Karsten Müller: Understanding the Vancura draw

by Frederic Friedel
9/9/2014 – "It is insulting that Aronian is not resigning," said spectators on the server. Magnus Carlsen was two pawns up and chess engines were displaying +5 for the World Champion. But after a while it became clear: Levon Aronian knew the "Vančura position" and how to reach it. The game was drawn. For those of you who do not know the strategy here is a complete primer by Karsten Müller.

Understanding the Vančura draw

In the ending rook + pawn vs rook there are certain positions that every tournament chess player should know. For instance the Philidor draw, also known as the third rank defense, or the Lucena position, in which White's king is in front of his pawn, which in turn is on the b to g files, and the black king is cut off on a file – a win for the side with the pawn.

Lesser known is the Vancura Position, which is essentially rook and rook's pawn versus a rook where the pawn is not beyond its sixth rank, and the stronger side's rook is in front of the pawn. This ending was studied by Josef Vančura, a Czech study composer who lived at the turn of the last century and died at the age of 23 in 1921. His analysis of the KRP vs KR was published posthumously in 1924 and has belonged to the standard repertoire of strong chess players ever since.

In the Vancura Position Black's rook keeps attacking the pawn from the side, while keeping the black king on near the corner on the opposite side of the board, so that White cannot sacrifice the pawn and then skewer Black's king and rook on the seventh rank (see move two in the first example below). But on to the specifics: who can better explain them than our endgame specialist Dr Karsten Müller.

[Event "How to play it"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Vancura Draw"] [Black "?"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [Annotator "Karsten Müller"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "R7/6k1/P4r2/8/3K4/8/8/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "36"] [EventDate "2014.09.07"] {Vancura's draw is based on the passivity of White's rook in front of the passed a-pawn. Black's rook ties it to the defense of the pawn and Black's king stays in the drawing zone g7 and h7:} 1. Ke5 Rb6 {[%cal Gb6a6] The rook forces White's rook to defend the pawn.} 2. Kd5 (2. Ra7+ Kg8 3. Kd5 Rf6 4. Kc5 Rf5+ 5. Kd6 Rf6+ 6. Ke5 Rb6 7. Ra8+ Kg7 $11) 2... Rf6 (2... Kf7 $2 {loses in a typical way:} 3. a7 Ra6 4. Rh8 Rxa7 5. Rh7+ $18 {This is the reason, why the drawing zone for the black king is g7 and h7 resp g8 and h8, if White's rook is on the seventh rank.}) 3. Kc5 Rf5+ {It is important that the rook keeps the checking options on the f-file open.} (3... Rh6 $2 {loses due to} 4. Kb5 Rh5+ 5. Kb6 Rh6+ 6. Kb7 {and the checks have run out and White wins as the rook can be activated after} Rf6 7. Rc8 $18) 4. Kb6 Rf6+ {White's king finds no shelter on the queenside.} 5. Ka7 Rf7+ 6. Kb8 Rf8+ 7. Kb7 Rf7+ 8. Kc6 Rf6+ 9. Kd5 Rb6 ( 9... Rf5+ {draws as well, but after} 10. Ke4 Ra5 $2 {would be a mistake due to} (10... Rf6 $11 {reaches the standard drawing set up.}) 11. Kd4 Kf6 12. Kc4 Ra1 (12... Ke6 13. a7 $18) 13. Kb5 Rb1+ 14. Kc6 Ra1 15. Kb7 Rb1+ 16. Ka7 Ke7 17. Rb8 $18) 10. a7 {Now Black's rook can move behind the passed pawn as White's king has no shelter anymore.} Ra6 11. Kc5 Ra1 12. Kb6 Rb1+ 13. Kc7 Rc1+ 14. Kd6 Rd1+ 15. Kc5 Rc1+ 16. Kb4 Rb1+ 17. Kc3 Ra1 18. Kb2 Ra6 $11 1/2-1/2

The Vugar Gashimov Memorial tournament was held in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, in April this year. It featured World Champion Magnus Carlsen (2881), Fabiano Caruana (2783), Sergey Karjakin (2772), Hikaru Nakamura (2772), and the two Azeri players Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (2760) and Teimour Radjabov (2713). In round four there was a memorable encounter, which at the time our GM reporter Alejandro Ramirez described as follows:

Radjabov, Teimour ½-½ Nakamura, Hikaru
Nakamura again played a solid Slav, but used a different variation than he did against Carlsen in round two. Radjabov got some advantage, as his pawn structure was superior in the resulting endgame. However the position was very hard to breach, and eventually Nakamura traded off into a drawn rook endgame, despite being down a pawn.

