One of the most difficult phases of the game for a beginner is the end phase or endgame. There are two reasons for this. First, beginners seldom play through to a proper endgame. Most beginner’s games end in an early checkmate. The second reason for this difficultly with the endgame comes from a flawed idea beginners have about this final phase of the game. Beginners think that having fewer pieces on the board means that the game becomes easier. This is so far from the truth. The fewer pieces you have on the board, the more carefully you have to play. Endgame training should be embraced by the beginner early on. Here are some thoughts regarding endgame play that the beginner should consider.
The decisions you make in the opening and middle games affect your endgame! Beginners tend to think of pawns as disposable, after all, they are the lowest valued units and you start the game with eight of them. Pawns are key components in the endgame and having more pawns during this final phase of the game makes a huge difference. You should always look for ways to create passed pawns early on. Passed pawns, pawns that can promote because no enemy pawns block or attack squares along their route, are key. Therefore, pawns should be considered extremely valuable assets early on! Always consider the endgame when making strategic or positional decisions early in the game.
King activity in the endgame is an idea that beginners seldom consider. The King is a powerful piece in the endgame. In fact, many checkmates are simply impossible without the King’s involvement. Beginners have a tendency to leave their Kings on their starting Rank because of preconditioning. The beginner is taught early on that King safety is critical. “Castle early”, says the chess teacher, “or your King will be exposed to danger.” Beginners take this to heart and leave their Kings safely away from the action. However, when the majority of the pieces have been removed from the board, its time to bring the King into the game. The King can do some real damage to the opposition when he enters the endgame and can be a deciding factor!
The next thing to consider is time. By time, I mean taking your time during the endgame! Because beginners often think that the game will get easier when there are fewer pieces on the board, they tend to play endgames too quickly. A rule of thumb for my students is, the fewer pieces there are on the board, the slower your play should be. Beginners blunder positions and hang pieces. Early during a game, you may have a chance to recover from a bad move. As pawns and pieces leave the board, those remaining pawns and pieces take on a greater value because that’s what you have left as an army and that’s what you have left to deliver checkmate with. If you and your opponent are equal in material and you lose a minor piece, your opponent now has an advantage. Taking your time and completely examining the position not once or twice, but three times will help you maintain your forces and push forward towards mate. Take your time during the endgame!
Play for the passed pawn! While the goal of the passed pawn is promotion, this renegade pawn can create a host of problems for the opposition. The biggest problem your opponent has to deal with regarding your passed pawn is the threat of promotion. What this means is that your opponent will have to tie one of his or her pieces down to stopping that pawn from promoting. A wise chess player once said that a passed pawn belongs under lock and key. An opposition piece dealing with a passed pawn is a piece not actively committed to the rest of the game! Always be on the lookout for a potential passed pawn!
Master Rook endgames. Rook endings are the most common type of endgame. Therefore, the beginner should study Rook endgames closely. Beginners learn the most basic of checkmates, such as two Rooks against a lone King, This is a simple type of checkmate that the novice player easily masters. However, when we remove one of those two Rooks from the equation, things get a little more complex. The beginner should spend a good deal of time learning to mate with a Rook and King against alone King.
A useful area of study, one that applies to all phases of the game, is pawn structure. While good pawn structure is crucial throughout the game, it is an absolute must during the endgame. Pawn structure comes down to pawn coordination, how pawns work with one another (and the pieces) during the game. Beginners can improve their pawn structure by playing the pawn game. To play the pawn game, set up only the pawns on a chessboard. The goal is to get a pawn or pawns to the other side of the board, promote them and eliminate your opponent’s pawns. This simple game will teach you a great deal about pawn structure or the “pawn arts” as I like to call it.
Lastly, invest in a good basic book on endgame play. For the beginner, I recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s Complete Endgame Course. There are many good endgame books available but most are too complex for the beginner. Bruce’s book starts with the simplest mating combinations and works up to more complex mating attacks such as Knight, Bishop and King versus lone King. Section one covers major and minor piece endgame mates while section two deals with pawn endgames. I am currently rereading this book because it is a wealth of information. If you decide to chose another book for your endgame studies, make sure that the examples found within make sense to you. A book is no good to the beginner if it was written for advanced players.
In the end (pun intended) it comes down to practice. Find another player of equal skill and play endgames. Set up the chessboard with the King, a Rook and a few pawns for both players and have at it. This will help both of you improve your endgame play. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.