Endings – The Secrets of Basic Rook and Pawn Endings

Endings - Rook and Pawn

DifficultyThis is a challenging ending to learn
FrequencyThis ending comes up quite often so you should know it!
DetailThere is quite a lot of material to learn even for this part

Rook and pawn endings are notoriously difficult. We will look at the 'simplest' case where only a single pawn remains.

Some common thoughts:

  • "All rook endings are drawn..."
  • "I just need to know Lucena and Philidor!
  • "I can just work it out over the board!"
A rook

A strong castle

Three things you will learn today

  1. Not all rook endings are drawn - it honestly depends on the position!
  2. Lucena and Philidor are just the basics!
  3. A couple more ideas can improve your understanding of rook and pawn endings significantly!

Part 1 of 3 - Not all rook endings are drawn!

A won position - White to Play

More detail on the study position

Even though a number of moves clearly win here, the pawn advance is certainly one of white's strongest options.

After 1. b7! black is doomed to losing the rook - the rook is very awkwardly placed!
One follow-up might be:

1...Rb5 2. Kc6! Rb1 3. Kc7 (threatening to promote the pawn immediately) 3...Rc1+ 4. Rc6 Rb1 5. b8=Q+ and after 5...Rxb8 6. Kxb8 white is a rook up and will win easily, using the techniques we learned from the King and Rook v King endgame.

Some Key Learnings

  1. The king supporting the advancing pawn helps a lot!
  2. The defending rook prefers to check from distance where he cannot be harassed by the attacking king
  3. The defending king would prefer to be closer to the advancing pawn!
We will see these last two points in detail in the Philidor position in section 2.
Note - there are two endings called the "Philidor position" - one in the Queen v Rook ending and the other in this ending.

Wishlist #1 - Attacker's Aspirations

  • Pawn well-advanced
  • Own Rook cutting off defending king away from queening square
  • Own king close to the pawn

Wishlist #2 - Defender's Dreams

  • Pawn far back - higher drawing chances, as time for king and rook to get organised!
  • Own Rook cutting off attacking king away from own pawn
  • Own king close to/on the queening square

There are many exceptions to these rules but they are a good starting point. In the above position, the attacker had everything he wanted -

  • The pawn was already on the 6th rank;
  • The rook confined the defending king to the h file - miles away from the action!
  • The white king was very close to the pawn
Let's look at a position where it's more favourable for the defender:

A drawn position - Black to Play

More detail on the study position

What a contrast! This time black is the one with his wishlist answered.
OK, the pawn may be advanced but the defending king covers the queening square completely and is safe. To make a draw black just bombards the white king with checks (from distance!) and if the king approaches, the black rook just goes for the a7 pawn:

1...Rh6+! 2. Kc5 Rh7 (going for the a7 pawn again) 3. Kb6 Rh6+ 4. Kc7 Rh7+ 5. Kb6 Rh6+ and it's already a draw by threefold repetition of the position!

Very important note: The key element for the defender is making sure the defending king is close to the queening square. If the attacker succeeds in keeping it at distance, it's almost always a win.

Summary of part 1

  • We know the attacker's wishlist contains key elements of having control of the area around the queening square and both king and rook heavily involved.
  • The defender has their own wishlist including distance checking potential for the rook and a king close to the queening square.
  • Whether the defending king can get close to the queening square is often the critical factor!
  • We will see now some more specifics about how to put these concepts into action!

Part 2 of 3 - Lucena and Philidor

Lucena and Philidor are widely acknowledge in most endgame books as being the endings you simply must know.

The Lucena Position

We mentioned earlier that if the defending king can get close to the queening square, the defenders chances increase. What about this marginal case, which is often reached in practice:

A Critical (but won!) Position

More detail on the study position

In reality, you are not going to reach a position like the very first one we saw in section 1. Most chess players will force you to really know your stuff and often the position shown will be reached (or one very similar to it!)

White has done well: his pawn is well advanced, his king is guarding the queening square and his rook is keeping the black king out. So far so good.

However, bravo to black - he is making white work for this! The rook guards the c file and his king the e8 and e7 squares so white needs a plan!

Waiting with (for example) 1. Re3 does nothing - black is content to hold the position with 1...Rc2 and nothing has really changed. White must instead calculate:
1. Rf2+! (now black must concede something)

  • 1...Ke6 is one option.
  • 1...Kg6/Kg7/Kg8 is another option.

