A Common Tactic: The Back Rank Problem
By GM Susan Polgar   
August 6, 2008
GM Susan Polgar. Photo by Jeffrey Weiss
The back rank mate is one of the most common tactics in chess. I remember countless occasions when I witnessed one side having a completely won game, being careless, and losing the game by allowing a back rank checkmate.

Let’s start out with a simple example:

Black has just played Ne6-g5 to attack the white queen. Why was this move a big mistake?

Because while this move protects against the checkmate threat of Qxh7, it allows another mate threat of 1.Qc8.

The next example is a bit more complicated. It involves a combination to reach the goal.


Black has just played Rf8-b8 attacking White’s queen. What should be White’s powerful response which results in a two move checkmate?

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In the next example, White’s last move was Qe2-g4 to attack Black’s pawn on e6. It is Black to move and Black can take advantage of White’s weak back rank.


Can you see the key move for Black here? Black can win material or checkmate.

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In the following example White can force checkmate within a couple of moves thanks to White’s pawn on b6 limiting the Black king’s potential escape from the back rank to a7 or c7.

What’s the solution?


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And finally, let’s see perhaps the most famous and beautiful game on our subject:

Adams - Torre
New Orleans, 1920

White to move

This is what happened:


White is using a similar idea as in the previous example, trying to remove the defender of the back rank.

19. ... Qd7

Black is holding on to the rook on e8. If Black captures White’s queen with either 19. ... Qxc4 or 19. ... Rxc4, then White checkmates in two by 20.Rxe8+ Rxe8 21.Rxe8.


White continues with the chase.

20. ... Qb5

Again, Black rejects the offered “gift.” If 20. ... Qxc7 21.Rxe8+. Or after 20. ... Rxe2, White can simply capture Black’s queen by 21.Qxd7 as White’s rook on e1 is protected.


The hardest move in this entire combination. After the direct 21.Qxb7? Black would use the same “trick” on White with 21. ... Qxe2! 22.Rxe2 (or 22.Qxc8 Qxe1+ 23.Nxe1 Rxc8) 22. ... Rc1+ 23.Ne1 Rxe1+ 24.Rxe1 Rxe1 checkmate.

21. ... Qxa4

If 21. ... Qxe2 22.Rxe2 Rxc7 23.Rxe8 checkmate.


Threatening with Qxc8, and winning a piece.

22. ... Qb5

If 22. ... h6 23.Qxc8! Rxc8 24.Rxa4.


And Black resigned as Black’s queen has no more safe squares to guard the rook on e8. Black cannot avoid checkmate or a major loss of material.

I hope you have learned the valuable lesson of back rank checkmate. For more daily puzzles and chess tips, you can check out my chess blog at www.SusanPolgar.blogspot. com or www.SPICE.ttu.edu.