Most beginning players never get to the endgame because they’re defeated in the middle-game. When they do get into the endgame, they don’t know what to do with the small amount of material they have left on the board. A beginner once told me that he felt the endgame to be easier than the middle-game because you didn’t have to deal with so many pawns and pieces. The opposite is true. With fewer pawns and pieces on the board, there is no recovering from a single bad move. I give a list out to my students before we start our endgame studies so they know what they need to do to be successful during this game phase. Here are a few key points from my endgame list:
Get your King into the game! The King needs to be active during the endgame. We spend the opening and middle-game ensuring our King’s safety. We don’t dare bring our King out into the open when there are large numbers of enemy pawns and pieces within attacking range. However, when the majority of both side’s pawns and pieces are off the board, the King can become an active attacker or defender. A piece doing nothing is a piece not in the game. This holds true for the King as well. Activate your King. Leaving your King on it’s starting rank in the endgame invites danger!
Always push a passed pawn! A passed pawn is a pawn that has no opposing pawns to stop it from reaching its promotion square. If you create a passed pawn, its your job to get that pawn to its promotion square. This means that you’ll have to use any available force to protect that pawn. If you don’t have the passed pawn, you’ll want to do everything you can to stop your opponent’s passed pawn from promoting. This means using your available material to stop the pawn from promoting by capture or blockading. If you were down to an endgame with only pawns and Kings, you’d need to bring the King into the game to aid in either the promotion of your pawn or stopping the promotion of an opposition pawn.
If you’re ahead a pawn, trade pieces not pawns in the endgame and if you’re not ahead a pawn trade pawns rather than pieces, aiming for a draw. Beginners think that pawns are expendable because they’re plentiful and lowest in relative value. The beginner often concludes that he or she can lose a few pawns during the game. However, every pawn you lose is one less pawn in the endgame which is one less chance to promote. Pawn endings can be easier to win compared to an endgame position with pawns and pieces still on the board. Simplify in the endgame, reducing the material to pawns and Kings.
Pawns do not belong on the same color squares as your Bishop. So if you have a light squared Bishop in the endgame, your pawns should be on dark squares. Why? The answer has to do with mobility. In the endgame, there is generally little material left on the board. This means that every pawn and piece must be as active as possible. If you have a light squared Bishop in the endgame, every pawn on a light square denies that Bishop a bit of mobility. A lack of mobility translates to an inactive piece. With little material on the board, activity and mobility wins endgames.
Bishops are better than Knights in all but blocked pawn endgames. The Bishop is a long distance piece, meaning it can move from one side of the board to the other in a single move. The Knight, on the other hand, is a short distance piece who takes a lot longer to cross the board. Of course, the Bishop is of little use if it is blocked in by its own pawns. Thus, why you want to keep your pawns off of the same color squares your Bishop travels on. In general, long distance attackers, such as the Bishop, Rook and Queen are beneficial in the endgame.
Activate your Rooks. A Rook is useless unless its in the game. Get a Rook on the seventh rank if playing the White pieces or the second rank if playing the Black pieces. A Rook on a rank occupied by pawns can do a great deal of damage. Remember, the more pawns you have in the endgame, the greater the chance of promoting one of them. A Rook on a rank full of pawns is like a hungry fox in a hen house. If you’re attacking your opponent is defending and may not be able to protect all of his or her pawns. All beginners learn Rook checkmates but often think that is all the Rook is useful for. Rooks can be used to go after pawns, reducing your opponent’s chances of promotion. In the endgame, everyone (pawns and pieces) must play aggressively.
Speaking of Rooks! Rooks belong behind passed pawns. We know that pawn promotion is key in the endgame. However, to get a pawn to its promotion square, it needs a bodyguard. Why does it need a bodyguard? If you have a passed pawn your opponent is going to do everything possible to stop it from promoting. The Rook makes an excellent bodyguard because it can protect the pawn from the other side of the board. If your opponent possesses the passed pawn, your Rook still belongs behind it, threatening the potential promotion. You Rook should not be in front of the passed enemy pawn because with each move of the pawn, your Rook loses some of its mobility. It is better to blockade with another piece such as a Knight or, in the case of my next checklist item, the King.
When facing an opponent’s passed pawn, we have to block that pawn’s access to its promotion square. This means playing defensively rather than offensively. Playing defensively, in this example, means tying up a piece to create a blockade. If given the choice of blocking the passed pawn with your King or Knight, you might consider the King. Why? You King cannot attack your opponent’s King but your Knight can. The piece blockading the passed pawn should be the piece who has the lessor of attacking abilities. Because Rooks can be employed so aggressively in the endgame, they shouldn’t be used to block a passed pawn.
The lesson to be learned here is that pawns are critical in the endgame and should be handled with care from the game’s start. Don’t give away pawns early on unless necessary. Save them for the endgame. Rooks can be great assets in the endgame, making excellent bodyguards for passed pawns. Everyone needs to participate in the endgame, including the King. Simplify the material. Piece activity and mobility win endgames. If you’re new to the game, I recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s book, Pandolfini’s Endgame Course. That’s where I learned all of this. Here’s a game to play though until next week.