Improving Endgame Play – Step 1

Like so many chess players, I mis-spent my youth in pool halls … well, no, that’s not quite accurate. The truth is that I did squander alot of time studying the most popular, complex chess opening variations. “If my opponent falls into this trap at move five, then I’ve got him – I know it twenty moves deep all the way to mate! And in all variations!!” Or, I thought, “More likely, he won’t fall for the trap, but then I’ll play Fischer’s latest improvement at move 22, thus guaranteeing a small but comfortable edge.”

Although the traps did win a few games, in most cases my “deep preparation” was totally wasted. Most of my opponents didn’t even know the main lines, and my stronger opponents were equally uncooperative, easily sidestepping my dark designs.

On rare occasions in those days, I would take out an endgame book. I was told that endgames were good for you – sort of like taking vitamins, only a lot more work. I did manage to learn some basic endgame principles, but then it was always more fun to study tactical puzzles and even easier to go back to the openings. After all, it seemed essential to have a backup system for everything I played, just in case of “emergencies.” In all candor, after decades of tournament play I have never actually had such an emergency.

Nonetheless, it is a well known fact that I am single-handedly responsible for keeping Barnes and Noble in business, having purchased immense quantities of highly specialized opening books for many, many years. What’s worse, I actually spent time reading them. Then, when chess engines became commercially available, I started “checking” the openings book analyses and looking for theoretical novelties. Well, that didn’t last long – I soon realized that the authors, aside from being grandmasters, had engines at least as powerful as mine… In time, I also discovered that, except for rare early tactical skirmishes, engines are not of much help in the openings.

So, at Nigel’s suggestion, I’m now making some opening repertoire changes that will reduce the amount of material I have to study. At the same time, these changes produce more solid positions that avoid feeding my habit for ultra-sharp positions (which require complex calculations at almost every move, an increasingly taxing task on my aging brain). But best of all, Nigel’s approach leaves lots of extra time to address an important neglected area, i.e. improving one’s endgame play. So that’s Step 1 – finding the time  and making endgame study a priority.

Here are a few instructive endgames I’ve studied so far this week – games by two of the greatest endgame players in history, Jose Raul Capablanca and Akiba Rubinstein.