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I have a student who is in the 1600-1700 range, who has lost his last few games due to improper handling of endgame positions. Some were drawn, which he lost; some winning which he drew; and some where he could have forced a winning endgame (by simplification) and painlessly won, but instead created further complications (to his credit he won most of those games, but lost the ones thereafter, due to being mentally exhausted) leading to unbalanced, and often uncertain positions.

The cure is obviously to focus on endgame theory, but the problem is, he finds endgame theory boring (as I think many chess players do; in fact, I have this problem myself!). I've been teaching him from Panchenko's "Theory and Practice of Chess Endgames" which I've found is a superb guide to endgame theory, but he doesn't seem to be enjoying it.

When I queried him regarding his disinterest he gave me the following reasons:

  • He claims he has a poor memory and that endgame theory contains too much memorization (he's partially right, he has a superb ability to remember positions, but not so much move order, which is essential in most theoretical positions)
  • He cites the old "Before the endgame, the gods have placed the middlegame" addage, saying he can make up for this weakness with better middlegame play (but even he knows he is pushing it, since he's lost several games despite good middlegame play)
  • He claims endgame study takes too long and does not have immediate results OTB (citing that most of the theoretical positions are ones he has never encountered; this, while true, is ignoring the fact that he avoids the endgame like the plague to begin with)
  • He just doesn't find endgame study to be exciting (though he has admitted that it is necessary)

I've tried to address these concerns with brute force but I'd like to use a little more finesse in my method.

  • My response isn't worth an answer, but I am also in the 1600-1700 range. And if you could tell me something that would get me to 1800, I'd find it interesting and exciting. So you have to show a tangible benefit to taking the time to learn this stuff. – Tony Ennis Mar 24 '15 at 22:15
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    @Tony Ennis: I think that the prospect of drawing endgames that I lost and of winning endgames I drew would be quite enough of a tangible benefit for me. – Jester Mar 25 '15 at 10:46
  • @Ignaz one would think. It seems like the student doesn't quite get it, or doesn't want to get it. – Tony Ennis Mar 25 '15 at 11:29
  • Definitely the latter, because he knows that his game would improve ff he focused on the endgame, but insists on avoiding it anyway – Dider Mar 25 '15 at 14:32
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    I'm highly disappointed at all of the answers that say to avoid the theory. Theory is just another word for ideas, like "cut off the enemy king with the rook" or "control the queening square". If you study the theory, you will deduce the moves. – Jossie Calderon Jun 17 '17 at 6:13

11 Answers 11

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Many old endgame books are like encyclopedias, they have sections about one type of endgame and then a lot of analysis about all the various situations one might encounter in that endgame. I find those boring and very hard to remember. Let's forget about those.

I can think of three things to mention that might be helpful:

Jeremy Silman's endgame book is organized with chapters based on rating level. His point is that a 1600 player doesn't need to know all the intricacies of the endgame in the way a 2200+ player does. He also has a fun writing style. Maybe concentrating on the first chapters of that book helps.

Also, exercises. Both the Steps Method workbooks and Yusupov's series of books are full of exercises on chess in general, including chapters on various endgames. Challenging exercises are fun to solve and when you finally see how the solution works (usually there's only one way that works), that's memorable.

Thirdly, and probably the most work for the trainer, is to find a good, hard endgame study, and turn that into a whole lesson. I remember a training session I once had with GM Yge Visser (alas, I can't remember the position), where he showed a complicated endgame position. We, the students, could propose some lines but really had no clue.

He then wiped the board and started talking about various building blocks: the K+Q v K+pawn endgame (how it's usually a win, how the a and c pawns can draw, a few exceptions, then lines in which the white king is close enough that he can let black's pawn promote but threaten unpreventable mate on the next move, et cetera). He made this interesting by constantly asking the students, some of them knew some things already, nobody knew everything.

There were other building blocks like this, like the Reti study with the two passed pawns where it seems the black king has no chance to catch the white pawn or help his own promote, but then does it by cleverly keeping both options open.

After two hours or so of this sort of thing, he put the original position back -- and we recognized the main theme, and could suggest relevant moves. As we got a few moves in, it turned out that all those blocks were relevant, and eventually it was a mate in 8 or so, and we found it! "And if you manage to see all this during a game, then you're about GM level."

Although I can't remember the position anymore, I still learned everything I know about K+Q v K+pawn in that session, and it was great fun.

But to find such positions and to turn them into lessons that good takes quite a lot of experience as a trainer, I guess.

