"Endgame Strategy" by Mikhail Shereshevsky

"Endgame Strategy" by Mikhail Shereshevsky

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This week's book review will be of the classic Endgame Strategy by Mikhail Shereshevsky.

This book - as its name implies - is about the endgame. However, it is not really about basic endgames (i.e. rook and pawn against rook). It is not a book of endgame theory, but rather is a manual of how to play complex endings, or even - you could say -queenless middlegames. Most examples begin with several sets of minor pieces, rooks; others are heavy piece endings with each side having two rooks and a queen.

Thus, the book is not really covering extremely simplified positions where calculation and knowledge are key, but rather more complex positions where understanding and positional judgement are the most important factors, yet the game no longer has the "middlegame character".

The book was first published in Russian in 1981, translated to English by Ken Neat and first published in English in 1985.

Shereshevsky is an International Master from Belarus. He is mostly known as a trainer. I have another - very interesting - book by him called The Soviet Chess Conveyor. He also wrote Mastering the Endgame with Leonid Slutsky.

Where I got it

This is another book which I don't really know how I got. I think I've had it since I was a teenager but I never spent much time on it until later.

What's good about it

The aim of this book is to improve a player's "class" in the endgame - to fine-tune his judgment of positions, to introduce him to common methods, and to teach strategy. In other words, it helps a player to better "feel" a position - who stands better and what needs to be done.

There is a huge variety in the examples. There are examples of opposite-colored bishops, rook and pawn endings, positions with each side having a minor piece and lots of pawns, heavy piece endings, and positions which are basically queenless middlegames, with all other pieces on the board and an intact pawn structure. By using archetypal examples of various kinds of endings, the author is trying to let the reader understand better the general battle lines. There is a particular emphasis on the battle between knight and bishop.

Teaching - or learning - chess is complicated. Unlike other fields, most of it is not specific knowledge. If you teach a language, for example, the student needs to know that this word means this, that the correct sentence structure is this, that the ending for, i.e. accusative case is this. And then they just apply their exact knowledge. With chess, exact knowledge is only valuable in openings and theoretical endgames. And in the case of openings, it is disputable exact knowledge, since a verdict on a specific line of play could be overturned.

The student is extremely unlikely to get any of the exact same positions as are in this book in his own games. The key is for the student to improve his thinking process by seeing illustrative examples. This would hopefully allow him to get to the heart of other positions more quickly.

I think this book is best for players 1300 and up, but really I don't see the harm in reading books above your level, either.

How it impacted me

I don't think I read this book much when I was younger. I first started reading it and playing over some of the examples in the fall of 2009, I believe.

Often people have said that I am not very good at endgames. I do think there is some truth to that, even if their assessment might be based on some blitz games, and not tournament games where I have more time to figure things out. In particular, one Russian friend loved to tell me that I am terrible at endgames. I think the idea is that - since I never had a coach - I would have less understanding of the type of chess that is based on general understanding, for which a more experienced player can hand down the "tradition". Thus my chess level would be composed more of those things which are easier to learn by oneself - i.e. tactics, openings, attacking methods, etc.

In any case, in 2009 I decided I could benefit from this book, and started looking at it more seriously. I think it did help me to appreciate complex endings more. Some time around then I played the following game with a tough, queenless middlegame. At the time I felt it was a pretty good game and it seemed that the book had some influence on me. Of course, it is far from flawless:

An Excerpt

Here are the annotations to the game Benko-Parma, Belgrade 1964, from the chapter "The Principle of Two Weaknesses".

Any Downsides?

This book is highly respected for a reason, but it is not obvious when you first see it. The comments are very terse and simple. There is not a huge amount of analysis. In some of the examples there are other possibilities for the opposing side that Shereshevsky doesn't address, and this can be frustrating. Sure, you can analyze the position for yourself and learn from that, but often you will want to hear what the author would say about some other possibility.

Nevertheless, I think Shereshevsky's terse comments are very directed, and were designed to affect the reader. He's not always trying to prove his point - you have to just believe him. Maybe this is because he is a trainer more than a practical player.

The other criticism is that a fairly large number of the examples come from very famous old games, e.g. by Alekhine, Botvinnik, Lasker, Capablanca. Many players will have already seen those games.

What you should eat/drink while reading this book

Vodka. But not too much, or you won't learn it well. And if you are under 21 in the U.S.(18 or 16 in most other countries), then you should drink Sprite as a substitute.

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