Understanding Minor Piece Endgames

by Davide Nastasio
3/19/2019 – Amateurs hope to learn the secret to magically becoming good at chess. But the secret is already known: learn endgames! The benefits can become obvious, even from a superficial study. One learns how to coordinate different pieces and this can lead to stunning victories. But there's much more — improvements in calculation and visualization come from endgame study which are essential qualities that differentiate the great players from the mediocre ones. Reviewer DAVIDE NASTASIO thinks GM Karsten Mueller's last book on understanding endgames with minor pieces is one everyone should read in order to improve at chess.

Chess Endgames 3 - major piece endgames Chess Endgames 3 - major piece endgames

The third part of the endgame series tackles queen endings, rook against minor pieces, queen against rook and queen against two rooks. Queen endings are not nearly as mysterious as they appear at first sight. Knowing a few rules of thumb and principles will make things very much easier for you.
Over 7 hours video training.


Understanding = Mastery!

A long time ago I was listening a chess podcast. The host was interviewing Alina L'Ami, a great chess player and also a great photographer.

Alina l'AmiAs always, part of the interview was asking Alina how she became good at chess. One of her answers, if I remember well, was that she studied one of the endgame encyclopedia volumes from cover to cover! Honestly I don't remember which volume, it could be the one on rook endgames, but that is not the point I'm trying to make here.

Another quite famous GM, Alex Yermolinsky, often mentions how his chess knowledge reached another level when he undertook an intense study of endgames with a study partner.

Now, I could go on and on to mention all the players who have in one form or another, indicated the study of endgames as their key to improvement in chess. But we could also think of it from another point of view. Once we have passed the stage which by move 25 we have blundered a piece, when most of our games reach move 40 or more... it becomes clear the result of the game will be decided in the endgame! One of the big disadvantages of our modern times is how everything must be done in a rush, so also chess games suffer from shortened time controls. This means when we reach the endgame often we are quite short on time. Consequently, in order to win one must nurture the knowledge of different kind of endgames.

Unfortunately, with learning endgames, we have a big handicap — we don't know which endgames will present themselves in our games. There is also another disadvantage about endgames: we don't know if our analysis are correct. For hundreds of years many endgame books, maybe copying each other, reported some results for some endgames. Recently, endgame tablebases, where all the possible moves within a certain number of pieces and pawns have been calculated have upended the assessments of human wisdom in some instances. This should definitely stir our curiosity. In fact, the ChessBase Endgame Turbo 5 puts the most important of these on a 128 GB USB key! That of course, won't help you in tournament games over the board, which brings us to the topic of today's article, a book created by the endgame wisdom of a lifetime endgame scholar: Karsten Mueller!   

This last masterpiece by Mueller focus on minor piece endings. Obviously he refers to some other people minor pieces, since my knights are ferocious tigers roaming the board creating havoc, devastation, and stoking fear in the enemy army! 

A Russian chess set from 1890, whose knights would clearly take offence to be called minor!

What's in the book

Understanding Minor Piece Endgames is made up of eight chapters. The first two chapters are dedicated to knight endgames. Chapter 1 has 85 examples, and 86 exercises!

I'd like to show a page from the book for chapter 1 as example, and of course let the reader try to solve some exercises by playing against the engine.

Chapter 1 Example 01-02

Previously, I read some comments that wanted the solution to the exercises in my reviews. I generally don't give it, because the truth is, in a tournament game we are not allowed shortcuts to find the solution of any position. I'm also afraid that giving the solution will make you lazy. Think of it as an opportunity to socialise too! Why not print out the article, or pull it up on your phone show the position to more expert players in your local chess club?

As an experiment for readers in more remote locales, I thought I'd use the new feature of ChessBase 15 for creating some nice little movies with the solutions. So if you want real training, play it out against the engine in the diagram, or if you just want to see how it's solved, then clicking on the movie will do the trick.

One note of caution: in the solution I've entered only the main line, but in Mueller's book there are multiple lines. It would have been too complicated to make a video for each possible line of each possible exercise, once again a little effort should be done in order to explore moves which seems possible refutations, and are not. I did check every exercise with the engine, and the authors used the tablebases, so we know these endgames are correct, and we simply need patience and perseverance in order to solve them. But that's part of learning!


Here the link to the solution:


And here's the link to the video-solution:


Here the link to the solution of exercise 01-36:

We see the selection of the authors also in the exercises. The above exercise comes from the game Navara vs Velicka 2010, and White won, because Black wasn't able to find the correct moves. I'll provide the entire game to prove the point: at every level, we must include endgame exercises in our training:


For those who prefer to see immediately the solution here the link:

Also in this case White missed the right continuation, but it's only from the book we can learn that Black blundered too! Thanks to ChessBase we can start the engine and see the mistakes (or buy the book and read about it on page 331).

In chapter 2 we find 52 positions used as examples to explain some endgame concepts, and 31 exercises.


