Ahh, endgames. Perhaps the least understood and least studied part about chess among amateur players. It’s seen as something both mysterious and boring. Mysterious, because it has fewer pieces but if anything is even harder to calculate, and boring, because there are no attacks, sacrifices or tactics available. Games come down to winning weak pawns. Yawn.
Nonetheless, playing the endgame well really separates the good players from the average ones. Personally, I got fed up with winning a pawn or a piece in the middlegame only to struggle mightily converting it into a win in the endgame. I began to study the endgame, and though I remained (and still remain!) weak, I’m stronger than most of my opponents, which lets me win more games.
Let me tell you, studying endgames isn’t very fun, but getting that first win solely because of endgame play makes those hours of study feel worthwhile. In what follows are examples of how I’ve won via endgames. These are my games, and thus they are not perfect, but they show the basic idea in action.
Example One: Billings – Smithy, 2010
This game shows an endgame win in perhaps its purest form. My opponent is somewhat cooperative, trading most of his pieces while he has the Isolated Queen’s Pawn, and I then outplay him in the resulting endgame.
1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 c5 3.e3 Nc6 4.c4 e6 5.Nc3 Nf6 6.Be2?!
White makes a very passive move, which allows me to clarify the situation in the center to my advantage. What follows is about six-thousand exchanges and captures, leaving White with an isolated pawn.
It’s interesting to compare this diagram with the next one, to see how much and how drastic the position has changed.
6… dxc4 7.Bxc4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 Qxd4 10.exd4
White has a small lead in development, but he also has the pawn weakness, and the lack of Queens makes it tough to launch an attack. Basically, White needs to find a way to push d5 in the next ten or so moves, as otherwise he is just going to suffer.
10… Bb4 11.a3 Bxc3+ 12.bxc3
Now the position has changed, but it’s still structurally bad for White. I want to put my Rooks on the c-file and target his weak pawn there. It also limits how much he can move his dark-square Bishop. Indeed, as we shall see in the game, that Bishop never does much of anything.
12… b6 13.O-O O-O 14.Re1 Bb7 15.Bd3 Rac8 16.Bb2 Bd5
We can see that White hasn’t done much since the last diagram, whereas Black has made good progress. White is now purely on the defensive.
17.f3 Bc4 18.Bxc4 Rxc4 19.Re2 b5 20.Kf2 Rfc8 21.Rc2?
White’s last move was a mistake. Can you see why? Spot the winning tactic for Black. Okay, so it only wins a pawn, but it’s still a tactic. If you need a hint, the c2-Rook isn’t defended, which means I can win it if the c-pawn were to move. In other words, the c-pawn is pinned …
21… Rxd4! 22.Ke3 Rdc4 23.Rd1 Nd5+ 24.Kd3 Kf8 25.Rdc1 a5 26.Ba1 Ke7 27.Rb1 b4
It should be noted that White was rated about 1700, but he clearly doesn’t know endgames very well. He hasn’t improved his position at all since the opening. I’ve advanced about as far as I can, and now another eight-thousand captures occurs, leading to a winning King and Pawn endgame, what with my extra pawn.
28.axb4 axb4 29.Rb3 bxc3 30.Bxc3 Rxc3+ 31.Rbxc3 Rxc3+ 32.Rxc3 Nxc3 33.Kxc3 e5
I’ve successfully traded all the pieces, and now my extra pawn decides the game. The game didn’t last much longer, as White can’t stop the easy plan of f5-e4 and then pushing that pawn to victory.
34.Kd3 f5 35.g3 Ke6 36.Ke3 Kd5 37.h3 e4 38.fxe4+ fxe4 39.g4 g5 40.Ke2
Was this the most exciting game in the world? No, and I won’t be earning any brilliancy prizes for it. That said, considering White willingly traded his Queen and half his pieces at the beginning, what else could I do? The only way to win was via endgame, and that I managed to do.
Example Two: Averoes – Smithy, 2012
This very long game shows me outplaying a nearly 2000-rated player in a Rook endgame. It’s actually quite a rollercoaster, as I was doing better in the opening, but then he turned it around in the Queenless middlegame, only for me to pick it back up in the endgame.
Because of the sheer length, I’ll be skipping over most of the first moves without much commentary.
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3
Bb7 9.O-O a6
The opening is a Semi-Slav Meran, a classic system played hundreds of times by hundreds of strong players. That said, I think this game is my only win in this system, so it’s not my cup of tea it seems.
10.e4 c5 11.d5 c4 12.dxe6 fxe6 13.Bc2 Qc7 14.Ng5 Nc5 15.b4
cxb3 16.Bxb3 Qe5
Holy crap we have a complex position. Everything is happening!
