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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Understanding the Lucena Position

This is a typical Lucena position. Let's address two questions right off the bat:

1) Who was Lucena?

2) Why is this position important to me?

Answer to #1: Luis Ramirez de Lucena was a Spanish author credited with discovering the secrets of the Lucena position, although it apparently does not appear in the book he published in 1497.

Answer to #2: Rook endings are very common, and a proper understanding of the Lucena position can turn a draw into a victory, or a loss into a draw. Jeremy Silman, in his Silman's Complete Endgame Course, calls the Lucena position "The Sacred Key to All Rook Endings" and Efstratios Grivas, in his Practical Endgame Play - mastering the basics, says it is "the most important theoretical position for the conversion of an extra pawn."

The bottom line: If you want to gain a basic understanding of endgame play, you must clearly understand the Lucena position. Don't be frightened off - it's not hard at all!

First, we need to specifically define the Lucena position. It consists of the following characteristics (with White having the pawn):

1) White has one rook and one pawn, and Black has one rook.
2) The white pawn is on the 7th rank, on any of files b through g (in other words, it's not a rook pawn).
3) The white king is directly in front of the pawn, on the 8th rank.
4) The black king is nearby, typically two files away.
5) The black rook is positioned on a file adjacent to the king and pawn.
6) The white rook is positioned on a file between the white king and the black king.

That's a lot of definitions, but glance again at the diagram at the top of this post - any analogous position is called a Lucena position.

Next questions: If White is to move, can he win? If Black is to move, can he draw?

The answer is that with correct play, White wins regardless of whose turn it is to move. Let's take a look how it's done. Here's the starting position again:

Let's say it is White to move. He begins with 1.Rf3+. The purpose of this move is to drive the black king one more file away from the white pawn. This will prove important later. In the main line, Black responds 1...Kg7. We'll examine other options later. We now have the following position:

The next move separates the Lucena understanders from the Lucena pretenders. White now moves 2.Rf4!. Why? In the words of Aron Nimzovitch in his classic My System, it is "bridge building" time. Mark Dvoretsky (Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual) shortens it to just "bridging." To me, it looks more like an offensive tackle preparing to block for his running back. You'll see what I mean in a minute.

Let's say Black answers with 2...Kg6. We now have the following:

Now it's time for the white king to move out so his pawn is free to queen. 3.Ke7. Black could now play 3...Rd1 so that he can respond to 4.d8/Q with 4...Rxd8, but then after 5.Kxd8, White has an easy king and rook vs. king ending. So instead, Black plays 3...Re1+ and the white king's march continues. 4.Kd6 Rd1+ and now we have:

5.Ke6 White must, of course, protect his pawn. 5...Re1+ 6.Kd5!. Can you see what's coming next? 6...Rd1+ brings us to this position:

And the bridge is built with 7.Rd4! . Black can no longer stop the pawn from queening. The white rook is the massive offensive tackle clearing the road for his spunky running back (the pawn at d7) to reach the endzone.

To understand why it was important to start with 1.Rf3+, moving the black king one more file away, let's play out the game a couple more moves: 7...Rxd4+ 8.Kxd4:

Black is now too far away to catch the pawn: 8...Kf7 9.d8/Q. And that was accomplished with that initial 1.Rf3+ move. If the black king was still only two files away, as in the starting position, he would be able to catch the pawn just as it promotes.

This is the basic Lucena pattern. You should get out a physical board and set and play it out until it is perfectly clear to you. Black does have some other options, but with correct play, White will still win.

For example, let's go back to the position after 1.Rf3+:

If Black tries to avoid being driven away with 1...Ke6, White simply plays 2.Ke8, and the black king blocks his own rook from giving check on e1, and either the white pawn will queen, or the black rook will have to sacrifice itself to prevent this from happening.

Instead, let's say Black answers 1.Rf3+ with 1...Kg6, so that after 2.Rf4, he attacks the white rook with 2...Kg5:

White can avoid the bridge building and simply play 3.Rf7, after which play might continue 3...Kg6 4.Ke8 Re1+:

White has to be careful here. He wins easily with 5.Re7, but if he instead plays 5.Kf8, he has to be careful for 5...Rh1:

White is still okay if he plays 6.Rg7+ Kf5 7.d8/Q, but if blunders with 6.d8/Q??, Black saves the day with 6...Rh8+:

See what has now happened: 7.Ke7 Rxd8 8.Kxd8 Kxf7 and the game is drawn!

Remember that in our definition of the Lucena position, we said that the white pawn could not be a rook pawn. In this case, if the white pawn is on the a-file or the h-file, Black can draw the game. Here is one of several YouTube videos explaining the Lucena position and why it is only a draw with a rook pawn:

And here is another YouTube Lucena video:

One more Lucena video still:

Chess Endgame Lesson: Lucena Position

Also available online is a good Wikipedia explanation as well as a nice Chessville presentation.

You can also find at least a little commentary in the following books:
  • Basic Chess Endings, diagram 307 in the original version
  • Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual, 2nd edition, p.143
  • My System (21st Century Edition), p.60
  • Practical Endgame Play - mastering the basics, p.50
  • Silman's Complete Endgame Course, p.121

With a little work, you can completely master the Lucena position. Then, when you're in one of those rook endgames and the pawns are vanishing, you'll know how to handle this kind of position. Furthermore, you'll know whether or not you want to steer into a Lucena position (depending on whether you're the one with the extra pawn!).

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