This article has been guest written by Matthew Astle. Matt is an editor, translator, and all-around wordsmith with a B.A. in Spanish and Journalism. He is an avid patzer with a regular presence on the Madrid chess scene.
Imagine the following scenario. A tournament featuring Capablanca, Fischer, Carlsen, Smyslov, Rubinstein, and Tal. They happen to exist at the same time, and all players are at the peak of their careers. In the tournament, these great players must face off against each other in the endgame, in equal or drawish-looking positions. Who is your money on to win the tournament?
Do you take Carlsen with his computer-like calculation skills? How about Capablanca, with his ingenuity and ability to define and broaden what it means to play an endgame? Perhaps it would be wise to go with Fischer and his tenacity in seeking out a win. Then again, Smyslov’s straightforward play and manner of pursuing wins in the endgame would make him a top contender here, and if we’re talking rook, you’d certainly do well in choosing Rubinstein. And just maybe Tal’s creative genius comes out above all in the endgame.
These players undoubtedly make up the greatest chess endgame players of all time, but who is the best of them all?
Let’s take a look at a few of the top candidates for the greatest chess endgame players:
1. José Raúl Capablanca – “The Chess Machine”
We would be remiss to not mention Capablanca in this list.
The Cuban phenom was famous for expanding endgame knowledge, so much so that it earned him the nickname “The Chess Machine”. In fact, it was Capablanca himself who said “In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before anything else; for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, theand the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame.”
Let’s take a look at one of his key games, demonstrating his endgame prowess:
Aron Nimzowitsch vs. José Raúl Capablanca (1913)
3B4/8/1pk1b2p/2p5/p1P3p1/2K5/2P4P/8 w – – 0 43
In this position, we have a situation of opposite-colored bishops, which tends to be a drawish endgame. The bishops are unable to oppose each other, so there is a lot of back and forth until the players ultimately reach a draw. Black’s bishop is attacking the c4 pawn, which relegates white’s king to its defense, thereby disallowing any activity by white’s king.
Nimzowitsch follows up here with 44. Bg3 and Capablanca responds with 44…a3 with an idea to promote on a1. After 45. Kb3, we see a great example of Capablanca’s endgame creativity. Many would probably consider 45..b5 or a2 with an idea of later taking the c4 pawn, but after 45…Bxc4+, Capablanca tries to goad Nimzowitsch into taking the Bishop, which would allow black to run the passed a pawn and forcing white to defend the a1 square with his dark-squared bishop. If white plays 46.Kxc4 then 46… a2 47. Be5 h4 48. Kb3 g3 49. hxg3 49… h3! and black wins, as one of the two Rook pawns will be able to promote.
8/8/8/1ppk3p/6p1/K1P5/4bB1P/8 w – – 3 49
Nimzowitsch, ever the strong player, however does not fall for this trick and plays Kxa3. After 46. Kxa3 b5 47. c3 Kd5 48. Bf2 Be2 black makes room for the king on c4.
8/8/5B2/8/6b1/6Kp/1pk5/8 w – – 0 65
After 49.Kb3 Bd1+ 50.Kb2 Kc4 51.Kc1 Bf3 52.Kd2 b4 53.cxb4 cxb4 54.Bh4 Be4 55.Bf6 Bg6 56.Bh4 b3 57.Bf6 h4 58.Ke3 g3 59.hxg3 h3 60.Kf2 Bf5 Capablanca has prevented white’s sole remaining pawn from advancing. He may advance his king to support his b pawn.
The b pawn ultimately reaches the eighth rank, and after 61.g4 Bxg4 62.Kg3 Kd3 63.Kh2 Kc2 64.Kg3 b2 White resigns.0-1
Capablanca himself said of this game, “Notwithstanding the Bishops of opposite colors I did not hesitate to exchange. Those who wish to learn should do well in carefully studying this game. It is one of the finest endings I ever played, and I have had very often the great pleasure of hearing my opponent pay tribute to the skill displayed by me in winning it.”
This game is just one example of how Capablanca’s creativity and brute force tactics paved the way for endgame theory, showing that seemingly drawn positions are not always drawn, and cementing himself as truly one of the greatest chess endgame players.
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2. Bobby Fischer
When speaking of the greatest players of all time, Bobby Fischer’s name is inevitably mentioned. In the 1960s, it seemed no one could touch the Soviets; that is until a young Fischer came along and showed the world that the US had something to offer, and made chess a phenomenon suddenly the whole world was interested in following.
