Chess Endgames | 10 Principles for Beginners

Chess Endgames | 10 Principles for Beginners

DanielRensch
IM DanielRensch
Jul 4, 2011, 12:00 AM |
66 | For Beginners

Top Ten Rules to the Endgame!

For a lot of beginner level chess players, the endgame can be a difficult challenge.  Many of my early games ended in checkmate in the middlegame, so I did not have a lot of early experience playing endgames. However, knowing what to do in the final stage is just as important as anything else. So, I decided to make a list of some very basic steps that could steer NO endgame wrong! Enjoy!!!

Rule #1 - Master the Basic Checkmates! 

There isn't really much to say here. Your ability to win a chess game is based on whether or not you can checkmate the enemy King. But more importantly, and as will be reviewed in Rule #5, you can't truly make accurate decisions in the more complex situations of a game unless you are confident in your ability to deliver a full point when it matters most. The basic checkmates that must be mastered (and in this order, if you want my expertTongue out opinion) are:

  1. King and Queen vs King -- Because every King and Pawn Ending ends with the promotion of a pawn. If you can't checkmate with a Queen, then you can't truly master King and Pawn Endings.
  2. Two Rooks (or the Rook Roller) vs King -- Because it's lots of fun!
  3. King and Rook vs King -- Because many Rook and Pawn endings (arguably the most commonly reached practical ending) end with one side having to give up their Rook for a Pawn. If you can't do this mate, then you can't win Rook and Pawn endings.
  4. King and Two Bishops vs King -- Because two Bishops are better than one!
  5. And only once you've reach a higher level (I would say 1800 Rated) -- King and Knight & Bishop vs King... -- When you're ready!

There are several videos on our site that teach these mating patterns, as well as some articles too. This isn't a "study guide" -- just my random foolishness Wink... So go learn these patterns and have fun along the way. Good luck!

Rule #2 - Win, When, Winning -- Master the Basics of Technique! 

This rule is not just another way to remind you to checkmate when you are ahead large amounts of material. It is more of a "state of mind" or general approach than it is a specific pattern. Basically, the principles of winning won positions (and yes, that makes sense grammaticaly Cool) can be broken down into a system:

  1. Keep It "Simple"/Simplify -- Basically, if either side possess more than a full piece (minor) advantage (and in some cases, a clear two pawn advantage is good enough) they should be looking for every opportunity to trade piece. Simplifiy the position down to its "purest" form (kind of like doing "fractions" in math). This is a principle of technique that applies in both Middlegames and Endgames, but you would be surprised if I told you how often I see amateur games get "blown" simply because whomever was winning dismissed their opportunities to trade pieces, and instead played for some kind of crazy checkmate attack Yell... You aren't being "wimpy" by taking the life out of a position where you have already earned a large advantage.
  2. Keep an "Eye Out" -- If/when you've achieved a significant advantage, your opponent's threats just became more important than your own brilliant plans! I know that's hard to take in, but the point is that "tricks" are all your opponent has left. Chess is much more a science than it is an art (just let that sink in for a moment Cry). The "bad news" is that that means chess at the highest level isn't as fun as it looks, and that there isn't nearly as much creative thinking required to become a great chess player as you think there is... The "good news" is that, technically, if you have a clear advantage and play perfectly from then on out, it wouldn't matter if your opponent got up and Garry Kasparov sat down -- if your position is winning, you should win it! It's that simple. So, if you can have a "defensive" eye and not get careless about your opponent's tricks, you will convert all your endgame advantages into a full point!
  3. Keep Playing Chess -- The game isn't over, despite your advantage. So, pay attention to all the other principles in this article and remember that if there isn't a clear "path to victory" by trading pieces, you have to keep playing good moves!

Rule #3 - Passed Pawns MUST be Pushed!

Shake what your momma gave ya'... wait, wrong article Embarassed. Um, push your passed pawns if you got 'em (yeah, that's it)! Recognize a passed pawn, and push it! Whether it be a basic Endgame simply begging for one side to march their pawn up the board and promote, or even a more complex position with plenty to think about besides the pawns -- you must push your passed pawns! So, we figured it would be a crime not to remind you of that! Here is a cool position where the "passer" was the key to victory:

 

 

Rule #4 - Activate Your King!

One thing that really separates the final stage of chess from the rest of the game is King play! Every great endgame player in history not only understood the importance King activation, but they anticipated precisely when the middlegame was ending, and that it was time to bring out the big guy!

Generally, as soon as the Queen's have been traded you should consider the possibility of bringing out your King. In cases where there still exists lots of enemy forces (particularly the two Rooks and at least two minor pieces) -- you might want to put the reigns on your leader, but don't lose a game because you brought your King into the battle too late! Here is a great example from a game of my own. Though it's complex, try to anticipate how the King might "find his way" to help the Rook on h8 promote the h7-pawn:

 

And a simpler example from a video of GM Bojkov's that I liked is:
And I would guess there may be ten quadrilion Tongue out similar examples. Perhaps even much more simple ones for players of this level, but just try to let the main point integrate: "In the Middlegame the King is a mere extra, but in the Endgame he is a principal" -- Aaron Nimzowitsch.

Rule #5 - Play "Backwards-to-Forwards" Chess!