Teimour held a slight edge the entire game, but nothing more

Passive and long defense gave Nakamura a draw; not his usual style

But what exactly happened? Again we hand over to Karsten Müller for a full explanation:

[Event "Vugar Gashimov Mem 2014"] [Site "Shamkir AZE"] [Date "2014.04.23"] [Round "4.1"] [White "Radjabov, Teimour"] [Black "Nakamura, Hikaru"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D11"] [WhiteElo "2713"] [BlackElo "2772"] [Annotator "Karsten Müller"] [PlyCount "133"] [EventDate "2014.04.20"] 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 Bg4 5. Qb3 Qb6 6. Nc3 e6 7. Nh4 Bh5 8. h3 g5 9. Nf3 h6 10. Bd3 Nbd7 11. g4 Qxb3 12. axb3 Bg6 13. Bxg6 fxg6 14. Ke2 Bg7 15. Bd2 O-O 16. Be1 a6 17. h4 gxh4 18. g5 hxg5 19. Nxg5 Rfe8 20. Rxh4 e5 21. cxd5 cxd5 22. Rd1 Rad8 23. Nf3 exd4 24. Rhxd4 Nb6 25. Rb4 Rd6 26. Na4 Nxa4 27. bxa4 Re7 28. Bc3 Ne4 29. Bxg7 Kxg7 30. Nd2 Rc6 31. Nxe4 dxe4 32. Rdd4 Rc2+ 33. Rd2 Rxd2+ 34. Kxd2 Kf6 35. Rb6+ Kf5 36. Ke2 Rc7 37. Kf1 Rd7 38. Kg2 Rf7 39. b4 Kg5 40. a5 Re7 41. Kg3 Rf7 42. Re6 Kf5 43. Rd6 Re7 44. Rb6 Rf7 45. b5 axb5 46. Rxb5+ Ke6 47. Kg4 Rxf2 48. Rxb7 Rf5 49. a6 Ra5 50. Rb6+ Kf7 51. Kf4 g5+ 52. Kxe4 g4 53. Kf4 Ra4+ 54. Kg3 Re4 55. Rb8 Rxe3+ 56. Kxg4 Ra3 57. Ra8 Ra5 58. Kf4 {Nakamura follows Vancura!} Kg7 $1 {The king moves into position for Vancura's drawing set up.} ({After} 58... Ke7 $2 59. a7 {[%csl Gc7,Gg7,Gh7] Black's king would be caught in the middle of nowhere between the drawing zones:} Kd7 60. Rh8 Rxa7 61. Rh7+ $18) 59. Ke4 Rb5 $3 {[%cal Gb5b6] Very strong! The rook also prepares to move into position.} (59... Rc5 {[%cal Gc5c6] draws as well.}) ({ All other moves lose, e.g.} 59... Kf7 $2 60. Kd4 Kf6 (60... Ke7 61. a7 $18) 61. Kc4 Kf7 62. Kb4 Ra1 63. Kb5 Rb1+ 64. Kc6 Rc1+ 65. Kb7 Rb1+ 66. Ka7 Ke7 67. Rb8 Rc1 68. Kb7 Rb1+ 69. Ka8 Rc1 70. a7 Kd6 $5 {Now a winning procedure follows, which you should know:} 71. Kb7 Rb1+ 72. Kc8 Rc1+ 73. Kd8 Rh1 74. Rb6+ Kc5 75. Rc6+ $1 Kxc6 (75... Kd5 76. Ra6 $18) (75... Kb5 76. Rc8 Rh8+ 77. Kc7 Rh7+ 78. Kb8 Kb6 79. a8=Q $18) 76. a8=Q+ $18) (59... Rg5 $2 60. Ra7+ Kf6 61. Kd4 Ke6 62. Ra8 Kd7 63. a7 $18) 60. Ra7+ ({After} 60. Rc8 {the rook simply retreats:} Ra5 $1 61. Rc6 Kf7 62. Kd4 Ke7 63. Kc4 Kd7 64. Rh6 Kc7 65. Kb4 Ra1 $11) 60... Kg6 $1 61. Kd4 (61. Rb7 Ra5 62. a7 Kf6 63. Kd4 Ke6 64. Kc4 Kd6 65. Kb4 Kc6 66. Rh7 Ra1 $11) 61... Rb6 62. Ke5 Rc6 63. Ra8 Kg7 {[%csl Gg7,Gh7][%cal Gc6a6] Finally Nakamura has reached Vancura's drawing set up in "the textbook version". Black's rook ties White's to the defense of the a-pawn in front of the a-pawn and White's king finds no hiding place on the queenside. This is the drawing principle as Black's king in the drawing zone on g7 or h7 does not allow the rook trick Rh8 followed by Rh7+. This principle would also work with e.g. an additional white pawn on h5.} 64. Ra7+ (64. Kd5 Rf6 65. Kc5 Rf5+ 66. Kb6 Rf6+ 67. Kb7 Rf7+ 68. Kc6 Rf6+ 69. Kd5 Rb6 $11) (64. a7 Ra6 65. Kd5 Ra1 66. Kc6 Rc1+ 67. Kb6 Rb1+ 68. Ka5 Ra1+ 69. Kb4 Rb1+ 70. Ka3 Ra1+ 71. Kb2 Ra6 $11) 64... Kg6 65. Re7 Rxa6 66. Re6+ Rxe6+ 67. Kxe6 1/2-1/2

