Chess Endgame Technique, Part 1: General Ideas

One of the most common areas players struggle with is converting a decisive advantage into a victory. In other words: endgame technique.

There is no substitute for experience, but there are guidelines that will greatly increase your chances of success.

Knowledge is power in chess. Knowing what to do (and what not to do) will help you choose appropriate plans and good candidate moves, i.e. moves you seriously consider playing in a given position.

So, let’s learn what to do and what not to do! Are you ready?

 

Endgame Transitions

This is the zone between the middlegame (or, occasionally, the opening) and the endgame. I would define it more narrowly and say we are heading to a strategic endgame (or multi-piece endgame, or simple position as Dvoretsky called it) and NOT to a technical endgame (a position you can find in a book).

[If you can force trade(s) of pieces that lead to a “book” endgame and you fail to win/draw it … study more! Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual endures in popularity, and Magnus Carlsen‘s favorite Fundamental Chess Endings is another great choice. I’m fond of Chess School 4, but it’s not to everyone’s taste.]

We want to know: which exchanges should we make/avoid in order to give us the best chances in the forthcoming strategic endgame?

 

The Golden Rules

    • When ahead in material (you’re trying to win): trade pieces. This reduces counterplay and makes it easier for a passed pawn to advance and queen, bringing you victory.
    • When behind in material (you’re trying to draw): trade pawns. This increases your chances of ending up in a drawn pawnless ending (K+N/B vs. K, etc.) or achieving a sudden stalemate.

 

Helpful Guidelines

    • Endgames with Bishops of Opposite Colors (BOOC) are perhaps the easiest to draw, especially if there are no other pieces present. One, two, even three extra pawns are not always enough to win! Averbakh (1950) shows a simple case: White cannot advance his pawns safely, as he cannot gain control of the blockaded dark squares.

    • There is much truth in the axiom “all rook endings are drawn.” One, sometimes two extra pawns are not always enough to win, as was the case in Smyslov—Bondarevsky, Moscow 1940 (see below). If the defender cannot get BOOC, a rook ending is often their next best option.

    • An idea taught to me many years ago by IM Artiom Tsepotan (coach of ex-Women’s World Champion Anna Ushenina): with an extra pawn in a minor piece ending, it’s easier to win with the opposite minor piece to that of your opponent. So if your opponent has a bishop, it’s easier to convert with a knight rather than a bishop (even if the same color) — and vice-versa. Years later I can say: I wholeheartedly agree!
    • Follow Capablanca’s advice: pair your queen with a knight, and your rook with a bishop. The queen covers the files, ranks, and diagonals, so the “exotic” knight adds something extra. The rook is a long-range piece also, but doesn’t work on diagonals. A bishop generally adds more value than a knight in this case.
    • Queen endings are notoriously tricky, but can be a great choice when trying to convert a passed pawn, as long as your king has enough shelter to avoid perpetual check. That’s because a queen can support a passed pawn’s advance and break the enemy queen’s blockade by herself. The position below is from Szabo—Brezeanu, ROM-ch U20, 2000.

    • Pawn exchanges. When better, it’s often a good idea to capture “inside-out” rather than “outside-in,” as this could give us a chance to create an outside passed pawn. If trying to draw, try to keep the pawn structure symmmetrical when making pawn captures.

 

Going Further …

I hope these ideas prove helpful in your quest to upgrade your endgame technique! Did you learn anything new? Is there anything you disagree with? Have I forgotten something important?

Leave your comments below, and stay tuned for Part 2!

Chess Tactics: Wang Chen — Wei Yi, 2016

Wei Yi
Wei Yi. Photo: FIDE

Wei Yi was born in Yancheng, China in 1999 and was one of the greatest child and teen chess prodigies.

He earned his Grandmaster title at the age of 13 years, 8 months, and 23 days in 2013. At the time, this made him the fourth-youngest GM in history.

Wei won the World Under-12 Championship in 2010 and became the youngest winner of the Chinese Championship in 2015, a title he defended in 2016 and 2017. He took the 2018 Asian Continental Championship as well.

In March 2015, at the age of 15, Wei Yi became the youngest 2700 player ever, a record previously held by Magnus Carlsen, and one Wei still holds.