1. Rf2+ Ke6 looks very logical - staying very close to the advancing pawn. Sadly, after 2. Ke8 white can wriggle out and d8=Q is inevitable!

1. Rf2+ Kg6/Kg7/Kg8 all lose to the following technique (others are possible too): 2. Rf4!! (this is called "building a bridge" - the idea is to use the space created by the king leaving the f-file to help march the white king from the queening square, stopping all the checks with an opportune Re4:)

[Event "Study of Rook and Pawn v Rook"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "2017.02.16"] [Round ""] [White "S Rookfriend"] [Black "N Pawnless"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "3K4/3P1k2/8/8/8/8/4R3/2r5"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017.02.16"] [EventType "Endgame Study"] [EventCountry "GB"] 1. Rf2 Kg7 (1...Ke6 2. Ke8 Rd1 {what else?} 3. d8=Q Rxd8 4. Kxd8 {and white wins}) (1...Kg8 2. Rf4 Rc3 {Now we use the same technique as the mainline:} 3. Ke7 Re3 4. Kd6 Rd3 5. Ke6 Re3 6. Kd5 Rd3 7. Rd4!) (1...Kg6 2. Rf4 Kg5?! 3. Re4 {now white owns the e file and can bring his king out via e8:} 3...Kf5 4. Re2 {and the pawn promotes} 4...Rd1 5. Ke7) 2. Rf4! Rc3 3. Ke7 Re3 4. Kd6 Rd3 5. Ke6 Re3 6. Kd5 Rd3 7. Rd4!
So, from the Lucena position, white can force a concession and win the game. Is it always so bleak for the defender?

Another Critical (but drawn!!) Position

More detail on the study position

This is very tough to see through. The natural reply is 1...Rg1+ but sadly this is a blunder!
White would rub his hands and move his king to 2. Kf6 and actually be winning from here!

Instead black should halt white by playing 1...Rb6!! This looks crazy as white can play 2. f6 but this is actually great news for us. We can then go back to b1!! The idea is white doesn't have time to progress and the f6 pawn actually is more of a hindrance than a help - the king cannot hide from checks!

One question we wondered - what happens if white tries to trade rooks instead and build a bridge: Well, because black owns the queening square, black has all the drawing resources he needs!

[Event "Study of Rook and Pawn v Rook"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "2017.02.16"] [Round ""] [White "S Rookfriend"] [Black "N Pawnless"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "5k2/R7/8/5PK1/8/8/8/1r6 b"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017.02.16"] [EventType "Endgame Study"] [EventCountry "GB"] 1...Rb6 (1...Rg1? 2. Kf6 Ke8 {or mate on a8} 3. Ra8 Kd7 4. Kf7 Rf1 5. f6 Rf2 6. Ra1 Rf3 7. Rd1 Kc7 8. Ke7 Re3 9. Kf8 Rf3 10. f7 {and we have an even better version of the Lucena position}) 2. f6 (2. Kf4 Rb4 {and white is still making no progress}) 2...Rb1!! {before white had the f6 square to hide on! White would love just one more move to get in Kg6 and Ra8+ but there's no time and the f6 pawn is a nuisance!!} 3. Kf5 {and black just blasts white with checks. So the one final thing to check - what if we block with the rook?} (3. Ra4 Rg1 4. Rg4?! Rg4 5. Kg4 Kf7 {this is an easy draw} 6. Kf5 Kf8 7. Ke6 Ke8 8. f7 Kf8 9. Kf6) 3...Rf1 {black just hits white with checks until the king leaves the guard of the f6 pawn} 4. Ke5 Re1 5. Kf5 Rf1 6. Kg5 Rg1 7. Kh4 Rf1! 8. Kg5 Rg1 {etc. Black will either shortly repeat the position or win the f-pawn!}

Summary of part 2

  • The Lucena Position is a win for the attacker.
  • Philidor is a draw for the defender but it is easy to go wrong.
  • Learning these are winning or drawing is not enough!
  • You need to understand why, using our wishlists!!

Part 3 of 3 - Key Ideas in Rook and Pawn Endings

Lucena and Philidor form the basis of key attacking and defensive ideas but let's consider and cement some further general points with some examples:

A defending king belongs on or near to the queening square

A check from distance is better than a check from close range!

The attacking king is a great shepherd!


  • This is the basics of rook and pawn endings! There is so much still to know
  • The attacker's wishlist is to get a pawn up the board, supported by his king and rook
  • The defender wants his king to be close to the queening square and the possibility to check from distance!
Keep following for more details on this interesting and rich ending!