This week, we’re going to start transitioning into the endgame, which is perhaps the game phase most neglected by beginners. In the days of yore, chess teachers would often teach beginners how to play, starting with the endgame, working backwards towards the opening. This made great sense because you could teach pawn and piece coordination very clearly. Starting with the endgame allowed students to develop more advanced skills early on. However, this method only works if you have long term students. If you have a finite amount of time in which to teach the game, you will do better starting with the opening and working forward.
I want to introduce you a few concepts or ideas you’ll need to keep in mind when entering our endgame studies, over the next few weeks. Then, we’ll dive into endgame principles. The game of chess is divided into three phases – the opening, middle and endgame. Each phase has its own set of principles specific to its positional aspects. This week, we’re going to look at a couple of ideas or concepts you need to understand to be successful in your endgame play. The first idea I want to bring up has to do with the pawn. Pawns tend to be maligned and treated poorly by beginners. My first piece of endgame advice is this: Respect your pawns from your first opening moves until the game’s end.
In most endgames, both players will have little material left on the board. Of course, they both have their Kings! However, they generally have a few pawns and a piece or two. Many endgames find both players with no pieces and only a few pawns. The one advantage a pawn has is its ability to promote into a piece upon reaching the other side of the board. The caveat here is that the pawn must safely reach its promotion square! The key to being able to promote a pawn into a piece is thinking ahead.
Beginners learn basic mating patterns that involve King and Queen, King and Rook, or a pair of Rooks. When they find themselves without a Queen or Rook, the beginner becomes lost. Compounding this problem is the fact that most beginners’ games end in middle-game checkmates, so they have no practical endgame experience. Preservation of their pawns never comes to mind. Endgame success depends upon thinking ahead.
By thinking ahead, I mean always considering your pawn structure throughout the entire game. When considering a any move, anywhere in the game (opening, middle or endgame), think of how it affects your pawn structure. Beginners tend to throw their pawns away, trading them or just giving them up, because they have eight of them. Suddenly, they find themselves in the endgame and they have one pawn left while their opponent has three. It is much easier to promote one of three pawns than it is one pawn! The point here is to hang onto as many pawns as possible. You don’t have to keep all of them, just don’t give them away or make useless trades. We’ll start looking at preparing our pawns for the endgame next week. This will include a refresher course on pawn structure.
Another problem beginners have regarding the endgame has to do with their Kings. As a beginner, you’re taught to keep your King safe. You castle your King and make a point of not moving it. Yes, you need to keep your King out of the game for obvious reasons – avoiding having your King checkmated! However, during the endgame, the King is a fighter and powerful defender. With less material on the board, the King can actively participate in the action. In fact, pawns can often be promoted only with assistance from their King.
Lastly, there’s the issue of calculations, determining the outcome of a move you want to make. During the middle-game, even strong players can have trouble If they’re calculating an outcome past a few moves into the future. However, during the endgame, longer calculations are possible. Even beginners can do deeper calculations because there are fewer pawns and pieces on the board. My students will ask me how they can possibly do longer calculations. The answer is simple.
During the endgame, both players are trying to create a position that delivers checkmate. If there are only Kings and pawns on the board, the goal of both players is going to be pawn promotion. Either player is going to take the most direct path to pawn promotion. They are not going to take some round-about pathway to promotion. Therefore, it becomes easier to determine your opponent’s best move in response to your move, because there are fewer good move choices. In other words, you can calculate further into the game’s future in such a situation.
We’ll get into these ideas or concepts in detail starting next week. Until the next time we meet, I want you to play some chess against a human or computerized opponent. During those games, I want you to consider pawn structure and how your endgame might be affected with each move you make. Make note of any moves that might weaken pawn structure or cost you a pawn but give you an advantage that helps win the game. See you next week!