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!
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!
I recommend Positional Chess Handbook to players (and coaches!) of all levels. Players rated from zero to at least 2200 will benefit. The book will give beginners ideas about strategy; it has much to teach club players; and it is a good refresher for the 2000+ crowd.
Originally published in 1991, it is filled with instructive game fragments from famous and not-so-famous players and composers. You’ll find examples from Morphy and Steinitz, as well as from Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. In all, there are 495 diagrams over 208 pages (plus index). I’m sure author Israel Gelfer (FIDE Master and FIDE Senior Trainer) spent many years compiling the examples that helped his students the most.
So what does it cover?
Positional Chess Handbook: Contents
Most of the 21 chapters isolate a certain positional feature, making it easy to reinforce understanding of a particular concept without distraction. A few sections are more general, but very instructive nonetheless. Of course, tactics are everywhere in this book, too — strategy cannot exist without them, right?
Some readers may groan upon seeing the title of this post, and that’s okay. I get it.
Who, when taking their first steps in chess, dreams of winning wars of attrition? Probably no one. On the contrary, I often fantasized about winning a brilliant game in a tournament hall or chess club with a crowd of people watching in awe. Okay, I admit it … I still do!
Alas, I rarely win beautiful games. Most of my wins border on the tedious side — regularly 50+ moves. When I get away from this — whether because of fatigue, laziness, or delusions of grandeur — the results are usually disastrous. I’m just a grinder, and I’ve finally accepted that.
Fortunately, grinding works.
Easier to Play with Black?
With the White pieces, I feel a burden to “prove something” with my advantage of the first move. This often leads to going for too much, and bad things happen.
Grinders subscribe to the “equalize first” philosophy of playing the Black pieces. There isn’t any pressure to “do” anything. Even draws with peers are acceptable, though we want to win just as much as anyone else!
In the right position types, there will often be chances as Black to turn the tables on your opponent, especially if you’re willing to face a mildly unpleasant initiative. For a great example of this, play through Anatoly Karpov’s win against Gata Kamsky from the 1996 FIDE World Championshp Match.
Now I want to share another classic in a similar vein, also one of my favorite examples:
Chess strategy and tactics are intertwined … but ask yourself this: which side of the equation receives most of the focus in lessons and classes?
Definitely tactics. And for a lot of coaches, it’s not even close. However …
What does it take for a student to gain proficiency in tactics? I only know one method: solving thousands of puzzles, and getting regular practice applying tactical ideas in games.
This experience cannot be gained solely through lessons. I assign tactics puzzles for homework (usually Chess School 1a) and rarely work on them during a private lesson. The exception is calculation practice, but that is different from developing tactical sight.
It’s perfectly fine to spend 10-15 minutes on tactics by checking tactics homework, and maybe doing a few warm-up puzzles — but that’s as far as it should go.
Puzzle solving alone is a terrible use of time for a 1-2 hour once-per-week lesson.
I also think it’s lazy! Beware, parents.
The Real Purpose of Chess Lessons
Chess lessons should mostly focus on strategy.
You can go to Amazon, buy a chess tactics book, and work independently. Diligent study will bring results, no question about it, and you won’t need a coach for improvement in this area.
But what if you want to improve your understanding of chess strategy?
If you go to Amazon and purchase a strategy book — even an excellent one authored by Euwe, Nimzowitsch, Dvoretsky or Marin, for example — there is a lot that you won’t “get” right away. Or at all.
Chess lessons or classes can really shorten the learning curve. That is what a teacher is paid for!
Example of a Chess Strategy Lesson
I recently taught an online class and showed the following position, which comes from the famous game Capablanca vs. Tartakower from the celebrated New York 1924 tournament, before White’s 23rd move:
I asked the students (roughly 800 to 1400 in strength) to give me ideas for the first player, and got what I expected: suggestions to attack or win tactically. Chiefly 23.d5 to open the center “for an attack,” and 23.c5, trying to skewer the Black queen and rook with a further 24.Bb5.
First, the d4-d5 advance will only lead to mass exchanges and the Black knight will be able to use the newly opened c5-square (probably with the maneuver …Na5-b3-c5).
Second, c4-c5 does not set up a skewer, as after 24.Bb5 Black can reply with 24…c6.
They were surprised to learn the World Champion played 23.h4!