This is one of my favorite "concepts" or "mind-sets" to teach beginners, as I believe it can change their entire approach to the game when they "get it". You must recognize your goal or long term strength/opponent's weakness to attack before you can ever expect to make an accurate decision with what's in front of you. Basically, most players drastically (to the point of "tragic comedy") misplay endings because they never take 5 minutes to stop, make some mental notes about all the long term weaknesses and strengths of their position, before they start making moves. Rather, they assume that with less pieces on the board there is less to think about, and they play as such... BIG MISTAKE Cry

GM Khachiayn talks about it in his videos as "thinking from the end" -- which is a different way to say the same thing. Stop and make a committment to a plan or long term goal, and watch all of your calculations get better! Players critique themselves for making blunders and miscalculating simple things, but without a goal in mind, it is hard to keep yourself "on track" -- so of course you are going to make mistakes.

The Russian/Soviet School of Chess takes this approach a step further by teaching all their students endgames first. Kind of like my recomendation to master the basic checkmate patterns BEFORE anything else. Knowing what's next makes all of your decisions better. It isn't that GMs are calculating 50 moves ahead, they just know more endings then you do -- so not only are their decisions in the endgame better, but you almost never reach a relatively equal one with a stronger player because they were making better Middlegame moves based on their knowledge of the ensuing ending. Make sense? Man that was tough to say Foot in mouth... Glad I got that out Wink...

Here are a couple cool examples where the long term goal was established and it lead to some awesome endgame play:

 

 

 

 Rule #6 - Beware of "German Words"!

Zugzwang and Zwischenzug... oh those fickle German mistresses Kiss!!! If you don't know what those words mean, check this out. I included both "famous-German-Chess" words here because, well, I can -- but really, Zugzwang is the "beast of the endgame". Do you realize how many endgames would otherwise be a draw if it weren't for Zugzwang? If you (or your opponent) didn't have to move unless they "felt like it" the chess world would be a much more peaceful place Wink. Dozens, if not hundreds, of King and Pawn Endings rely on Zugzwang to be successful, several critical Rook Endings, and countless other positions. Here is a few (including our 2nd example from the last rule) common ones:

 

Note that if black had the ability to "pass" the turn -- this famous winning position of "King on the 6th, Pawn on the 5th" would not be a win -- instsantly changing chess history!!!
As the description of the position above explains, even this simple basic checkmate is based on Zugzwang.
And we see yet another example of a "winning position with Zugzwang" that ends in a draw if black can pass the turn... Finally, you should realize that the complex idea black executes in Rule #5 (2nd diagram) above is designed to put white in Zugzwang. But if white could "say pass" with the Bishop on c2, the Triple-Step Winning Method (a little too advanced for this article here, but something I mention in my Principle of Two Weaknesses Video Series) wouldn't be winning without Zugzwang. I am talking about this position:

 

 

So anyway, why is our new found appreciation for German Language worthy of a principle in this article? Simply because so many positions reach "that critical moment" that if you aren't aware of this "looming idea" then your approach in many endgame positions will remain an amateur one...

Rule #7 - Find a Pawn Majority... AND Use It!

If you are going to shake what you momma gave ya, then recognize the potential of what your momma gave ya (rule #3) first! Example:

 

 

This is known as a "pawn majority" (meaning white's 4 on 3 pawn advantage on the Kingside). Here is another example:

 

 

Rule #8 - Principle of Two Weaknesses... What's That?! 

This rule is more of a concept or idea that has become a staple part of every good coach's "endgame teaching repertoire". Basically, teaching their students that against tough defense -- even a clear advantage like an extra pawn may not be enough. Many Rook endings are drawn afterall, and minor piece endings always have the potential that a player might sacrifice and leave you with an extra piece but no winning chances.

So, rather than beating your head against the "proverbial wall" with one advantage, let your advantage serve as a clamp on your opponent's ability to defend a different target. By creating a second weakness you often increase the strength of your first advantage. A very simple example of this idea, and one that I used in my video series on the subject is:

 

Rule #9 - Be Concrete & Calculate!

Unlike any other "phase" to chess, the endgame requires more knowledge of specific positions and patterns. What if you realized that in the majority of the endgames you play, the result is likely already decided or forced if the best moves are played by both sides? That's kind of scary when you think about it, right Undecided? It means that being general and/or trying to evaluate things intuitively is very risky.

As a beginner, you can't expect yourself to have the knowledge of technical positions that a master level (let alone a Grandmaster) player would have. BUT what you can do is take my piece of advice as something similar to the "never turn your back on the ocean" saying, ie -- approach the endgame like every move could be your last!!! Be concrete, calculate, "don't move until you see it", etc... If you play chess with a healthy fear of endings and that they are actually the hardest stage of the game where there is the most to calculate, then you will be on the right track already.

Rule #10 - Less Pieces = Less Room for Error!

Similiar to our last rule, this principle is in place to remind you of the scary fact that endgames require the most precision of any stage of the game. Unless you are simply lost and only postponing things to avoid going home, or totally winning and enjoying the torture of your helpless opponent -- then you are by definition involved in a relatively equal ending that requires, here it comes, your complete focus and hard work!

"If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch", or as one famous Grandmaster said: "The endgame separates the Master from the Amateur"... or something like that...

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