The Survival Guide to Queen + Rook ‘Endgames’

Wed, 2013-06-05 20:45 -- IM Max Illingworth

The Survival Guide to Queen + Rook ‘Endgames’

Positions with a queen and rook each (and no other pieces, excepting the kings and pawns) possess very different characteristics to other positions with simplified material.
Let’s start with the following position which illustrates the more dynamic nature of these positions:

[FEN "4r1k1/5pp1/8/3p1Q2/P2q2Pp/1P3P1P/2P4K/5R2 w - - 0 1"]{White is up two pawns in this position, and if he could exchange the queens
he would have a winning position. However, here the insecurity of White's king
(which can be easily attacked by Black's active pieces) prevents him from
making progress. For example:} 1. Qd3 ({White has to be careful;} 1. Kh1 g6 2.
Qg5 Re2 {would already give Black a strong initiative.}) 1... Qf4+ {No
exchange!} 2. Kh1 d4 3. b4 Qg3 4. Qd2 Qxh3+ 5. Kg1 Qg3+ 6. Qg2 Qd6 {is equal
as White's king is too unsafe to avoid a perpetual for much longer (at least
without losing his extra pawn).} 

From these variations we can already construct some rules of thumb for these late middlegame/early endgame positions:

• A material advantage is not one of the primary factors in determining who is better.
• Rather, king safety is pivotal, and in a position with equal material, the side with the safer king probably has the advantage.
• It is very important to keep your major pieces active so they may start an attack on the opponent’s king.
• The stronger side should try to keep control of the position and look to either start a mating attack or exchange the rooks or queens to transition into a winning endgame.

For the rest of this post I’m going to go through some games by Alexander Alekhine, as he was the first player to fully grasp these positions, and he played a number of model games with a Queen and Rook per side. But first let’s look at one of his losses where the side with the safer king used this advantage to transition into a winning queen endgame.

[White "Spielmann, Rudolf"] [Black "Alekhine, Alexander"]

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nf6 5. Ng3 h5 6. h4 Bg4 7. Be2 Bxe2 8.
N1xe2 Nbd7 9. Qd3 e6 10. Bf4 Qa5+ 11. c3 Qd5 12. Bg5 Bd6 13. O-O Bxg3 14. Nxg3
c5 15. Rfe1 cxd4 16. cxd4 g6 17. Bxf6 Nxf6 18. Re5 Qd7 19. Ne4 Nxe4 20. Qxe4
O-O 21. Rd1 Rfe8 22. Rd3 Rad8 23. Qf4 f5 24. Rc5 Qg7 25. Rc7 Rd7 26. Rxd7 Qxd7
{Now we have reached the key position for our subject. White has the advantage
as Black's king is wide open, but if Black can consolidate he might try to tie
White to the d-pawn's defense. Of course, such a defensive posture is not
warranted in these positions - the initiative is what matters!} 27. Rc3 {White
starts by taking control of the open c-file.} Rd8 (27... Rc8 {would allow} 28.
Qh6 {winning the g6-pawn as the Black queen is overloaded and} Kf7 {loses
instantly to} 29. Qh7+ Ke8 30. Qg8+ {.}) 28. Qg3 Qg7 29. Rc7 {As one of my
former coaches once said, 'Rook on the seventh rank = money in the bank'! The
rook on c7 hits Black's queenside pawns but will play an important role in
creating mating threats against Black's king.} Qf6 30. Qb3 $1 {Spielmann, true
to style, chooses the initiative over material gain.} (30. Rxb7 Rxd4 31. Kf1 {
is also good for White, but letting the king into the open looks very risky in
a practical game.}) 30... Rxd4 31. g3 {This is White's idea - he secures his
king's safety first before gobbling up Black's pawns.} f4 {This is a practical
try to open up White's king, but now Spielmann uses the aforementioned
technique of transitioning into a promising queen endgame.} (31... b6 32. Rxa7
f4 {was perhaps a better version of the same idea, though} 33. Qf3 $1 e5 34.
Kg2 {is still much easier for White to play, again due to his safer king and
more active pieces. The immediate threat is Qb7 threatening decimation on the
last two ranks.}) 32. Rc8+ Rd8 33. Rxd8+ Qxd8 34. Qxe6+ Kg7 35. Qe5+ Kh7 36.
Qxf4 {This endgame falls somewhat outside of our discussion, but White clearly
has fantastic winning chances. If White can create a passed pawn the game will
be won, so Black is relying on having perpetual check once White advances his
kingside pawns (where his majority is). In the game he doesn't succeed.} b6 37.
Qf7+ Kh6 38. b3 a5 39. a4 Qd1+ 40. Kh2 Qd8 41. Kg1 Qd1+ 42. Kg2 Qd8 43. Kh2 {
Now Black is actually in zugzwang, as any move that keeps the b6-pawn defended
will run into Qf4, with a winning pawn endgame after the queens are exchanged.
This is an important technique to remember when you have the advantage,
although you should check any possible pawn ending very carefully to make sure
it's winning.} Qc8 44. Qf6 Kh7 45. Qxb6 {The rest is plain sailing for
Spielmann.} Qc3 46. Qa7+ Kg8 47. Qe3 Qc6 48. b4 Qxa4 49. Qe6+ Kg7 50. Qe5+ Kf7
51. bxa5 Qc6 52. Qe3 Qa8 53. Qb6 Qd5 54. a6 g5 55. Qb7+ 1-0 

By the way, for the advanced players among you, I highly recommend you read the chapter on this endgame in Mihail Marin’s modern classic ‘Learn from the Legends’. He also uses Alekhine as his ‘model player’ for this endgame, but I have intentionally chosen different examples to him to avoid any major overlap.

