The Importance of the Endgame One

Most novice games conclude well before the endgame. Teaching chess in the schools, I’m faced with the difficult task of teaching the rules of the game, basic tactics as well as simple opening, middle and endgame principles in an eight month period. Anyone who has studied this fantastic game knows all too well that it can take many years just to become proficient in only one of these areas. In a perfect chess teaching world, I’d start my students off with endgame instruction after they’ve learned the rules. However, both the parents and the schools I teach in want results and results means seeing the students I teach playing chess immediately. Because of this and the fact that many of my students are learning the game for the first time, endgame skills are not as large a part of the curriculum as I’d like. Because my beginning students don’t usually reach a proper endgame, they don’t realize just how important the endgame is, even with the limited training I give them. Thus the reason for this and upcoming articles.

The endgame is reached when most of the material has been exchanged off of the board and both players are left with a few pawns, a minor piece or two, sometimes a major piece, and their Kings. While it might seem that, with less material on the board, that this phase of the game is easier to deal with, the opposite is true. In the endgame, real positional calculation is required and the loss of the smallest amount of material can be the difference between winning and losing. Patience and deep thinking is required, something young minds often lack since both require a certain level of maturity that is garnered with time (growing up). Therefore, I’m presenting, in a series of articles, some endgame ideas that all beginners should learn, starting with pawn promotion.

In previous articles, I’ve mentioned that beginners tend to think of pawns as expendable. The novice player gives them away during the opening and middle-game because he or she has eight of them and they’re the least valued material in their army. However, pawns have two unique qualities that make them vital throughout the game (not to be given away so freely). First off, because they’re on the lowest end of the relative value scale, they can push back material of greater value. More importantly and critical to winning in the endgame, they can promote into a Queen, Rook, Bishop or Knight. That means that every pawn that reaches its promotion square can transform itself into a dangerous piece! All it takes is a single pawn reaching it’s promotion square and the game will be won, if you know how to do it!

To promote a pawn, you need to get that pawn safely across the board. This means that a white pawn starting on the second rank must reach the eighth rank to promote and a black pawn starting on the seventh rank must get to the first rank to promote. A pawn doesn’t even have to reach its promotion square to pose a threat to your opponent. If you’re playing white and manage to get a pawn to the seventh rank, keeping in mind that you must have a pawn or piece protecting that pawn on the seventh rank, your opponent will be forced to use a piece to stop that pawn from promoting. The piece stopping the promotion by blocking the promotion square, for example, is no longer able to participate in the game. That piece is stuck as a baby sitter for your pawn. In an endgame, since both players have less material on the board, this can be devastating. We’ll look at this later on in this series of articles because first, the beginner needs to learn the simplest of pawn promotions, pawn and King against lone King.

I show this example to my beginning students and ask one simple question: “It’s white to move. Who moves first, the pawn or the King?” Beginners are taught King safety from day one of their chess careers, so they tend to think that Kings must always be protected which leads them to believe that the King doesn’t participate in the game. They also know that the pawn is worth less than the King in terms of relative value. Therefore, they more often than not say, “move the pawn.” They recoil in horror, well not really, but I like the image of 25 students gasping and recoiling in horror when I sternly say “WRONG!” It’s the white King who must make the first move if white is to win. When you’ve reduced a position to pawns and Kings only, the King now has the opportunity to become a very powerful attacker and defender.

This is where the extremely powerful idea of King opposition comes into play. Simply put, King opposition is a position in which two Kings face one another with a square between them (remember my friends who are new to the game, King’s can never be on squares immediately next to one another). King opposition is crucial to white promoting its pawn. Why? Well, since King’s cannot be on adjacent squares, an imaginary line is created that cannot be crossed by either King when in opposition.

For white to win, in the above example, the King must get in front of the pawn. Therefore, the first move white makes is 1. Kd2, aiming for getting in front of the pawn and King opposition. Black makes a point of moving towards the white pawn with 1…Ke7. The experienced player manning the white pieces will easily win. However, the beginner, employing the idea that material of lesser value should go out on the board first and King’s should always stay out of danger, will move the pawn out first and end up with a draw rather than victory. In this type of endgame position, the King moves first.

Move two, 2. Ke3, puts our King in front of the pawn which is just where we want his majesty. The black King is going to do everything in his power to stop the pawn from promoting, so he tries to stand in it’s path with 2…Ke6. When do we move our pawn? Not yet because we need to have both Kings in opposition which white does with 3. Ke4. Now black stands at a crossroad. Since neither King can occupy an immediately adjacent square, black has to yield to the white King by 3…Kd6. This is the first of two important moves. Remember the key to this problem is keeping the black King off of the white pawn’s promotion square. Next, white plays 4. Kf5. Black plays 4…Kd5. Many beginners will think, “ah, Black is going after the white pawn.” However, since pawns can move one or two squares forward on their first move (and the e2 pawn hasn’t moved yet), white can now make the first pawn move, 5. e4+, driving the black King back. Black plays 5…Kd6 with the idea of trying to get to white’s promotion square first. Move six, 6. Kf6 sees the two Kings in opposition once again, a crucial concept in this type of position. Black plays 6…Kd7 and it looks as if black can occupy the promotion square, thwarting white’s plans.

With move seven 7. e5, white pushes the pawn up while still allowing room for his King to stand in front of that pawn. Black wins the race to white’s promotion square after 7…Ke8 but things are not always as they seem! Remember, white needs to have his King if front of the pawn which he does with 8. Ke6. This is the second crucial move because now, black’s King will have to yield to the white King. Black plays 8…Kf8 and white can use his King to control the promotion square with 9. Kd7 which shuts out the black King’s control over e8. Black plays 9…Kf7 and gets hit with 10. e6+ and no way to stop the pawn from promoting.

The key factors here are getting your King in front of the pawn and using King opposition to control your opponent’s King. The white King was able to force the black King away from squares the white pawn needed to occupy. The King is a valuable attacker in the endgame and should be used. A point well worth mentioning is patience. Beginners tend to think that they can simply steamroll their pawn up the board quickly and win the game with a fast promotion. However, if you don’t carefully and slowly consider your moves you might end up with a stalemate or worse yet, losing your only pawn. I’ve seen this countless times in the games of beginners. Take your time and think things through.

Lastly, things greatly change in endgame positions depending on whose move it is. Had it been black’s move at the start of this example, things would turn out differently. I’ll reflect on this later in this series of articles. Until next week’s second part of this series, here’s a game to enjoy by a couple of fellows who know a thing or two about endgame play!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).