Though mostly known for his devoted opening preparation and a penchant for attacking chess, his endgame knowledge was by no means weak either. Let’s examine how Bobby was one of the best chess endgame players.
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“The Fischer Endgame”
Bobby Fischer vs. Mark Taimanov (1970)
1r4k1/5p2/5npp/2R5/Pp6/5B2/1P4P1/6K1 b – – 0 46
This R+B vs. R+N endgame is known as “The Fischer Endgame” for its instructive value. Fischer here is able to convert a difficult position into a win.
The red circles show the bishop protecting the queening square and limiting black’s knight movement.
At first glance, one might first think black is better here. After all, black is up in material by a pawn, but given the open nature of the position, white’s bishop is much stronger than black’s knight. The bishop not only guards the square where white hopes to promote his passed a pawn, but white also severely restricts black’s knight’s movement.
After 46…Kg7 Fischer wastes no time and immediately starts to push the a pawn. In an attempt at generating counterplay, Taimanov goes 47… Re8 in the hopes of Re1+ and ultimately getting on the a file to stop white promoting on a8. Fischer stops this by 48. Rc1. Black hoping to attack the a pawn goes 48…Rc5, 49. Ra1 protects it and we see 49… Re7 50. Kf2 Ne8 51. a6 Ra7 52. Ke3 to provide support by following the g1-a7 diagonal. 52…Nc7 attacks the pawn but white steps in with 53. Bb7 to defend the pawn. 53…Ne6 and white plays a very attractive move with 54. Ra5 to prevent black from dislodging the bishop with Nc5.
8/rB3pk1/P3n1pp/R7/1p6/4K3/1P4P1/8 b – – 6 54
54. Ra5, making sure all bases are covered!
The rook being on the open fifth rank gives it quite a bit of latitude to exert its force on the board.
The game proceeds as follows: 55.Kd3 Ke7 56.Kc4 Kd6 57.Rd5+ Kc7 58.Kb5 and black resigns!
This is an incredible display of simply refusing to give up, and Fischer makes it look easy. Fischer’s quote “Don’t even mention losing to me. I can’t stand to think of it” springs to mind here, showing that his persistence and drive to win make him one of the greatest chess endgame players of all time.
3. Magnus Carlsen
The world’s current number one player is often considered the best player of all time, so it’s only natural his name would come up when speaking about the best chess endgame players.
Carlsen’s ability to calculate his way out of positions in which other players would be happy to accept draws is almost unhuman.
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Let’s take a look at one of his electrifying endgames:
Magnus Carlsen vs. Levon Aronian (2010)
5rk1/2p2pp1/p2p3p/3P4/R3P3/P4R1P/2r2PP1/6K1 b – – 4 30
We start here at move 30 with black to move. Material is even, with each side having two rooks and six pawns. Many an average club player would assume a draw given the even material and relative lack of weaknesses on either side, but Carlsen shows his creativity by utilizing everything at his disposal on the board.
One of the most important ideas in endgame theory is king activity, and Carlsen shows us here just how crucial activating one’s king is in the endgame.
Black goes 30…Ra8 to protect his a pawn, white responds with 31. g4, and grabbing some space. Aronian’s one identifiable weakness is his backwards c pawn, which he tries to rid by 31…c5. Here Carlsen takes 32. dxc6 en passant, which leaves black with two weaknesses on the sixth rank, i.e. his a and d pawns.
r5k1/5pp1/p1rp3p/8/1R2P1P1/P4R1P/5P2/6K1 b – – 1 33
After 32…Rxc6, 33. Rb4, Carlsen takes the open b file and hopes to cause trouble on the seventh rank. 33…Rd7 34. Rd3 Rc3, Aronian angling for a rook trade, but Magnus simply ignores and goes 35. Rbd4, doubling his rooks and hitting the weak d6 pawn.
35…R8c4 makes a rook trade all but inevitable, so after 36. Rxc4 Rxd3 Carlsen shuffles over to the a file and Aronian’s a pawn is a goner. Aronian then must find compensation and takes Carlsen’s h pawn with 37… Rxh3. However, this now leaves Magnus with a passed a pawn.
We see some rearranging of the board with 38.Rxa6 g6 39.Kg2 Rd3 40.a4 Ra3 41.f3 Kg7 42.Kg3 Ra2 43.a5 Ra3, but this leaves us with the question, how does Magnus promote his passed a pawn if his rook is in front of it?
