An Interesting Case of Underpromotion

by Michael Goeller

At the Kenilworth Chess Club meeting the other day, one of our newest members, Jim Cole, showed me the following interesting endgame he had played last weekend at the US Amateur Teams East. The position, and its story, illustrate some very interesting rules governing the promotion of pawns.

Jim Cole - NN

USATE 2007/Parsippany, NJ USA 2007

1. Rf8!? Rxf8

On 1... Ra5+ Black also loses after 2. Kf4 Ra4+ 3. Ke5 Ra5+ 4. Kd4 Ra4+ 5. Kc5 Ra5+ 6. Kb6 Rg5 7. Rh8+ Kg6 8. g8=Q+


2. gxf8=B!

The easiest win, but not the only one!


a) 2. gxf8=Q stalemate was the actual conclusion to the game, accepted by both parties. Jim's opponent had claimed the stalemate, however, the moment that Jim had mistakenly picked up his Queen with the intention of placing it on f8. That action was still incomplete when his opponent claimed the draw, and he could therefore have substituted a better piece to complete the act of promotion. According to Rule 10H of the USCF's Official Rules, 5th edition, "There is no penalty for touching a piece that is off the board. A player who advances a pawn to the last rank and then touches a piece off the board is not obligated to promote the pawn to the piece touched until that piece has been released on the promotion square" (pp. 22-23). Being an honest fellow, though, Jim admitted he would have placed a Queen there without his opponent's intervention. Perhaps he felt that to change his move would violate the rule against receiving "unsolicited advice" from others during a game (see 20E ff.)


b) Interestingly, promoting to a Knight also works! Players who have read a little on the endgame often think that a Knight is incapable of aiding the King in forcing an a- or h-pawn to the Queening square. The cases where that is so are rather exceptional. However, because only the exceptional cases where it is drawn are emphasized in books on the endgame, many players with a little knowledge will head for these positions with the mistaken idea that they are drawn. I have gained several wins on ICC this way. More evidence that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." White need only be careful to avoid stalemate: 2. gxf8=N+!? Kg8 3. Kf6! Kh8 4. Kg6 Kg8 5. Nd7 Kh8 6. Ne5 Kg8 7. h7+ Kh8 8. Nf7#


c) 2. gxf8=R is also stalemate.


2... Kg8 3. Kg6 Kh8

3... Kxf8 4. h7 and Queens.


4. Bg7+ Kg8 5. h7# 1-0

Positions where players must underpromote to win are relatively rare in practice. Even in Jim's example, he was under no obligation to play 1.Rf8 immediately, though it was certainly the fastest method of achieving victory (if he had recognized that fully!) The following fascinating case of underpromotion in practical play was given by John Nunn in one of his New in Chess articles from the 1980s (the specific reference I have lost). He notes that it is a rare practical case where a player absolutely had to underpromote to win.

Branimir Vujic - Marjia Petrovic

Yugoslav Ladies' Championship/Kula, Yugoslavia 1985

74. f8=N!

A theoretical win, never before seen in practice! As Nunn remarks, the procedure "turns out to be amazingly easy." Note that White had no other choice but to promote to a Knight:

a) 74. f8=Q Ne6+=

b) 74. Kg6 Nxf7=


74... Ne4 75. Ne6+ Kb7 76. Kf7 Ka6 77. Nd4 Kb7 78. Ke7 Nc5 79. Nf7 Kc7 80. Nfd6 Na4 81. N6b5+ Kb7 82. Kd8 Nc5 83. Nbd6+ Ka7 84. Kc8! Nd3 85. Nc6+

One move faster is Fritz's 85. N4b5+ Ka6 86. Nc7+ Ka7 87. Ndb5#


85... Ka6 86. Nb8+ Ka7 87. Nb5+ Ka8 88. Nb6# 1-0

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