In short: don't teach him theory, challenge him with exercises and puzzles.

  • You can't solve the exercises without knowing the theory, and it is really simple to teach the theory. It returns a large reward for a small investment. Knowing one idea can save your game. – Jossie Calderon Jun 17 '17 at 6:27
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Maybe starting with endgame theory is the wrong approach. Learning stuff by heart and then reproducing it isn't much fun for most people. To productively study theoretical positions you ideally already have the interest and motivation to do so.

So I would recommend to start with two other aspects of endgames:

  • Endgame tactics: If he likes the middle game, he probably likes tactics and solving tactical problems. He might learn a lot of typical maneuvers if they are part of a combination or even a study.

  • Practical Endgames: Take interesting endgame positions and play them out. Maybe several times. The important difference to studying theoretical positions is that he is actually playing and finding ideas on his own. No memorisation.

  • Yes, but ultimately its necessary to build the foundation of the endgame on key memorized positions. Because the endgame is so nebulous its necessary to start with the most basic, irrefutable principles and positions and then build from there. Although I suppose I can have him go through those winning endgames he could've simplified to, from his own games; its a decent compromise – Dider Mar 24 '15 at 21:31
  • Starting with the theory is the correct approach (see my answer). Lastly, you need to know the positions (as @Dider mentioned) or you won't know what to play for. For starters, a key position is the pawn on the seventh rank, nothing in the way, and king protected from checks. Seriously, how hard is that? – Jossie Calderon Jun 17 '17 at 6:29
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I'm not quite sure on this one. For me, endgames only became fun when I dug into a couple of examples I found by myself and discovered how intricate they were. I think most intermediate players realize two things when they actually try an endgame just for the practice. 1. They suck at endgames. 2. These things are richer than they look. And with the help of a good endgame book, 3. It truly is amazing what a Capablanca or a Karpov can do in the endgame.

I will say that some endgames are rather dry, but they're challenging in a different way. The ability GMs have to assess these things from 2-4 moves away is amazing.

In many ways, this is symbolic of chess. This happens many times to players, where they have to get past a "boring" part of the game. I've found in my 15 months of serious chess that there is no substitute for going and doing it yourself.

I can supply a couple of interesting positions that I've used if you need them.

  • I've tried so hard to take shortcuts, and it has always failed. I started getting better once I applied the ideas I learned to exercises. – Jossie Calderon Jun 17 '17 at 6:14
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I think that RemcoGerlich and BlindKungFuMaster are on the right track: challenge him with suitable exercises, especially exercises which become much easier to solve once you know a certain endgame by heart. It seems that your student acknowledges the fact that endgames are important, but doesn't fully grasp WHY they are important. Giving exercises that requires some knowledge to solve can greatly help your student in this regard. After some consideration I've decided to give a simple example of what I have in mind for a "suitable exercise":

Take the following position:

[FEN "R7/P5kp/6p1/8/6P1/8/r4P2/6K1 w - - 0 1"]

Now, say "White to move and win", and give your student some time to solve it. Since you have noted your student's poor endgame skills, it wouldn't be surprising for him to fail (The only surefire way to win this is by playing 1.f4! Why is that so? Don't reveal the solution just yet!).

Now it is time to really make your student think about how difficult this problem is to solve. Is this type of position really beyond his level of understanding? If he thinks so, the effect of this exercise could become a confidence boost.

Now you go over this position:

[FEN "R7/P5k1/8/8/8/8/r7/6K1 w - - 0 1"]

Ask your student what the evaluation of this endgame is if white is to move. Let him play around with the pieces if necessary, and then let him explain in his own terms why this is a draw.

What pitfalls are there for black? It should not be too difficult to get your student to realize that black must keep his king on the own second rank, and his rook behind the a-pawn.

What may be harder to realize initially is why black needs to keep his king on g7 and h7. It is necessary to notice the underlying skewer idea that white can use: after ...Kf7, white wins with Rh8!, as the a-pawn then is taboo.

Now you could ask your student to choose where to put a pawn for white: on f2, on g2, or on h2? Where would your student want to place it if he were white? With this, you should be able to get your student to realize that white wins if there is a passed f-pawn on the board for white as well, due to the skewer idea mentioned earlier: the f-pawn will eventually force the black king away from g7 and h7.

Now it may be time to go back to the initial position, and again ask your student to solve it. If your student gets stuck, give hints, such as "How does this relate to the other position we looked at?" and "What should be white's main goal here? What will black do if white does nothing in particular?"