8/5pk1/R2p2pp/P7/4P1P1/r4PK1/8/8 w – – 1 44
Note that white’s rook cannot leave the a file as black’s rook is attacking it.
44.Ra8 Kf6 45.a6 Ke7 46.a7 Ra2 and Magnus attempts a deflection of black’s king with 47.f4. Aronian sees what Magnus is doing and simply gives check with 47…Ra3+.
And it is here where Magnus activates his king, hoping to arrive to a2 and push his king forward. If Aronian starts giving checks on the b file, white may begin to move laterally and hope for a break with his other pawns.
R7/P4pk1/3p2p1/6P1/4PP1p/r7/4K3/8 b – – 1 52
47…Ra3+ 48.Kf2 Kf6 49.Ke2 Kg7 50.Kd2 h5 51.g5 h4 52.Ke2 h3 53.Kf2 and Carlsen allows Aronian a passed pawn. Surely black is winning here!
But! 53…Ra2+ 54.Kg1 Rg2+ 55.Kh1. White has gone after the passed h pawn with his king, although it remains trapped in the corner. However, the a pawn still needs to be defended so black’s rook must return to 55… Ra2, and this allows Carlsen to push his other pawns.
5R2/P4p1k/3p1Pp1/6P1/4P3/8/r6p/7K b – – 1
55…Ra2 56.f5 Kh7 57.f6 h2 58.Rf8
Neither black’s king nor his passed pawn have any legal moves.
And here, if black captures white’s a pawn, white captures the h pawn and black’s king is still without any legal moves! This allows white to advance his king forward! Black may only make waiting moves with his rook.
4RK2/r4p1k/5Pp1/6P1/4P3/8/8/8 b – – 4 68
58…Rxa7 59.Kxh2 Rb7 60.Kg3 Ra7 61.Kf4 Rb7 62.Ke3 Ra7 63.Kd4 Rc7 64.Re8 Ra7 65.Kd5 Ra5+ 66.Kxd6 Ra6+ 67.Ke7 Ra7+ 68.Kf8 and after Carlsen walking his king all the way up the board, Aronian finally resigns.
This example of Magnus’s ingenuity in using everything at his disposal shows how he is certainly one of the greatest chess endgame players of all time.
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4. Vasily Smyslov – “Endgame Virtuoso”
Vasily Smyslov’s name might not ring as many bells for the average chess player as the previous names on this list (at least in the West). That said, the former world champion and author of the book “Endgame Virtuoso” is a natural contender for one of the best chess endgame players.
Smyslov may be the most representative of what it takes to be a great endgame player. His style lacked the tactical flair and dazzling sacrifices that chess superstars are often known for (such as his arch-rival, Mikhail Tal). Though that’s not to say his calculation was not as strong as such players, he merely had a straightforward style of play.
Subsequent world champion Vladimir Kramnik had this to say about Smyslov, “He is… how to say it better… the truth in chess! Smyslov is a player who plays very correctly, truthfully, with a very natural style. Why, by the way, isn’t there any kind of mystic aura around him, like around Tal or Capablanca? Because Smyslov isn’t a chess artist, his playing isn’t bright or artistic. But I like his style very much.” Going on to say specifically about his endgame, “Smyslov was a brilliant endgame player, and his games sometimes looked like songs.”
His style was merely one of simplicity, finding the best move and how to execute it. Which is ultimately what endgames are about. Does a player studying basic endgames, such as Q+ K vs. K, need to have a surge of tactical inspiration and make moves no one has played before? Quite the contrary, it comes down to basic, calculated, and simple chess, which Smyslov exemplified in his endgames.
k7/p7/P5P1/K4P2/3p3P/3Pb3/ppBN4/8 w – – 0 1
Take a look at the following position, for example:
This is from a brilliant study that Smyslov created at only 15 years old! White to move, but black’s pawns about to promote look quite menacing.
White uses his Bishop to blockade the b pawn, and black cannot take due to the recapture by the knight. Therefore, white queens with check, and after the king moves to the b file, black cannot stop white’s pawns, despite being up a queen!
kb6/p5P1/P7/1K3P2/3p3P/3P4/1p1N4/qB6 w – – 0 1
The position goes on a bit longer, and white is about to promote his g pawn. Winning right?
Not so fast! If white promotes to a queen, or a rook for that matter, it’s stalemate.
So here is where the key endgame idea of underpromotion comes in. White promotes to a bishop, giving him two light-square bishops and trapping black’s king. To top it all off white moves Kc6 and then Kd7 to trap the Black’s king and is ultimately winning.
