A pawn race is a situation where both players try to promote their pawn before the other. Very often, the first who manages to promote his pawn into a Queen wins (but sometimes it is only a draw !).
Situations where each side only has one passed pawn are surprisingly hard to assess and to play. This seems counter-intuitive: one may think that with so few pieces, the fight becomes simpler, yet this is not the case, and you will be surprised to encounter so many particular and tricky cases in this article.
How can we explain this ? Many pawn endgames with blocked pawns can be reduced to well-known patterns: having your King in front of the pawn, King on the sixth rank, rule of the square, key squares, opposition, remote passed pawn, pawn breakthrough, triangulation and so on. But here, the fact that both pawns are free to move and that each player must choose between attacking and defending leaves more room for calculation and, let’s be honest, to mistakes as well. In other words, calculation is key and pawn races will require a lot of tactical skills.
Why Pawn Races Are Hard
We will start with simple positions and then gradually increase the difficulty.
White wins by delivering a checkmate with one Queen against the lone King.
We modify the start position a little bit and see what changes.
Let’s continue making some tiny changes to the position and see if the evaluation changes.
With the three previous positions, I guess you are starting to understand what is important in pawn races:
- Principles do not matter much. It is all about calculating correctly.
- As a consequence, tiny changes in the start position have a huge impact on the assessment of the position.
- A particular and favorable case is when you promote a pawn with check. This is often enough to secure a win.
- You have to keep calculating the line until after the pawns are promoted. There might be a fork or a skewer down the line.
Let’s continue our little game with the position and setup the board with a slightly different start position again.
Let’s check together a last variation on this start position.
With White, you want to deliver checkmate, not stalemate. Anyway, the Queen VS pawn endgame is clearly out of the scope of this article. According to the file the pawn is on, this can be winning for White, or, like here, just a draw. Anyway, another example that you cannot stop calculating when the pawn is promoted !
The Famous Réti Endgame Study
Here is one example of pawn race study that has surpassed in fame all the other positions put together. Hence, an article about pawn race cannot reasonably omit to talk about this position.
It is an endgame study published by Réti in 1921, it is remarkable because it features a simple position and an unexpected outcome.
Yet, you have noticed that “Draw” was the correct answer, how is this possible ?
Another Tricky Pawn Race To Assess
The following example features a lot of such calculations. As usual with pawn races, you will see that what seems to be a tiny difference in the initial setup can lead to a huge difference in the result !
You may start to understand now why White would prefer having the King on c4…
Pawn Race: Conclusion
Reaching the end of this chapter does not mean we have exhausted all the possible pawn race positions, but we have already studied some key positions together. Some takeaways:
- In this sort of endgame, more than any other pawn endgames, calculation is key and high-level principles do not matter much.
- Pay a special attention to cases where one promotion square is in the range of the other promotion square: the first Queen will immediately capture the other.
- Pay attention to other cases: if you can promote with check, or if you can deliver a skewer on the opposite King, you may have a winning pawn race.
- And of course, you should calculate if the best is to push your pawn (attack !) or to bring your King closer (defend !).
With all those pieces of advice at hand, you are ready to play those really difficult endgames !