Having seen a few games where one side started the ending with an appreciable advantage, let’s look at some more balanced situations. The same principles apply, but we should add an additional method of play in these endgames: The creation of a passed pawn, with the aim of tying up one or both major pieces. An outside passed pawn can be particularly dangerous as the stronger side can alternate between threats to promote the pawn and attack the king.

[White "Lasker, Edward"] [Black "Alekhine, Alexander"]

1. d4 f5 2. e4 fxe4 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. f3 d5 5. fxe4 dxe4 6. Bg5 Bf5 7. Qe2 Nc6 8.
Bxf6 exf6 9. O-O-O Bd6 10. Nxe4 O-O 11. Nxd6 cxd6 12. Qf2 Qa5 13. Bc4+ Kh8 14.
Ne2 Nb4 15. Bb3 Rac8 16. Nc3 Bg6 17. Rhf1 b5 18. Rd2 Nd3+ 19. Rxd3 Bxd3 20. Rd1
b4 21. Rxd3 bxc3 22. Kb1 Rfe8 23. bxc3 Rxc3 24. Qd2 Rxb3+ 25. cxb3 {This
endgame is close to equal, but White's king is a bit open here and Black
controls the open e-file, so Alekhine decides to play the position out.} Qf5
26. Kb2 Qf1 {Can you find a better move than Lasker here?} 27. Re3 {White
panicks about the threat of ...Re2, but the resulting queen endgame offers
good winning chances for Black with his extra pawn.} (27. Rc3 {was a better
defence, preventing ...Re2 because of Rc8 and a back rank checkmate, while with
} h6 28. Rc2 {White is able to keep all his pawns defended (at least after h3
or g3). Black's initiative has been rebuffed and the position is equal. If
Black continues playing for an edge with} Re1 {White can run the king away with
} 29. Qa5 Rb1+ 30. Ka3 {, after which White may even be better.}) 27... Rxe3
28. Qxe3 Qxg2+ 29. Ka3 h6 {Preventing a back-rank mate for good.} 30. Qe6 (30.
Qe7 Qd5 31. Qxa7 f5 {leads to a pawn race, but Black's f-pawn is faster than
the White b-pawn. The engine still says it's a draw but Black has very good
practical chances in any race situation. It's worth bearing in mind that in
queen endgames, the most important factor tends to be how advanced the passed
pawn is (along with perpetual check chances for the defending side).}) 30...
Qc6 31. h4 h5 32. Qf7 Qe4 33. Qf8+ Kh7 34. Qxd6 Qxh4 35. d5 Qe4 {White's
d-pawn looks faster, but the game shows that Black can delay its advance while
preparing to run with the h-pawn.} 36. Qc5 Qe5 37. b4 h4 38. d6 h3 39. Qc2+ f5
40. d7 h2 41. d8=Q h1=Q {It's not very often that you see a position with four
queens on the board! However these positions play out similarly to queen and
rook endgames, and the instability of White's king gives Black a close to
winning position.} 42. Qc4 Qhe4 43. Qdg8+ Kh6 44. Qa6+ Kg5 45. Qxa7 Qc3+ 46.
Qb3 Qexb4# {There's a nice finish!} 0-1

I like the next game as it teaches us how to win from a worse position! We can discern an additional defensive method in these endgames: exchanging the opponent’s attacking forces, when the king can easily transform from a weakness to the most active piece on the board.

