Watch your back …rank!

Back rank checkmate is rather unique attacking situation where one doesn’t really need many pieces to finish the game on the spot. No matter what the material balance is, what other targets and threats are, if one has a Queen, or even a Rook and the other side has the King stuck on the back rank (1st for White or 8th for Black), there is always a chance for a game ending back rank checkmate.

Many tactical operations are based on the back rank checkmate. Among them elimination of defender, deflection/decoy, skewer etc… It is amazing, how the situation can turn 180 degrees in a single move because of the back rank problem. In fact, in my new book Chess Exam Tactics, I list Back rank amongst the 6 critical Motives or reasons for combinations.

Here is an example from a recent game of my student:

Black to move


Black is dominating – he has an extra Bishop and a Pawn. White has very little to show for this material disadvantage. 

Now, take a note that both Kings are stuck on the back ranks. Well, one may say  - “So what? There are no threats!” And this is true; but watch what happened next. 

Black was worried about the Bishop being threaten (which is not true, because after 1.Rxb7 Qa1+ and Black  has a forced checkmate). Instead of improving his pieces or making a safe move like 1…h6, Black played 1…Ra8?? And after 2.Qxa8+ Black is lost on the spot! (2...Rxa8 3.Rb8+ Qd8 4.Rxd8#)



Once you notice a back rank problem, seek ways to arrange use it via tactical strikes. Here is example from my game back from Ukrainian championship 1986 against Kabatyanksy (you may recall it from my book Chess Exam and Training Guide)

White to move

I have White pieces and I don’t have any back rank issues (my King has h2-sqaure), but Black does have a problem. Although it doesn't seem easy for White to get to the back rank.

The task in hand was to get rid of the Ne7 and I found the solution – 1. Nf5!! Black resigned. After 1…exf5 2.Qxc8+ Nxc8 and, suddenly, the Rook on e1 has its path to e8 cleared – like a magic, all three pieces (Ne3,Pe6,Ne7) have vanished and the defender (Rc8) is gone as well! 3.Re8#. All other Black's response would lead to losing a ton of material.



The best way to avoid getting in trouble with the back rank is finding a time to give your King some breezing room by advancing one of the pawns that protect him. In fact, sometimes it is worth playing even though there might be other, more lucrative options.

Take a look at another recent game of my student (rated under 800):

White to move

It is obvious that White is easily winning. The Fritz may spend 1/10 of a second and say 1.Qxf6 giving White 9.8 points advantage. A master may spend 1 second and play 1. Nc3. 

I was very pleased to see a young child play 1.h3 here. While it is not the best move here, this shows a disciplined approach and understanding of the back rank issues. The rest will come with experience.




Here is an example from my game against GM Rohde from 2002 US Open

White to move

I have White pieces, and, after a short thinking, I played 1.h3. 

I can’t say I recall what I was thinking, but here is what my notes say (thank you ChessBase for helping to preserve my games!) – “Just a prophylactics. I didn't feel like I have any forcing opportunities, so I solved the back rank problem.” Just like that – a very basic idea! 

Some 12 moves later we were down to the R+B vs. R+N and his Rook made its way to e5 aiming at e1. I was happy I could just win a pawn with my Rook and didn’t have to waste a move there since I had Kh2 available.


Summary: always pay attention to the back rank mate opportunities, no matter how difficult it might be to arrange. If you can afford to spend a move securing an escape square, it might be well worth doing instead of a more active move. When practicing using your favorite book on Tactics or software, such as CT-ART, pay attention to various problems that are based on bank rank checkmates and memorize the ideas. 

If you want to know how good are your tactical skills when dealing with the Back Rank issues, one of the 30 rating reports in my Chess Exam Tactics will tell you just that as well as provide with training suggestions.




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Copyrighted @ 2007 Igor Khmelnitsky

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