Honestly this one is quite easy, and as pattern nearly replicates some tactics. One must see the idea, more than precise calculations ten moves ahead. As mentioned previously, I include the game this position came from (don't forget in the book multiple lines are analysed), so that one can use the ChessBase diagram's built-in engine to discover what happens if Black plays a different move:


I find knights quite interesting as pieces. Sometimes they are useless in an endgame, because they cannot stop a passed pawn — they will not arrive in time compared to a bishop which can kill those pawns like arrows from far away. On the other hand, sometimes knights are definitely better than bishops because they can attack and harass pawns on any square. Clearly they are pieces we can learn to use thanks to the many examples and exercises contained in these two beginning chapters. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are dedicated to the different kind of bishop endgames we find over the board. Chapter 3 is made up of 77 positions that explain some fundamental ideas of these type of endgames. As before the chapter has a wealth of exercises: 61 in all. Here is a small example from chapter 3:


Here the solution, for those who want to enjoy a nice video made by ChessBase 15:

Watching the game can teach us also the opening that endgame came from. Plus we can learn also from the way White mishandled the position:


Another amazing exercise is the following. Black missed the correct move, and lost the game.


This game is a reminder to everyone how a mistake in the endgame can cause hours of fight to be wasted.


And here the solution of the exercise, once more in video form:

Chapter 4 contains 46 examples and 31 exercises. Chapter 5 has 32 examples, and 23 exercises. Chapter 6 is about the big fight between bishops and knights! This chapter is huge!! There are 194 positions used as examples to learn all the possible ideas in the battle between these minors, plus 117 exercises! Probably just studying this chapter in depth could take months.

Chapter 7 is dedicated to computer endgames. This chapter is quite interesting because it illustrates the problem of the horizon effect. An engine is not like humans, it gives a precise numeric evaluation based on the depth reached in the calculation. Such depth is based on different factors, one obviously the program, but the hardware and the memory of the machine can be quite a limiting factor. So if one engine reaches 20 moves depth, and the line is evaluated positively, it could happen that 5 moves later such evaluation is proven wrong, and the engine will never know it. The chapter shows how the strongest engines on the planet still commit mistakes.

Chapter 8 on endgame studies shows the mistakes found in various endgames.

Pros and Cons

The diagrams in the book don't have coordinates, which, for some players, could be uncomfortable. It also implies all the diagrams are from White side, even when Black is the one to move — possibly confusing, when placing the pieces over a board, in case one doesn't have space to turn it around. Personally, I'd like to have diagrams oriented from Black side when is Black to move, because sometimes I like to try to solve directly a position from the book, without the board.

The book is definitely packed with a lot of information and tons of positions! It made me feel like I do when travelling on airplanes these dats...too tight. I also wish the diagrams were bigger. The amount of variations in an endgame is staggering, I bought a small magnetic set to keep track of the initial position, and watched each variation on the big board, while using the magnetic set as reference for the beginning position. Maybe publishers should begin to give access to the PGN of a book, so one can watch some of these endgames, with big lines, with ChessBase 15 while reading.

Honestly I find easier and less confusing to follow lot of variations within a game or endgame position in ChessBase.

Let me tell you somthing else I like about this book: The exercises at the end of each chapter. The book has endless exercises, making it really valuable to those players who are serious about reaching master level strength. Yes, 'talent' is just a word and won't clearly help us on our chess quest. Instead, calculation and the understanding gained from the exercises in this book are the way! So the choice is simple, if one doesn't want just to sit down and complain, achieving nothing, then he should choose this book and give it a chance through trying the exercises.

Many of us don't have money for a coach, but GM Mueller is the best endgame coach one can afford. He made a precise selection of exercises, knowing what one needs to practice and learn, in order to improve. Some exercises are difficult, and this is the reason why I use the '10-minute rule'. I try to solve the exercises, visualizing lines, or trying to grasp the main idea behind them for just 10 minutes. Then I write down the lines I've looked at along with the evaluation. If I don't find it at all, then I just go to see the solution, and learn what I missed. If instead I found some valuable lines, then I spend the next 10 minutes actually moving the pieces over the board, and see if I forgot some moves which could refute my ideas. Only then do I move on to the actual solution from the book. I'm not trying to get the exercises right, because the point here is:

  1. Work over our calculation and visualization
  2. Gain ideas I can use in my own tournament games

Why it is better to put a time limit? Because the goal should be to finish the book, or accomplish as goal a number of exercises (let's say 100), and then within 6-12 months try to go over them again, and see what we can remember.

This could be even more true for those who are not strong enough to visualize the solutions, and just play them over the board. Then after 6-12 months, go back and this time try to solve the exercises. This is a book one must use — definitely not one to leave on the bookshelf!

I think the authors did great research, quoting for every position the game it came from. Thanks to ChessBase Mega Database 2019 one can find each game, create an endgame database, comment the mistakes, and periodically review the games to gain familiarity with these positions which can also arise in one's own games.

Final thoughts

If your goal for this year is to improve in chess, surely to get this book, and just dedicate one month or two to parse through different endgames, and discover new ideas which will be rewarding. If your goal is just to enjoy chess, then endgames can be quite inspiring. There may be few pieces but there's a wealth of incredible ideas and manoeuvres to discover move after move. I think the book is well done, and a source of study for a lifetime. Maybe as goal one could decide to study 100 examples in total and do 100 exercises divided between the various chapters.


Davide is a novel chess aficionado who has made chess his spiritual tool of improvement and self-discovery. One of his favorite quotes is from the great Paul Keres: "Nobody is born a master. The way to mastery leads to the desired goal only after long years of learning, of struggle, of rejoicing, and of disappointment..."


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