Spending More Time on Endgames

I own lots of books on openings but they’re sitting in my collection for the future. So far in my training, I’ve avoided the common mistake that many of us improvers make: spending too much time on openings.

There’s one important difference between opening theory and endgame theory. Opening theory is constantly evolving. Endgame theory, on the other hand, is much more fixed. Opening mavens spend a lot of time memorizing theoretical novelties that they seldom get to play. When it comes to openings, your opponent has lots of options, too.

Many improvers feel they need to learn openings to even get to the endgame. They feel it is their lack of opening knowledge that leads to early losses. Much more often, in my own personal experience, it’s failure to consistently apply basic opening principles that contributes to early losses. A personal example, at my first OTB tournament, I decided to play the London System as white with the idea of at least getting into a middlegame against my opponents. One of them, rated around ELO 1900 played the Dutch Defense. I was intimidated right from the move f5. I had never seen the Dutch Defense. My immediate reaction. “I’ve never seen the Dutch Defense. What do I do?” I had no idea. Did I fall back on general opening principles. No. I panicked. I lost in approximately 20 moves. When I told my coach about this, he told me, I should have been pleased when my opponent played the Dutch Defense against the London System since the Dutch Defense was not a particularly good defense against the London System. What I needed to do was remain calm and think through the basic opening principles.

Most of us improvers feel inadequate in the endgame. Curiously, we feel inadequate in the opening, too. Yet, we react differently to those feelings of inadequacy. With openings, we have a tendency to want to study them before we’re really prepared to study them seriously. With endgames, we have a tendency to want to avoid their study. We use excuses, like “Endgame studies are boring.”

GM Josh Waitzkin argues we improvers get it backwards. We “. . . should start with the endgame instead of the opening. Studying positions of reduced complexity you can gain an early understanding of certain deep principles that would be impossible to feel in complex middlegame positions. Then, once we understand the principle, we can apply it to much more complex positions.” (Josh Waitzkin, Chess Life, August 2007)

The best reason to study endgames is that it is the one area where most beginners and intermediate chess players are deficient. If you are strong in the endgame, you will have a huge advantage over them.

A second reason is that it allows you to conserve energy during a tournament. Rather than flailing away for an extra twenty or thirty moves in an endgame because your technique is poor, you could perhaps achieve the same result in ten or fifteen moves.

A third reason for studying endgames seriously even as an improving chess player is that it makes us more familiar with fundamental chess positions. This improves our ability to calculate and to better judge when a game is hopeless and (more importantly) when you can fight on and win.

As with openings, I’m learning that there are lots of ways to fritter away time in the study of endings. Not all endings are critical for improving chess players to master. Pawn, rook and pawn, and rook endings are the most common endings and also the most important for us improvers to study in depth. Yes, you will experience the occasional Q+N v Q endgame. Very infrequently. Fifty percent of endings include rooks. Q+N v Q is rather uncommon because queens tend to be traded off before the endgame, especially among beginners and intermediate players. As NM Bruce Pandolfini argues in Pandolfini’s Chess Complete, it’s sensible to emphasize pawn endings and pawn and rook endings.

One last point to consider about studying endgames. Classic games are great source material. With the advent of computers, there are no more adjournments and shorter time controls are the rule. As a result, endgame play from modern games tends to be less exemplary than it was from classical time controls. The experts I’ve read all agree that the endgames of Rubenstein, Capablanca, and Smyslov are the most exemplary endgames to study.

I try to study at least one endgame each day. If you find endgames tedious, then I suggest you start your chess study time with an endgame. I believe it’s good advice to start with an endgame for another reason. Endgames take a lot of concentration. Although there are fewer units on the board, the number of candidate moves and variations tend to be greater. That’s why endgame tablebases were created. Chess computers require more time to calculate endgames. Predigesting them speeds the computer’s response. Since endgames require a lot of concentration, it’s best to do that when our mental facilities are at their sharpest.

The game below is Seirawan – Kasparov, Nikši? 1983 I believe this a good example to work through for assimilating the idea of triangulation. There are times in king and pawn endgames when we want to lose a tempo. When we can move our king in a triangle while our opponent can only move back and forth, we can lose a tempo and perhaps the game.

In this game, Kasparov (as black) would prefer to “pass” his turn. Unfortunately, passing is not an option in chess. So, he opts to apply the triangulation endgame motif to win the game in just a few moves.

Glenn Mitchell