I asked Bill to write this article because, even after years as a chess coach, I found it hard to motivate kids to learn endgames. Experienced chess players understand the importance of the endgame — not every game will be won in 30 or 40 moves. A good player must understand what to do when there is little left on the board.
The endgame is perhaps the most mysterious part of chess. It is the stage of the game when few pieces are left on the board. It is the last stage of chess, and arguably the most important. The line between the middlegame and endgame is not very well defined. Usually, there are fewer pieces, perhaps the queens are off the board, and the pawns become very important. Endgames often revolve around trying to promote a pawn to a queen (or any other piece) by advancing it to the eighth rank. In the endgame, passed pawns become very important.
Theoretical endgames are positions where the correct line of play is generally known and well-analyzed, so the solution is a matter of technique. Artistic endgames, or endgame studies, are contrived positions which contain a theoretical endgame hidden by problematic complications. Practical endgames are positions arising from actual games, where skillful play should transform it into a theoretical endgame position with a known outcome (win or draw).
The conventional thinking is you teach endgames first, then tactics, then openings. But if you can't play a reasonable opening, you lose. And if you see combinations and tactics better than your opponent, then you may never get to an endgame. If you do, it is so overwhelming that you don't need to study endgames. So practically speaking, how valuable is knowing the endgame? Well, it is most valuable over the long run. You would have probably beaten a weak opponent on any opening. But as you face stronger opponents, you are more likely to get into endgames, and more likely to lose if you never studied the endgame basics. If you lack endgame knowledge, then it is very hard to study the other parts of the game. A coach or trainer should start to teach basic endgames to his students as soon as possible. At least start teaching endgames when you notice that your student is losing in the endgame. You can't give opening or middlegame advice of when to trade queens if the student does not have some knowledge of endgames. The biggest compelling reason for studying endgames is the practical one: after a long struggle how heart-breaking is it to not win a game because of poor endgame play.
I have written on endgame tips and endgame book references. I have referenced several endgame sites on the Internet, such as the 6-man Endgame Nalimov Tablebases, Reuben Fine's Basic Chess Endings errata, Chess Endgame Simulator, chessending.com for practical chess endgames, and over 50 endgame pgn files (just do a search on endgames on my chess site).
But I have also written on openings and opening traps. It is easy to conclude that the openings should be studied first. It does come first, then the middlegame, finally the endgame. Every game has an opening, and most openings have opening traps. Endgames come last, and not every game has an endgame, nor are there a lot of endgames in the games of beginners, at least very little close endgames where you had to know the technique and all the right moves. Usually beginner games reach endgames being a queen or rook or two ahead. Even if you succeed in the opening and the middlegame, not knowing the skills to turn the resulting endgame into a checkmate can cost you many wins, turning won positions into draws or draws into losses. I know. It has happened to me more times than I want to count, missing draws or wins against such grandmasters as Walter Browne or Larry Christiansen, or missing 1st place or missing some prize money for misplaying the endgame in the final round.
When it comes to chess study and preparation, the endgame is the most neglected part of the game among amateurs. However, if you learn the most important basic endgame ideas, they will go a long way in helping you in almost every endgame position you reach. You need to know how likely the ending is a win, draw, or loss before going into it. Many of the decisions you make in the middlegame are likely to depend on your knowledge of endgame patterns. For example, should you trade queens and go into the ending, or keep the queens on the board and look for counter-play and some sort of attack?
The problem with teaching endgames is that it is boring to the beginner and it must be analyzed thoroughly before proceeding. He/she wants to learn opening traps and tactics and combinations with lots of pieces on the board. But in the long run, it is the endgame that is the most exciting and the surest way to win. Beginners have a hard time understanding endgames, they don't see it as often, and they are not knowledgeable enough to decide what is good for them in studying endgames. Besides, when starting out, many of the early beginner games end in checkmate in the middlegame, so they do not have very much experience playing endgames. Or the student just says he never gets to any endgame, so why study it. And sometimes it is just too hard to teach someone endgame concepts when they are still learning not to hang pieces or fall for elementary opening traps.
It is hard to convince a player to study endgames when they are focused on tactics, combinations, and opening traps, which usually boost their rating more easily than endgames they will hardly reach. Amateurs probably get into an endgame they need to know in 1 out of 50 games. Besides, tactics and opening traps are more rewarding aesthetically than endgame technique. And you will more likely get your games published if they are shorter than a much longer game won in the endgame. In the opening and middlegame, sudden tactical variations soon become possible and they often determine the outcome of the game. But if the game makes it to the endgame, you need strategic understanding to find the win (or draw). That is why a majority of chess players do not know what to do in an endgame and cannot find the best moves.
