Review: Essential and not so essential endgame guides

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Two endgame manualsAs a fairly decent club player, I have always been impressed with club members, whether higher or lower rated than me, who were able to quickly evaluate basic endgames as 'elementary' draws or wins. I must admit I have always had difficulties remembering and truly understanding even the most basic endgames. That's why I was happy to read two recent guides taking seriously precisely those kind of endgames. 

I grew up with Averbakh's classic Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge (translated into Dutch as What Every Chess Player Should Know Of The Endgame) and although (or perhaps because) I reread this manual, which was about 100 pages in total, about once a year, I still hesitate whenever I encouter an elementary endgame and hear kibitzers confidently proclaim the position a draw or a win. There are so many exceptions and subtleties in these endings that I always wonder whether these kibitzers are merely bluffing or if they're actually much more brilliant than their rating suggests.

Typically underestimated endings, at least in my experience, are ones involving a rook vs. pawn. I've often encountered versions of the following position in casual analysis, when both players concluded a draw after just a few seconds of looking at it and moved on to the next position. The solution still makes me feel humble after all those years. It features in two recent books on elementary endgames, John Nunn's Understanding Chess Endgames, published by Gambit, and Bruce Pandolfini's Endgame Workshop (Russell Enterprises). Both books aim at the chess player with little or no endgame knowledge, which makes them perfect for comparision.

Here's what Nunn says:
R. Réti, 1922 diagram 1We have already made the point that the attacker is better off when the kings are on opposite sides of the pawn. This fact can lead to some subtle play.

1.Rd2! White can only win by losing a tempo with his rook, so as to gain the opposition at the critical moment. 1.Rd3! d4 2.Rd1 is equally good, but not 1.Rd1? d4 2.Kd7 Kd5 and now White is in zugzwang. After 3.Kc7 Kc5 or 3.Ke7 Ke5 Black can keep his king on the same side of the pawn as the white king, while 3.Rd2 brings the rook too close to Black's king and leads to a draw after 3...Kc4 4.Ke6 Kc3 (gaining a crucial tempo) 5.Rd1 d3 6.Ke5 d2 7.Ke4 Kc2.

1...d4 2.Rd1! The point. White's rook manoeuvre means that Black loses the opposition and is thus in zugzwang himself. (...)
Pandolfini shifts the pieces three files to the right (with the kings on g5 and g7, a black pawn on g4 and the white rook on g2), saying:
In [this position] it's a matter of making Black commit, while also making sure that, later on, time won't be lost if the rook's attacked by the black king. Right now the rook's on a bad square, being assailable by the black king from f3 and h3. With 1.Rg1! however, anticipating an eventual, time gaining attack by the enemy king at either f3 or h3, White ensures the rook's safety at a later critical moment, while getting a meaningful opposition and that leads to a win. (...) 
Although both explanantions are, in my opinion, quite good, there are several interesting differences to note: first of all, Nunn doesn't mention any 'bad squares', whereas Pandolfini leaves the zugzwang word out of his explanation. Also, since Réti's original study starts with a pawn on the 5th rank, the move 1.Rd2! looks even more difficult to understand given the fact that the black king can't 'assail' (in Pandolfini's words) the white rook from d1 either, while Pandolfini's version with 1.Rg1! focuses on the aspect of the black king annoying the white rook only. You see, even in this position there are many ways to think about the problems at hand. The longer I think about it, the more I find that both versions complement each other perfectly, and you really need to see them together to truly understand the ins and outs of the position.   

In general, Nunn's book delves a little deeper in the positions, expecting a bit more effort from his readers, as in the above example, but what Pandolfini lacks in depth, he makes up for with insightful remarks and thoughtful practical advice. This is no doubt due to the fact that John Nunn - also known as 'the Doctor' - is very much like a scientist in much that he does and writes, and Pandofini - known as the trainer of Josh Waitzin and for his role, played by Ben Kingsley, in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer - a coach. Here's an example from Pandolfini that I really liked, especially because 99,9% of all chess authors wouldn't ever consider analysing it.
diagram 2In all situations, you should endeavor to play the best move, if you can figure out what it is. Thus in [this position] , White  can mate in two moves by playing 1.Raa7, bringing up the back rook to double on the seventh rank. After Black plays the forced reply 1...Kd8, either rook mates by checking along the eigth rank, thereby keeping the two-rook (double rank) cutoff intact. Be correct, but it's also okay to be practical, especially if you're a developing student. Let's say you're very nervous and can't think, whether because of shortage of time on the clock or for some other unsettling reason. For [this position], as many newcomers quickly pick up, you can gain control of the situation by shifting your rooks far away from their target, so that the enemy king can't annoy them.
Obvious though it is to most players, the advice given here is actually very valuable, I think. I've seen dozens of reasonably strong players failing to switch to 'practical mode' in examples such as these, losing on time while trying to find the best move when a more practical approach doesn't require thinking at all. Unfortunately, Pandofini has a habit of being a bit overlong on such occasions, and he goes on in the same fashion for two more paragraphs, now really stating the blatantly obvious - even, I'm sure, for those who've learned the rules just minutes ago - before concluding with another useful maxim: 'rooks work best from far away'

Another minor quirck about Pandolfini's book is the following. I always like to know the origin of a position, such as whether it's a problem, a composition or an example for practice. It helps to frame these endgames in terms of objective strength, and it can even help players (such as myself0 overcome doubt and even shame over not immediately resigning in such positions. Nunn always mentions composers and players (his examples are often very recent, giving the book a disctinctly 'modern' feel), but Pandolfini for some reason doesn't deem this necessary. True, he sometimes does briefly say who was involved in a position, but even here he often omits year and place as if these are irrelevant for the student's task. I feel this is at least an underestimation of how chess memory works.

Cheparinov - Navara Wijk aan Zee 2006 diagram 3Isn't it wonderful that Navara played on for 19 moves in this position before throwing in the towel? Such examples (in Nunn's book), and especially the status of the players involved, may help people realize how untrivial this ending is, and perhaps stop them from instantly resigning instead of trying if the opponent knows his theory.  Pandolfini takes a different, typically more elaborate, approach in explaining the mating path. He devotes 8 pages to 'interrelated nets', 'corresponding triangles' and hypothenuses.

Since he's an experienced trainer I assume his method works for students, but it all seems way a bit too complicated and theoretical for me - you just need two or three basic positions and a lot of practical experience before it hits you. Nunn, on the other hand, takes the other extreme and, while devoting 4 positions to this ending, explains only one generic concept in it. In general, Nunn seems a bit uninterested in explaining such 'obvious' stuff, while Pandolfini takes a bit too little for granted in his will to make everything totally clear.

Ideally, readers interested in basic endgames should read both books and make the comparisons themselves. The material covered in this books is excellent, but then again, many similar books from the past (such as Averbakh's classic, or the recent 100 Endgames You Must Know by Jesus de la Villa Garcia) cover pretty much the same stuff. There's no revolutionary new way in which these new authors present their material compared to the older works, in my opinion. The only difference is, for Nunn, that he includes lots of recent examples, and for Pandolfini that he explains the positions is more detail aimed at the truly ignorant reader. As for the ideas presented - it's all been done before.

For this reason, I feel both books are a bit expensive for what they have to offer. Nunn's Understanding Chess Endgames comes at $24,95 and Pandolfini's Endgame Workshop costs $19,95 (both books have slighty over 200 pages.) My conclusion is that if you don't have a basic endgame guide yet, you might as well buy one of these two (or buy a second-hand edition of one of the classics for a lesser price). But if you do possess such a volume already, you better save your money for something more original.


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