A Strategic Guide to Learning – Endings

Many of us waste countless hours playing online blitz, frustrated we see no improvement in our game. Danny Gormally talks about the addictive nature of speed chess online:

Studying chess and improving at chess involves a pursuit of the best material, as well as a devout determination to study and objectively assess your weakest areas.

In Jacob Aagaard's book "Attack and Defence", he makes this point very nicely (and has elsewhere in other material), the material is only as valuable as the work you (yes, YOU!) are prepared to put into it.

Three things you will learn today

  1. Endgames are the single most important part of chess to know
  2. King and Pawn and Rook and Pawn endings are the ones you really must know
  3. Endings are cut-throat - one mistake can be 0-1 from even 1-0

Part 1 of 3 - Why Endgames are the most important

Let's start with an example to support our outrageous claim!

We have chosen a position which could come up in practical play that is also tough - it's an "only move" - only one move works.

In the game Sheringham - Shearer (Manchester, 1996), black succeeded in winning white's rook after queening the b pawn but white's knowledge of endgames helped him realise the connected pawns could be strong enough to hold a draw, especially with the black king so far away!

The best line goes 1. c6! Rc1 2. Ke4 Kb4 3. d6! Rxc6 4. Kd5 Rc8 5. d7 and white will eventually force the rook to commit suicide in exchange for the queen.

Why are endgames the most important part of chess?

I would like to present the answer as a series of thoughts, all of which should be conclusive:
  1. Every world champion has been an endgame expert - in fact, the only reason Bronstein (another great player) missed out on being WC was his endgame technique against Botvinnik in 1951
  2. Magnus Carlsen has shown how many points are available in dead level endings from just excellent technique
  3. Endgame knowledge dramatically steers how you approach a middlegame
  4. The objective of chess is to mate the king; any decisions to do this must take endgames into account - even a mating attack will need a fallback option into a winning ending, unless it's a completely forced line
  5. Endings really teach you how the pieces move and how versatile they are
  6. Statistically you will reach a rook and pawn ending far more often than, say, play the Flick-knife attack in the Benoni. So the "return on investment" from studying even just the "Lucena" and "Philidor" positions is much greater.
  7. Part 2 of 3 - Critical Endings - King and Pawn and Rook and Pawn

    There are many endings to learn and we have covered quite a few on the site.

    The reason King and Pawn and Rook and Pawn endings are the most common in chess:

    King and Pawn is the natural condensation of many endings.

    Typically one player will rely on their extra/more advanced pawns to promote in order to win and aim to exchange any "heavier" material off in order to make this as simple as possible.

    Rook and pawns are very common due to the light artillery (knights and bishops) coming off earlier in the game and a subsequent queen trade will leave only the rooks and pawns so lots of combinations of endings are relevant - Rook v Pawns; Rook + Pawn v Rook; Rook + 3 Pawns v Rook + 2 Pawns (same side) etc.

    Other endings are much less frequent but you should similarly invest 25% of your endgame study at first on also learning for example how to hold a Knight v pawn ending. We have covered rook endings before on the site.

    The site also contains some good King and Pawn examples:

    So let's throw another puzzle in for fun:
    Theme for this one is taken from a Wade - Korchnoi game.

    Poor Black is in "the square" of the h pawn but after 1. e5! has to give up the ghost. Since 2. e6 is game over, 1...dxe5 is necessary and then 2. h4 leaves black having to stumble over his own wall of the e5 pawn and cannot get to h8 in time!

    Part 3 of 3 - Endings are cut-throat

    As I experienced playing in the Durham congress, even going a clear pawn down in the middlegame wasn't enough for my opponents to win - as Gelfand puts it "the drawing margin is still very high".

    It is endings where one slip can prove fatal.

    To use an analogy from the Chessmaster series - imagine you have 5 cakes and I have 4 - "no big deal, we will both be full!" Now imagine you have 1 cake and I have none - now I feel it.

    Endings are about converting small differences into results. If you have an advantage (material, space, tempo), you HAVE TO use it or at least maintain it in the ending or it will fizzle out.

    A strange example

    Taken from Strange- Norrell 2003 Magicians world championship match, a careful defence is needed to hold the draw:

    We will take up the position at move 44:

    [Event "WC 2003"] [Site "London"] [Date "1993"] [White "Strange, Jonathan"] [Black "Norrell, Gilbert"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2003"] [FEN "8/6q1/5p1k/3K1P2/8/8/8/2Q5 b - - 0 1"] 1...Qg5?? (1...Kh7 {is a v drawish Q and pawn ending}) 2. Qxg5! Kxg5 3. Ke6 {Dear Mr Norrell, don't step on a mined square, lest ye be blown to smitherines! Yours, J Strange}

    Summmary

    1. Endings give the best return on investment in chess
    2. Chess is a cruel game and one slip in the ending or one capitalisation on a mistake can net or lose you a point
    3. Incorporate endgame thinking into your middlegame play - think - what kind of ending would I be happy with
    4. Even the best players make mistakes!