The idea is to follow up with 24.h5, giving Black a very difficult choice: either allow 25.hxg6 which creates a permanent weakness on g6, or even worse to play 24…gxh5 when after 25.Rh1! White wins back the h5-pawn, is closer to getting a passed pawn on the kingside, and maybe wins the h7-pawn as well:
I could see the mental light bulbs going on through their Zoom cameras! Tactics and attacking play are not always the right tools for the job.
How well would most books explain these ideas, while anticipating your questions and being able to demonstrate exactly the variations you need to see in order to understand the position?
How to Get Better At Chesscontains answers from Grandmasters and International Masters about their thoughts on chess improvement, motivation, study methods, etc.
I can’t remember how I discovered this book, but I’m glad I did. It was hard to put this book down, and I read it all in a few sittings.
Because the interviews were collected in the late 1970s and 1980s, this book doesn’t talk about analysis engines or databases at all … I find this refreshing! The respondents also don’t give too much advice on openings.
You’ll find answers given by players like Nick DeFirmian, Larry Evans, Bent Larsen, Vladimir Liberzon, Viktor Kortschnoj, Yasser Seirawan, and lots more.
The players often have conflicting opinions, but that shows there isn’t just one recipe to success as a chess player. I find it inspiring that different approaches can be highly successful. Find what works for you.
The authors also includes a selection of games.
If you’re a fan of “thought-provoking” chess literature, I consider this book a must-buy!
You can increase your chess rating quick, fast, and in a hurry. Almost immediately, in some cases. But if you’re a “chess romantic,” this method is not for you.
Everyone wants to win more games, but what price are you willing to pay? If you’re 1000+, I have long been convinced that the quickest, surest path to more wins and a higher rating runs through the opening.
Embrace this. Don’t allow yourself to be brainwashed by group-think that pervades chess instruction and insists you look for a pot of gold at the end of the tactics rainbow. Or worse, insists you focus on endgames.
Are you still reading? Good. Let me be very clear about what I mean, and explain my reasoning.
Use opening study to drive your rating gains
Knowledge is power in chess. When looking to increase your chess rating, laziness won’t do.
That said, there are different layers to opening study.
Wait! Why not tactics and endgames?
You are working on tactics! If you study openings properly, you will learn recurring tactical ideas in lines you actually play. This makes them easier to find in real life instead of hoping to apply something from solving thousands of random puzzles.
Your endgame results will also improve as a side-effect of serious opening study. Not only will you get more familiar positions and practice playing them, good study will provide you with better endgames than you had in the past!
Okay, let’s keep going!
Know what kinds of positions you play well, or can learn to play well.
A player can’t completely avoid tactics or strategy — we all know this. As for the lecture about “stunting your chess development,” that applies to aspiring 2700-rated grandmasters. Almost everyone else spends their chess career managing their weak spots.
If attacking play comes naturally to you, play openings that allow you the kinds of attacks you like to play. Not all attacks are the same!
Do you consider yourself a strategist? Fine (that’s a hint by the way, study his games). Do you like to maneuver in closed positions? Maybe you prefer queenless middlegames? Perhaps you have an affinity for certain types of endgames?
Research “candidate” openings that might suit you. Then test them out against good opposition online. I recommend playing games in the 5-minute pool. The results aren’t important; focus on whether or not you like the character of the play.
Don’t be delusional
I’m a poor attacker … and after 25 years of chess, this won’t change very much. While I’ve had some success with the Sicilian Najdorf (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3) , I have played the Dragon Variation (5…g6) exactly once in a tournament game — at the Manhattan Chess Club in 1996!
On the other hand, I like playing queenless positions, and for some reason I’ve always been able to play any kind of endgame with rooks well. Slow maneuvering is not my forte, which I guess explains why several attempts to play the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) as black have been a failure. My attempts to play the English Opening (1.c4) have been disastrous.
As WIM Iryna Zenyuk once told me: “Play YOUR chess.”
A word about system openings
I’m referring to the King’s Indian Attack, Colle System, London System, Torre Attack, etc.
I would mostly avoid them … and not because of nebulous ideas about “limiting your potential.”
As I’ve said before, avoiding main line openings forces you to work harder at the board when you have nerves, a ticking clock, and an opponent to deal with.
Instead, choose openings with defined main lines you can study in advance and learn well. If your opponent deviates, you will either know how to deal with their subpar moves, or can take comfort that you have a route to a clear advantage. In other words …
Raise your rating by shortening the game
The more of a game you can pre-plan, the better your results will be — if your prep is good.
