Checking and Checkmating

The central idea in studying checking and checkmating is to develop a good foundation for constructing the player’s game plan designed for solid play during a game and winning the game.

This tutorial is designed to further the reader’s familiarity with checks & checkmates, from basic simple mating patterns and mating nets to more complex ones. Throughout the earlier tutorials, various types of checks and checkmates have been explored. In the Objective of the Game of Chess, there was an example of a simple checkmate (also called basic endgame) using a Rook, Queen, and King, to checkmate an opposing King. In that tutorial, the two-move checkmate called The Fool’s Mate (against White), the comparable three-move checkmate (against Black), and the four-move checkmate called The Scholar’s Mate were reviewed. These should be reviewed periodically as necessary to keep them fresh in the mind, until they become memorized.

Primary Fundamental Principle

In studying and applying mating patterns and mating nets, whether simple or complex, to checkmate successful absent a mistake or blunder by your opponent to seize upon, a player must always: “Limit (or Restrict) the opposing King”s movement at all times.”

Checking the opposing King, while a very important part of the game of chess, generally does a player no good if the player is unable to utilize the checking of the opposing King for a specifically targeted goal. All players have encountered the bewildering moving and checking done by a beginner either perhaps trying to see how many times he or she can check the opponent’s King in his or her eagerness and/or trying to figure out how to coordinate moves and pawn advances to gain a checkmate. Indeed, it is fairly safe to say that most players generally have done so as part of their own learning curve for the game of chess. In a player’s early game playing, the player’s unfamiliarity with basic principles often results in the failure to “Limit (or Restrict) the opposing King”s movement at all times,” making even simple checkmates/basic endgames oftentimes tedious endeavors. At the same time, checkmating in more complex situations and at higher levels of play may be even more tedious sometimes because the player’s respective knowledge often yields more difficult positions to analyze during the playing of a game. Additionally, complex mating patterns and mating nets present more difficult to discern escape paths that need to be blocked off to the opposing King attempting to flee the ensnarement of a mating net.

Whether a player’s goal is aimed at forcing checkmate on the opposing player, or instead aimed at obtaining a draw or a stalemate when the player is in a losing position, the value can never be overemphasized for a well-developed, coordinated attacking plan. Development of well thought out combinations of moving pieces and advancing pawns provides the player with the best opportunity to win a game or gain a draw or stalemate. Being able to effectively mobilize and activate a player’s fighting forces, and work them together, lessens the chances for the player to make a mistake or blunder.

The continued study of checking and checkmating is crucial throughout a player’s chess playing career. This is true whether playing chess is engaged in for fun, as a club player, as a team player, a tournament player, as a dedicated chess student, or as a professional chess player. This series of Checking and Checkmating Studies lessons are designed to provide a base for other lessons including the simple checkmates/basic endgames and complex checkmates.

There are a range of simple mating patterns and mating nets, from which the more complex ones develop. There are also common pattern themes, running throughout checking and checkmating in the game of chess. Let’s first turn to a review of the framework of checkmating to develop the foundation for constructing a game plan and developing checkmating patterns.

The Framework in a Nutshell

Checkmate is reached by putting the opposing player’s King under direct, immediate attack by one or more of the player’s pieces (Queen, Bishops, Knights, &/or Rooks) &/or pawns, called check. Checking constitutes creating a threat of capturing the opposing player’s King, but a King is never actually captured and removed from the chessboard.

An attack on a King may occur from a single piece or pawn which is check, or by two pieces, or a piece and a pawn, called double check.

When a King is in check (whether single or double), the player may not make a move or advance a pawn that does not get his or her King out of check.

When a King has no square:

  1. to which it may escape safely (i.e., without getting into further check or sitting adjacent to the player’s other King); and
  2. the attacking piece or pawn cannot be captured); and
  3. there is no piece to be moved or a pawn to be advanced so as to be interposed as a block against the attack;

then the game ends in checkmate. The square upon which the opposing King is located is called the checkmate square. The player who has the King that cannot escape the attack (check) loses the game.