In round nine of the recently finished Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis we had another vivid example of the Vancura strategy in action. In his round report GM Alejandro Ramirez wrote:

Carlsen, Magnus ½-½ Aronian, Levon
The World Champion obtained some comfortable pressure in the opening, and slowly but surely it seemed as if that pressure was increasing - especially with some strange and weakening moves by Aronian. However the Armenian's play wasn't senseless at all, somehow he obtained counterplay and the position was not easy to play for either side.

Carlsen almost won like his old self, but he let it slip at the last moment

A mistake left Aronian in a difficult rook endgame that required an incredible amount of precision. Carlsen reached a winning position but blundered it all away with the move 46.h6?? instead of 46.Kc2! With this error Aronian was able to beautifully show the Vancura Defense and obtained a draw out of seemingly nowhere. Many spectators without access to tablebases were confused online as the engines keep saying this position is a win, but it most certainly was not.

Carlsen tried for dozens of moves after the game was clearly drawn

Aronian's rook endgame was hard to evalute, but a win was there

Karsten Müller shows us exactly how Aronian was able to secure the draw:

[Event "2nd Sinquefield Cup 2014"] [Site "Saint Louis USA"] [Date "2014.09.05"] [Round "9.2"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Aronian, Levon"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D56"] [WhiteElo "2877"] [BlackElo "2805"] [Annotator "Karsten Müller"] [PlyCount "168"] [EventDate "2014.08.27"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Be7 5. Bg5 h6 6. Bh4 O-O 7. e3 Ne4 8. Bxe7 Qxe7 9. Rc1 c6 10. Qc2 Nxc3 11. Qxc3 Nd7 12. Be2 dxc4 13. Qxc4 e5 14. O-O exd4 15. Nxd4 Nf6 16. b4 Bd7 17. Rfd1 Rfe8 18. Qc5 g6 19. a4 Qxc5 20. bxc5 a5 21. Nb3 Re5 22. Rd4 Kf8 23. Kf1 Ke7 24. Bc4 g5 25. h3 b5 26. cxb6 Rb8 27. f4 Rxe3 28. Nc5 Rxb6 29. Kf2 gxf4 30. Rxf4 Re5 31. Rxf6 Be8 32. Rf4 Rxc5 33. Re4+ Kf8 34. Rxe8+ Kxe8 35. Bxf7+ Kxf7 36. Rxc5 Rb4 37. Rxa5 c5 38. Ke3 Rd4 39. Ra6 Kg7 40. a5 Ra4 41. g4 h5 42. gxh5 Ra3+ 43. Ke4 c4 44. Kd4 c3 45. Kd3 {The Vancura defense even works against two additional h-pawns:} Kh7 ({I had assumed that} 45... Rb3 {draws, but it is refuted by Ian Rogers shot} 46. Rg6+ Kh7 47. Kc2 Rb5 (47... Ra3 48. Ra6 $18 {and the regrouping of the rook is stopped.