Understanding Pawn Endgames

Understanding pawn endgames: a leading ukrainian trainer explains fundamental endgame principles and why players make mistakes

Understanding Pawn Endgames

Author: IM Valentin Bogdanov
159 pages. Gambit Publications, 2022
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I was sent a copy of this book by Gambit for my honest review.


The Hand of an Experienced Trainer

When studying to improve our playing ability in pawn endings, it’s very easy to get lost. I believe this is because many books sacrifice clarity for completeness, as the authors are often very strong players or theoreticians who don’t teach chess to “regular” players.

A good coach wants his or her students to learn and remember the important stuff. Books that bombard readers with endless examples containing lots of tricky analysis and little explanation isn’t very helpful to most players.

The blurb notes that Bogdanov has been coaching pupils in Odesa for 50 years — this book can be considered a series of lessons that will improve your pawn endgame play a lot.

The text is divided into 10 chapters:

    1. Obvious Errors
    2. Breakthrough
    3. Zugzwang
    4. Opposition and Corresponding Squares
    5. Spare Tempi
    6. The Fight to Promote
    7. Changing the Pawn Structure
    8. Calculation
    9. Evaluating the Resulting Queen Endings
    10. Positional Play

This may be the best book on pawn endgames I have yet come across, simply because of how it’s structured: relatively short, self-contained chapters with plenty of examples, a healthy amount of prose, and not too variation-packed. Within chapters, he progresses from easier to more difficult game fragments.

Again, ask yourself: how much study material can you learn, remember, and use?

How many impressive-looking books have helped you improve an area of your chess a great deal? Probably not that many — too much information.


Striking Examples

Presenting surprising, memorable examples to students can make a world of difference in getting them to incorporate important ideas into their play. Clear explanations help a great deal, too.

Bogdanov shows many apparently simple positions that teach you what to think about in critical moments. Let’s take a look at Example 125 on page 66, from Chapter 6: The Fight to Promote.

Understanding Pawn Endgames is filled with examples like this one…


Who Should Buy It?

First and foremost, chess teachers! You can bet I will incorporate many of these examples, including the Tihonov—Kurnosov game referenced above, into my classes and lessons.

As for tournament players? I think 1400 is a safe minimum. Bogdanov does not start from scratch, but his commentary is so good that ambitious rising players will greatly benefit from it.

I can tell you personally, players rated 2000+ will also benefit from going through this excellent volume. For example, Chapter 4 made me much more confident with a long-standing bugaboo of mine: Corresponding Squares!


The Verdict

If you love endgames or, especially, if you hate them…spend some time with Understanding Pawn Endgames. You won’t regret it.

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!