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Teaching Endgames by Bill Wall

In chess, 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

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
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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
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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
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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
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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)
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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
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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.
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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
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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 vs.rook
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
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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

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
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Van Perlo, Endgame Tactics

Wiseman, Chess: The Endgame
Znosko-Borovsky, How to Play Chess Endings