One of the greatest truths of chess is that the game ultimately comes down to knowledge of simple endgames. Players love to spend all their time studying opening variations and/or tactics, but at the higher levels the cream of the crop make sure they have mastered the basic endings. The one thing World number 1 Magnus Carlsen is known for more than anything else is his ability to grind down his world class opponents in simple positions that to most eyes look completely drawn. World number 2 Levon Aronian is also an endgame specialist as is the number 3 player in line, former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. Accident? I don’t think so!
The above position is minimalist in its simplicity. Knowledge of simple endgame positions and techniques makes the draw quite academic. However, if there is a hole in your knowledge, you might stare at this one for hours without coming up with the solution. Imagine having to solve it with a clock ticking away and first place in a tournament on the line!
The first thing that smacks you in the face in the diagram is that the White e-pawn is well on its way to queening. Black will have no choice but to sacrifice the rook for it. The critical question is this: Will the resulting position be lost? A well-known method in this type of situation is to trade off all the remaining pawns to create a “book draw.” But is it possible here? The answer: Yes, it is!
Simple (but elegant chess). We will return to why 1…Rxe6 loses in a moment. Also, the immediate 1…Rb8 is bad because White will start with 2.Bc6+, preventing Black’s king from getting to the f-pawn.
2.e7 Rb8 3.e8(Q) Rxe8 4.Bxe8 h4
The first critical moment. White would love to preserve this pawn, but after 5.g4 Kxf2, Black’s king can imprison the white one in a small tomb sector, even though White has an extra bishop. For example, 6.Bc6 Kg1 7.Bb7 Kf2 8.Kh2 Kf1 9.Bc6 Kf2 10.Bg2 Ke3! when 10.Kg1 is met by 10…Kf4 11.Bh3 Kg3 and Black wins the g-pawn.
5…gxh4 6.Kxh4 Kxf2
Now the race begins.
7.Kg5 Ke3 8.Kf6 Kd4 9.Ke7 Kc5
Now suddenly White realizes that if the king dare step on square closer (with 9.Kd7, for instance) the a-pawn would perish. This means White must lose a critical tempo to defend the pawn, allowing Black to slither into a (ought to be) well-known drawn position.
10.Bg6 Kb6 11.Bd3 Kc7! and the game is drawn. White cannot chase Black’s king from the corner, despite it being the same color as the bishop. Without knowledge of this specific ending during a practical game, Black might still be hunched over the board desperately seeking a solution. This ending vividly demonstrates the need for a thorough knowledge of the basics.
Finally, why can’t Black begin with 1…Rxe6? The reason is the subtle change of the bishop’s position: 2.Bxe6 Kf3 3.Bf7 h4 4.gxh4 gxh4 5.Kxh4 Kxf2 6.Kg5 Ke3 7.Kf6 Kd4 8.Ke7 Kc5 9.Kd7! Kb5 10.Bc4+! Kxc4 11.Kc6! and White wins the a-pawn and the game. An instructive ending for students of the game.