In August 2017, at 18 years old, Wei Yi reached his peak rating of 2753 and peak ranking of World #14. Today he sits at 2729 and World #21 … he’s not 23 years old yet, but such a distant peak for a young player is concerning.

I’m rooting for Wei to hit new heights in the coming years.

 

In this game from the 2016 Chinese League, how did Wei Yi conclude a nice game against International Master Wang Chen?

Black to play.

21… ?

 

Direct beats Indirect

Chess Tactics: A. Sokolov — Novikov, 1984

Andrei Sokolov
Andrei Sokolov in 1986. Photo: Lothar Karrer/ChessBase

Andrei Sokolov was born in 1963 in Vorkuta, Russia (then part of the USSR). A superstar in the 1980s, he is largely unknown by chess fans today because his career as a top player was relatively short.

Sokolov won the World Junior Championship in 1982, and captured the USSR Championship in his first appearance in 1984. At 21 years old, he was one of the youngest-ever Soviet Champions.

Still, he kept rising. A 3rd place finish in the 1985 Biel Interzonal (behind Rafael Vaganian and Yasser Seirawan) was followed by a tie for 1st-3rd place in the 1985 Montpellier Candidates Tournament (with Artur Yusupov and Vaganian).

Finally, there were Candidates matches. After defeating Vaganian (4 wins, 4 draws) and Yusupov (4 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses) in 1986, he faced former World Champion Anatoly Karpov in the 1987 Candidates Final. A victory here would have meant a World Championship match with Garry Kasparov!

Sokolov lost this match (7 draws, 4 losses). This is the same score Ian Nepomniachtchi managed in his 2021 World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen … and it’s also the same score Kasparov had against Karpov after 11 games in their 1984 match!

In 1987, Andrei Sokolov was ranked World #3 (with Yusupov, behind Kasparov and Karpov) at 2645, and he was just 24 years old. It seemed the sky was the limit.

Alas, the 1985-87 cycle would be the peak of Sokolov’s career — after 1988 he fell out of the Top 20, never to return. Since 2000, he has represented France.

 

Here we look at an early battle between Sokolov and Igor Novikov (born 1962) who would become one of America’s top players in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

White to play.

17. ?

 

Controlled aggression

Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi: A Brief Take

Maybe the Greatest?

Dubai skyline
Dubai’s stunning skyline. Image: LonelyPlanet

With Magnus Carlsen‘s dominant 7½—3½  title defense against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the Dubai 2021 FIDE World Championship Match, the 31-year-old Norwegian has already amassed one of the best records in title matches … perhaps the best.

I remain heavily critical of Carlsen being declared winner of the 2013 London Candidates Tournament by virtue of having more wins than Vladimir Kramnik, and not through an over-the-board tiebreak. Even blitz or rapid would have been better!

But in the cauldron of a World Championship Match, Carlsen has proven invincible. In late 2013 he convincingly wrested the crown from Vishy Anand, and defeated him again in 2014 when the Indian legend surprisingly won the next Candidates Tournament.

Carlsen drew his next two matches against Sergey Karjakin (New York, 2016) and Fabiano Caruana (London, 2018), eventually subduing his rivals in rapid tiebreaks.

Carlsen Nepo 2021
Carlsen wins again. Image: chess24

With this victory, Carlsen has one win as Challenger and four title defenses as Champion; in five World Championship matches he has lost a total of just two games out of 56 played!

In tiebreaks? Carlsen has five wins and two draws in seven games!

Matches are shorter now than in the past, but I don’t think anyone in history can claim better.

I value longevity, so I’ve long said Garry Kasparov is the Greatest of All-Time, for now … but Magnus Carlsen has a an argument that gets stronger every year.

What happened to Ian?

Nepomniachtchi was not widely considered the strongest Challenger this time around, but perhaps he was less afraid of Carlsen than others. How would this dynamic affect the match? While unclear, I predicted a three-point Carlsen victory.

During the first five games, “Nepo” probably played as well as Magnus did.

I really think losing the a3-pawn in Game 6 was his undoing. Even if the engines say the resulting position should be drawn, it was always going to be difficult against a top player, let alone a notorious grinder like Carlsen.

A game behind, Nepomniachtchi had to take on more risk.

A poor Game 8 simply ended the match. There was no coming back down two games against Carlsen with six left. Frankly, I think Magnus would be unlikely to level the match if Ian had a two-game lead.