In developing a mating pattern and mating net, it is critical that a player remember the three basic anatomy of mate patterns (the nine-square cube, the six-square rectangle, and the four-square square; which are reviewed more fully again below). Because the King may move only one square at a time, the following three primary rules should be learned and applied in delivering all checkmates:

1. In a pawn check situation the opposing King is under immediate attack by a player’s pawn. No opposing piece or pawn can be interposed because the pawn is on a square adjacent diagonally to the square the opposing King is located on.
2. In a double check situation, attack on the opposing King also may not be avoided by interposing a opposing piece or pawn because the opposing King is under attack by two of a player’s pieces, or a player’s piece and pawn. In such situation, it is not possible to block both attacks on the opposing King with only one opposing piece or a pawn. Further, a double check may not be avoided by capture because there is no way to capture both attacking pieces, or the attacking piece and pawn.
3. In a Knight check situation, the check cannot be blocked by interposing a piece or pawn between the Knight and the opposing King because the Knight moves non-laterally in the L-shape pattern and can jump over other pieces and pawns. Additionally, in a Knight check situation the opposing King cannot capture the opposing Knight because the King can only move one square at a time.

Variations on check and double check include a fork check and a combined double check & fork check. A fork check is when a piece or pawn checks the opposing King and simultaneously attacks another opposing piece or pawn with the threat of capturing the other opposing piece or pawn on the player’s next move after the opposing player gets his or her King out of check.

Another type of check is a discovered check – which occurs when an opposing King is not in check, but a player’s piece may be moved or pawn advanced thereby putting the opposing King in check by another of the player’s pieces without that piece having been moved. A discovered check is especially valuable if:

1.    in moving or advancing with the opposing King being put in check by another piece, the piece or pawn then threatens to capture another piece or pawn of the opposing player which is unprotected (i.e., another opposing piece or pawn cannot capture the piece which will do the subsequent capture); or

2.    in moving the piece or pawn and putting the opposing King in check, that piece or pawn also restricts the opposing King’s movement by blocking the opposing King from moving to one or more squares, thereby cutting off one or more paths for the opposing King to escape the check; or

3.    in moving a piece, the opposing King is put into double check or a combined double check-fork check situation.

Another possibility is a combination series of normal checks followed by discovered checks and vice versa with captures of opposing pieces and pawns (some call it “gobbling up the opponent’s forces”). This involves keeping the opposing King under a series of repeated normal checks and discovered checks, thereby not allowing the opposing player to do anything about the devastation to his or her fighting forces going on in front of him or her. International Master Jeremy Silman called this the windmill and provides further explanation and an excellent example at page 131 in his book, The Complete Book of Chess Strategy, Grandmaster Techniques from A to Z (full reference is provided in the Recommended Readings section).

Four Cornerstones of the Foundation for Playing Chess

The central idea in studying checking and checkmating is to develop a good foundation for construction pf a player’s game plan for playing and winning chess games. The four cornerstones of the foundation are:

  1. Pattern recognition, to enhance moving the pieces and advancing the pawns toward the prime objective – checkmate, as well as how to seek out and possibly accomplish the alternatives objectives of draws and stalemates.
  2. Tactics, how to accomplish goals.
  3. Strategy, how to put into place tactics and pattern recognition to further build support for accomplishing goals.
  4. Combinations, the most critical and important cornerstone for applying basic and advanced principles and concepts to further the player’s game plan.

Anatomy of Mate

In order to checkmate and avoid checkmate, a player must have a solid understanding of pattern recognition of the basics of the Anatomy of Mate.” [Art of Attack in Chess at page 9 (Introduction)] For checkmate to occur, there must be application and usually adherence to the basic principles and the rules of chess. Alternatively, a player may employ deviation from them for sound tactical and strategic purposes, within a well-constructed game plan designed to reach one of three basic groups of squares within the Anatomy of Mate principle from which checkmate may occur:

  1. The first group.    The opposing King must be deprived of eight (8) squares to which it may otherwise move onto, or move to and capture one of the opposing player’s pieces or pawns, if it is on a square other than one:
    1. in the farthest apart files (the a or h files) being the vertical two of the sides of the board also called the flanks or the wings); or
    2. in the farthest apart ranks (the 1st rank and 8th rank) being the horizontal the two other sides of the board, and usually called respectively each player’s back rank (1st rank=White’s back rank and 8th rank= Black’s back rank).

The nine squares are comprised of the eight squares adjacent to (i.e., touching at any point) the square upon which the opposing King is located, plus that square. The mating pattern or anatomy of a mate in this situation geometrically is a larger square consisting of nine squares – three squares aligned horizontally across three adjacent files by three squares in a column vertically across three adjacent ranks (3 x 3 = 9). The square upon which the opposing King is to be checkmated (the checkmate square), must be at the center of the larger square (the group) of nine squares.

