Opening Or Endgame? You Decide

Opening Or Endgame? You Decide

| 180 | Strategy

In studying chess, which of the two phases should students focus on most?

Or should they concentrate on another aspect of chess altogether? It reminds us of other eternal questions, like what is the meaning of life, why is there something rather than nothing, and how many noodles are there in an average plate of spaghetti. (The answer to the latter can be quite tricky.)


Here readers might demur. Should such questions be pondered so generally? Wouldn’t it help to know a few other things, such as the kinds of students involved? Are they beginners or veterans? Children or adults? What about playing ability? Surely, those and other factors might be consulted profitably.

On the surface, it's easy to conclude that the opening phase should be studied most. After all, it comes first, and every game has an opening. Endgames come last, and not every game has an endgame. Always starting from the same position, openings seem easy to glide into and play.

Usually starting from myriad positions, endgames must be analyzed before proceeding. So on paper, endgames should be harder to assimilate. Or so the rhetoric goes.

Two classic teachers, Capablanca and Tarrasch, take a definite stand: study the endgame! In their texts and subtexts, they offer several reasons:

  1. Endgames show piece power in purer form, unsullied by needless elements.
  2. Endgame concepts go to the heart of many other chess ideas.
  3. Lots of useful endgame positions are easy to grasp and recall. (Take that, opening proponents!)
  4. Endgame study keeps us focused on the ultimate goal.

All these points, pro endgame, pro opening, pro whatever, can be contested. But let’s grant that there’s considerable merit in what Capablanca and Tarrasch (and others) have put forth. How well does their thinking hold in practice, especially for teachers trying to teach the subject?



Do their godlike pronouncements take into account everyday problems encountered by ordinary chess students? After all, back on Earth, how many chess lessons did Capablanca and Tarrasch actually give? I mean, real chess lessons, not the baloney of playing somebody a game, making a few imperious comments (good move!) and calling it a lesson.

But let’s be fair here. Experienced teachers nowadays may indeed take the very same approach. That is, they might also concentrate on teaching the endgame. Even so, that’s not the entire story. If they emphasize the endgame, they have to prepare themselves for a particular complaint. Students may protest: “I never get to the endgame. Why should I study it?” Uh huh.

Of course, there are sound comebacks to such objections. But no matter the strength of counterargument, should a student’s resistance to a subject, or its method of presentation, be entirely disregarded? Can a dedicated teacher afford to ignore psychological and emotional problems concerning the final phase, or anything else? To do so might greatly lessen, and even undermine, the value of such study.

Then there’s the path Emanuel Lasker followed in promulgating chess. He preferred explaining openings, tactics, planning, endings, anything and everything, all at roughly the same time. He thought it wise to entertain sundry concepts in context, even across phases, especially if there were a relation or correspondence.

But who knows?

Actually, you do! So I’m putting the onus of response back on the true experts, the readers of this column.

Let’s reiterate a few of the questions.

  • In learning and teaching chess, should greater importance be placed on the endgame or the opening, or should more time be spent on tactics, principles, or something else?
  • Is it wise to explore the topic so generally or widely? Or must we get very specific and concrete?
  • And what about the phases? Should we always treat them separately?
  • Can it sometimes be prudent to view them as parts of an organic whole?

As before, I will delay replying until a number of comments have come in. Eventually, I’ll get around to everyone’s thoughts, if not immediately in the beginning, certainly by the ending -- win, lose or draw.

So what do you think? Opening or endgame? Or something else?

Let me know in the comments below. 

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