Review: Nunn's Chess Endings 1

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Review: Nunn's Chess Endings 1Almost as soon as I opened Nunn's Chess Endings Volume 1, I realized the book was probably an 'instant classic', ignoring J.M. Coetzee's definition of a classic as 'that which survives'. My intuition proved to be correct in that I think this really is a fantastic book. The only problem is: who plays endgames anymore these days?

Not me, to be sure - at least not frequently enough by far to devote an awful lot of time to all the subtleties of the practical endgames Nunn describes and analyses in his book. This makes my task as a reviewer a rather difficult one: though I think the book is absolutely brilliant, I feel sorry for the author already because I fear his audience is becoming smaller and smaller.

Back in the good old days, when games were still adjourned and FIDE hadn't introduced the 'blitzing out' even of officially rated games on all levels of play, endgame manuals were absolutely essential for anyone wanting to reach a decent level in chess. Nowadays, it seems to me, things are rather different - at least for the majority of club players (and I suspect even beyond that level).

As an experiment, recall the last time you've seriously had to play a complex endgame and was able to actually invest some time in it (say, at least an hour). Next, recall the last time you've seriously analysed a complex endgame, say for at least an hour (preferrably over the board). I even suspect many strong players have never done this at all in recent years. And who can blame them?

But then again, reading Nunn's Chess Endings, published by Gambit, is such a joy that it almost makes me want to introduce a new rule, once suggested by a club member of mine, Wim Nijenhuis: instead of 'blitzing out' games (endgames, that is), why not 'blitz in' the opening phase (which everyone knows by heart anyway) and actually allow some thinking time for endgames, which are infinitely more interesting?

As exhibit A, consider the following position, which Nunn took from the award winning Van Perlo's Endgame Tactics:

O'Kelly - Forintos Bordeaux 1964

Van Perlo comments that the position is quite simple, and perhaps the New in Chess editors thought that it was so simple that it didn't need checking with Fritz or with the tablebases, but if so they were mistaken. Although White's knight is as far away from the pawns as is possible on an 8x8 board, it can still make it back in time to save the game.

1.Nc7 Kd4!? This odd-looking move at least sets a trap for White.


Van Perlo considers this to be the losing move, but he is wrong. One suspects that this error is derived from the analysis given by Ugrinovic in the Encyclopedia of Chess Endings, since Van Perlo repeats the faulty ECE analysis move for move. 2.Nb5+ Kd3 3.Nd6 is another way to draw, but not 2.Ne6+? when Black wins by 2...Ke3 (this is a position of reciprocal zugzwang) 3.Kg1 g2 4.Ng5 f2+ 5.Kxg2 Ke2.

2...Kd3 3.Nd5? This is actually the losing move. White can still draw by 3.Ne6 (not mentioned by Ugrinovic or Van Perlo) 3...Ke3 4.Kf1! reaching the reciprocal zugzang mentioned above with Black to move, and after 4...g2+ 5.Kg1 Ke2 6.Nd4+ Ke3 7.Ne6 the draw is clear. There was even a second draw by 3.Nb5 Ke3 4.Kf1!

3...f2+ 4.Kf1 Ke4 0-1 After White's knight moves, Black wins by 5...Kf3.

Many things could be mentioned about this fragment, such as Nunn's well-known tendency to write in a polemic style, or his insistence on computer-checking all lines (which in fact is why he brings up the example in the first place), or his erudition regarding other endgame classics. But what struck me most in this passage is the fact that, apparently, nobody had noticed these drawing lines before, despite the fact that the game is over 45 years old and has been published in at least two major endgame manuals. There's so much still waiting to be discovered!

But of course, to me the real question seems to be: why has nobody noticed before? I fear in part it has to do with the sad fact that almost nobody actually analyses these textbook examples to such depth anymore. From my own team, mostly filled with 2200-something players, I think it's fair to say nobody (including me) really analyses this type of endgames anymore. We may stumble upon, and even appreciate their innate complexity and beauty - but to actually analyse it and try to understand what's really going on, that's something else altogether.