Another problem is that an amateur will try to get the best endorsed endgame books available, such as those written by Dvoretsky, Mueller, Nunn, Alburt, Smyslov, or Fine/Benko. However, trying to study from these advance books is very hard. They are usually written for the chess master/advanced player and not for a beginner or low-rated amateur. They are complex, with computer aided up-to-date analysis that is just too deep for the amateur. He/she will start to study a few random positions, go through reams of variations (you need at least two chess sets to go over the main moves and variations), understand almost nothing, and give up, putting the book up forever. It is very difficult to get beyond the first few chapters and a determined player must start reading an endgame book many times before absorbing any material. Chess books for beginners have the problem of being too vague and general.
There is additional confusion in endgame principles that are different than opening and middlegame principles that the beginner is just learning. In the opening, it is king safety right away that is important. But in the endgame, the king must get out and become active. In the opening, pawns race to become the strongest piece on the board. In the endgame, losing a move can lead to victory. In the opening, you want all your pieces out and attacking. In the endgame, you want to trade all your pieces when you are ahead a pawn or more. In the opening, you can play on intuition and put the pieces on the squares where you think it may have the most good. In the endgame, there is no guessing. You have to calculate more often and deeper than ever before. In the opening, the king stays away from the center and behind the pawns. In the endgame, the king needs to be close to the action, most likely in the center of the board, and in front of his pawns. In the opening, proficiency depends on the memory of what moves are good or bad. In the endgame, proficiency depends on methodical study. Openings, such as gambits, are tactical in character. Endings are predominantly positional in character, although combinative and tactical maneuvering is possible. Openings usually follow trends and opening books can be outdated and opening variations can be busted. Endgames will not become dated. The final word is known about most endgames, and you can study endgames knowing they will never become outdated.
Classic teachers such Jose Capablanca and Siegbert Tarrach always recommended studying the endgame before the opening. Their reasoning was that endgames showed the power of the pieces in its simplest form, that endgame concepts go to the heart of many other chess ideas, endgame positions are easier to grasp and recall than openings, and that endgame study keeps us focused on the ultimate goal — checkmate of the enemy king.
Here are some quotes by famous masters about the endgame.
"In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else, for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame." - Jose Capablanca (source: Capablanca's Best Chess Endings, by Chernev, 1978, page v)
"Endgame study is an important, maybe the most important, tool in teaching kids and beginners. It will help them to learn the abilities and limitations of each piece. It will make them do their first plans and do their first calculation exercises. The studies should start from very easy and gradually increase in difficulty. Don't underestimate the value of the simple endgame studies as they highlight the necessity not only to think ahead but also to execute a plan through a series of accurate moves that have a purpose." - Vasily Smyslov, 1969
"You 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." — IM Josh Waitzkin
"It is a well-known phenomenon that the same amateur who can conduct the middle game quite creditably, is usually perfectly helpless in the end game. One of the principal requisites of good chess is the ability to treat both the middle and end game equally well." - Aaron Nimzowitsch
All of the famous endgame masters such as Capablanca, Tarrasch, Smyslov, Karpov, Kramnik, and Carlsen all have a crystal-clear caliber of playing the whole game. They all almost never make mistakes. They all almost never lose games in the opening. They steer their games into an ending and win. Their deep strategic understanding from studying endgames prevents them from making mistakes. The attained this understanding while perfecting their endgame skills.
In teaching endgames, it is important to know the most basic endgames and some endgame principles. You should know how to checkmate with king and queen against king, and with king and rook against king, and king and two bishops against king (king, bishop, and knight versus king is a forced win, but too difficult to be considered a basic mate — I have only seen it twice over-the-board in my lifetime). The ability to win a chess game is based on whether or not you can mate your opponent without getting into a stalemate situation or going beyond 50 moves without an exchange or pawn push. It is also good to remember that a single minor piece (bishop or knight) or two knights cannot force a checkmate against a long enemy king.
The next most basic endgame is king and pawn against king. You need to know how to promote a pawn to a queen (or rook) to win. With this type of endgame, you learn about opposition, triangulation, and outflanking. In chess, just one wrong move can change the outcome of the game. In the endgame, you don't want to make any mistakes. If you have a won endgame, you must make sure there is no stalemate (draw) or perpetual check (draw) or the 50 move rule where 50 moves were made without an exchange or pawn move, leading to a draw.
