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Why Study

Chess

Endgames?

Sadly, by over-emphasizing openings and tactics, a great deal of chess instruction gets the cart before the horse. Novice players become involved with memorizing opening variations and traps, and (of necessity) a few tactics and checkmates. When an opponent doesn't fall into an opening trap, or doesn't play into a variation they've memorized, the novice's subsequent play is like a rudderless ship at sea. The usual advice to "win some material and beat 'em in the endgame" leaves them clueless because they haven't absorbed any endgame theory. Sometimes winning a "won game" involves a combination to win material or an attack against the king. Normally what is required is exploitation of a small material and/or positional advantage through solid endgame technique.

 

Others concentrate on mating attacks and checkmate patterns; what great fun to discover what's behind all those exotic names like Arabian Mate, Swallowtail Mate or Epaulette Mate, or to explore checkmates named after famous players such as Blackburne, Morphy, or Pillsbury. Again, useful knowledge, but as the strength of the opposition increases, checkmates in the opening or middle game become rare indeed. Checkmates in the endgame usually depend on pawn promotion, to obtain superior force, and that requires knowledge of endgame theory.

 

Not all openings result in a tactical melee, not even all (1. e4, e5) openings. All major openings have "quiet" lines which are quite playable. There are also "endgame openings" designed to exchange pieces, especially queens, and/or saddle an opponent with a weakened pawn structure. Some lines transition directly to endgame play, others lay the groundwork for the endgame to come. A few examples:

Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. O-O (or 5. d4 exd4 6. Qxd4 Qxd4 7. Nxd4) f6 6. d4 exd4 7. Nxd4 c5 8. Nb3 Qxd1 9. Rxd1

Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defense, Open Variation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nf5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8

King's Indian Defence, Andersson Variation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2 e5 7. dxe5 dxe5 8. Qxd8 Rxd8

Caro-Kann, Two Knights Attack: 1. e4 c6 2. Nc3 d5 3. Nf3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nf6 5. Nxf6 exf6

English, Symmetrical, Three Knights Variation: 1. Nf3 c5 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. dxc3 Qxd1+ 7. Kxd1

There are many such lines in opening theory, in the KP, QP and flank openings. The point is, players cannot avoid endgames. An endgame may be forced by the opponent or, more likely, is the only correct strategy for the position at hand. That most chess games are resolved in the endgame is an inescapable fact.

 

To make rapid progress in chess, first study the endgame, then middle game play and only then the complexities of opening theory. As the great John W. Collins * said, "the endgame is the North Star of opening and middle game play." By this he meant we must always be conscious of, and plan for, the likely endgame to come. A player cannot formulate plans if he has no knowledge of endgame theory. A player can't even make sound, short-term tactical decisions unless endgame knowledge helps guide his choices. How discouraging to lose a game due to ignorance of a simple winning (or drawing) technique.

 

* American chess master, co-author of Modern Chess Openings (9th ed.) and mentor to the young Bobby Fischer.

 

Tactics Training

and Chess Problems

Problems may be white (or black) to win or draw, or the more familiar "white (or black) to mate in 'n' moves." There are basically two kinds of "chess puzzles." One is the composed problem, an original position created by a problemist or by an author to illustrate a textual point. The other kind, of course, is a position taken from an actual game. Part of the benefit of problem solving is understanding the mechanism for winning material, promoting a pawn or mating a King. Equally important is pattern recognition, what the Russians call periyome - the large number of standard positions and the techniques that succeed with them.
      There are also bizarre compositions, problems featuring four sets of doubled pawns, six Queens or eight Rooks and so forth. Novice players are advised to avoid these. Such positions would not occur in a real game in a million years; spending precious time on them does nothing to enhance pattern recognition. Study/solve positions taken from actual games, or compositions that resemble real chess games.

 

A Suggested Plan

for Endgame Study

1. The Four Basic Checkmates
          A. King and Queen vs. King
          B. King and Rook vs. King
          C. King and 2 Bishops vs. King
          D. King, Bishop and Knight vs. King

Note: King and 2 Knights vs. King is a draw, one exception to Reuben Fine's dictum "a Rook ahead wins by force." Although two knights can checkmate the lone King, they cannot do so by force (the inferior side must blunder.) The addition of just one pawn to the mix, either side having the pawn, changes everything and can render this simple ending highly complex. See "Troitsky endgame" for a fuller explanation.

In addition to knowing the four basic checkmates, there are many different types of endings a player is likely to encounter. The presence of pawns in any endgame adds a dimension of complexity because of the pawn's potential for promotion.