  1. The second group.    The opposing King must be deprived of five (5) squares to which it may otherwise move onto, or move to and capture one of the opposing player’s pieces or pawns, if it is on a square on:
    1. one of the wings of the chessboard, and on a square other than one of the four corners (in either the a or h files and in any of the squares in the 2nd rank through the 7th rank); or
    2. one of the back ranks of the chessboard, and on a square other than one of the four corners (in the 1st rank or the 8th rank and in any of the squares in the b file through the g file).

The mating pattern or anatomy of a mate in this situation geometrically is a rectangle consisting of six squares – two squares aligned horizontally across two adjacent files by three squares in a column vertically across three adjacent ranks (2 x 3 = 6). The square upon which the opposing King is to be checkmated (the checkmate square), must be located at the center of the vertically aligned or horizontally aligned squares on a side of the chessboard.

  1. The third group.    The opposing King must be deprived of three (3) squares if it is on one of the four corner squares on the chessboard (a1, h1, a8, or h8). The mating pattern or anatomy of a mate in this situation geometrically is a square consisting of four squares – two squares aligned horizontally across two adjacent files by two squares in a column vertically across two adjacent ranks (2 x 2 = 4). Depending on which piece is checkmating the opposing King, or if a pawn is checkmating, the square upon which the opposing King is to be checkmated may be one of the two squares located along a file or a rank:
    1. at the lower left square (a1), or the upper left square (a8), or the lower right square (h1), or the upper right square (h8); or
    2. at b1, b8, g1, or g8; or
    3. at a2, a7, h2, or h7.

The Anatomy of Mate discussion above was adapted from Art of Attack in Chess at page 9 (Introduction) (full reference in Recommended Readings section at website).

The three basic Anatomy of Mate mating patterns are shown below.

Anatomy of Mate Diagram
Anatomy of Mate Basic Mating_Patterns

“The final position is called the mating pattern…[which] can be typical (i.e. one which frequently occurs) or atypical. When the combined fighting forces on the board (whether they be the player’s own pieces and/or pawns working together, or in combination using the positioning of other opposing pieces and/or pawns) trap the opposing King in one of the above groups of squares, this is the mating net.” [Art of Attack in Chess at page 10 (Introduction) (full reference in Recommeded Readings section at website)]

Common Pattern Themes

In constructing and executing a game plan, and developing a mating pattern and mating net, there are certain common pattern themes that apply in both simple and complex checkmates. These common pattern themes may be viewed as simplified into two basic thematic concepts:

1.    Control of possible escape (or flight) squares and paths through blocking files, ranks, and diagonals, whether by the player’s pieces and/or pawns, or by the opposing player’s pieces and/or pawns, or both. This aspect involves learning, understanding, and implementing the concept of “focal points” (covered more extensively in the Attacking in Chess lessons (pdf downloads only). A focal point is a square on the board that has a concentration of the moving/capturing powers of two or more of a player’s fighting units aimed at it from different angles or points on the board – along diagonals, files, and/or ranks.
Focal points are especially important in developing mating patterns and mating nets. Focal points may be used to entomb an opposing King, and/or render an opposing player’s pieces and/or pawns ineffective for defense and/or result in their removal from the board through capture.
From a checking and checkmating standpoint, there are certain key squares that are common focal points depending if the opposing King has castled (e.g. f7, g7, and h7 against Black who has castled to the Kingside) for attacking and breaking the defensive pawn structure in front of the castled King, and if the opposing King has not castled.
Focal points also are important to consider when developing and executing a game plan based on whether the opposing player can castle his or her King, or has been deprived of the ability to do castling as a defensive maneuver.
2.    Attacking and checkmating the opposing King at the checkmate square from which the opposing King is blocked from moving, and neither the player’s attacking piece or pawn can be captured nor can the check be blocked by interposing an opposing piece or pawn between the opposing King and the player’s attacking piece or pawn.

King Opposition

The main premise of the principle is to bring the Kings to a position where they are parallel and facing each other (either horizontally across ranks, vertically in files, or diagonally with the opposing King in the corner square) separated by one square in the intervening rank, file, or along the diagonal line. This is called Direct King Opposition. Because a King may not move to a square adjacent to the other King, then King Opposition results in three squares being controlled so that neither King may move to those squares, called “opposition squares.” There also is Misaligned King Opposition, which plays an important role in certain types of simple checkmates/basic endgames. However, King Opposition plays a very important role throughout tactics & strategy for chess playing. The principle, though, is especially important in checkmates in which the King is used. This principle is covered in various tutorials, including the Queen Simple Checkmate tutorial, including in depth in the Rook & King v. King tutorial, under Checking and Checkmating Studies II, and extensively in the Endgames tutorial in this Advanced Basics section.