In many basic endgames, a teacher need not lecture or explain in general terms what the endgame is about. You simply let the student play the endgame out, as White and as Black, and see if he/she can discover the winning (or drawing) method for himself/herself. The student should play the winning side first, and the teacher should play the correct defense to any mistakes. If there is no success, try again and allow the teacher to give hints when necessary. Soon, the student will learn on his own and figure out the winning (or drawing) method. Remember, many endgames are just too hard that it cannot be figured out unless you have seen the method before.
Take this basic endgame, as an example, and set up the White king on e1, the White pawn on e2, and the Black king on e8. If it is White's move, most beginners will start out the move 1.e4 (or 1.e3), which is a mistake, and leads to a draw with best play by Black (1...Ke7). Here, the student learns about opposition and the instructor demonstrates the correct method of winning by getting the White king in front of the pawn (after 1.Kd2 or 1.Kf2) and trying to gain opposition of kings. White should not move the pawn until the White king is far ahead of his pawn and has the opposition of kings (opposing each other with an odd number of unoccupied squares between the two). Play it out with the student until stalemate is reached and try again, with a better hint. The next iteration may be 1.Kd2 Ne7 2.Kd3 Ke6 3.e3? (draws — White had to play 3.Ke4 to gain opposition) 3...Kd5. From the original position, if it is Black's move, then it is a draw (1...Kd7 2.Kd2 Kd6 3.Kd3 Kd5 and Black denies White the opposition).
Now set up the White king on e5, the White pawn on e6, and the Black king on e7 and let the beginner play defense, with Black to move. Sooner or later, they will discover that 1...Ke8 is the only drawing move. 1...Kf8?? (or 1...Kd8) loses to 2.Kf6 Ke8 3.e7 Kd7 4.Kf7 and White Queens and wins. But after 1...Ke8 2.Kf6 Kf8 3.e7+ Ke8 4.Ke6 is stalemate and a draw. Black is not in check and cannot move. Black draws by getting into position that when White's king advances, Black's king is in position to "take the opposition" and prevent further progress.
Once the above position is mastered, a more practical endgame situation can be set up. Put the White king on f2, the White pawn on e4, and the Black king on h8. Allow the student to play White, the teacher play Black and make the best defensive move. White must discover that 1.Ke3 is the only move that wins. 1.Kf3?? draws after 1...Kg7 2.Kf4 Kf6. After 1.Kf3 Kg7 2.Kd4 is the only move that wins. Black plays 2...Kf6, and then 3.Kd5 is the only move that wins. After 3...Ke7 4.Ke5 (White has the opposition) is the only move that wins. Now 4...Kd7 5.Kf6 (only move that wins) Ke8 6.Ke6 and White has the opposition and a winning position. The game would continue 6...Kd8 7.Kd6 (or 7.e5) 7...Ke8 8.e5 Kd8 9.e6 Ke8 10.e7 (you want to get the pawn on the 7th without checking the king, otherwise a stalemate) 10...Kf7 11.Kd7 and White will Queen the pawn.
I mentioned the problem with the advanced endgame chess books. A coach is the best trainer for endgames, but beyond that, there are videos (some players learn best from videos) and chess software that specializes in endgames and don't require much effort by the student. And don't throw out your endgame books. Endgame study should be adapted to your playing strength. Learn the basic endgames first. Move on to simple pawn endgames. Study some more complex pawn endgames after that. Then look at simple rook and pawn endgames (rook endings are the most common endings in master play), then move on to more complex rook and pawn endgames with more pawns or more pieces that are later exchanged for a simpler endgame. Then you have complex endgames with knights and bishops, then queen endgames. But chunk it up a little bit at a time and slowly until you grasp the fundamentals and can move on. You want to learn the idea behind the endgame, not trying to memorize a lot of positions. Look for endgame books broken down for beginners, intermediate, advanced, and master level if possible.
A recent concept in studying endgames is to use a chess engine. It used to be that chess computers were weak in the endgame. Not anymore. There are chess programs that have solved 7-piece endgames. If you have a chess engine (lots of free chess engines online), you can take a chess endgame problem from one of your games or a chess book, or a diagram online, and set up and display the problem in the computer board. Then play the position against the computer. Let the computer play the side that is trying to win (or draw) and try to defend against it. After a few tries and grasping the winning (or drawing line), switch sides and see if you can win or draw the position. You may also want to try different engines at different strengths so that you can react to some moves with different variations.
In endgames with pieces and pawns, an extra pawn is usually a winning advantage 60% of the time. It becomes more decisive if the stronger side has a positional advantage (more space and better developed pieces). In king and pawn endings, the extra pawn is decisive over 90% of the time.