Nepomniachtchi knew this very well, and I think he simply couldn’t play at his best any longer: doing so would just delay the inevitable. So, I agree with the consensus view that he just collapsed.

Who’s Next?

Alireza Firouzja
The next Challenger? Image: Twitter (@AlirezaFirouzja)

Many chess fans expect Alireza Firouzja to be the next Challenger. I think there’s a decent chance of that happening.

The other favorites are Caruana and Ding Liren.

Still, Candidates Tournaments are arguably as grueling as a World Championship Match; but those eight players don’t have to face Carlsen to become Challenger!

2021 FIDE World Cup and Women’s World Cup

The biannual FIDE World Cup ended last week in Sochi, Russia. For the first time, there was a concurrent Women’s World Cup as well, which ended a couple of days before that.

 

How Does It Work?

FIDE World CupImagine an elimination bracket of 256 players, sorted strictly by rating from highest to lowest.

They are paired 1 vs. 256, 2 vs. 255, 3 vs. 254, etc. Each pairing plays a two-game match, one contest each on consecutive days, and the loser is eliminated. The third day is a rest day for players who won their matches 2-0 or 1½-½, or tiebreaks (rapid, and if necessary blitz or armageddon) for pairings that ended 1-1.

After the first round, 128 players are left, then 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, and 2 in the final.

The Open World Cup had 206 players instead of 256, where the top 50 players by rating didn’t have an opponent, and got a bye into Round 2.

Similarly, the Women’s World Cup had 103 players: a bracket of 128 players where the top 25 by rating got a free pass into Round 2.

In case you’re wondering, males and females can qualify for and play in the World Cup, while only female players can participate in the Women’s World Cup. This is analogous to other major events that have an Open and Women’s section; e.g.: the Chess Olympiad, the World Championship cycle, and most if not all National Championships.

 

World Cup in The Pandemic Age

A few players needed to withdraw during the event because of a positive COVID test, and others did so out of caution, including Levon Aronian (Armenia).

As I posted in March 2020, FIDE’s decision to proceed with the Candidates Tournament was risky but in my opinion defensible. Once again, FIDE took serious chances in holding the World Cups, with hundreds of players and officials from around the world converging in one place.

The verdict? In the grand scheme of things, FIDE came out smelling like a rose!

 

Winners of the FWC and FWWC

Jan-Krzysztof Duda
Jan-Krzysztof Duda and the World Cup trophy. Not shown: his 110,000 euro prize! Photo: FIDE

Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) won the Open event, defeating Sergey Karjakin (Russia) in the final. Both qualified for the 2022 Candidates Tournament.

JKD, now just outside the Top 10, knocked out World Champion Magnus Carlsen (Norway) in the semi-final, while Karjakin eliminated Vladimir Fedoseev (Russia) in this round as well.

Carlsen beat Fedoseev in the third-place match, held concurrently with the final.

 

Having recently become the first female to ever qualify for a Russian Superfinal, I didn’t think anyone would stop Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia), top seed in the Women’s World Cup. Honestly, I had more confidence in her than I did Carlsen in the Open event!

Alexandra Kosteniuk
Alexandra Kosteniuk has reached yet another peak in a long, successful career. Photo: FIDE

Indeed, Goryachkina mowed down the field … until the final, where she was vanquished by former Women’s World Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia)!

The “Chess Queen” played out of her mind. After a first-round bye as the 14th seed, Kosteniuk won ALL of her matches in regulation, not needing any tiebreaks, and collected 43 Elo points!

Tan Zhongyi (China) won the third-place match over Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine). Since Goryachkina is already qualified for the next Women’s Candidates Tournament by virtue of playing the last Women’s World Championship Match, I believe Tan joins Kosteniuk in the next Women’s Candidates.

 

Why I Love the World Cup

So much drama! Two-game mini-matches guarantee excitement and frayed nerves.

Even if the players decide to make two short draws in regulation, the presence of tiebreaks ultimately don’t give them an easy way out.

We typically see the same players doing well in knockouts over the years (remember, they go back to 1997 if we include the FIDE World Champioships held in a similar format). In years past, Mickey Adams, Vishy Anand, Ruslan Ponomariov, Gata Kamsky, and Levon Aronian always seemed to reach the final stages of these events.