Checkmate in its truest and purest essence then is a theme centered on applying the basic principle of entombment, with the added final thrust of a player’s fighting arsenal attacking and checking the entombed opposing King on a square from which he cannot move or be saved from the attack and check.

As a prelude to developing checking and checkmating principles and concepts from the two basic common pattern themes, let’s take a look at a board position with just three pieces on the board.

DIAGRAM CCKM1

Rook & King v. King Board Position 1

This “simple” position shows the power of knowing, understanding, and employing concepts and principles to develop coordination of successive moves designed to force checkmate upon the opposing player. A Rook & King v. King is the second easiest type of simple checkmate/basic endgame. However, it is one that often gives rise to bewildering moving and checking done by a beginner trying to figure out how to checkmate. Checkmate in three moves is the quick, efficient way to win the game from this position. Mate in three moves is possible from two alternative mating patterns and mating nets, but both employ the very same principles and concepts. Did you find both paths?

The first path: 1…Kc4! Black imposes horizontal (on the same rank) Direct King Opposition on White’s King. Direct King Opposition either horizontally on the same rank or vertically in the same file is necessary to checkmate in a Rook & King v. King endgame, except when the checkmate square is a corner square for which alignment for King Opposition can also be either diagonal Direct King Opposition or Misaligned King Opposition. The attacking player’s King controls three of the squares of the six-square Anatomy of Mate pattern when checkmate in on a wing or back rank and not in a corner square.

In the diagrammed position, Black’s King move gains control of b3, b4, and b5, partially entombing White’s King, leaving only two squares (a3 and a5) through which Black’s King may try to flee off the a-file. White’s goal is to keep Black’s King on the a-file because of the basic principal that a Rook and King can only checkmate a lone opposing King on one of the sides of the board (a-file or h-file, or 1st rank or 8th rank. 2.Ka3 2…Rh2 Black employs the fundamental principal of “Limit (or Restrict) the opposing King’s movement at all times” by blocking off two key squares in the 2nd rank (a2 and b2). Black thwarts the attempt to flee by White’s King. Black enforces virtually complete entombment on White’s King by reducing the ability of White’s King to move to only one square – a4. Forcing White’s King back to a4, reimposes the important direct King opposition necessary to successfully checkmate White’s King on the a-file). 3.Ka4 Ra2# Black completes the entombment and checkmates White’s King at the checkmate square (a4).

The second path: If instead 2.Ka5 the same principles apply equally to force checkmate on White’s King, but on the opposite side of Black’s King. 2…Rh6 Black closes off the ability for White’s King to flee, forcing Black’s King back to a4. 3.Ka4 Ra6#.

Now let’s review some additional basic concepts for common pattern themes, types of checks, the alternatives objectives to checkmating, and blocking check.

A. Knight and pawn checks cannot be blocked.
B. Simple (elementary) checkmates/basic endgames that only use either the Queen or Rook and the King against the opposing King. The player must force the opposing King to one of the sides of the chessboard to effectuate the checkmate (and preferably to one of the corners, but this is not required). If the opposing King is not on one of the sides of the chessboard, the opposing King cannot be checkmated by only a Queen or a Rook and the King. The principle of forcing the opposing King to one of the sides or corners of the chessboard to effectuate checkmate is, perhaps, the most common of all the mating patterns and mating nets and the one most frequently encountered from simple checkmates to complex checkmates.
C. Double Check: a double check occurs when a player makes a move with a piece or advances and captures with a pawn, which results in two of his or her pieces, or one of his pieces and a pawn, both checking the opposing King at the same time. When a King is in double check, the opposing King must move out of check because there is no way to take or block both pieces or the piece and the pawn that are double checking the opposing King.
D. The powerful Knight Fork Check: the opposing player with his or her King in check must either-

