Endgame Essentials – Knight v Pawns

Knights taking on pawns

We look at situations where a defending knight is holding off an advancing pawn.
The attacker hopes to shift the knight away from its advancing minion whereas the equine beast is perfectly happy to sacrifice itself to gain a draw!

Blond Horse

Appearances can be deceiving and the horse has many qualities!

Three things you will learn today

  1. The knight is a very versatile piece
  2. Key squares are the essence of this ending
  3. The knight has its limitations
We limit this discussion to situations with the knight against a lone pawn. Some notes:
  • Connected pawns passed which cannot be taken trivially are likely to defeat a lone knight with a king's support
  • Even splintered pawns will be too much for the knight, provided the defender accurately calculates devious knight forks!
  • In situations with 2 or more pawns it's imperative the defending king supports with defending the advance of one of the pawns

Your Turn! White to play...

1. Ne3+ looks like it works a charm but it doesn't do the job.
Black calmly replies 1...Kf3 and what to do?

The knight must defend against the advancing f1=Q, so 2. Nf1 suggests itself but there follows 2...c2 and after, say, 3. Nd2+ Ke2! then black will queen.

1. Kb3! is the saving move. The knight can catch the other pawn - for example, 1...f1=Q? 2. Ne3+ Kg1 3. Nxf1! Kxf1 4. Kxc3 draw.

Part 1 of 3 - A versatile knight

The first key piece of information to know is that if the knight can get to an advanced square for the pawn without being challenged, it can generally hold a draw. The only exceptions are the flank queening squares (e.g. white's a pawn then a8 or black's h pawn would be h1):

Stopping the pawn in its tracks - middle of the board

If the knight can attack one of the pawn's future target squares without being immediately captured, it can hold the position.
[Event "Example - Knight v Pawn"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "12/03/2017"] [White "Player, A"] [Black "Opponent, Anne"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017"] [FEN "7K/8/8/8/2p1N3/8/1k6/8 b"] 1...Kc2 2. Kg7 {white's knight is very happy on e4 so has no intention of going until it has to!} 2...Kd3 3. Nc5 {Now the knight can go back to e4 or to a4, depending on how it is chased. Whichever way, the c4-c3 cannot happen without the horse giving itself to save the defender and drawing the game, for example:} 3...Kd4 4. Na4! {now while the king chases the knight yet again, the defending king comes to support:} 4...Kd5 5. Kf6 Kc6 6. Ke5 Kb5 7. Nc3 (7. Kd4 {also works}) Kb4 8. Ne4! {and a draw will follow very soon!}
Even when the pawn is close to queening, in the centre of the board, it is possible to draw:
[Event "Example - Knight v Pawn"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "12/03/2017"] [White "Player, A"] [Black "Opponent, Anne"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017"] [FEN "8/6P1/5K1n/8/8/8/8/k7"] 1. Kg6 Ng8 2. Kh7 Nf6 (2...Ne7 {in fact allows the white king to get closer and is better still!}) 3. Kg6 Ng8 4. Kf7 Nh6 {etc. Note if white tries to waste a move, black just moves the king closer and leaves the knight be, drawing}
The exceptions are the flank queening squares; the knight just doesn't have enough space. However, there is a very sneaky get-out clause if the defending king is close enough:
[Event "Example - Knight v Pawn"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "12/03/2017"] [White "Player, A"] [Black "Opponent, Anne"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017"] [FEN "6K1/4k2P/6n1/8/8/8/8/8"] 1. Kg7 Nh8! 2. Kh8 Kf7 {this is only possible with the king close enough.}

Summary of Part One

  • The knight is a surprisingly versatile defender
  • Except for the corner squares, wherever it can attack one of the pawns future target squares, it will succeed in holding the draw
  • The attacker then has to try and stop the knight getting near such squares!

Part 2 of 3 - Key squares

Interestingly, two different plans work here:
1. The logical approach of 1...Nb4 works as shown above

2. Even the tactical shot 1...Nc3 works directly since 2. c6 lets in 2...Nb5
The 1...Nb4 plan is much simpler in practice.

What happens when the attacker stops your direct ideas? Well, often you have to go away to come back!

[Event "Example - Knight v Pawn"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "12/03/2017"] [White "Player, A"] [Black "Opponent, Anne"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017"] [FEN "8/8/2P5/2K5/8/2n5/8/3k4 b"] 1...Ne4 {the target square for the knight is e8!!} 2. Kd5 (2. Kb6 Nd6 {and black is very safe}) Nf6! 3. Ke6 Ne8! {guarding c7 and holding the draw!!} 4. Ke7 Nc7 5. Kd7 Na6 {with time to spare!}

Summary of Part Two

  • The crux of these positions lies in whether the knight can attacker a target square
  • The attacker is hell-bent on preventing this
  • The Geometry of knights is very strange!

Part 3 of 3 - Limitations

Part of the knight's appeal is its crafty movements but that isn't always advantageous:
Now the knight is impotent and cannot stop the pawn queening after 1. d6!
The knight wants to hold d7 or d8 in its sights but the best square to do this is c6 which is covered by the king!
From the fictional game Milla - Nkono, African Championship 1990, white played the brutal 1. Qh6!! where despite black's material edge cannot prevent defeat 1...Qxh6 2. gxh6 and the knight can't stop the pawn. Milla was dancing after that!

Summary

  • Knights can hold pawns where they can get to one of the target squares
  • Sometimes you may have to take a strange route to get there
  • Knights have their limitations!