I don’t believe that’s a coincidence — great nerves and ability to handle pressure really show in the World Cup. Fun fact: from 2001-02 through 2011, Ponomariov either won the Knockout (2001-02), or lost to the eventual winner!

In recent times, Karjakin has taken on the mantle of “KO King.” He staged an epic comeback in the final against Peter Svidler in the 2015 edition.

On the Women’s side, this is Kosteniuk’s second victory (2008) and third finals appearance (she lost to Zhu Chen way back in 2001!). Those events were Women’s World Championships.

What do you think of the World Cup? Leave a comment!

Chess Tactics: Zhao — Batsiashvili, 2016

Zhao Xue
Zhao Xue at the 2016 Baku Olympiad. Photo: 2019 FIDE Women’s Grand Prix

Zhao Xue was born in Jinan, China in 1985. She earned her Grandmaster title in 2008 and reached a peak rating of 2579 in 2013.

Zhao has won three team and three individual gold medals representing China at the Women’s Chess Olympiad, and three team and two individual golds at the Women’s World Team Championship.

 

Nino Batsiashvili
Nino Batsiashvili. Photo: agenda.ge

Nino Batsiashvili was born in Batumi, Georgia in 1987, and earned her Grandmaster title in 2018. She was part of Georgia’s gold medal team at the 2015 Women’s World Team Championship.

Perhaps most famously, she drew World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the opening round of the 2015 Qatar Masters Open.

The two ladies get into an uncompromising battle, where Zhao prevails. If you’re looking for a livelier way to defend the Queen’s Gambit, consider the Vienna Variation as Black chooses here. It’s a real mainline, but almost never seen below master level … which means lots of points can be harvested by a well-prepared player.

Black’s knight has wandered too far. White to play.

23.?

 

When the Smoke Clears …

No Playoffs for Round Robins!

Why do we need them?

I’m not necessarily against mathematical tiebreaks for Swiss-System tournaments, especially scholastic events with trophies.

For decades and longer, a high-level round robin would be held over multiple weeks, and at the end one or more players would emerge with the highest score. End of event.

Only when indivisible prizes were at stake — such as qualification to a future event — some kind of classical playoff would be held, either immediately or at some point in the future.

Otherwise, an event could have two, three, or more co-winners. No big deal.

The London 2013 Candidates Tournament would have benefitted from a playoff, but instead “most wins” was used to decide a Challenger for the World Championship! Completely asinine.

 

Endangered Traditions

Of course, I bring all this up in light of the recent controversy surrounding the conclusion of Tata Steel Chess 2021, the 83rd annual Wijk aan Zee tournament.

I won’t wade into the events surrounding Firouzja, Wojtaszek, and the arbiter. But I will say this: the organizers should have reconsidered the importance of having a playoff when they saw the possibility of disturbing a last-round classical game!

When the playoff did happen, between Anish Giri and Jorden van Foreest, it was not decided by brilliant play. To say the least.

An armageddon game decided a prestigious event after 13 rounds of classical chess where the two Dutchmen finished ahead of Carlsen, Caruana, MVL, and other rising stars. Seriously…why??

The few traditional tournaments we have left like Wijk aan Zee should not feel pressured to give into the rapid/blitz chess mob.

I would love to hear the thoughts of others in the chess community on this issue.

Chess Tactics: McShane — Cheparinov, 2009

Luke McShane keeps it simple

Luke McShane
Luke McShane. Photo: FIDE

Luke McShane (born 1984) is an English Grandmaster who won the World Under-10 Championship in 1993 and Wijk aan Zee B in 2011. He reached a peak FIDE rating of 2713 in July 2012, and his peak world rank of 29 in November of that year.

He has scored victories over Michael Adams, Levon Aronian, Etienne Bacrot, Magnus Carlsen, Sergey KarjakinVladimir Kramnik, Alexander Morozevich, Hikaru Nakamura, Ruslan Ponomariov, Nigel Short, Wesley So, and Radoslaw Wojtaszek

…in classical chess.

McShane added another notch to his belt when he took down Ivan Cheparinov in just 20 moves during the 2009 European Team Championship.

Longtime readers of the Chess Essentials blog know I’m not fan of sidelines, espeically with White. Many are playable, some even good. But I think players sometimes get into trouble overthinking how they should play these lines. If your line calls for an all-in attack, go for it!