It would not be surprising if your student got the exercise right this time around, and the basic theoretical ending involved would be more likely to stick than if you just went through the theoretical position by itself.

  • This is a solid answer, because it suggests looking out for the ideas instead of raw analysis. – Jossie Calderon Jun 17 '17 at 6:16
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The answer to this question is mostly psychological in nature. Tell him first that most amateurs thinks it's boring and doesn't spend much time studying the endgame. Then say that it is exactly this that we must take advantage of. The "fun" part is knowing what to do in the endgame and slowly squeeze your opponent like an anaconda and cherish every moment when the opponent starts squirming in his chair and ultimately resign. Bobby Fischer loved to see the opponent in agony. I spent many months playing openings that led directly to the endgame to grind my opponents down and improve my endgame. Mednis wrote an excellent book from opening to endgame.

  • This is a laconic but valuable answer. – Jossie Calderon Jun 17 '17 at 6:17
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Sorry, but I absolutely disagree that you need to memorize move order in theoretical positions. You only need to memorize the ideas.

Once you know the ideas, you can calculate two, three, or more moves to attain the ideal position, because those calculations are based on not making the wrong move.

Outflanking, Counting, and the Opposition

8/5K2/8/4pk2/4R3/8/8/8 w - - 0 1

I have not memorized a single move in how the winning variation ends, but one thing's for certain:

  1. White needs to get on the opposite side of the king if he's going to capture that pawn.
  2. Black's king is like a bodyguard, preventing the white king from getting past him.
  3. Black will control the queening square in seven moves. Black moves after me, so I have seven moves to capture the pawn, or the game will be drawn.

These ideas are known as outflanking, counting, and the opposition. Unless you have studied endgames, you won't have a clue about them (see point #3 further below).

Now I can ask myself which moves accomplish these ideas. After 1. Ra4?? or (1. Rh4??) 1...e4! The black king remains where he's at, and he better: He's got the opposition.

  1. Re1?? Yep, this doesn't do it. The black king also keeps the opposition: 1...e4! 2. Rf1 Kg4 and the white king is late for his appointment. We can try to outflank: 2. Ke7 Ke5!! Opposition.

The only way to force the king to lose the opposition is to entice him forward: 1. Re3!! (or 1. Re2!) The black king will lose the opposition, despite attacking the rook. If he tries 1. Kf4 2. Re1 Kf5 (after 1. Re3!!), you'll notice that we're back to the original starting position, but with the rook on e1 now. With that extra tempo, we can now outflank: 3. Ke7 e4 4. Kd6 Kf4 5. Kd5 (The pawn is now under attack) e3 4. Kd4 and the pawn has been won.

Black's only option is to give up the opposition, unfortunately. 1. Re3!! (or 1. Re2!) e4 2. Re1 Kf4 (2... Ke5 3. Kg6 leads to the above variation with kings on opposite sides) 3. Ke6! Kf3 4. Kd5 (The pawn is now under attack) e3 5. Kd4 e2 6. Kd3 We have done it! We have prevented black from controlling e1 in seven moves or less.

And notice a key difference between the variations where the black king was on f4 and g4: The rook was on f1 in the latter. White loses a move when the black pawn hits e2, because his rook is attacked. So in reality, white only had not six, but FIVE! (because of Re1-Rf1+ and Rf1-Re1) instead of seven moves in that losing (drawing) variation.

King Centralization, Counting

7K/7p/k1P5/8/8/8/8/8 w - - 0 1

Well, clearly it's a draw, just capture the black pawn, get some lunch at Subway, and go on with my day...except that's not the case. Black to move.

WHAT?!

1... h5

Now this is interesting. Most amateurs would say it's lost despite the problem stating "White draws".

At the end, they succumb to an engine and suddenly change their minds...I cannot stand the lack of emotional control of some people (ironically), but I digress...

But then I remembered the famous grandmaster Richard Réti's words.

‘I once heard a story where a reporter asked the famous master Jose Capablanca, “How many moves do you see ahead?” He jokingly said, “Fifty!” The reporter, not knowing much about chess, wrote that down in his notes and then proceeded to ask another famous master, Richard Réti, the same question. Réti said, “One! But always the right one.” There is something to be learned from this: You only need to see as deep as necessary to establish the best move for the position.’ - Page 39 of Winning Chess Tournaments by Robert M. Snyder (Lincoln, 2007)

Well, the white king is threatening the pawn if he goes down, but he's also making an attempt to promote his if he goes sideways.

