Luft is a term used in chess to refer to the space or square created by moving a pawn, which provides an escape route for the king (often after castling), particularly when this space is deliberately created to prevent a back-rank checkmate. The term “luft” comes from the German word for “air”, although it can also be interpreted as “space” or “breath”.
Check the following diagram. White faces an immediate threat of being checkmated by the rook on e1. To counter it, White will move the g-pawn or the h-pawn to create a luft:
It is crucial to understand the position before a luft move is made, especially when the player can do it in multiple ways, and only one of them is correct. Let’s modify our diagram a little:
1. h3?? would be now a horrible mistake because the black bishop blocks the white king from escaping through h2. The only right luft is 1. g3.
Does it look easy? Well, even the simplest tactical moves can lead to a catastrophe if the player isn’t too careful, and it happened to well-known grandmasters as well. Let me show you a few examples.
Paul Keres – Robert Fischer, 1959
In the position above, one of the strongest chess players of the first half of the 20th century probably forgot that he had moved the king to f1, and the g3 luft could become a deadly trap. The very next move 24. ♝b5? actually cost him the game because after Fischer’s 24. … ♛d5! the bishop and the rook on h1 were attacked simultaneously. No wonder that Keres made three more moves, and resigned.
Oldřich Duras – Richard Teichmann, 1907
The situation looks pretty bad for White. His queen is under attack and cannot capture the bishop because it would be lost after 24. ♕xe4 ♝h2+, and any other retreat would lead directly to a checkmate: 24. ♕e2 ♛xg5+ 25. ♕g4 ♜xh3 26. f3 ♜g3+ and a mate in two moves. However, despite the hopeless position, Duras decided to try one last trick before resigning, and played 24. ♖b1. Teichmann, naturally, noticed the threat of a devastating check ♖b8+, and automatically made the most common luft – 24. … h6?? Then Duras quickly delivered the blow 25. ♖b8+ and Teichmann had to resign after having realized that 25. … ♚h7 would move his king to a check: 26. ♕xd4+ and 27. ♕xd3. If Black chose 24. … g6, the queen check in the 26th move wouldn’t be possible, and Black would easily win the game.