Travail Pursuit #59: Opposites attract… draws

The presence of opposite coloured bishops in endings usually leads to drawn positions. But, as today's examples show, the route to a draw is not always straight forward. This image is used under Creative Commons terms and sourced from Jim Rafferty's Flickr photostream

The presence of opposite coloured bishops in endings usually leads to drawn positions. But, as today’s examples show, the route to a draw is not always straight forward. This image is used under Creative Commons terms and sourced from Jim Rafferty’s Flickr photostream

And now for something completely different! In today’s post I’m going to write about a subject I’ve never covered before (indeed I’m not sure that this website has ever done anything like this before!) I’m going to post some material on end game theory. Specifically, on opposite coloured bishop endings.

Now, I hear some of you sniggering at the back there and muttering,

“What does Shapland know about endings? He virtually never plays any!”

And I’d have to agree. I’m no end game expert. That’s why, when Hebden Bridge Chess Club were organising our programme of summer activities and someone said “Can we do something on endgames?” I volunteered myself to prepare something. I figured it would actually force me to learn if I was going to make the session worthwhile.

After a fair bit of thinking I recognised that I was going to have to select a topic that was narrow enough to cover in a useful way in 90 minutes or so but broad enough to be helpful to those who attended the workshop. I also wanted it to be a learning opportunity for me. If I could get my head round the topic and explain it as I saw it then hopefully my audience would too.

The choice of topic became clear to me when I recollected being fascinated by an endgame that I’d played last season in which I had a couple of extra pawns in an opposite-coloured bishops ending.  I thought it would be interesting to look at that again but first I wanted to understand some of the basic principles of opposite-coloured bishop endings.

Thus began my research which I then tried to embellish with some examples that I could use as practical exercises for my club colleagues to try their hands at. What follows are the fruits of my labours. If you’re an endgame buff then you’ll know the principles already but you might enjoy studying some of the recent examples from Grand Master play that I found.

I started out by asking the audience,

“What do you know about opposite coloured bishop endings?”

The response was pretty much universal.

“They’re drawish.”

Beyond that the group was struggling to name any general principles so we began by trying to answer this question: “in pure opposite-coloured bishop and pawn endings, how many extra pawns does the attacking side need in order to win the game?”


How many pawns are enough?

Of course this question is not as straight forward as it may seem because there are various caveats that apply. Here are some general principles that are fairly easy to remember:

  • • Bishop and pawn versus bishop is drawn in 99% of all cases
  • • Bishop and two pawns versus bishop only wins in 50% of all cases
  • • Unlike most other endings, a pair of connected pawns is not preferable to widely separated pawns
  • • Two connected passed pawns only win if they have reached the sixth rank
  • • When two isolated passed pawns are present, the chances of winning generally increase the further apart they are

The game viewer below (games 1-4) gives some examples and exercises for you to try based on these principles. It’s particularly important to understand the principles by which the defender makes a draw in some of these cases as you may find yourself in a situation at the board where you can simplify a lost endgame into such a drawn position.


The ‘wrong’ rook pawn

Most chess players are familiar with the term ‘bad bishop’ but how many of us are familiar with this less well known expression? If you haven’t heard this expression before, here’s the definition:

Def: Wrong rook pawn An a or h pawn whose queening square is on the opposite colour from the square on which the superior side’s bishop moves.

The point is that, if the endgame were to simplify further to a king and pawn ending with just the rook pawn left, the defender can successfully blockade the pawn with the king on his own and draw. So, provided any other pawns can be dealt with, the extra ‘wrong rook pawn’ is of no use at all. In the viewer below there is a simple illustration of this principle from a game between Alekhine and Lasker.


Position is everything

“In endings with bishops of opposite colour, material means NOTHING, position EVERYTHING.” – Cecil Purdy

The truth of this quote has already been revealed in the positions given above. Sometimes, even a significant amount of extra material is not enough to force a win. In the next game viewer (games 6-10) there a number of examples from Grand Master play (one from just last week!)where positional rather than material considerations could have, or did, effect the outcome of the game. All the games are set to ‘Training Mode’ so that you can try and figure out the plans for yourself and test your creative, calculation and technical skills.


Summary I found preparing for this workshop to be a really interesting and useful experience. The key points that I’ll be trying to remember for my own play in the future are:

  • • One, two or even more pawns may not be enough to win if the opposite-coloured bishops are the only pieces that remain on the board with them
  • • Isolated pawns offer the attacker better winning chances than connected pawns
  • • The ‘wrong rook pawn’ is a liability for the attacker
  • • Positional considerations are more important than material ones
  • • The presence of additional pieces besides the bishops favours the attacker
  • • Defenders should aim to head for opposite-coloured bishop and pawn endgames as a refuge
  • • Defenders should create ‘bad’ bishops and attackers should try to keep their bishop ‘good’
  • • Opposite-coloured bishop and pawn endings need to be considered and assessed long before they appear on the board

I hope that this brief study of opposite coloured bishop and pawn endings was of some interest. If it was then I might look at doing some more in the future.

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2 Responses to “Travail Pursuit #59: Opposites attract… draws”

  1. Nick Sykes

    Aug 30. 2015

    Just to comment for the rest of the readers that I was present at this workshop you gave and I found it thoroughly entertaining and very eye opening.

    I will certainly look forward to any others you may present in the future!

    Well worth a read if you have not done so

    Reply to this comment
  2. James Carpenter

    Aug 30. 2015

    Well, I got some of the ideas due to already knowing the answer from Shirov’s book, but they illustrate well the advantages of keeping playing and looking for chances to set you’re opponent problems, even in fairly level positions.

    Endless hidden depths to endings, since many of the critical lines run extremely deep :).

    Reply to this comment

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