How to Win When You’re Down a Queen

In the game of chess, the queen reigns supreme as the most powerful piece on the board.

For this reason, losing a queen is a significant setback that very often decides the outcome of the game; realistically speaking, the advantage of being up a full queen is so devastating that it should always lead to a win with best play.

Having said that, being a queen down is not necessarily game over.

In chess, the player who makes fewer mistakes wins, and as GM Savielly Tartakower has it, the loser is not the player who makes the first mistake, but rather the one who makes the last.

Famous saying by GM Savielly Tartakower: "The winner of the game is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake."

It’s also important to realize that if you’re down a queen, saving a draw is definitely a favourable result worth fighting for.

With that said, let’s explore some strategies that can help you salvage the game when you’re down a queen, and perhaps even go on to win the game against all odds.

At the end of the article, we’ll have a case study of a top-flight game between grandmasters where the player down a queen managed to turn the tables on his opponent.

This article uses algebraic notation like Ng6+ and Qxf3.

If you’re not familiar with it, I suggest you read my article where I explain all about this chess notation.

7 Tips for Turning the Tables

When you lose your queen, it’s especially important to be resourceful and make the most of your remaining pieces. Remember that each piece has its own potential and can be used to create opportunities for attack.

By applying the following tips, you would have a considerable chance of posing challenges to your opponent:

1. Don’t Panic

Losing a queen is indeed a great blow, but it’s not the end of the game.

Don’t dwell too much on the mistake — you can beat yourself up all you want in the post-game analysis. For the time being, take a deep breath and focus on the remaining pieces on the board.

Chess is a game of many opportunities, so play on and do your best with what you have. You might end up saving a draw or even winning the game.

2. Focus on Piece Activity

Try to activate your rooks, bishops, knights, and pawns. Coordinate them to control key squares on the board and create threats.

3. Look for Tactical Opportunities

Keep an eye out for tactical opportunities that can help you create counterplay and win back material.

Your opponent may give you weaknesses to exploit — they may hang a fork, skewer, or allow you to pin one of their pieces to their king.

Forks, pins, and skewers are the three main tactical motifs in chess.

If you’re not familiar with them, I suggest you read my article where I explain all about these tactics.

4. Play for Complications

Seek to complicate the position and create opportunities for your opponent to make mistakes.

Since you’re down heavy material, the last thing you want to do is simplify the position. Don’t trade pieces unless you get something substantial for it — for example, if a tactical combination arises as a result.

5. Pawn Structure

Pay attention to your pawn structure and try to create a strong pawn formation that can control the center and restrict your opponent’s pieces.

6. Stay Calm and Patient

When we’re in an apparently lost position, we sometimes find ourselves playing rushed moves or making hasty decisions just because we don’t have the energy to fight back.

Remember that winning when you’re down a queen requires patience and a cool head.

7. Study Master Games

Studying games played by chess masters can help you understand how they handle difficult situations, including being down a queen.

The case study at the end of this article is a prime example.

Saving the Game with Perpetual Checks

Perpetual checks can be a powerful tool when you’re down a queen.

Perpetual checks are repetitive checks that force the enemy king to go back and forth between two squares, thereby achieving a draw by threefold repetition.

The threefold repetition rule instates that when the same position on the board occurs three times with the same player to move, the game ends in a draw. It was introduced to prevent endless repetitions and ensure that games can progress.

Threefold repetition is just one way in which a draw can occur in chess — there are many other ways.

If you would like to learn more about draw rules, I suggest you read my article where I explain all about them.

To achieve perpetual check, you need to place your pieces in the right positions to create a series of checks that your opponent can’t escape from.

Let’s take a look at an example.

White is down a queen for a rook.
White is down a queen for a rook.

In this position, White is down a queen for a rook and the position looks all but lost. However, there is one move that can save the game for White.

Nd7 saves the game for White.
Nd7 saves the game for White.

Nd7 is a great move not because it attacks the queen, but rather because it paves the way for a game-saving perpetual check. Can you see it?

Once Black moves their queen, White plays Nf8+.

The knight checks the king and covers the g6 square.
The knight checks the king and covers the g6 square.

The knight is covering the g6 square, so Black has no choice but to move their king up to the 8th rank — either to h8 or g8.

In either case, White plays Ng6+, revealing the rook’s attack on the king, and forcing it back to h7.