He can't do both, he must choose one or the other...

WAIT! He can just move diagonally, and move down and sideways at the same time.

It doesn't even matter if we can make it in time or not. We have no choice.

2. Kg7! Kb6 3. Kf6!! f4 (Kxc6 4. Ke5 draws) We're getting closer to not just one, but both pawns. Black can also try 2... f4 3. Kf6 f3, but the choices are the same:

  1. This is the easier variation. Black promotes in three moves; if we promote in four (because White moves first) we are drawn. We are also only one tempo behind the pawn. If the king moves at some point, the pawn is ours! Thus 4. Ke5!! and now 4... f3 Kd6 promotes in time whereas 4... Kxc6 Kf4 gives us the required tempo.
  2. It's clear that the king cannot reach the pawn anymore, but he is within the distance to help his pawn safely promote. 4. Ke6!! Kb6 (4...f2 5. c7 h1=Q 6. c8=Q is the same) Kd7 5. c7 h1=Q 6. Qc8+ 1/2-1/2

These are my favorite positions: Once you know the theory, everything is easy. Most people will overthink it by analyzing, but the endgame is not about analysis. It's about ideas. Analysis paralysis!

A Means to an End

Both of these positions have taught me how to play correctly. (They're also studies by Réti, and you can find them here and here.) Because of the second one, I know it is absolutely ideal to centralize my king, because I have more options. (I wish I could bold that, but that's overdoing it.) King centralization is essential in the endgame, and I wouldn't have realized it without that study; I used it in one game so far, and won it without a sweat.

On a final note, of course he's never encountered those "theoretical" positions - he hasn't tried to create them. He doesn't know how, or he's trying to force a different position:

  1. Attacking when it is better to wait, because the opponent would be in zugzwang.
  2. Winning material when simplifying would be easier. Perhaps even trading the rook - AND a pawn - for just the opponent's bishop, but creating a won pawn endgame, would be better than material gain with complications (but it would certainly be more fun, which it looks like what your student wants).
  3. Making a simple mistake, because you don't know what you're doing. Sorry, but if you don't know the ideas behind these positions, it will simply cost you points in tournament games.

Learning the Hard Way

At the Chicago Open in 2017, all (ten) of my games were won (according to later analysis by Stockfish).

I had trained really rigorously for this tournament by reading up on positional play and tactics. I also gave some, but not too much, attention at the endgame.

I gave perhaps thirty minutes to the opening over a matter of weeks. It really isn't important at all; the opening is just a subset of the middle game, and its study is just important to avoid traps. That's it.

Back on topic, my opponents could not touch me to save their life in the middle game. That training had really paid off, and I was able to convert my imbalances (space, pawn structure, bad bishops to good, etc.) easily. If you had given me my opponent's position, I'd say they're simply lost, because I wouldn't know what to do with them.

But in six of those ten games, I did one of the three above points. I attacked prematurely. I complicated things. And I simply didn't know what to do in two of games, which I vividly remember LOSING: Rook and pawn endgames.

Coincidentally, those endgames are the ones I hated the most. I did not know the Philidor position (LOL).

Now I've picked up Secrets of Rook Endings by John Nunn and have devoted more time to Jesus De La Villa's 100 Endgames You Must Know. You couldn't pay me to get me to read a middle game book, because I'm simply not interested.

You can know one endgame idea really well and force a draw - even win on your opponent's negligence - or you can know one opening really well and hope he doesn't survive the middle game.

And hope chess is ALWAYS a fast road to nowhere.

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From a Cat A player, on the contrary, it is the endgame that you have to be the most accurate in concrete analysis. If you are sloppy in your endgames (with fewer pieces), your middle games will suffer. Of course, you can get by playing principled chess as road signs to winning ideas, but you eventually have to hunker down and analyze accurately. A minor slip up/tempo misplay can throw away a win easily enough. At 1600-1700 levels, you only really need De La Villa's book. Anything else is probably too much, and at those levels, misplays are common enough. So, to answer the question:

How can I teach the endgame to someone who feels it is “boring”?

So, let's go over his 4 'points', interesting as they are:

1: Boring and requires too much memorization - My guess he does not feel this way about opening play. So, treat endgame play like openings, and play training positions in tournament settings against him.

2: reference to a bad chess adage - there is a cure for that outside of trying to convince him this kind of thinking is exactly why he is not progressing. Perhaps convincing him that middlegame play is there for two reasons: a) a successful attack on the king or b) material gain and transition into a winning endgame. By not knowing endgames, he essentially is removing half of his ability to score the full point.

