seem like much, but three moves ago, this rook was doing nothing on f1, now it’s the best rook on the board!

37…Rb1 38. Ra7 h5 39. Kf4 e5+

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This was more or less forced from Black, but what did Carlsen achieve from Black’s pawn push? It’s important to remember that this e-pawn is still isolated, so arguably it will be harder to protect on e5 without the support from c6 than it was on e6. But Carlsen thought even deeper. Black’s king is lacking squares which lead Carlsen on to the winning idea…

40. Kg3 Rb5 41. Rd3!

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Perhaps the two weaknesses were too close for Carlsen to make the most out of them, but without having done so, he would not have had the opportunity to trade weaknesses! It’s clear that the c-pawn is going nowhere, so Carlsen gives it up to pursue a weak king. Another way to consider this move is that it activates White’s last rook. Since our analysis began, White has not been able to effectively use this rook because it’s been tied to the pawn. Just as I mentioned last post, activity can be more important than material, and here’s just another case. Meanwhile, Eljanov’s rooks are doubled on the c-file, pointing nowhere.

41…Rbxc5 42. Rdd7 Rc1 43. Rf7+Ke6 44. Rg7

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With the threat of mate, White lures Black’s king back to f6, allowing Carlsen to fully regroup and take Black’s kingside pawns with him.

Kf6 45. Raf7+ Ke6 46. Rf8 1-0

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Black cannot save the kingside from falling apart, and all resulting endgames will be lost.

This was a particularly impressionable endgame, because Carlsen managed to win by finding minor improvements along the way, particularly focusing on the placement of rooks. Through the use of the principle of two weaknesses, Eljanov was stretched just enough to create a third, which is just enough to have a decisive position.

By 2009, Carlsen had already captured the attention of most of the chess world and was only years out from his first World Championship.

For our last position, I wanted to share a case where better-placed rooks offer pleasant tactical simplifications into won endgames.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 15.23.47
White to Move

Carlsen – Grischuk, 2009

Well, you can probably predict what I’m going to say here – Black’s rooks are extremely passive, especially the rook on b8, chained to the b7 pawn. That being said, can you find the tactical solution Carlsen found to take this advantageous position into a winning one?

28. Rxf6! gxf6 29. Nd7 +-

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Even if Carlsen wasn’t guaranteed his material back, the exchange sacrifice was enough to damage Black’s position beyond repair. Given a choice between allowing a fork on f6 or giving back the exchange on b8, Grischuk desperately tries to find counterplay.

29…f5 30. c4 a5 31. c5 Bg7 32. Nxb8 Rxb8

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Sure, the position has opposite-colored bishops but given the advances of White’s queenside majority and Black’s displaced b8 rook, that doesn’t matter now. How did Carlsen put this game away?

33. Ba6!

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Black doesn’t have time to take the bishop since White’s pawns are moving too quickly. As Grischuk was to discover, however, the bishop has to be taken at some point.

33…Bf6 34. Bxb7 Rxb7 35. c6

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As goes the general rule, two passed pawns beat a rook. Here, with a rook on d1, Carlsen shows that the added f6 bishop doesn’t help Black’s cause.

35…Rxb6 36. Rc1!

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An important insertion, as 36. c7? would allow 36… Rc6! and Black is holding. A nice way to end the day’s lesson, as White’s rook places itself better than Black’s one last time.

36…Bxb2 37. d7 1-0

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And Grischuk understandably resigns here. A nice tactical display by the future World Champion!

I hope these last two posts have given you all a lot more insight into active endgame play. In each case, Carlsen found ways to maximize his advantages by either limiting his opponent or stretching them across the board. While the two can overlap, they aren’t necessarily interchangeable, and one must be used as a means of achieving the other.

2 thoughts on “Endgame Essentials: Battle of the Better-Placed Rook

  1. Pingback: Endgame Essentials: Woes of the Inferior Pawn Structure – chess^summit

  2. Pingback: The Southern Open: A Comedy of Errors – chess^summit

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