White can secure a draw with the perpetual checks Nf8+ and Nf6+.
White can secure a draw with the perpetual checks Nf8+ and Ng6+.

The cycle then repeats, and there is nothing Black can do to break out of it.

To White’s delight, once the same position is reached three times, the game ends in a draw by threefold repetition.

Building an Impenetrable Fortress

When you’re down a queen, a powerful defensive strategy is to create a fortress.

A fortress is an endgame drawing technique in which the player who is behind in material sets up an impenetrable defensive position.

The player with the material advantage is called the attacker, whereas the other side is the defender.

By arranging your pieces in a way that’s difficult for your opponent to penetrate, you can create a strong defense that keeps the enemy queen at bay.

It takes practice and experience to be able to recognize at a glance whether a certain position lends itself to a fortress capable of sealing the game.

Example 1
Knight-and-bishop fortress.
Knight-and-bishop fortress.

In this position, White only has a knight and a bishop versus Black’s queen, but there is absolutely no way for Black to break through.

The bishop protects the knight, and the king protects the bishop.

Black can try to give checks, but the White king can simply move away while keeping the fortress intact. No matter what Black does, White will pay passively and comfortably draw the game.

Example 2
Rook-and-pawn fortress.
Rook-and-pawn fortress.

Here, White’s king protects the pawn, which in turn protects the rook.

There is just way no for Black to make progress. Again, Black can try giving checks, but the White king can keep sliding out of check while keeping everything protected.

Thanks to this fortress, White will manage to save a draw despite the material disadvantage.

Case Study: A Remarkable Comeback Without a Queen

Let’s now look at a remarkable chess comeback where a grandmaster won despite being down a queen against another grandmaster.

This case study will help you understand how the strategies we’ve discussed can be applied in real games. It’s also very motivating as it shows you that you don’t need to be playing against a rookie to be able to pull off a major comeback.

Chess is a game of complexity and surprises, and even the most skilled players can make mistakes.

Stephen Gordon vs. Gawain Jones

In the 2012 British Championship played in North Shields, England, GM Gawain Jones found himself down a queen for a bishop against GM Stephen Gordon in the first game of their playoff.

GM Gawain Jones (Black) is down a queen for a bishop against GM Stephen Gordon (White).
GM Gawain Jones (Black) is down a queen for a bishop against GM Stephen Gordon (White).

The position is completely winning for White, especially at grandmaster level. Black might as well just go ahead and resign — but Jones didn’t.

After a lot of maneuvering, Jones doubled his rooks on the g-file and established a very powerful bishop outpost on e5.

The position is still winning for White, but Black's pieces are well-coordinated and pointing towards White's king.
The position is still winning for White, but Black’s pieces are well-coordinated and pointing towards White’s king.

An outpost is a key square in the opponent’s territory on which a piece can safely live without the threat of being dislodged by enemy pawns.

In our case study, Jones’s bishop on e5 is protected by the pawn on d6, and there are no White pawns that can threaten the bishop. Therefore, it’ll always be a thorn in White’s side.

Usually, trading a bishop for a rook is considered a favourable exchange as a bishop is worth 3 points while a rook is worth 5.

However, Black’s bishop on e5 is so powerful that Jones didn’t even trade it for White’s rook on f4!

I have written a detailed article on outposts and their strategic importance, so give it a read if you’re interested.

The position is still winning for White, but Gordon needs to tread very carefully. Black’s pieces are all pointing towards the king and working together very nicely.

Thanks to this piece coordination, the pressure accumulated and White made a couple of mistakes.

The tide of the game turned in Black’s favour, and White resigned in the following position, reached after 56 moves.

GM Stephen Gordon resigned in this position.
GM Stephen Gordon resigned in this position.

Ironically, the only piece Gordon had left was the queen.

Challenge Question

Why did Gordon resign in this position? He could’ve played Qxf3, but what would’ve happened next?

I look forward to seeing your answers in the comments below.

Final Thoughts

Let’s face it, any competent chess player should be able to win at least 95 games out of 100 if they’re up a queen, so losing your queen is usually reason enough to resign the game.

However, should you choose to play on and fight, there is plenty you can do to complicate things for your opponent.

Remember to stay calm, be patient, and look for opportunities to create threats and put pressure on your opponent.

If you have any questions or insights you’d like to share, feel free to leave them in the comments down below. I’d be more than happy to have a chat with you.

Leave a Comment