Endgame mysteries suddenly unravelled

by ChessBase
12/3/2006 – Only a few of us know how to play Queen endings correctly. For the power of the queens generates an ocean of possibilities that no human could ever calculate over the board. That is why knowledge of endgame rules is simply indispensable here. Endgame expert Mueller shows you the sense of what you may have thought as random moves by now. Review by Steve Giddens.

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Making sense of random moves
Karsten Mueller's "Endgames 3" reviewed by Steve Giddins

"All chessplayers eventually come to appreciate the importance of endgames. Some of us take longer than others. The lucky ones get to love the endgame from the early days of their chess careers, perhaps because of the influence of a wise trainer. Others among us are less fortunate, and spend years using our chess study time to memorise ever-longer sequences of opening analysis, whilst ignoring the endgame. We only realise the error of our ways when we finally manage to trap a much stronger opponent in our opening preparation. Our carefully-prepared improvement on move 35 of the Najdorf generates an ending with an extra pawn, which we then finish up only drawing, or even losing. After a few such experiences, a sadder and wiser man, we finally go home and take out our pristine copy of Basic Chess Endings, bought all those years ago, and left standing on our bookshelves ever since, untouched by human hand.

Buy it now...

The trouble is though, studying many endgames from textbooks is extremely difficult. This is especially the case with queen endings. How often have you played through a queen ending from actual play, and tried to understand what is going on? Not often, I hear you say. Well, OK, shame on you. But on the few occasions when you have done so, I doubt that you really got much out of it. The typical case, say involving an ending with queen and pawn against queen, goes something like this. The defender spends 10 or so moves, giving a series of checks. Finally, quite by chance, it seems, the checks run out, whereupon the defender makes a random move. The stronger side then makes a random move himself, and then the defender gives another series of checks. Once in a while, the pawn advances one square, and then the players go back to checking one another again. Eventually, after 50 or so moves of this exercise, either the defender resigns, or a draw is agreed, but in either case, we are none the wiser. The final result of the game seems like an entirely chance event, just depending on whether or not the defender’s checks finally run out. Maybe he was lucky, maybe not.

If you recognise your own experiences in the above, then I have some excellent news for you. At last, there is help at hand, in the form of a DVD which actually explains what is really going on behind these apparently random sequences of queen checks. Believe it or not, there really are a few simple principles underlying these endings, and the various “random” moves you see being played in these endings are not really random at all – at least, providing it is not one of my games you are looking at!

Karsten Muller needs no introduction from me as an endgame specialist. The Grandmaster has written extensively on endings, and is now the world’s foremost writer on this phase of the game. Consequently, there is nobody better qualified to present a DVD such as this, and he has done a superb job. Take the example of Q+P vQ.

In the above example, White managed to draw. If you play through the game, you will at first sight probably experience the usual scenario – random-looking series of moves, multiple checks, etc. But with Muller’s explanations, you soon start to realise that most of this is not too complicated, and is far from random. Thus, there are two main drawing ideas for White – either get his king in front of the pawn (when all K+P endings will be drawn), or, if that is impossible, get his king to the “north-west” corner, ie. to the drawing zone on a7-a8-b7-b8. Once we understand this, the moves already make sense, and many of our standard questions can be easily answered. Since his king is already quite close to the pawn, the first drawing technique is more appropriate, hence at move 59, 59 Ke2 draws more easily. Lasker instead chose the other technique, heading North by North West. As the game went on, why did Black retreat his king to g6 between moves 66-68? Answer: to get nearer the White King, and thereby increase the chance of cross-checks (answering a check with a check). Why is 71 Ka4?! dubious? Answer: because the WK is moving away from the drawing zone. In the note to White’s 74th move, why is the position after 74 Qd7? Qf4+ 75 Ka3 Kg5 winning for Black? Answer: because the WK is cut off from the drawing zone.

And so on. By the time you have worked through this, and a few other examples on the DVD, you will find that the mysteries of such endings are suddenly unravelled. That is not to say that you will always be able to play them perfectly, of course – the tactical complexity of such endings remains a formidable obstacle, but you will now understand what you should be aiming for in such positions, and what the key ideas are. Those formerly random-looking sequences of checks suddenly make sense.

Queen endings are perhaps the most baffling, in many ways, but there are also other types of ending, which appear very complex at first sight. Another example, also covered on this DVD, is rook v minor piece. Take the two following positions:

The first position is a dead draw, whilst the second is winning for White. Do you understand why? The answer is that in the first, Black has a fortress, whereas in the second, he does not. Muller explains in detail how such fortresses work, and how they can be broken down. In the second diagram, for instance, if Black could play his knight to g6 now, he would again have an unbreakable fortress. At first, this may all look like witchcraft, but once one sees a few examples, and has the principles explained, it ceases to be so.

The endings covered by the DVD are queen endings, rook v bishop, rook v knight, and queen v rook. In total, you have a colossal 7 hours (!) of superbly lucid endgame training, delivered in totally fluent English, at the end of which, your understanding of endings will have improved enormously. And, as Capablanca and Smyslov have both emphasised, the more you understand endings, the more you understand chess generally, and especially, the characteristics of the pieces, and their different strengths and weaknesses. It may even help you play your Najdorf Sicilian a little better!"

Karsten Mueller: Endgames 1 - Basic knowledge for beginners...
Karsten Mueller: Endgames 2 - Rook endgames...

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