The Philidor Position: turning point of Moscow

4/11/2016 – In the 2016 Candidates tournament round thirteen, Fabiano Caruana - Peter Svidler reached a position with Rook + Bishop vs Rook. During play, Svidler drifted into a losing position (at one point exactly within the 50 move rule) and Caruana was unable to win. The position is the Philidor Position, known since 1749. In the following article you will learn all you need to know about it.

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Philidor Position (R+B vs R)

By Thomas W. Ewers

During the official FIDE live broadcast, the commentators did not know how to win from this well known position. In fact, in another broadcast commentated by Jan Gustafsson, he admitted to not being an expert on this endgame and he and his co-commentator, Robin van Kampen, tried but failed to show the winning method. In Jan's defense, he at least knew the key square that you need to initially drive the defending rook (f3 in Caruana - Svidler, which is c3 in the original Philidor position).

I also viewed the "Today In Chess" (Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St Louis, CCSCSL) live video with grandmasters Yasser Seirawan, Maurice Ashley and Alejandro Ramirez, and they could not show the winning method without consulting an endgame tablebase and playing through the moves one by one. After this discussion there was a telephone conversation with Garry Kasparov who said in disbelief, "You just spent 15 minutes discussing the well-known Philidor position!"

In the FIDE World Cup 2015, the game Kramnik - Bruzon ended with Kramnik winning while starting from a drawn position. Peter Svidler(!!) was doing the live commentary for this game and during that game, Peter and his co-commentator seemed to struggle differentiating some positions (before the Philidor position was reached) as winning or drawn. Hearing even a world class player such as Svidler describing the general endgame as "extremely complex" prompted me to learn more about R+B vs R and see how difficult it really was.

Top 100 GM Lazaro Bruzon from Cuba lost his way in this endgame against Vladimir Kramnik in 2015
In the game Carlsen - Ding Liren, Tata Steel 2016, Ding properly held the position using the "second rank defense". During the CCSCSL broadcast, Yasser Seirawan displayed the defensive setup known as the "Cochrane position", although he called it the "Szen" position which is a different defensive setup.

Ding Liren was well-versed and held the endgame against Magnus Carlsen in a key matchup
in the final round of the Tata Steel 2016 event, allowing him to finish third.
Since even elite grandmasters seem to have some confusion with knowing how to win from the standard Philidor position I would like to explain my understanding of the position so that others might be able to remember the winning technique when needed. I used Basic Chess Endings (BCE) by Fine (1973, Descriptive Notation) and the Syzygy Endgame TableBases as references. Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual has the Philidor, Szen, and Cochrane positions while BCE has additional R+B vs R endgames which are even more complex.

The Philidor Position

White to play and win
Let me state some general observations even though they may seem obvious:

1. There are 3 files to the left of the Kings, and 4 files to the right of the Kings.

2. The Bishop controls the corner square on the short side of the board.

3. If you remove the Black Rook, then the standard checkmate positions with the White Rook occur. There are five of these.

4. If you remove the Black Rook and move the Black King one square in either direction, the White Rook still checkmates along the back rank because the Bishop controls b7 and f7. There are 5 of these for each Black King position.

5. If you remove the Black Rook and move the Black King two squares in either direction, the White Rook checkmates at a8 or g8 accordingly.

6. If you remove the Rooks from the starting position, and then place the White Rook at f7, g7, or h7 with White to move, then the Black Rook must occupy a square on the e file to block the checkmate on the back rank. If the Black Rook was on the back rank from e8 to h8, then Ra7 wins quickly. The squares e1, e2, and e3 are available. A similar situation occurs on the short side with the White Rook at b7 and the Black Rook on the c file. 

7. Most of the action in this endgame occurs on the "short" side of the board.

Philidor's classic work on chess

There are several key positions before checkmate is delivered. In the main variation the White King never moves. The Final Key Position occurs after move 11...Kd8 in the main variation (mate in 4 or capture Black's Rook).

Final Key Position

White to move and win

12. Bc4 Kc8 13. Be6+ Kd8 14. Rb8+ Rc8 15. Rxc8 mate.

Note how the Bishop blocks the Black Rook's path to c8 and the White Rook protects the Bishop and threatens mate. The Bishop also controls the d3 square from a Rook check, which is why you want the Black Rook on c3 instead of c1.

While learning this endgame always keep in mind the Final Key Position.