I don’t know how Cheparinov felt, but I would be taken aback by such shameless aggression! I don’t recommend this approach every game against strong players, but I’ve long said that simple, direct plans executed well are easier to play and very effective. Luke McShane provides a great example with this Closed Sicilian/Grand Prix Attack hybrid.

 

So Easy, A Caveman Can Do It

An Important Bishop Endgame Concept

Bishop Endgame Theory

In particular, we’re going to discuss the same-color bishop endgame. The attacking side has one pawn, and the defender has none.

If the defender can sacrifice their bishop for the last pawn the game is drawn, so the attacker must proceed carefully.

What the Defender Wants in this Ending

The position is completely drawn if the defending king can reach a square in front of the pawn opposite the color of the bishops. The king stays put and the defender moves their bishop around forever … or until they can call over the Arbiter or TD and claim a draw. Here’s an example:

Things get much more complicated if the defending king is behind the advancing pawn. In that case, the bishop desperately tries to control a square the pawn needs to cross in order to prevent it from queening. The attacking king and bishop look to attack the defending bishop, forcing it to move and give up control of the pawn’s path.

This is why you nearly always want your king to blockade passed pawns in the endgame: he can control all of the squares around him, and it’s harder to push him away than a rook, bishop, or knight!

A Worst Case Scenario

Anyway, a plausible scenario is the following:

This is a famous endgame study by Genovese composer Luigi Centurini (1820-1900) published in 1856. You’ll find it in every endgame encyclopedia, for example Basic Chess EndingsDvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, and Magnus Carlsen’s favorite Fundamental Chess Endings … but for years I didn’t quite understand it.

The Black bishop can stop the pawn on either the long b8-h2 or mini a7-b8 diagonal. If White can gain control of both diagonals, the Black cleric will be unable to stop the pawn.

Chase the Bishop!

 

More Room to Operate

Notice that Black lost because of the short a7-b8 diagonal. To draw, Centurini taught us that the defender usually needs both diagonals to be at least four squares in length. Then, there will always be at least one square on one of the diagonals that the attacker cannot control.

Here’s a famous example of successful defense:

 

Hopefully you now understand this classic bishop endgame if you previously struggled with it!

Which Chess Opening Move is Best? Part 1

Should I Open with 1.e4, 1.d4, or something else as White?

Not surprisingly, the short answer is “it depends.”

Let’s dig deeper.

First, there is one thing you certainly should not do. Don’t play offbeat moves (1.b3, 1.b4, 1.f4, 1.Nc3, etc.)  just to avoid theory. I’ve touched on this before. Only use moves like this if you enjoy playing the resulting positions. 

Having gotten that out of the way, we really have only four or five serious moves left. There’s no question which one we should discuss first.

1.e4 — Best by Test?

The famous game Fischer-Tal from the 1960 Leipzig Olympiad was a sharp draw in the French Defense. You can actually purchase a print of this photo here.

To a certain extent, I think Bobby Fischer was right. But not everyone should follow his advice.

Opening with the King Pawn requires the most well-rounded skills. Generally, you must attack the Sicilian Defense or give Black at least equality. Aggressive play is also the best recipe against the French Defense, Caro-Kann, and Pirc Defense, among others.

At the same time, patience and maneuvering skills are needed to play the Ruy Lopez or Italian Game well.

The higher up the rating ladder a player advances, the less opponents are afraid of gimmicky attacks — aside from feeling confident against gambits, they might willingly enter slightly worse positions with a chance to grind you down. Michael William Brown was in my group at the 2008 Western Invitational Chess Camp (organized by Robby Adamson). His main defense was the Closed Ruy Lopez, and he really knew how to play it. Sure enough, Michael became a Grandmaster in 2019.

Maybe the biggest question is: can you break down the Berlin Wall or Petroff Defense?

My point is, I think 1.e4 requires the most diverse range of skill to play well consistently — in other words, to legitimately play for a win against strong opposition. Contemporary role models include CarlsenCaruana, and Karjakin. 

It’s no coincidence these players have contested the last two World Championship Matches!

Not everyone prefers the King Pawn, or possesses the ability to play it well — or at least as well as the ability to play other first moves.

In Part 2, we discuss some alternatives, starting with 1.d4.

In Part 3, I give my opinions on various Flank Openings.