[White "Marco, Georg"] [Black "Alekhine, Alexander"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nge7 5. Nc3 g6 6. d4 Bg7 7. dxe5 Nxe5 8.
Nxe5 Bxe5 9. Bh6 c5 10. Bb3 b5 11. Bd5 Ra7 12. Qf3 Nxd5 13. Nxd5 d6 14. c3 f5
15. Bf4 O-O 16. O-O Rd7 17. Rad1 Bb7 18. Rfe1 fxe4 19. Rxe4 Rdf7 20. g3 Rf5 21.
Qe2 Bxd5 22. Rxd5 Qa8 23. c4 Bxf4 24. Rxf5 gxf5 25. Rxf4 {It's very obvious
that White is better here - his pieces are more active, his king is safer 
(with much more and better pawn cover) and Black has one more pawn island (the
f5 and d6 pawns being particularly weak). The way Alekhine turns this
awful-looking position around is impressive.} Re8 (25... Qe8 {doesn't succeed
in exchanging the queens - White might play} 26. Qf3 {for instance, intending
Qd5 where the queen eyes Black's two weak pawns and blockades the queenside
majority.}) 26. Qd2 ({Hopefully you avoided} 26. Qh5 Re1# {mate!}) ({However} 
26. Qd1 {was a better square for the queen, the point being that after} Re5 {
White now has} 27. Rxf5 Rxf5 28. Qg4+ Kh8 29. Qxf5 {, transitioning to a pawn
up queen endgame (which, as we know from our previous examples, is usually won
for the stronger side).}) 26... Re5 {Now Black should be able to defend as
White's queen is tied to the defence of the back rank and Black has succeeded
in defending his pawns.} 27. Rh4 $1 {A good move, intending Rh6 to increase
the pressure on the d6-pawn.} (27. b3 {would also make sense, keeping control
of the position in the lead up to the time control.}) 27... Qd8 28. f4 {Marco
doesn't give Black a moment's respite, but he should be careful that the rook
doesn't end up out of play on h4.} Re6 29. Qd5 (29. Rh5 {would have been much
more effective, with the simple idea of taking on f5, and if Black plays as in
the game with} Qf6 {,} 30. cxb5 axb5 31. Qd5 {is now much more effective -
Black can't keep the f5-pawn defended and White's chances of winning are at
least as good as Black's drawing chances.}) 29... Qf6 30. Rh5 (30. cxb5 Qf7 $1
{is the important difference - Black saves himself with the threat of Re1.
After} 31. Qc6 axb5 32. Qxb5 Kg7 33. Kg2 Re3 {White's king is too weak for him
to make any use of his extra pawn. The h4-rook is totally out of play!}) 30...
Qd4+ 31. Kf1 Qxd5 32. cxd5 Rf6 {This endgame should still be drawn, but White,
knowing he was better earlier, continues playing as if he has the advantage,
which proves to be his undoing.} 33. Ke2 Kg7 34. Rg5+ (34. h3 {is stronger, as
Black needs to play} h6 {anyway to ensnare the h5-rook, but now} 35. Kf3 Rf8
36. g4 {lets the rook out, with a draw the likely result.}) 34... Kf7 35. Ke3
h6 36. Rh5 Kg6 {The one tempo makes a big difference, and for the rest of the
game White is effectively a rook down.} 37. Rh4 h5 38. h3 Rf7 39. g4 {This is
the only try to get the rook out of gaol, else he will lose slowly and
painfully.} Rh7 40. gxf5+ (40. Rxh5 Rxh5 41. gxh5+ Kxh5 42. Kf3 Kh4 43. Kg2 c4
{is obviously hopeless for White.}) 40... Kxf5 {Unfortunately White's rook is
still trapped! Now the rest is a matter of technique and we already know
Alekhine's technique to be very good!} 41. Kd3 Kg6 42. f5+ Kxf5 43. Re4 Rg7 {
White didn't want to live to see ...Rg3-xh3 or ...Rg2-xb2-xa2.} 0-1

Obviously there are many more good examples of how to play these positions from master practice, although the only books I know of that cover this position type properly are the aforementioned Marin book, Glenn Flear’s ‘Practical Endgame Play – Beyond the Basics’ and Van Perlo’s ‘Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics’. If you want some ‘homework’ to improve your understanding of these positions, try analysing the following game, identifying where the players follow or break the principles outlined in this post, and of course where the play of either side could be improved.

[White "Janowski, Dawid Markelowicz"] [Black "Alekhine, Alexander"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 c5 3. e3 d5 4. Bd3 Nc6 5. c4 cxd4 6. exd4 Bg4 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8.
Nc3 e6 9. Be3 Be7 10. Qb3 Bxf3 11. gxf3 O-O 12. Rd1 Ncb4 13. Be4 Bg5 14. f4 Bh6
15. a3 Qh4 16. Bxd5 Nxd5 17. Nxd5 exd5 18. Qxd5 Bxf4 19. Bxf4 Qxf4 20. O-O Rad8
21. Qxb7 Rxd4 22. Rxd4 Qxd4 23. Re1 h5 24. Re4 Qd1+ 25. Kg2 f5 26. Re3 Qd4 27.
Qb3+ Kh7 28. Qc3 Qd5+ 29. Kg1 Rf6 30. Rg3 h4 31. Qf3 Qc5 32. Qe3 Qc6 33. Rg5
Re6 34. Qc3 Qxc3 35. bxc3 g6 36. Kf1 Rc6 37. Rg1 Rxc3 38. Ke2 Rxa3 39. Rc1 Kh6
40. Rc7 Kg5 41. Rc6 a5 42. Ra6 a4 43. h3 Kf4 44. Rxg6 Ra2+ 45. Kf1 Kf3 46. Kg1
Rxf2 47. Rc6 Re2 48. Rc3+ Re3 49. Rc5 f4 50. Ra5 a3 51. Kf1 Rb3 52. Ke1 Kg2 0-1

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the long weekend!