At the end of the article is a PGN with the analysis in this article, but you are encouraged to try to follow it in your mind's eye

Reaching the Final Key Position

White to play and win

The general technique for getting to this Final Key Position is to play moves that take away Black's options. There are several positions where White gains a move. That is, you start with one position and later it appears as though White has moved a piece and it is now White's turn to move again. You may want to briefly play through the main variation at this time before continuing.

The first two moves are very natural and easy to find. For the most part the White Rook wants to occupy the 7th rank and manuver laterally along it.

 
1. Rf8+ Re8 2. Rf7 Re2


At first sight you might not believe it when I say that e2 is a better square for the defense than e1, and e1 is a better square than e3. Hopefully when you are done with this lesson you will understand why. For now just believe me. Svidler played the equivalent of Re1 which is suboptimal when trying to achieve the 50 move draw.

Since the Black Rook is on the best defensive square, you can force it to one of the other squares by playing a waiting move:

3. Rg7 Re1

3...Re3 would transpose into a shorter version of the main line after 4. Rb7, although the quickest way to mate after 3...Re3 is 4. Rd7 which is almost a mirror image of the main variation after 8. Rd7 (see offset "i" position).
 
4. Rb7


You might be tempted to play 4. Bf3?? similar to 5. Bb3 in the main line on the short side, but it only draws(!) after 4...Ke8. The reason it fails here is because the White Rook is not on f7.

Note 4. Ra7?! Rc1 5. Bb3 is only mate (or capture Rook) in 13 moves which is longer than the main variation. During the CCSCSL broadcast they tried a similar plan.

The action now shifts to the short side. There are two ways for Black to defend. 4...Kc8 leads to the "Skewer the Rook" variation which includes a Rook check in the Bishop controlled corner. 4...Kc8 5. Ra7 Rb1 6. Rh7 Kb8 7. Rh8+ Kh7 8. Ra8+ Kb6 9. Rb8+ and 10. Rxb1
 
4...Rc1 5. Bb3! 

After 5.Bb3!

Fabiano incorrectly played a move equivalent to this but with the Rooks still on the "long" side. Black has two ways to defend.

5...Rc3

If Black refuses to place his rook on c3 and instead plays 5...Kc8, you use the "Rectangle Rook" variation (Rook from g7 to b7 to b4 to g4). 6. Rb4 Kd8 (6...Rc3 7. Be6, etc.) 7. Rg4. Black has three possible responses: 

A) 7...Ke8 8. Ba4, etc.

B) 7...Kc8 8. Bd5 Kb8 9. Ra4 and 10. Ra8 to follow.

C) 7...Re1 8. Ba4 Kc8 9. Bc6 Rd1 10. Bd5 Kb8 11. Ra4 and Ra8 to follow.

5...Rc3 is the only reasonable move for the Rook, and you are getting closer to the Final Key Position. The next manuver is used to reach the Offset "i" position.

 
6. Be6 Rd3+ 7. Bd5 Rc3


If 7...Kc8, then 8. Ra7 and mate to follow.

The next maneuver is intended to win another tempo. You want to play the move Rb4 and have it be White's turn to move. Compare to the Final Key Position after 11...Kd8.

8. Rd7

Offset "i" Position:

Black to move

8...Kc8

If 8...Ke8, then 9. Rg7 and threat Rg8.

 
9. Rf7 Kb8 10. Rb7+ Kc8 11. Rb4 Kd8


if 11...Rd3 then 12. Ra4, and if 11...Rc2 then 12. Be6+.

Final Key Position

White to play and win

12. Bc4 Kc8 13. Be6+ Kd8 14. Rb8+ Rc8 15. Rxc8 mate.

In summary, you need to know: 

1. Phildor position; 

2. Skewer the Rook variation;

3. Rectangle Rook variation;

4. Offset 'i' position;

5. Final key position. 

Hopefully you have learned from this lesson!

Analysis for replay:

[Event "Philidor Position"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "White"] [Black "Black"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "3k4/4r3/3K4/3B4/8/8/8/5R2 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "29"] 1. Rf8+ Re8 2. Rf7 Re2 {At first sight you might not believe it when I say that e2 is a better square for the defense than e1, and e1 is a better square than e3. Hopefully when you are done with this lesson you will understand why. For now just believe me. Svidler played the equivalent of Re1 which is suboptimal when trying to achieve the 50 move draw. Since the black rook is on the best defensive square, you can force it to one of the other squares by playing a waiting move:} 3. Rg7 Re1 (3... Re3 {would transpose into a shorter version of the main line after} 4. Rb7 {although the quickest way to mate after 3...Re3 is 4. Rd7 which is almost a mirror image of the main variation after 8. Rd7 (see offset "i" position).}) 4. Rb7 ({You might be tempted to play } 4. Bf3 $4 {similar to 5. Bb3 in the main line on the short side, but it only draws(!) after} Ke8 {The reason it fails here is because the White Rook is not on f7.}) ({Note} 4. Ra7 Kc8 (4... Rc1 5. Bb3 {is only mate (or capture Rook) in 13 moves which is longer than the main variation. During the CCSCSL broadcast they tried a similar plan.})) 4... Rc1 ({The action now shifts to the short side. There are 2 ways for Black to defend.} 4... Kc8 {leads to the "Skewer the Rook" variation which includes a Rook check in the Bishop controlled corner.} 5. Ra7 Rb1 6. Rh7 Kb8 7. Rh8+ Ka7 8. Ra8+ Kb6 9. Rb8+ Ka5 10. Rxb1 $18) 5. Bb3 Rc3 {5...Rc3 is the only reasonable move for the rook, and you are getting closer to the Final Key Position. The next maneuver is used to reach the Offset "i" position.} ({If Black refuses to place his rook on c3 and instead plays} 5... Kc8 {you use the "Rectangle Rook" variation (Rook from g7 to b7 to b4 to g4).} 6. Rb4 Kd8 (6... Rc3 7. Be6+ {etc}) 7. Rg4 { Black has three possible responses:} Ke8 (7... Kc8 8. Bd5 Kb8 9. Ra4 {followed by Ra8.}) (7... Re1 8. Ba4 Kc8 9. Bc6 Rd1+ 10. Bd5 Kb8 11. Ra4 {followed by Ra8.}) 8. Ba4+ {etc.}) 6. Be6 Rd3+ 7. Bd5 Rc3 {The next maneuver is intended to win another tempo. You want to play the move Rb4 and have it be White's turn to move. Compare to the Final Key Position after 11...Kd8.} (7... Kc8 $4 8. Ra7 {and mate to follow.}) 8. Rd7+ Kc8 (8... Ke8 9. Rg7 {and then Rg8.}) 9. Rf7 Kb8 10. Rb7+ Kc8 11. Rb4 Kd8 ({If} 11... Rd3 12. Ra4 {with Ra8 on the next move.}) (11... Rc2 {If} 12. Be6+) 12. Bc4 Kc8 13. Be6+ Kd8 14. Rb8+ Rc8 15. Rxc8# {In summary, you need to know:  1. Phildor position;  2. Skewer the Rook variation; 3. Rectangle Rook variation; 4. Offset 'i' position; 5. Final key position. } 1-0

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TommyCB TommyCB 4/15/2016 07:27
A7fecd1676b88,
I've looked up the game San Claudio - Celaya, Ponferrada 1992 in the Big Database.
It reaches R+B vs R on move 69...Rxg5 and then ends at move 70. Ke4 with 1/2 - 1/2.
The position after 70. Ke4 is not yet the Philidor position and is still a drawn endgame.
From your quotation of Jesus de la Villa, it sounds like many more moves were played and then the Philidor position was eventually reached.
johnmk johnmk 4/13/2016 11:29
This is a VERY tricky ending to learn, and not trivial. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to occur very often in most tournament player's games. And if it does, you better hope you have enough time on the clock to remember the winning (or drawing) procedure. BTW, the Paul Keres endgame book "Practical Chess Endings" does a decent job on this too.
FabriceWantiez FabriceWantiez 4/13/2016 12:18
You can see the analyse of Philidor in the First Edition of his book in 1749 here :

https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/108164446470353817332/albums/6272981924771996801
psamant psamant 4/13/2016 11:13
Thanks a lot for this article, Mr. Ewers. It explained in great detail the Philidor position. I have taken a print of this for keepsakes!
f-kling f-kling 4/13/2016 09:49
Hi Thomas,
"Regarding your note 2. Both 9. Rb4 and 9. Bc6 are the same regarding the 50 move rule."
Ah, OK, that is true, I missed that Rc1 is of course not leading to an immediate capture of the rook. But it is still a quicker mate :-)
A7fecd1676b88 A7fecd1676b88 4/13/2016 05:18
Excellent article.

It seems to be the norm that many of our modern grandmasters cannot win the Philidor.

As Jesus de la Villa states in '100 Endgames You Must know' :
"Many grandmasters have gone astray after reaching the Philidor Position. Moreover, during a
Spanish Team Championship years ago (Ponferrad 1992), a game Celaya - San Claudio was adjourned and then
some grandmasters tried unsuccessfully to replay the winning sequence."