}) 48. a6 Ra5 49. Kxc3 Rxh5 50. Rb6 $18) 46. h6 $2 {This is a mistake as Alejandro Ramirez has pointed out.} (46. Kc2 $1 {stops the regrouping of Black's rook and wins, e.g.} Kg7 47. h6+ Kh7 48. h4 Kh8 49. Ra7 Kg8 50. a6 Kh8 51. h5 Kg8 52. Rg7+ Kh8 53. a7 Ra2+ 54. Kb3 Rb2+ 55. Ka3 $18) 46... Rb3 $1 47. Kc2 Rb5 $1 {[%cal Gb5a5] The rooks moves into position to force White's rook to stay in front of the a-pawn.} 48. Kxc3 Rf5 49. Ra8 Rb5 50. Kc4 Rf5 51. Kb4 Rf4+ 52. Kc5 Rf5+ 53. Kd4 Rb5 54. Ke4 Rc5 55. Ra6 Rb5 56. h4 Rc5 57. Kd4 Rb5 58. Kc4 Rf5 59. Kb4 Rf4+ 60. Kc5 Rf5+ 61. Kb6 Rf6+ 62. Kb7 Rf7+ 63. Kc8 Rf8+ 64. Kd7 Rf5 65. Ra8 Rd5+ 66. Ke6 (66. Kc6 Rf5 67. a6 Rf6+ 68. Kb5 Rf5+ 69. Kc4 Rf4+ 70. Kd3 Rf6 $11) 66... Rb5 67. Kf6 Rc5 68. Ra7+ Kxh6 69. Kf7 Rb5 70. a6 Rb6 $1 {[%cal Gb6a6]} 71. Kg8 Rb8+ 72. Kf7 Rb6 $1 {[%cal Gb6a6]} 73. Ke7 Kg6 74. Kd7 Rf6 75. Ra8 Kg7 76. Kc7 Rf7+ 77. Kd6 Rf6+ 78. Ke5 Rb6 79. Ra7+ Kg6 (79... Kg8 $11 { works as well.}) 80. h5+ Kh6 $1 ({After} 80... Kxh5 $2 81. Ra8 {[%csl Gg7,Gh7] Black's king does not reach the drawing zone in time:} Kg6 82. a7 Ra6 83. Rg8+ $18) 81. Kf5 Rc6 82. Re7 (82. Ra8 Kg7 83. h6+ Kh7 84. Kg5 Rg6+ 85. Kf5 Rb6 $11) 82... Rxa6 83. Re6+ Rxe6 84. Kxe6 Kxh5 1/2-1/2

Karsten Müller in ChessBase Magazine

Do you like these lessons? There are plenty more by internationally renowned endgame expert Dr Karsten Müller in ChessBase Magazine, where you will also find openings articles and surveys, tactics, and of course annotations by the world's top grandmasters.

Click to go to the ChessBase Magazine page

Apart from his regular columns and video lectures in ChessBase Magazine there is a whole series of training DVDs by Karsten Müller, which are bestsellers in the ChessBase Shop.


Editor-in-Chief of the ChessBase News Page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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AgainstAllOdds AgainstAllOdds 9/9/2014 09:05
Thanks to Mr.Müller!
Finally got the point of this defense-pattern!
Keep up the good work!
alf022 alf022 9/11/2014 02:51
Thank you for sharing your deep chess ending games.
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