Nunn on Understanding Chess Endgames

9/13/2009 – Initially the grandmaster and chess author Dr John Nunn, who is one of the driving forces behind Gambit Publications, wanted to write an advanced book on endgames. It was to start with a brief survey of all the things the reader would be assumed to know. However, it quickly became clear that the "introductory chapter" would be more like a book in itself, which is now available. Review.

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Understanding Chess Endgames

John Nunn (Gambit Publications, 224 pages)

John Nunn created quite a stir when, in the period 1992–1995, he published three unusual endgame books: Secrets of Rook Endings, Secrets of Pawnless Endings and Secrets of Minor-Piece Endings (all published by Batsford). What was unusual about these books was that they were based on the five-man databases developed by Ken Thompson, and all the analysis in the books was therefore guaranteed to be correct. Nunn discovered many intriguing positions and explained many mysteries in terms which human beings could understand.

At the time these books received a somewhat mixed reception; some applauded his efforts, while others muttered darkly about the death of chess at the hands of soulless machines. Happily, chess is still alive and well and some of the overblown reaction to endgame databases has by now calmed down. Endgame databases are a tool, just like ChessBase or Fritz, undoubtedly useful but not fundamentally changing the game.

Since then, Nunn hasn’t written much about endgames. His own company, Gambit Publications, issued updated versions of the first two books in the above series. The revised Secrets of Rook Endings appeared in 1999 and had an extra 32 pages consisting of exercises and solutions. An updated Secrets of Pawnless Endings, which contained an extra 62 pages on six-man pawnless endings, appeared in 2002. There was also a book of composed endgame studies (Endgame Challenge, Gambit 2002), but in the past seven years nothing about the endgame.

Now we have a new Nunn endgame book. However, the reader’s first reaction on opening Understanding Chess Endgames might well be surprise, even shock. Where is all the difficult and complex analysis, where are all the weird but amazing positions and, above all, where are the reciprocal zugzwangs? They’re not there. Is the Doctor not feeling well? Hasn’t he had enough ice-cream recently?

Fortunately, the introduction makes matters clear: “This book had an unusual genesis in that originally I didn’t intend to write it at all. I was starting work on a more advanced book on endgames, and while I was collecting material for this, I began to compile a list of all the things the reader would be assumed to know. The idea was that an introductory chapter would give a brief survey of this ‘presumed knowledge’ so that I would not have to explain it in the main body of the book. However, it quickly became clear that this ‘introductory chapter’ would be more like a book in itself, so I put the main project to one side and started to think about how this introductory chapter could be turned into a useful book.”  Well, that’s a relief, then.

A quick look at the Gambit website shows that Volume 1 of Nunn’s Chess Endgames is scheduled for publication in May 2010, but until then we will have to make do with the current book. As the quote above suggests, it forms a course of essential endgame knowledge. There are 100 topics, each one occupying exactly two pages. The book starts at a very basic level, with two sections devoted to king and pawn vs king, with a slow increase in difficulty throughout the book. Perhaps the most advanced topic in the book is the Vancura draw, which arises in certain positions with rook and rook’s pawn vs rook. So there isn’t anything really difficult, with the bulk of the material being pitched at a low to mid-range club level.

Now would be a good time to have a look at a pdf sample helpfully provided on the Gambit website. This gives the list of contents, which should enable potential purchasers to judge whether the level is appropriate for them. It also gives two of the 100 sections in their entirety. The layout of these two sections is repeated throughout the book. Each section occupies a spread of two pages, and there are always four diagrams at the head of each column. This simple, regular layout makes the book easy to use, as the material is conveniently divided into clear, bite-size sections.

It is not easy to be original with books aimed at this level, as all the basic endgame topics have been covered in previous books. Some of Nunn’s topics are rather familiar, but the examples are well-chosen and as most are from relatively recent games, many will probably be new even to those who have read other endgame books. Nunn has avoided his usual detailed analysis, as each example has been chosen to illustrate a particular point, and the text concentrates on just that point. As one would expect from Nunn, the book is well-written, instructive and tightly focussed on improving the reader’s over-the-board play. As one would also expect from Nunn, there are no jokes.

One point is rather unusual. Take a look at the following example.

Euwe – Yanofsky, Groningen 1946

This is a more complex example. White cannot penetrate with his king to the queenside directly, so first he must make progress on the kingside. He should try to play g4 and exchange his g-pawn for Black’s h-pawn; a position with White’s king on g5 and an h-pawn against Black’s g-pawn is winning (see the game).

1 g3? 1 g4! wins. After 1...hxg4 (1...g6 2 Ke3 and Kf4, as in the game) 2 Kg3 Bf3 (if Kxg4 ever happens, White wins as in the game) 3 Kf4 Ke6 4 Bd4 g6 5 h3 Black is in zugzwang. A bishop move allows Kxg4, a king move to anywhere apart from d6 allows hxg4 followed by Ke5, ...Kd6 allows hxg4 followed by Kg5 and a8Q. Finally, ...g5+ is met by Kg3 and the g5-pawn is fatally weak.

1...Ke6 2 Ke3. It’s too late for 2 g4, as after 2...hxg4 3 Kg3 Black can play 3...Kf5. 2...Bg2? After 2...Kf5! 3 Bf8 g6 4 Kd4 Bg2 5 Kc5 Ke6! 6 h3 Bh1 White can never arrange to take back with his king on g4, so it is a draw.

3 Kf4 g6 4 g4 hxg4 5 Kxg4 Bh1 6 Kg5 Kf7. Or 6...Be4 7 a8Q Bxa8 8 Kxg6 and White wins. 7 Bd4 Bg2 8 h4 Bh1 9 b4 Bg2 10 b5 Bh1 11 Bf6 Bg2. 11...Be4 12 Kf4 followed by Ke5 wins for White. 12 h5! gxh5 13 Kf5 1-0. After 13...Bh1 14 Bh4 Bg2 15 Ke5 White’s king simply marches to c7. [Click to replay]

That’s Nunn’s analysis. Now, this is quite a well-known position: you can find it in, for example, Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics by Van Perlo, Encyclopaedia of Chess Endings, Averbakh, Fundamental Chess Endings by Müller and Lamprecht and 101 Chess Endgame Tips by Giddins. All these books consider the diagram position drawn and none of them mention Nunn’s move 1.g4!. One might have expected an author to make quite a fuss about overturning such a long-established opinion, but Nunn doesn’t even mention that his analysis differs from previous efforts, although he must surely have been aware of this. If Nunn is correct, this seems a notable discovery. There is something to be said for only wishing to offer correct analysis and not being concerned with errors which have been made before, but it’s certainly unusual.


John Nunn analysing a chess puzzle in Wijk aan Zee earlier this year

Despite the sad lack of reciprocal zugzwangs (I suppose we will have to wait for Nunn’s Chess Endings for those) this is an instructive and helpful book aimed at over-the-board players wishing to improve their endgame play. The official price is £15.99 in the UK and $24.95 in the US, but one should note that Amazon currently have Understanding Chess Endgames for pre-order at a remarkable discount price of $16.47:

Frederic Friedel


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