Players need to master the basic checkmates and a few practical endgames with rook and pawn(s). They need to know them cold. Too many amateurs and intermediate players will struggle with basic checkmates and walk into stalemates that are easily avoided or waste moves when a simple path to mate is available.
Although some grandmasters may say they study openings more than the endgame, don't be fooled. They have already done their homework in studying endgames. The number of important theoretical endgames is much smaller than the field of openings and opening variations. But these top players have already mastered the endgame play and can now devote more time in the openings without fear of losing unnecessary point in the endgame during match and tournament play.
Mark Dvoretsky, perhaps the best known endgame instructor among grandmasters, recommended that one should study relatively few endgame positions, the most important and most probable, but study and understand them perfectly. One should not have to remember long and perplexing analysis. The basic endgame theoretical knowledge should be easy to remember and comprehend. Study of certain endgame types can be reduced to absorbing ideas (general principles, standard methods and evaluations) rather than to memorizing precise positions. The best method of absorbing endgame ideas is to study practical games. It is also good to look at examples of grave errors committed by strong masters and grandmasters in endgame play. The examples are excellent warnings against ignoring endgame theory.
Endgame study never ends. Not even for Grandmasters. The positions just get more advanced with deeper calculation needed. A Grandmaster's greater understanding of chess is more clearly noticeable in the endgame than any other part of the game. It is not accidental that the greatest grandmasters of chess have also been the greatest masters of the endgame. That's way the best chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen, is the best endgame player in the world. He has made complex endings the basis of his #1 rating and his road to the World Chess Championship. And one of the world's best blitz players, Hikaru Nakamura, can grind any player down in the endgame. When he plays blitz against other top world players, they know the openings as well as he does, play equal middlegames, but as the pieces come off the board, over and over again these top rated titled opponents go from dead even to dead lost. In the endgames, Nakamura and Carlsen are kings.
If you are interested in the longest possible line of defense in an endgame, here are some statistics:
King and two rooks vs. king: longest win is mate in 7 moves
King and queen vs. king: longest win is mate in 10 moves
King and rook vs. king: longest win is mate in 16 moves
King and queen vs. king and bishop: longest win in 17 moves
King and two bishops vs. king: longest win is mate in 19 moves
King and queen vs. king and knight: longest win is mate in 21 moves
King and rooks vs. king and bishop: longest win is 29 moves
King, bishop, and knight vs. king: longest win is mate in 33 moves
King and queen vs. king and rook: longest win is mate in 35 moves
King and rook vs. king and knight: longest win is 40 moves
Here is a list of the most frequent endgames, from most likely to least likely in master play:
Rook & bishop vs. rook & knight
Two rooks vs. two rooks
Rook & bishop vs. rook and bishop (same color)
Bishop vs. knight
Rook & knight vs. rook & knight
King and pawns vs. king (and pawns)
Rook & bishop vs. rook and bishop (opposite color)
Queen vs. Queen
Rook & bishop vs. rook
Bishop vs. bishop (same color)
Knight vs. knight
Rook vs. bishop
Rook & knight vs. rook
Bishop vs. bishop (opposite color)
Bishop vs. pawns
Rook vs. knight
Knight vs. pawns
Queen and minor piece vs. queen
Rook vs. two minor pieces
Rook vs. pawns
Queen vs. rook & minor pieces
Rook & pawn vs. rook
Rook and two pawns vs. rook
Queen vs. pawns
Queen vs. rook Queen vs. two rooks
King and one pawn vs. king
Queen vs. minor piece
Queen and one pawn vs. queen
Queen vs. two minor pieces
Bishop & knight vs. king
Queen vs. three minor pieces
Also see the table of theoretical statistics for chess endgames with up to five pieces.
Some endgame books that can be previewed or its entire book is on the Internet:
Blake, Chess Endings for Beginners
Chernev, Capablanca's Best Chess Endings
Chernev, Practical Chess Endings
Cunnington, Selected Chess Endings
De la Villa, 100 Endgames You Musk Know
Dvoretsky, Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual
Euwe & Hooper, A Guide to Chess Endings
Freeborough, Analysis of the Chess Ending King and Queen Against King and Rook
Freeborough, Chess Endings
Freeborough, Select Chess End-Games, from Actual Play
Kling & Horowitz, Chess Studies; or Endings of Games
Minev, A Practical Guide to Rook Endgames
Pandolfini, Pandolfini's Chess Challenges: 111 winning endgames
Pandolfini, Pandolfini's Endgame Course
Schiller, Of Kings and Pawns: Chess Strategy in the Endgame
Van Perlo, Endgame Tactics
Wiseman, Chess: The Endgame
Znosko-Borovsky, How to Play Chess Endings
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