The book's introduction and the first chapter (The Three Key Endgame Skills) are some of the best endgame-related chess prose I've read in a long time. In it, Nunn tries to prepare the reader for the abundance of practical endings that are waiting for him in the following 300+ pages. In fact (and this will no doubt come as a disappointment to the author), I think Nunn's prose is by far the best part of the book - at least for people like me who simply don't have the time and energy to really immerse myself in all these examples, however fascinating they are. Here's how Nunn introduces pawn endings with outside passed pawns:

The strength of the outside passed pawn in king and pawn endings is drummed into chessplayers by every textbook on the endgame. Using such a pawn, it is possible to deflect the defender's king away from the main mass of pawns, leaving a rich harvest for the attacker's king when it gets among the pawn mass. There is a good deal of truth to this accepted wisdom, and in the first section below we shall look at cases in which the outside pawn lives up to its reputation. Yet this reputation is to some extent overstated, and in the following section we shall look at cases in which the outside passed pawn proves a hollow threat. The third section deals with an interesting practical case: one side has a powerful outside passed pawn, but the opponent has an extra pawn.

This seems like a pretty meagre bit to quote from such a richly illustrated book, but the point I want to make is that even if you read only this small introduction, you might learn something subtle from it - perhaps it will even prove to 'stick' better than when you analyze all Nunn's examples in-depth. I've often seen discussions about pawn endgames being cut off by someone simply declaring 'outside passed pawn', implying an obvious and straightforward win. While only introducing his real material, Nunn dismisses such simplistic notions while making the reader curious for more. Such as, for instance, this:

Kirov - Ermenkov Sofia 1973

Black has an outside passed pawn and at first sight the win should be simple. He pushes the h-pawn, deflects the white king, marches with his king to take the e3- and b3-pawns and then promotes his a-pawn. However, one aspect of the position favours White: he only needs to take the relatively close d6-pawn in order to create a passed pawn of his own. Another factor which is not obviously relevant in the diagram position, is the weakness of the b6-pawn. These compensating factors mean that White is just able to hold this position, although accurate play is necessary.

1.Kh3!! It was quite an achievement for White to find the only move to save the game. Other moves lose (...).

1...Kf5 (...) 2.Kh4 Ke4 3.Kg5 Kxe3 4.Kf5! It takes too much time to go for the h-pawn, so White must create his own passed pawn as quickly as possible.

4...h5 This is the only chance, since if Black runs for the b-pawn, White promotes first.

5.Ke6 h4 6.Kxd6 h3 7.Kc7 h2 8.d6 h1Q 9.d7

It is perhaps surprising that Black cannot win here, but this is the point at which the weakness of b6 enters the picture. Black cannot force the white king in front of the d-pawn and the best he can do is transfer his queen to e7 with gain of tempo. Then he has a free move before he has to exchange queens on d8. If Black's pawn were on a7 instead of a5, then the resulting king and pawn ending would be winning for Black, but as it is, White is in time to take on b6 and create a passed b-pawn (...).

One of the funny things about this example is that my computer evaluates the positions in the beginning position and the final diagram as a simple win for Black (-4.90). I'm confident most chess players wouldn't bother to analyse the endgame even without this evaluation, let alone seeing the machine agrees with their intuition. But chess is not a matter of intuition only, but also of concrete analyses, which is exactly why it's such a pity endgames are so rarely (seriously) played these days.

Another thing the attentive reader has perhaps noticed already, is that Nunn almost always takes his examples from either new or relatively obscure games, rather than drawing on existing and heavily analysed material from World Champions and other greats. The book doesn't contain a single example from Karpov's, Fischer's or Capablanca's games, and only one from Smyslov's. (Of course, this makes cross-reference checking with endgame books pretty much impossible for reviewers!)

Nunn's Chess Endings Volume 1 is not a book with elementary endgames. It's a book dedicated to practical, concrete examples requiring precise analysis. Technique is another part of endgames, outside the scope of this book. (Indeed this is why Karpov and Capablanca are so conspicuously missing!) Clearly, in this format lies its greatest trump and its greatest risk. Who will go where the author went? In the introduction, Nunn optimistically notes that "I believe that anyone who works their way right through the books will see beneficial results."

This is surely true (though isn't it true for almost every serious chess book?), so I prefer to go one step further: anyone who casually reads this book will see beneficial results. Perhaps this is the chess-definition of a 'classic': it survives even in the light of modern laziness. I'm sure Coetzee would be pleased.


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