Think about it: do you have more confidence in your own moves, or those you learned from Stockfish or Grandmaster XYZ? As long as you have an idea of your moves’ purpose and aren’t blindly memorizing, I think the answer is clear. Lofty ideas about being creative or original stop most players from increasing their chess rating. That, and not wanting it badly enough.
Yes, you’re going to have to memorize some lines … some of them 15+ moves. That’s a good thing: your hard work will leave your peers behind and raise you to a new level. Let them do 20 minutes of tactics a day and play openings “based on ideas.” They will be at the same level five years from now.
Action steps to improve your rating
Buy ChessBase if you haven’t already. I consider it indispensible if you’re serious about trying to increase your chess rating.
Search for openings/positions you might be interested in playing.
Test these lines in online play to see if they suit you and you like playing them.
Create a database in ChessBase with your opening lines. I call mine “Opening Lines.” In this database is one “game” (line) for each opening.
A peek at my current database.
Constantly play through GM games in your chosen lines, and keep testing online.
Add/edit lines in your database … this could take months to begin with, and never really ends. Be thorough.
Maintenance. Keep studying games, memorizing your lines, and practicing online.
I have written before that taking up the French Defense saved my chess career. Well, that was great for facing 1.e4, but I needed something against the closed openings. One day in 1999 my dad brought home a book that helped me solve this task for awhile. Thanks, Dad.
Play the Noteboom is the title of a 1996 book written by Mark van der Werf and Teun van der Vorm, and published by Cadogan Books (now Everyman Chess).
The Noteboom Variation is a cross between the Slav and Semi-Slav Defenses, characterized by the positon after, for example:
Black takes the c4-pawn and might hold onto it!
In the main line, black gives back the pawn and a very unusual situation arises:
Black has two outside, connected passed pawns! This single factor made the Noteboom really appealing to me in the late 1990s and early 2000s: as long as I didn’t get mated, I often wound up with winning or nearly winning endgames!
I had a ridiculous score with the Noteboom Variation when my opponents allowed it, including some nice upsets. The fun didn’t stop there, however.
The Marshall Gambit
White can avoid this situation by playing an Anti-Noteboom system. The most common and best choice is the Marshall Gambit:
This early central thrust is not possible in the Slav or Semi-Slav because Black has a knight on f6. The main line continues:
When White has definite compensation for the missing pawn: open lines for the queen and bishops, and a drafty Black king to target.
I believe the main move here is 8…Na6. But as a firm adherent of the “take and hold” school of chess, I used to play 8…Nd7, threatening to shut out white’s monster bishop with 9…c5.
Four of my tournament games reached this position. My opponents played 9.Bd6 or 9.Qd6. Then I held on for dear life after…
…and won all four games! Now, I probably had losing positions in three of them, but sometimes Caissa is on your side. My opponents included an A-player, the same Expert twice, and my first master scalp in tournament play.
Um, yeah. Don’t try this at home!
A newer book by a Noteboom Variation expert.
Now I view all of this very differently. In the main line Noteboom Variation White has a strong bishop pair and his central play could end up being … shall we say … problematic. 15 years later, I wouldn’t try a “rope-a-dope” strategy against the Marshall Gambit. Not a recipe for success…
Also, amateurs are more familiar with the opening now than in the late 1990s, notably with The Triangle System (2012)by Ruslan Scherbakov.
Desperate people do desperate things. I was a weak player without much confidence and relied on a material advantage to win long, drawn-out endgames. I didn’t think I could win any other way. That led me to playing these semi-bluff openings.
Funnily enough, nowadays I have a massive score against the Noteboom on ICC! A great thing about playing an opening is that you understand how to play against it, too!
Andrew Soltis (1947 – ) was born in Hazelton, Pennsylvania but grew up in New York City. By contemporary standards “Andy” started in chess late, not playing tournaments until his teens.
In an exceedingly difficult age for American chess players to make a living from the game, Soltis nevertheless became an International Master in 1974 and a Grandmaster in 1980.
Soltis twice won the U.S. Open (1977, 1982) and Reggio Emilia1971/1972.
It is fitting Andy Soltis is Part 9 of this series, as he won the Marshall Chess Club Championship a record nine times!
Like Mednis, Znosko-Borovsky, Reinfeld, and Marin — Soltis is another author in our series for whom writing was a full-time career. He worked at the New York Post as his day job for over 40 years, writing more than 100 chess books during that time. He has also written the Chess to Enjoy column in Chess Life magazine, a great representation of his pithy writing style.