  1. Move the King out of check because there is no way to take the Knight, leaving the Knight to capture the other opposing piece or pawn under attack through the fork; or
  2. Capture the Knight if he or she has an available piece or pawn to capture it.
F. Combination Double Check and Fork Check: an especially powerful form of checking is when a player is able to launch a double check and fork check at the same time. If this occurs, it is usually an overwhelming sign that the opposing player likely already has lost the game and it is only a matter of time before he or she will be checkmated.
G. Perpetual Check: a perpetual check (drawn game) may only occur through a player moving one or more pieces and/or advancing one or more pawns, so that the opposing King is always kept under check with no ability to block or escape the repetitious checking. A perpetual check only occurs when a King, which is in check, may only move to a square where the other player may again put the King into check, and this will always happen repetitively in ensuing moves presuming no blunder or intentionally allowing the King to escape the perpetual check. You should note that this requires the player with the King under check not having any available other piece or pawn to block any check or take the piece which is checking the King, so as to break up the repetitious checking of his or her King. A player does not have to perpetually check the opposing player’s King. This is an optional way to end a game in a draw, and occurs usually but not always as a route sought by a player in danger of losing a game via a checkmate..
H. Rook on the Seventh (7th) Rank: When a player’s Rook becomes positioned on the opposing player’s seventh (7th) rank gaining control of the rank and trapping the opposing King on the back rank, most often deals a crushing and usually decisive blow to the opposing player. This positioning of a Rook also may be used to launch a combination series of normal checks followed by discovered checks and vice versa with captures of opposing pieces and pawns (some call it “gobbling up the opponent’s forces”). This involves keeping the opposing King under a repeating sequence of normal checks and discovered checks, while attacking and removing opposing fighting units from the board, thereby not allowing the opposing player to do anything about the devastation to his or her fighting forces going on in front of him or her. International Master Jeremy Silman called this the windmill and provides further explanation and an excellent example at page 131 in his book, The Complete Book of Chess Strategy, Grandmaster Techniques from A to Z..
I. Alternatives Objectives to Checkmate: Draw and Stalemate: Either through not being attentive or intentionally, a player may create a draw situation (e.g. perpetual check) or stalemate. Other possible draws that may occur are the draw due to inadequare mating material (e.g., King v. King, Rook & King v. King, and Knight & King v. King); Three-Move Repetition Draw; and, Fifty-Move Draw). Stalemate occurs when the opposing King, not being in check, cannot move except to a square upon which it would be in check, the opposing player has no other piece to move or pawn to advance to block the check, and the checking piece or pawn cannot be captured. He or she may maneuver his or her King to a square after which if the opposing player is forced to move a piece or advance a pawn, or he or she makes a wrong move or pawn advance, the opponent cannot avoid being continually checked successive moves (perpetual check), or being stalemated. Players who are at risk of being checkmated often seek these alternative objectives to obtain parity (1/2 – 1/2) instead of losing a whole point (1-0 or 0-1)..
J. Blocking Check & Checkmate: Instead of moving the King, or moving and capturing with the King or another piece or pawn, a player may also use any available piece or pawn to block the check (available = the ability to move the piece or advance the pawn without exposing the King to further check). A player also often has the possibility to block a mating pattern or mating net through moving one or more of his or her pieces and/or advancing one or more of his or her pawns. This tactical and strategic principle is reviewed throughout the tutorials.

Now let’s shift the focus to simple checkmates/basic endgames and complex checkmates.

Introductory Overview of Simple Checkmates/Basic Endgames

I use the phrase “simple (elementary) checkmates” not so much to denote that the positions are always necessarily easy checkmates to obtain (some are not), but rather as a means to denote certain mating patterns/mating nets generally classified as “fundamental checkmates” and “elementary mating patterns”. The phrases are used in The Complete Chess Player, Fred Reinfeld at pp.30, 34 (a Fireside book, Simon & Shuster (First Fireside Edition 1992). These checkmates and mating patterns/mating nets are applicable throughout positional situations involving checkmating, drawing, and stalemating on the chessboard. They are commonly referred to as basic endgames. The term ending also is used for endgame. The study of simple (elementary) checkmates is essential for developing a player’s chess vision – the ability to develop more complex coordinated attacking patterns against the opposing King, and the ability to play a hopefully successful solid defense against the opposing player’s game plan aimed at the player’s King, or to thwart an attempt to obtain a draw or a stalemate.

Introductory Overview of Complex Checkmates

These types of checkmates and endgames involve offensive and defensive positions usually with more than a few pieces and/or pawns remaining on the board. They most often involve applying higher level principles and concepts such as diversion, interference, luring, decoying, and other aspects of play designed to gain overwhelming material advantage and/or force upon the opposing player positional inferiority.