How to hold on – getting a draw from a slightly worse position

In previous blog posts, we've looked at how to hold or win certain key endings.

This is not just useful in general, in case you end in such a position but it also gives you something to aim for! It can often be a key saving grace to steer the ending to a position which is harder to win or a known draw:

Your Turn!

Find the draw for white:
From this seemingly desperate position, there is a very cute Houdini-like escape: 1. Nxf4!! is devastating for black. Despite being a bishop and a sure-fire pawn ahead, he cannot convert it, due to the "wrong bishop complex".

As happened in the fictional game Booth - Hornby, Washington 1987, black soon conceded a draw after 1...Bxf4 2. Kf3 Kxh5 3. Kg2 Kh4 4. Kh1 (draw offered and agreed).

Dogged determination

Being dogged is critical!

Three things you will learn today

  1. It is rare you are completely without hope - tactics abound!
  2. Knowing your endings is a great foundation in middle-game strategy!
  3. Steering into drawish endings is about avoiding the won ones!

Part 1 of 3 - Classic Defensive Traps!

Let's start by having a look once more at the drawing mechanism above:
[Event "Example - King v Bishop, wrong pawn & King"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "08/05/2017"] [White "Player, A"] [Black "Opponent, Anne"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017"] [FEN "8/7p/7b/8/8/5k2/8/5K2"] 1. Kg1! (1. Ke1?? {is already a disaster} Kg2!! {white cannot stop the pawn getting to h1}) 1...Be3 2. Kh1 {only move; now black has to lift the stalemate} 2...Kf2 (2...Bf4 3. Kg1 h5 {the tempo with the pawn is irrelevant as the bishop can waste a move} 4. Kh1 h4 5. Kg1 h3 6. Kh1 {and black cannot time the advance of the h pawn, e.g.} 6...h2 {is stalemate}(6...Bg5!? 7. Kg1 h2 8. Kh1 {and it's stalemate or the pawn drops})) 3. Kh2 {white just alternates onto h2/g1 and h1} Bf4 4. Kh1 Bg5 5. Kh2 h5 6. Kh1 h4 7. Kh2 Kf3 8. Kh1 {and black is out of ideas; it's a draw!} 8...Kg3 9. Kg1 h3 10. Kh1 {=}

Your Turn!

Find the draw for white:
A little more imaginative this time but the simple 1. Nd4+ does the job after 1...Kb6 2. Nxf5! white will have ample time to defend against both the h and g pawn (e.g. 2...Kxa6 3. h5!) while the king is on the other side and after 2...gxf5 3. Kxf5 we know the draw already!

There are lots of similar desperado moves to get out of trouble - here are a few delicious ones:

Poor white has no choice 1...Qxg7+! 2. Rxg7 (or 2...Qxa7 winning) and white is stalemated.
White's material is too concentrated around the black king. 1...Qxh6+ is a horrible hammer blow!

Summary of part 1

  • The drawing margin in chess with relatively even material is huge - always keep an eye out for tactics
  • For attackers, always be on the lookout for horrible defensive resources, especially sacrifices and stalemates!
  • For defenders, always be on the lookout for horrible defensive resources, especially sacrifices and stalemates! They will gain you many half-points!

Part 2 of 3 - Know your endings!

Many of us spend considerable time learning endgames to know the technique but do we always steer for the best one?

Many players know that the Bishop and Knight ending, although won is a MONSTER to win in practice, compared to, say two bishops.

Similarly, how well do you know Queen v Rook?

Decisions, decisions

Even very top players at congresses make strange endgame decisions that cost a point. Try your hand at some of these puzzles to steer to an easier ending to draw:
The bishop and knight ending is much harder than two bishops!
The rook pawn is a nightmare to convert, especially with the defending king already on the queening square!

What about this?

This of course isn't quite as clear-cut as the other examples but you want to go towards an ending where you're not just sitting back waiting for white to finish you off so 1...b5! looks sensible to create a passed pawn and at least keep white on his guard to stop one of the queen-side pawns!

Summary of part 2

  • Make your opponent work for it! Force them into an ending you know is difficult, even if it's a theoretical win!
  • Always be thinking endgame!
  • Counterplay complicates the game. An attacker will be thinking about how to make their ideas work; adding your threats into the mix can confuse them and give you chances!

Part 3 of 3 - Avoid clearly won endings!

[Event "Example - Tough ending"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "08/05/2017"] [White "Johnson, Samuel"] [Black "Pepys, Samuel"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017"] [FEN "r5k1/p5b1/2N1pp1p/R5p1/6P1/5P1P/8/6K1 w - - 0 1"] 1. Rxa7 {white is losing, no question but going into an ending is all about choices.} (1. Nxa7 {is sound but white has to mess about worrying about potential Bc5 forks. Besides, the ending is easier with Knight v Bishop - not a draw but easier!}) 1...Rxa7 2. Nxa7 Bf8 3. Nb5 Bc5 4. Kf1 {white is starting to think carefully. He wants the h pawn to remain and it's a draw. Black should try to make the most from the e pawn by slowly squeezing white of space} Kf7 5. Nc3 {getting the knight back to hold some key squares} f5 6. Ke2 Kf6 7. Kd3 Ke5 8. Ne2! {the knight covers d4 and f4 - come on, black. How are you getting through?} Ba7 9. Kd2 Kd5 10. Kd3 Bb6 11. Kd2 Kc4 12. gxf5 exf5? (12...Ba5 {is better forcing the king to a worse square before recapturing. The ending is still tough}) 13. Ng3! f4 14. Nf5 h5 {wheels are falling off} 15. Nd6 Kd5 16. Nf7 {uh oh} Bc5 (16...g4 17. hxg4 hxg4 {is a dead draw - white plays Ke2 and Ng5 and the f pawn cannot move anywhere}) 17. Nxg5 {white takes his time to capture f4 and runs to h1 with the king} Be7 18. Ne4 Kd4 19. Ke2 {the plan is Nf2-d3-f4} Bh4 20. Nd6 Be7 21. Ne4 {now Bh4 is a repetition or we have Nf2-d3-f4 and white holds the draw.}
This was a fictional game (based on one of my real ones) but there is a big difference between ignoring endings and playing resourcefully to make your opponent prove they have a win!


  • Draws are more available than you think!
  • Practice tactics to get a keen eye for "lucky escapes" - the more you practice, the luckier you get!
  • Make your opponent work for it. Never resign unless there is literally no hope!
Think all GMs can convert Bishop and Knight endings?