Studying the Endgame

I wrote a few weeks ago about spending more time on endgame study. This week, GM Davies responded to a reader on his Facebook wall that instead of buying a book on the 2. b3 Sicilian, he should study the endgame. That struck a sympathetic vibration. I believe that we chess improvers should spend more time mastering tactics, strategy, and technique and less time obsessing over openings.

I spend my time on tactics, master games, endgames, and openings. In that order. Maybe 10% on openings.

Endgame study covers a broad watershed. One of our local experts – who will tell anyone in the coffee shop he is a USCF rated expert, whether they’re interested or not – tells novices they need to learn the Philidor and Lucena positions. There are good reasons to learn these endgame maneuvers at the appropriate time. I think there are much more important endgame lessons that a novice needs to learn before they memorize the Philidor and Lucena positions. To my mind, that’s rather like telling a novice they need to master the Sämisch Variation of the King’s Indian. No, they don’t.

Novices need to master the basic checkmates. They need to know them cold. I run into many intermediate players who still struggle with basic mates and walk into stalemates that are easily avoided or waste moves when a simple path to mate is available.

I’ll suggest that a novice or intermediate player does not need to memorize the technique for lone king versus bishop and knight. When I mentioned this to my former coach yesterday at the coffee shop, he told me in his fifty years of chess, he’d seen it only three times. There is so much to learn that is vital and practical, the lone king versus bishop and knight mate can wait, in my opinion.

So, where should an intermediate player look to study the endgame. Well, I’d advise against starting with something like Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. It’s a monumental work, but it’s best saved for experts and masters.

Let’s consider briefly what’s practical for the chess improver to study. Stated differently, what endgame knowledge will be immediately useful to us in our games?

Rook endings are the most common, but the most fundamental are king and pawn endings. The critical lessons we need to master are opposition, triangulation, reserved tempi, and shouldering. Identifying critical squares is also important. With a sole king against one pawn, it’s an easy concept to grasp. Put multiple pawns for both sides on the board and it quickly becomes complicated. Mastering the idea is where we learn how to breakthrough with the king and prevent breakthroughs.

According to both Glenn Flear in Practical Endgame Play and Fundamental Chess Endings by Mueller and Lamprecht, the most common endgames are rook and minor piece for each side. Working on those endgames will pay big dividends. Especially R+B v R+N. Next in frequency is pure rook endgames. They’re tricky. Bishop v. knight endings are common, too.

My suggestion is to spend considerable time on pawn ending fundamentals, rook endings, minor piece endings, and queen endings in pretty much that order.

I have a couple of suggestions on resources for endgame study.

Some players learn best from videos. The endgame series by Karsten Mueller is comprehensive. It pretty much follows his book with Lamprecht. I’d recommend that for stronger improvers. For intermediate players, I’d suggest instead the endgame DVDs in GM Daniel King’s PowerPlay series for ChessBase. GM King targets his videos at improvers and his instruction is always practical in focus. He doesn’t cover the entire breadth of endgames, but you will learn a lot from his DVDs on practical pawn endgames and practical rook endgames. Watch them, and your endgame should improve a lot.

For books, I’ll suggest that John Nunn’s recent book, Understanding Chess Endgames, is a great place to start. The book covers 100 endgame themes, all of them critical knowledge for the improving chess player who wants to advance to expert. I’d suggest complementing Nunn’s book with Mastering Endgame Strategy by Johan Hellsten. It’s also good to focus on the endgame play of some othe very best, such as Capablanca, Smyslov, and Fischer. You might also add Steve Giddins’ The Greatest Ever Chess Endgames for that perspective.

If you want a little more detail, John Nunn’s two volume Nunn’s Chess Endings is also practical in its endgame coverage. It would be an excellent follow-up after mastering Understanding Chess Endgames.

It’s nice to have a comprehensive endgame manual, such as Mueller and Lamprecht’s Fundamental Chess Endings or Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings. Just realize, these are reference works, not introductory textbooks.

If you master the books I’ve recommended or sat through the 60 or 70 hours of endgame videos and worked diligently through all the material, then you’ll be ready for more advanced endgame instruction, such as that found in Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual.

Endgame study doesn’t end. Not even for GMs. The topics just get more advanced.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season!

Glenn Mitchell