What is the best definition of key squares in king and pawn vs king endgame theory? Please provide graphics if possible. Is there a difference between "key squares" and "critical squares," or are these terms interchangeable?

  • This site says they are the same. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_square
    – Tony Ennis
    Jul 12, 2012 at 14:51
  • 1
    Thanks, Tony. I was actually aware of the wikipedia answer. I thought that a detailed post on the topic might be good here on Chess SE. Would you mind writing up an answer to both parts? Or maybe my question should be closed as to easily "Googlable"? My meta post: meta.chess.stackexchange.com/questions/144/… Jul 12, 2012 at 15:34
  • I have nothing substantive to add so I should not answer. I googled because I didn't know the answer, and found what seems to be something definitive.
    – Tony Ennis
    Jul 12, 2012 at 16:21
  • 1
    If "key square" and "critical square" are just different names for the same concept (which seems to be the case), then there's not much of an answer to give to that part of the question. It then seems that the real meat of the question here is, "what is a key square?" The current text and title rather downplay that, and instead highlight the key/critical distinction. So if it's right that that's not really the interesting part, perhaps the question should be edited to highlight the other (e.g. a title of "What is a key square?" instead of "Key Squares and Critical Squares").
    – ETD
    Jul 12, 2012 at 16:22
  • Edits have been made as suggested, Ed! Jul 12, 2012 at 17:12

5 Answers 5


The terms key squares and critical squares are sometimes used interchangeably in chess literature in king vs king and pawn endgames.

A square is called a key square when the occupation of it by the attacking king will secure a win regardless of which side is to move.

2nd through 4th Ranks

In this example, the key squares for the White pawn are e6, f6, and g6.

[FEN "8/8/8/8/5P2/8/8/8 w - - 0 1"]

A Pawn that Crosses the 5th Rank has More Key Squares

In this example, the pawn on f5 has two sets of key squares: e6, f6, and g6, as well as e7, f7, and g7. If White's king can occupy any of those 6 squares, they can secure the win.

[FEN "8/8/8/5P2/8/8/8/8 w - - 0 1"]

The Rooks Pawn are Exceptions

These positions show a draw regardless of which side has the move.

[FEN "5k1K/8/7P/8/8/8/8/8 w - - 0 1"]

[FEN "7k/8/7K/7P/8/8/8/8 w - - 0 1"]

In the first position, Black can simply shuffle his king between f7 and f8 and White makes no progress. In the second position, the move sequences 1. Kg6 Kg8 2. h6 K8 3. h7 stalemate. The sequence 1... Kg8 `. Kg6 Kh8 3. h6 Kg8 4. h7+ Kh8 with a stalemate, or loss of the pawn.

Related Topics

The Opposition Rule of the Square


Wikipedia on key squares

Endgame Simulations (against a computer)

ChessDiary #2 - Monday Endgame Pawn Endgame - Key Squares

  • 1
    Definitely a great answer to the question topic. With added images, anyone would be understanding the definition of a key square in no time! Does anyone mind doing a video in the efforts to benefit the further enhancement of our understanding of key squares? A simple chess game consisting of a few moves by the white and subsequent counter moves by the black or vice versa would suffice. Or perhaps more examples in the form of more images and supporting explanation that is detailed like the above with exact square locations "E7", "F6" etc. Would appreciate the kind help and looking forward to an Nov 2, 2012 at 8:58
  • @JamesBennett, welcome to the site! I converted the post you originally made into the comment above, since it was clearly intended to be a comment on Robert's answer. Once you have 50 reputation, you'll be able to freely comment on other people's posts directly: chess.stackexchange.com/privileges
    – ETD
    Nov 2, 2012 at 12:35
  • Actually there is a lot more to key squares than those squares, those are for king + pawn vs king and similar positions.
    – user707
    Nov 4, 2012 at 14:41
  • Which is what the question pertains to. Nov 5, 2012 at 1:03

I'm reading Fundamental Chess Endings by Karsten Muller and Frank Lamprecht right now, and the authors seem to imply there is a distinction between key squares and critical squares. On page 14, there is a list of symbols used in the text. A circle is used for a critical square and a star is used for a key square. So, there is an implied difference in this book. But I am puzzled as to what the difference is. "Key square" is defined on page 21 but "Critical square" is not defined before the authors start casually using the term. To add to the confusion, the authors use the circle symbol in diagrams on page 24 but refer to the squares marked with a circle as key squares.

Also, the terms key squares and critical squares are used in more endings than just king and pawn vs. king.


Various authors have used the terms key squares and critical squares differently. In some places Muller & Lamprecht's explanation is only fair. The confusion is that these terms have been used for two concepts. The first is the square the attacking king must occupy to queen his pawn in a K vs K-P endgame. This is well described above. The second concept is the square your king must occupy to capture a blocked pawn ( opponent's pawn blocked by your pawn ). These are the 3 squares on either side of the opponent's pawn. The Soviet Chess Primer uses terms key & critical squares interchangeably. It calls the 3 squares on either side of a blocked pawn the critical/key squares for capturing that pawn. ( page 146 , diagram 248 ). It explains all of this pp 141-150. Of course its a translation from the Russian. Muller & Lamprecht calls these critical squares. A column by Pandolfini in 2009 says the idea of key squares existed as early as 1860. Grigonev wrote about it in 1922. Strangely many early 20th century GMs did not explicitly express this concept, including Lasker, Rubinstein, Capablanca, Reshevsky and Fine. Alekhine apparently knew about it and Averbakh's "Pawn Endings" uses it.


In a pawn and king vs king endgame, key squares are those that guarantee a win. If the pawn is on e3 for example, the key squares for white are d5, e5, and f5. Critical squares (I think) are those where the king must get to promote the pawn (e.g., d7 or f7).


I am reading Fundamental Chess Endings by Karsten Muller and Frank Lamprecht as well. As others mentioned, there is an implied difference between critical squares and key squares.

My two cents is that critical squares are relative to opponent pieces but key squares are relative to the game. Squares are critical squares to some of my opponent pieces (e.g. pawn) if she would lose those pieces were I to occupy the squares with my pieces (e.g. my king). Squares are key squares to the game if my opponent would lose the game were I to occupy those squares.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.