Do you know when we start our preparation for the endgame? It’s a question I asked my students, both beginners and advanced alike last week. I received a plethora of answers but not one student gave me the answer I was looking for. To their shock, I told them that endgame preparation starts with move one! It may sound absurd, but think about it this way: What we have left on the board going into the endgame is a direct result of our actions during the opening and middle-game.
The opening is truly the foundation for the rest of your game. We position our pawns and pieces on squares that maximize our control of the board, specifically the center. We increase the activity of our material so we can start employing tactics and sound exchanges during the middle-game. Our goal is to enter the endgame with either more material or better placed material than our opponent. Having more material means just that, having a Queen, Rook and King versus a Rook and King. Better placed material means having a well positioned pawn majority and active King versus an equal number of poorly placed pawns and an inactive King.
Beginners have a tendency to not think about the endgame early on, rather playing for fast checkmates via big all or nothing attacks. If they can’t win employing the all or nothing brute force method, they end up with randomly placed pawns and pieces scattered about the board when the endgame arrives. If they’re playing an opponent with greater experience, that opponent will be able to use coordinated material to deliver mate or promote a pawn which will lead to mate. Therefore, we should consider the endgame from the start of the opening! Often in the endgames of the improving player, it’s all about the pawn.
Pawns really are the soul of chess! In the opening they initially control the board’s center. During the middle-game they can defend against opposition attacks. Because they are worth far less than the pieces in terms of relative value, pawns are a great deterrent when it comes to the opposition moving pieces to your side of the board. However, thinking solely in these terms can leave you in a terrible position going into the endgame. You always have to think about pawn structure, which I’ve discussed in earlier articles, every time you move a pawn. More specifically, you have to think about maintaining some pawns for use in the endgame, namely pawns that can work with one another by employing a sound pawn structure. By this (in the most basic of terms), I mean pawns that have fellow pawns on adjacent files to support them. In my chess classes, we start every game with the endgame in mind.
What I have my beginners do it to keep pawn moves to a minimum during the opening. The pawns that should be moved are only those that can control central squares. A beginner might think this means he or she could move the c, d, e and f pawns since each controls a central square. However, before taking on such a position with four pawns remember this, the more pawns you have lined up on the fourth (for white) or fifth (for black) ranks, the harder they’ll be to defend. You’ll have to use pieces to defend them and that limits the piece’s activity or scope. Two pawns should be your maximum in most opening positions. Always think about the endgame with each and every move you make. I teach my students to always connect their pawns which creates pawn chains. Pawn chains help keep your pawns protected and intact for the endgame. Lastly, I have my students always compare pawn majorities on the King-side and Queen-side.
Going into the middle-game, if you have a three to two pawn majority, you having three pawns and your opponent having two, on the Queen-side for example, try to maintain this majority. This can be a huge advantage in the endgame. If you have a passed pawn, one with no opposition pawns on adjacent files, and a Rook doing nothing to contribute to the game, put that rook behind the passed pawn. Always think about a potential endgame situation!
During the middle-game, beginners look for quick tactical strikes that involve pieces. Try punching holes in the opposition’s pawn structure instead, playing with the endgame in mind. If you cripple your opponent’s pawn structure, they’ll have a harder time in the endgame due to scattered and unsupported pawns.
When we castle, we generally have a neat row of pawns in front of our King. Beginners tend not to think of these pawns as valuable targets because they’re protected by the King (in the case of King-side castling). Removing one of those pawns (especially the g and h pawns) leaves the King exposed. Look for ways to break through that wall of pawns exposing the opposition King to attack!
Speaking of the King. Get your King into the endgame and waste no time doing it! Leaving your King dormant for just a move or two during the start of the endgame while your opponent activates his King immediately can lead to disaster. The King is often the best Sheppard for herding pawns to their promotion square. During the opening and middle-game, your King needs to be guarded, but this shouldn’t stop you from looking at your pawn structure as well as your opponent’s pawn structure and envisioning where you’d want your King to be. Always think towards the endgame.
During the middle-game, I have my students look at the board and ask themselves what remaining material will work best in the endgame. If they have a Rook, two Bishops and a Knight, they’ll consider which pieces would deliver mate with the least complications. In this case, the Rook and two Bishops would be the easiest for my students to use so they need to keep those pieces safe. Of course, you always want to try to hang on to most of your material but you have to engage in exchanges when playing chess if you hope to get anywhere. Therefore, use the piece least valuable to your endgame plans for the exchange. On the flip-side, I have students look at the opposition’s material and ask, which of opposition’s material would work best for their opponents to deliver mate. Those pieces then become their targets. Remember, in chess there are always two plans, yours and those of your opponent!
I highly recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s Endgame Course as critical reading for the endgame beginner. I use it as the core of my endgame training for beginners. The examples are clear and concise and the book covers all those “problem” endgame positions that crop up. Too often, the beginner with a bit of endgame knowledge will be derailed because he or she faces one of those “problem” positions. Bruce’s excellent text will keep you from getting caught in an awkward positional situation. I’ll be covering s few seemingly complicated Rook and pawn endgame positions in my next and last series of endgame articles. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!