Endgame! A Practical Approach

How to study endgames, and what proportion of our available chess study time to expend on them, is an interesting question. There is no doubt in my mind that higher-rated players harvest good portions of their grading points by defeating the lower-rated from simplified positions that are objectively drawn (or even lost for the eventual winner!).

My experience is that Improving your endgame play is first of all a matter of…experience. I don’t believe that there is any substitute for playing a lot of chess (even including blitz) and winning and losing (early on mostly losing) a good number of endings. Using rook endings as an example, eventually things like the need to activate the rook, even at the cost of pawn, place rooks behind passed pawns and get the rooks(s) to the 7th rank become second nature. Some of this can be substituted by studying master games that go into the ending, rather than just the “1001 Most Brilliant Games of All Time” type.

But in this column I touch on just what positions to study, and how many. I recall Grandmasters like Capablanca who supposedly worked their way through books like 9,999 Rook and Pawn Endings but on the other hand a number of strong players, including a GM or two, have told me over the years something like, “I resolved to study every position in Fine’s Basic Chess Endings but I only made it to page 43…” So for most of us it needs to be experience plus selective study.

One modern replacement for Fine’s book, and a very good one, is Muller and Lamprecht’s Fundamental Chess Endings. Right at the beginning of this book there is a fascinating table of how often different configurations of pieces appear in a large database of master games (p. 11), and by using this we can take a practical approach and narrow down our studies to about a dozen key positions. Knowing this very limited number perfectly allows us to know much earlier in the game that golden piece of wisdom, what pieces and pawns to trade off and what to keep on. Thus we march forward with assurance that we are heading for a position we know is winning, and that we know how to win it. Or alternatively (and almost as nice), positions where we keep our disadvantage manageable and draw.

There is a lot of interesting information in the table and I encourage you to look at it for yourself, but refining it to a useful series of maxims, here goes:

Bishop and Knight v. King occurs about once every 5,000 games. Learning how to do the mate is probably a useful exercise in piece coordination, but you will see it only a few times in your life in practice.

Pure pawn endings are the bread and butter of chess. While they only occur in about 3% of master games, amateurs will see them quite a bit because they will be played out instead of someone resigning. For king and pawn v. king, one must memorize just a few things–what the opposition means and its relation to the key squares of the king’s position, the square of the passed pawn, drawing v. the rook pawn, and winning with the outside passed pawn. While that’s quite a lot, it gets easier from here, actually…

Rook endings, as we know, are most frequent. Understand thoroughly the Lucena and Philidor positions, and the active rook, and as an amateur player you’re on your way!

Endings without pawns: rook and bishop v. rook, rook and knight v. rook, queen v. rook, rook v. minor piece, etc. Skip them; skip them all. In total you see them in perhaps one in 500 games. Knowing the principles might be nice, but do it in your “spare time.”

For some reason, I love playing queen v. queen endings. They’re not all that common and they can’t be memorized really, but one must know something about queen v. pawn, for many an amateur game with a pawn ending gets played out to one of these positions. If the  pawn isn’t on the seventh rank it should be trivial, but one really ought to memorize the winning and drawing king positions for the various queen v. pawn scenarios. The whole thing takes only about three pages of the book, after all. Queen and pawn v. queen, however, takes many pages and many complicated diagrams full of stars for winning and drawing king positions…and these positions only occur about once on 1,000 games. Just do the best you can, but don’t spend a lot of study time on them!

Endings with minor pieces and a single pawn are subject to exact calculation and I suggest you don’t try to memorize much here. Activate the king and push your passed pawn(s)!

Rook and minor piece v. rook and minor piece comes up a lot, up to 15% of all endgames. I don’t know of any way to memorize something that will help here; just activate your pieces, attack the opponents weak pawns and in general, just “play chess.” If you’ve memorized and/or understood the few positions and principles outlined above, at least you’ll probably know when and what to trade off!

There is a whole world of fascinating chess in the several hundred pages of Fundamental Chess Endings but in the real world of competitive chess I think that if you can really understand and memorize about 10-12 of these pages you will be ready to take on more than 95% of the endings that may arise in your own games.

Robert Pearson