 
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Endings of King vs. King, and King plus one minor piece vs. King (with or without one minor piece) are always drawn due to insufficient mating material. The following categories of endings are listed in approximate order of frequency:

 
2. King and Rook vs. King and Rook Endings - including pawns ("Rook and pawn endings")
3. King and Queen vs. King and Queen Endings including pawns ("Queen and pawn endings")
4. King and Knight Endings including pawns
5. King and Bishop Endings including pawns
6. King and Bishop v King and Knight Endings including pawns
7. King and pawn vs. King Endings - single pawn; multiple pawns ("pawn endings")
8. King and piece(s) vs. King and pawn(s)
9. King and piece(s) vs. King and piece(s) - no pawns ("pawnless endings")
 
Quasi-endings

Some endgame books include the following categories, and of course there will be many examples from actual tournament play. These are the kinds of positions which prompt the question "where does the middle game end and the endgame begin?" No. 10 is just the well-known "queenless middlegame;" No. 11 is a type of middlegame where one or more files have been opened and all rooks have been exchanged. Not a great deal can be written about such endings, as they are too complicated to formulate rules. In most cases, such endings will reduce to one of the basic types listed above.

 
10. Kings, Rook(s), Minor Piece(s) and pawn(s)
11. Kings, Queen(s), Minor Piece(s) and pawn(s)
 

 

A player embarking on a systematic study of the endgame is advised to begin with the basic King and pawn ending, even though it occurs less frequency than R+P, Q+P or minor piece+pawn endings. It is fundamental because all other endgames involving pawns can be and often are reduced to King and pawn. Learning the K+P vs. K endgame will help the novice player grasp basic endgame concepts such as pawn promotion, "rule of the square," key squares, opposition, zugzwang, triangulation, reserved tempo and out-flanking. After this, a player is equipped to tackle complex King and pawn endgames, where both sides have one or more pawns.

 

It has been estimated that 50% of all endings are the Rook and pawn variety (each side has a King, Rook(s) and at least one side has one or more pawns,) so the need for proficiency in this endgame is obvious. Rook and pawn endgames are also among the most difficult to win, hence the aphorism "rook and pawn endings are always drawn." This statement is not true, of course, but addresses the problem of trying to win with only a small edge, sometimes a pawn plus, other times just positional advantage.
      Queen and pawn endings are similar, but with a lot more tactical opportunities for both sides.

 

Minor piece and pawn endings occur less frequently, often the result of more complicated endgames that have been simplified by exchanges.

 

Endgames with pieces only, so-called "pawnless endings" rarely occur in tournament games. The player with an inferior position will often try to trade-off all the pawns, aiming for a draw. The general lack of opportunity to practice such endings favors the player seeking a draw, and also the fact that many such endings are theoretical wins but cannot be won in under 50 moves.
      The advent of strong chess engines has resolved many of these rarely encountered endings. Nalimov tablebases (maximum of 6 pieces) catalog "best play" for easy reference; one side may force checkmate or win critical material, or one side can force a draw by (1) reduction of force (insufficient mating material), (2) repetition of position or else (3) the 50-move rule. Solutions to some 7-piece endings, analyzed on Russia's Lomonova super computer, have exceeded 500 moves, with 10-15% of the moves singular (i.e., successive positions have one and only one move that wins.) Memorizing such lengthy sequences is clearly beyond human capacity. From a practical (current playing rules; tournament time clock) standpoint, such endings will be declared drawn. Players should familiarize themselves with such endings, for the drawing possibility if their position is inferior, or to avoid simplifying into such endings from a superior position. Knowledge of the endgame is vital to success at chess.

 

Published chess instruction usually contains general rules for the endgame, as well as more specific "rules" for playing the various types of endings. Be aware, many so-called "rules" come with exceptions, restrictions and limitations. For example, Bahr's Rule indicates a winning pawn ending without having to perform the usual calculations. Not all K+2P vs. K endings, however, just those with two rook pawns blockaded, the superior side's rook pawns not beyond the middle of the board, the superior side's King beside its passed pawn and the opposing King in front of the passed pawn. Or, Queen vs. Rook and minor piece is normally a draw, except there are positions where the Queen wins and also positions where the Queen loses. Isn't that helpful!?
      Endgame rules and guidelines are worth knowing, as long as you're aware of the exceptions. Endgame "rules" are mostly helpful guidelines, but do not follow them blindly. Analyze the position for yourself, search for any features that might make it unique and develop your strategy accordingly.

 

 
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