Averbakh’s “Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge”

As a first endgame book, this one is excellent. It’s not chatty—the author after all was a leading establishment Soviet chess figure during the stolid glory years of Soviet chess—but it covers the basics well, in approved Soviet Chess School fashion. Have you ever heard the hackneyed phrase: “As every Russian schoolboy knows, …”? Well, these are the endgames every Russian schoolboy learned first. You should, too.

And don’t tell me, “Learning endgames isn’t practical. I never get endings in my own games. Besides, endgames are boring. Etc., etc.” Learning endgames is possibly the most practical thing you can do; it is definitely time very well-spent. Not only do you learn how individual pieces function, teaching you the first principles of chess; you also gain confidence when playing your own tournament games because you have some glimmer of understanding about the more simplified positions your game is tending toward. You will no longer be afraid to let your games play out naturally, because you will start to have an idea of what to do when only a few pieces are left. Furthermore, as Müller and Lamprecht note in their classic tome Fundamental Endings: “Endgame theory is rather static, so what you learn will be useful throughout your chess career.”

It’s remarkable what opportunities a little endgame knowledge can open up for you. The summer before I started college, which is now 37 years ago–how the time slides by!–I spent some time looking at Averbakh and Maizelis’s advanced work, Pawn Endings. The book introduced me to the striking concept of coordinate squares and contained over 900 positions, of which I slogged through probably fewer than 200. That was all the work I ever did with pawn endings, but for decades afterward, I was still regularly aiming for pawn endings in my own games and winning games I probably shouldn’t have. Certainly my confidence exceeded my actual knowledge! There are several practical advantages of learning pawn endings, including:

1)      You can actually steer your own games toward pawn endings simply by trading pieces;

2)      Pawn endings underlie other endings, helping you know when to trade pieces (especially in rook versus rook endings); and

3)      Throughout any game you play, a knowledge of pawn endings will help you by suggesting what pawn structures are likely to be good or bad for you in the ending, when to simplify the position, and (in the late middlegame or early endgame) when and where to advance your king.

According to Müller and Lamprecht, “It is no exaggeration to say that pawn endings form the basis of endgame play in general. After all, it is always good to know if the exchange of the last pair of pieces is a good idea.” This is not just a theoretical observation. In the U.S. Amateur Team Championship one year, I was able to score 6-0 and win a new chess clock because of a trick along just these lines. Mired in a dead-drawn rook and pawn endgame, I inveigled my opponent into trading rooks because the trade won a pawn for him. What I knew, but obviously he did not, was that his extra pawn was purely cosmetic and useless—and the resulting pawn ending was a win for me! The more specific endgame knowledge you have, the more games you will win, and that’s a solid fact.

Tim Hanke