A Tour of the Andrew Soltis Library
This won’t be an exhaustive list, but I’ll cover some highlights in different categories.
Soltis discusses his chess career and lightly annotates many of his games. Progress didn’t come easily, but he persevered on the path to Grandmaster when few of his peers crossed that hurdle. In some ways this is an inspiring book, as few of us are stars and have to grind away for years to reach our chess dreams. I couldn’t put it down. A very underrated book!
Soltis has written several books in this genre, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
This is maybe the most highly-regarded Soltis book. The idea was perhaps revolutionary at the time, but I was never a fan. I have not read the new version, however. A big plus for Pawn Structure Chess is the “supplemental games” at the end of each section — they are well chosen and annotated with typical instructive and to-the-point Soltis comments.
There aren’t too many books on chess defense. I haven’t read the Soltis books, so I can’t really comment. Paul Keres wrote an instructive chapter on “How to Defend Difficult Positions” in classic The Art of the Midddle Game. Another title is in this genre is The Art of Defence in Chess by Lev Polugaevsky and Iakov Damsky.
Endgames and Strategy
An interesting early Soltis book is Catalog of Chess Mistakes (1980), which introduces a variety of different errors a player can make playing chess or in their approach to the game. These include tactical, strategic, and especially attitude or psychological failings that can doom a player.
The book I really want to emphasize in this section, however, is my favorite Soltis book of all: Turning Advantage into Victory in Chess (2004). This book will really help reframe how you think about chess technique — which is often regarded as elusive and mysterious.
I find a lot of players don’t appreciate static nuances the way they could, and this book will help with that.
As a 2000+ player, I found this book quite instructive as a middlegame text generally! I think this may be because the Fianchetto Pirc/Modern doesn’t have a ton of theory, so the author discusses more strategy than reams of variations. Many of the ideas can be applied against other fianchettoes.
I’ll stop here. There are so many more Soltis books that I have either not read or simply missed!
I was also gifted The Russians Play Chess (1947) by Charlie Ebbecke while I was a member of the Bronx Yonkers Chess Club in the late 1990s. I played through many of the games in this book several times!
If you have trouble making sense of endgame play, take a couple of weeks and play through the 60 games in this book. It will transform your entire outlook on chess. Chernev isolates the final phase of the games and explains in words what is going on. Brilliant stuff.
Maybe you dream of raising your rating 100-200 points…achieving a rating of 2000…winning a Club or National Championship. I have done each of these things, when a year or two before it seemed unlikely.
There are endless chess books, websites, and coaching options available to players who want to get better. All of these tools can be helpful if utilized well, but one factor is more important than any other in determining how far a player will go in their chess endeavors: dealing with losses.
You’re going to make mistakes, blunder, and lose games you shouldn’t. You will also have bad tournaments — possibly streaks of bad tournaments — and sometimes feel like your efforts at progress are going nowhere.
Why am I spending all of this time, money, and energy training and playing tournaments? Maybe I should just cut my losses and stop torturing myself.
Have thoughts like this ever crossed your mind? They have for me, many times over the years!
Somtimes you can push these thoughts away, and sometimes they have a stronger pull, causing you to “take a break” from chess.
To keep moving forward, accept all results as simply feedback and don’t get so personally attached to it. Much easier said than done! And, admittedly, something I have never been able to do for even a full year at a time.
I reached my highest-ever rating in October 2016, at 2137. The dream of becoming a National Master after 20+ years seemed so close! Two great tournaments, three good tournaments, or four above-average tournaments might bring me to 2200.
Then I made a big mistake. Several mistakes, actually:
I did not recognize that my rating gains were partially luck and not the result of great play on my part. Winning from worse or losing positions, opponents walking into my opening preparation, timely draw offers accepted when my opponents should not have done so…
I forced myself to play events when I did not feel 100% prepared.
I decided to change my style and hired a coach to help me play in this alien style.
I put more pressure on myself as my rating slid further away from 2200 with each passing event.
I became demoralized and “pulled the plug” four tournaments later in June 2017 when my rating sank to 2075.
I have not played a tournament since!
I mean, I know better. When you lose your objectivity, you can lose everything.
Funnily enough, I was planning to play again in April 2020 alongside one of my students. Best laid plans…
I have been working on my game at a slow pace, and should be ready to compete again when COVID-19 becomes less of a threat.
My advice to you (and to myself):
Work on your tactics and calculation. Prepare your openings well and learn how to play their resulting middlegames. Learn to like endgames.