And I think that is understandable. De la Villa estimates that only .02% of endings are R+B vs R endings.
So, you are a GM, and you have to play Carlson tomorrow... Do you brush up on the Philidor position, which has almost a zero percent chance of occurring, assuming you survive to the ending, OR, do you try to find some novelty to surprise him in one of his pet openings...


Horrible Stench Horrible Stench 4/13/2016 03:18
One of the most useful Chessbase articles I've seen. Thanks Mr. Ewers.
firestorm firestorm 4/13/2016 02:55
Hi Thomas,

Firstly, thanks for taking the time produce such an excellent article on what to aim for in the R vs R+B ending, and then how to win it. You make very clear the ideas involved in manipulating, limiting and ultimately defeating black's rook defences whilst maintaining the mating net on black's king- very, very good.

Secondly, thanks for figuring out I was referring to the reply to ... Ke8- I just checked my note, and realised I'd missed out which of black's 3 choices I was referring to. Not hard, but nonetheless- thanks :-)
TommyCB TommyCB 4/13/2016 02:05
f-kling,

Regarding your note 1. You are correct. 5. Rb4 (or 5. Rb3 or 5. Rb2) are 2 moves faster regarding the 50 move rule.

Regarding your note 2. Both 9. Rb4 and 9. Bc6 are the same regarding the 50 move rule. White might be able to checkmate more quickly with 9. Rb4, but I think it depends on how and when Black gives up the Rook.
f-kling f-kling 4/12/2016 07:56
Thomas, there are two more inaccuracies (wrote an email to the Chessbase news team, but just to write it here as well):
1) 4. ... Kc8 5.Rb4! is better, since the mate is longer, but the rook capture earlier after 5. ... Rd1 6.Rh4 Kb8 7.Ra4 (and rook capture :-) ). So it's not really wrong, but for practical reasons (50 moves rule) 5.Rb4 is a better move.
2) There's a mistake in the endgame manual after 5. ... Kc8 6.Rb4 Kd8 7.Rh4 Re1 8.Ba4 Kc8 it should be 9.Rb4 mating quicker and capturing the rook earlier. This mistake is also in your article.
TommyCB TommyCB 4/12/2016 06:17
jocaps and firestorm,

You are correct. I accidentally confused myself with 2 variations when submitting my article to ChessBase.

Originally I had 5...Kc8 6. Rb4 Kd8 7. Rf4 (instead of 7. Rg4) 7....Re1 8. Ba4. I then noticed that 7. Rg4 also won and that it formed a "Rectangle Rook" pattern (g7 to b7 to b4 to g4) and thought this was a clever and easier idea to try to remember how to play.

Therefore the correction is:
A) 7...Ke8 8. Rg8 mate

Thomas Ewers
x_ileon@yahoo.co.uk x_ileon@yahoo.co.uk 4/12/2016 05:54
Very well explained! Lucid and simple. Thanks!
mozartiano123 mozartiano123 4/12/2016 02:44
Philidor has 3 positions named after him.

The rook and pawn vs rook ending.

The Queen vs Rook ending.

This Bishop and Rook vs Rook ending.

One can only respect him for such talent in an era long before computers.
eltollo eltollo 4/12/2016 01:28
One cannot help but admire Philidor for his analysis, he really was a chess genius.
Rational Rational 4/12/2016 12:27
Which table bases did Philidor use? In seriousness looking at this sort of exact position can get me down as it feels like memorising log tables, though when a writer like here helps you see it in terms of strategies it gets more appealing. Still I think it is a mark of a certain sort of enthusiasm and ability for exact calculation which makes one good in positions like this. It is interesting that some very strong players even Soviet trained do not have these positions pat in their heads.
smurfo smurfo 4/12/2016 11:00
This is the best article I've read on here in a long time!
firestorm firestorm 4/12/2016 09:58
Excellent article, but in the part after white employs rectangle rook, it says black has 3 choices- shouldn't the reply to black playing be Rg8 mate, not Ba4+ "etc"?
jocaps jocaps 4/12/2016 09:55
There is a slight error. When reaching the sub-variation in the pgn: "If Black refuses to place his rook on c3 and instead plays Kc8". After Rb4 you go to Rf4 and not Rg4 other wise the White king tries to escape on the f file. At least for me that is faster. Because if we get 6... Kd8 7. Rg4 Ke8 8. Ba4+ (where you wrote "etc."), then the White king moves to the f-file.. why would you allow this? you can stop this with Rf4 at move 7. of the subvariation already.
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