3: Endgame study takes too long - Here's your hat, what's your hurry. His impatience is a thing of ugly. Chess is a lifestyle game and requires long periods of study and equal amounts of play. He will never know everything about endgame play. He must efficiently study those kinds of positions that are likely to occur in games. The most frequent are Rook plus minor piece endgames (~15%), R vs. R (~9%), 2R vs. 2R (~3-4%), B vs. N (~3%), and pawn endgames (~3%) [Fundamental Chess Endings - Muller/Lamprecht, 2001].

4: Not exciting - Well, that is on the teacher to convey this. All you. Since he is under your tutelage, it is up to you to assign work and impress on him how important it is. Simply make it a hard point he must progress through.

Good luck. Chess students can be real PITA's sometimes.

  • You have to be accurate in analysis - certainly - but it's not the priority. Knowing the ideal positions (the ideas) is required before knowing the path (the analysis). – Jossie Calderon Jun 17 '17 at 22:07
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I think endgames are the essence and soul of chess. One should focus on middle games and end games in the intermediate stage to improve to the elite level of 2000+ elo. Learning from books is an effective way but at times students do not enjoy it that much. They find it extremely tough to solve the positions and sometimes lose focus and concentration. This leads to a loss of interest and makes the player think that the endgames are boring.

The best way to deal with this situation is to study grandmaster and classical games and study the effects of an endgame position. One should set up a board and start playing the game from the opening. Once one reaches the endgame, one can put a clock and play against another player. This way there is a motivation to play that position and one can learn from actual games, not relying solely on prepared positions/theory. Although it is important to know the basics, but this is relatively simple and does not require much effort. Once one knows the basic points of endgame theory, one can easily follow this method of watching grandmaster games. Studying games of Capablanca, Carlsen, Botvinik,Anand, and Kasparov are some of the ways that one can learn end games from the masters. One can even analyse the position with different views and then check the original version of the game.

It is important to note that endgames can essentially win crucial matches. Every advanced player will take his game till the endgame and will look to crunch the victory from there. Thus, it is imperative that we also know how to do the same. Learning via grandmaster games is a method that is effective and quite interesting.

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I think you're just going to have to explain to him that his game won't improve beyond a certain point if he doesn't do endgames. Simply put, if you're that bad at them your openings and strategy won't do you much, because you won't know in what kind of endgame you're trying to transpose to, which pieces you should keep in certain positions etc. I'd recommend you to try with Reuben Fine's book about endgames, I had a colleague just like that who hated studying endgames but then we found some books that he loved, and Fine's was one of them. Anyhow, if you love something you'll love the bad" parts of it too. :)

Because chess isn't all fun and games. :D

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    This is basically what I'm doing now, but I'd like to make the endgame interesting rather than just forcing it. After all isn't that one of the responsibilities of a teacher? – Dider Mar 24 '15 at 19:54
  • See, that's why I recommended Fine, his positions really challenge the player instead of forcing him to learn specific stuff. It's like a one huge problem that teaches you endgames without you kind of realizing it. :) I use it myself. – Captain_Shepard Mar 24 '15 at 22:51
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I'm going to add a second answer here that was triggered by another comment.

When you are floundering down in the 1400 - 1600 levels, you can't progress above that if you do not study endgames efficiently, because the competition you meet at the 1600 - 1800 level have some inclination that there is more to chess than a frontal assault on the king. These players typically figure out how to (relatively) effectively transition from the middlegame to a winning endgame, or avoid that transition into a losing one. Take any recent games from 1400 players and you find many examples. This transitional knowledge is largely experiential, meaning you can't "teach" it, but you have to experience through gameplay, know it is possible, and know that it is something you should be seeking out when the position warrants it. Vocal 1400 players don't do that - they are scared to death of the endgame because a) they have studied it too much, studied it wrong, studied the wrong stuff, and don't understand it b) they have studied it but don't apply it during their games as a transition mechanism for a position or c) Have a crappy attitude towards endgame play in general.

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I think of the endgame as a "countdown." That is, at the beginning, you need "many" moves to win (or resolve the game). In the endgame, you need only a few moves for resolution.

Basically, you want to teach your student to "resolve" his games in the clearest, simplest way. That's what endgames are for. The ones to begin with might be the ones where he could have "simplified" quickly into a won endgame and failed to do so, and had to win the "hard" way.

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