Endgame Preparation

A student at last week’s summer chess camp asked me when he should start preparing for the endgame. He was a bit shocked when I suggested he start his endgame preparation at the start of the game, during the opening. “Isn’t a game of chess divided into three phases, with the endgame coming last?” he asked. “It certainly is,” I replied. I went on to explain that too often novice players don’t consider the endgame until they’re in it and by that time their position going into this game phase is dreadful. As you advance in your playing abilities, you’ll find that games stop ending during the middle game (or earlier) and go into a real endgame! This means you have to prepare early and the player who prepares from the start will be better off at the end of the game!

Probably the biggest endgame offense beginners make is that of pawn structure. The novice players lives in the here and now, not thinking ahead. Thinking ahead requires experience which the beginning player only gains through theory and practice. While the beginner may follow the opening principles and use central pawns to stake a claim in the board’s center, they often give up non-centralized pawns in an effort to trade material. When the endgame starts, our novice player often faces a pawn majority on one side of the board or the other. If their opponent has twice as many pawns at this point, it is likely that they’ll be able to promote one of those pawns and win the game. The first idea the beginner should embrace is to never capture material unless it improves their position!

Novice players consider pawns expendable since their relative value is the lowest of all the material and there are eight of them at the game’s start. Using simple arithmetic, the beginner sees trading a one point pawn for a three point minor piece as a good deal. In many circumstances it might be a winning exchange. However, if it weakens your position, you might reconsider such an exchange. A more experienced player might be happy to trade a minor piece for a pawn if doing so gives them a better position or substantial pawn majority going into the endgame.

We should always think about pawn majorities, having a greater number of pawns on one side of the board than our opponent has, throughout the game. At some point, minor and major pieces will be traded off leaving both players going into the endgame sometimes with only pawns and their Kings. If your opponent has three pawns on the Queen-side and you have only one, your opponent will most likely be able to promote one of those pawns into a Queen.

Be wary of isolated pawns, those who have no potential protection from their fellow pawns. Pawns are like Sparrows in that they may be small but when they work together they get things done. I watch a group of these wonderful birds in my backyard each morning and when the larger Crows show up to raid the Sparrow nests, the little Sparrows fight back as an angry mob and the Crows give up. You don’t see a lone little Sparrow going out to fight. They, like your pawns work best together. Employ pawn chains to keep you pawns safe during the opening and middle-games. Pawns can do an excellent job of protecting one another, leaving your pieces available for attacking duties.

If you have a passed pawn, send it towards its promotion square. Even if you may not be able to promote it, your opponent will have to deal with it, tying down one of his or her pieces to do so. Remember the saying “Rooks belong behind passes pawns.” If you have a Rook sitting around doing nothing on its starting rank, put it to work as a body guard for a passed pawn! Your pawns and pieces are not in the game if they’re idle. Your material must work!

Another endgame misconception beginners have is the idea that with fewer pieces on the board, a player has to do less thinking. Wrong! Just because you have fewer pieces on the board during the endgame doesn’t mean you can mentally relax, in fact, it’s just the opposite. During the endgame you have to calculate further than in the opening or middle-game. The good news is that with fewer pawns and pieces skulking around the board, calculations are a bit easier to make (but still difficult for the average player). Since you have fewer pawns and pieces going into the endgame, you cannot lose material because the smaller your army, the more disastrous the position becomes when your material is taken away. If both you and your opponent have two pawns and a King each, and suddenly you blunder away one of your pawns, your opponent now has a two to one pawn majority and that’s a winning percentage!

To think or calculate ahead in the endgame, start by considering your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Pretend you’re playing his or her side of the board. You should be doing this through the entire game. Often, you’ll see that what appeared to be a reasonable move can be easily refuted by the opposition. In doing this, you’ll see the best possible moves your opponent can make. Make a mental note of them. If you can’t find an opposition move that thwarts your candidate move, take it one step further and ask yourself If I make move “x” and my opponent responds with move “y”, what is my next move? Go through the response sequence once more. Beginners should start by trying to think through two complete game turns when calculating their endgame positions. While master level players think many, many moves ahead during the endgame, the beginner has yet to train their brains to do this. Therefore, take it slow and build up your calculation abilities.

Another bad habit beginners have when it comes to the endgame is striping their opponents of everything but the King, thinking that leading the mating attacking with an overwhelming force will easily win the game. I have seen so many junior level games end in stalemate because of this. Consider leaving your opponent with a movable piece or pawn to avoid this scenario.

Speaking of Kings, activate yours going into the endgame. While we avoid exposing our King during the opening and middle-game, he becomes a deadly fighter and defender during the endgame. Don’t let your King sit on its starting rank during the endgame. Use him to help get those pawns safely to their promotion squares! Kings must be active in the endgame!

In conclusion, you should always be thinking about the endgame, even during the opening because with fewer pawns and pieces on the board at the game’s end, every bit of material counts. Practice playing endgames with your friends by setting up a board with your Kings and a few pawns each. Then add a minor or major piece to the mix. While there are concepts and principles I didn’t mention, because you could fill a book or three with them, these basic ideas should point you in the right direction. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).