5. Akiba Rubinstein
A key element for novice players learning to up their endgame skills is rook endgames. In that sense, they’d do very well to study games by another potential candidate for greatest chess endgame player of all time, Akiba Rubinstein.
This Polish GM never unfortunately won a world championship, but that does not take him out of contention for such an honored distinction.
Rubinstein’s thinking was critical to endgame theory, and he is considered a visionary in that respect. The strategic planning of what sort of endgame position could be obtained outright from the opening from positional motifs, such as pawn structure, was pioneered by Rubinstein; things that are now commonplace for top-level players.
Reuben Fine said of Rubinstein’s skills “In the endgame he is supreme… in the rook and pawn endgames, he is especially beyond compare”.
4rk2/pp3ppp/2p5/P7/3P4/R1P5/1r3PPP/4RK2 w – – 0 1
An example of great endgame strategy here by Rubinstein. Black has gotten a rook on to the b file to stop white from taking any open files. He has guarded his rook with Kf8, should white try to trade. He proceeds to exchange rooks here, black playing a6, and you see he has completely restricted white’s sole remaining rook! Brilliant play by Rubinstein, exemplifying what it takes to be one of the best chess endgame players of all time!
6. Mikhail Tal – “The Magician from Riga”
Tal’s name is frequently mentioned when speaking of all-time great chess players, but usually due to his tactical wizardry and daring sacrifices, which aren’t usually what one thinks of when thinking of what it takes for solid endgame play. Therefore, it may come as a surprise to see his name appear on this list. That said, there is a strong argument to be made that Mikhail Tal is one of the best chess endgame players of all time.
Just take a look at the following position::
r1bR4/pp3pkp/2p3p1/8/2P1r3/8/PP2BPPP/2K4R w – – 0 1
In this game against Ilya Smirin as white. Tal needs to be careful not to allow any surprise discovery checks by black’s white light-square bishop, yet also needs to protect his own bishop.
Tal’s rook on d8 has created a powerful pin. Tal makes sure to maintain this pin for the rest of the game and exploits it to his advantage.
In classic Tal fashion, he doesn’t mind giving up a bit of material, and lets his c4 pawn drop.
This of little consequence in the end, as later black’s only active rook is traded and Tal has left both black’s pieces paralyzed on the back rank.
1rbR4/6k1/4Bp2/2p4p/p4K1P/P4P2/8/8 w – – 0 1
Tal has rendered black’s pieces completely inactive, and has left him with few moves. He has been able to advance his king and finally take advantage of the pin with Be6, winning material. Black did not hold on for much longer after this exchange.
Tal’s fortitude here shows how he is also worthy of mention as one of the best chess endgame players of all time.
**End of the tournament**
Who’s come out on top as the greatest chess endgame player?
Let’s imagine now a tournament with all these endgame heavyweights is coming to a close. Carlsen is playing Smyslov, Capablanca is playing Rubinstein and Tal is playing Fischer.
What do you think will happen?
Who do you think won in the end? Did Tal make a wild sacrifice, completely throwing Fischer off? Whose ingenuity prevails, Capablanca’s or Rubinstein’s? Did Carlsen or Smyslov play the cleaner or more exact endgame? Who is leaving the tournament with the most points?
I think there is a strong case to be made for each player on this list, so it’s a hard call to make. Who do you guys think takes the cake as the best chess endgame player of all time?
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Who is the best chess endgame player ever?
The best chess endgame player ever is a question up for debate. Carlsen, the world’s current number. 1, certainly currently is a strong contender, as are other past greats such as José Raúl Capablanca, Bobby Fischer, Vasily Smyslov, Akiba Rubinstein, and Mikhail Tal.
2. Is Magnus Carlsen a good endgame player?
Carlsen is considered one of the best chess endgame players of all time. His tactical vision, creativity and perseverance on the board in endgames make him an outstanding player.
3. What makes a great endgame player?
A great endgame player is a player that can deeply analyze seemingly drawn positions and utilize all pieces to create imbalances. Tactical vision, creativity and the ability to hold out in endgames are what set great endgame players apart from average ones.
4. How to improve your endgame skills?
The best way to improve endgame skills is by studying instructive endgames played by the best chess endgame players of all time. In addition, it is helpful to study typical positions in an endgame, such as basic checkmates, a king and queen against a king, a king and pawn against a king, etc.