17.Bd2 Bd6 18.f4 Qd4+ 19.Kh1 Nfxe4 20.Ncxe4 Nxe4 21.Nxe4
Alright, I’ve won a pawn! Oh no, it’s been twenty moves and I haven’t castled my King yet!
22… Qf5 23.Bxe6 Qxg4 24.Bxg4 O-O 25.Be6+ Kh8 26.f5 Be5 27.Rae1 Bf6
We can see here that White has a nice grip on the position. The Kings and Rooks for both sides are amusingly identical, but White’s better Bishops give him a rather nasty edge. Indeed, Black needs to be careful, and I actually blunder on my next move … which my opponent doesn’t see, thankfully, or I wouldn’t have an endgame lesson to share.
29.Bb4 Be7? 30.a3 Bxb4 31.axb4 Bc8 32.Bxc8 Rxc8
For the record, 30.Bd7! would have won on the spot, but it’s not the easiest move to see. Instead, we reach this position. It should be a draw, which is a fair result for this game. Rook endgames are drawish regardless, and my Queenside majority isn’t enough to press for an advantage.
White thinks he still has an advantage, but that proves disastrous.
Look! More endgame tactics! Another won pawn! White cannot take, as otherwise he gets mated on the back rank.
Now the position changes completely. Instead of a dead draw, the question is whether Black can nurse his extra pawn into victory. Obviously, being an endgame, I need to activate my King, and it would help if we traded a pair of Rooks, just to prevent possible checks and counterattacks.
34.Rb1 Rf6 35.Rxf6 gxf6 36.h3 Kg7 37.Kh2 Kg6 38.Rb3 Kf5 39.Kg3 Ke4
Alright, first goal accomplished, a centralized King. Now comes the second part. To have any winning chances, I need to trade his b-pawn for one of my Kingside pawns. Okay, obviously winning the pawn would be nice, but that probably won’t happen.
If I win the b-pawn, then I have connected passed pawns, which can beat a Rook by themselves if far enough advanced. If I can’t do that, then it’s a draw. Let’s see.
40.Rf3 Rg8+ 41.Kf2 f5 42.Re3+ Kd5 43.Re7?! Kc4 44.Rxh7 Kxb4
White makes it easy for me, as he lunges for my pawns voluntarily. We both have passed pawns, but mine can go much faster than his. The next moves are very easy.
45.Rf7 Rg5 46.Kf3 a5 47.g4 fxg4+ 48.hxg4 a4 49.Kf4 Rg8 50.Kf5 a3 51.Ra7 Kb3
It’s now clear that White has no hope. My King shepherds the pawns forward and the pawns protect the King from checks. I can always sacrifice my Rook for his pawn if I need to, but he can’t sacrifice for both of mine. It’s over.
52.g5 a2 53.Kf6 Kb2 54.g6 a1=Q 55.Rxa1 Kxa1 56.Kf7 Rxg6 57.Kxg6 b4 58.Kf5 b3 0-1
Unlike the first example, this was a very interesting game. It had tactics, King attacks, active pieces, two Bishops zig-zagging across the board, everything. It was also against an opponent rated just under 2000. Winning this game felt like a huge feather in my cap.
If I didn’t know some basic endgame knowledge, it would have been a draw … which is fine, I guess, but winning always feels better.
Example Three: Smithy – Olo, 2012
This final game was played against a weaker opponent, around 1500 rating. It’s perhaps not interesting, in that I simply win a pawn in the beginning and then squeeze him in the endgame, but what makes a good player a good player is consistently beating weaker players.
How often have you had a good position only to spoil it? It happen far too often. Having good endgame technique helps prevent this.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nxd4?! 5.Qxd4 d6 6.Nc3 c5?
As an aside, I suggest everyone under 1800 play the Scotch as White. You don’t need to know the theory, just play the first four moves every game as White. I can’t count how often I’ve seen similar positions as White in the Scotch, as lower-rated opponents just badly play this position.
Black’s …c5 is a terrible move, as the d6-pawn is now terminally weak. I play three natural moves and Black can’t defend it.
7.Qd3 Nf6 8.Bf4 Be7 9.O-O-O O-O 10.Bxd6 Bxd6 11.Qxd6 Qxd6 12.Rxd6 Be6
Well, that was easy. I won a pawn. Now what? Simple: trade pieces and win in the endgame. If the game remains calm, my extra pawn will carry the game. That’s my goal, then: trade pieces and prevent counterplay.
13.Be2 b6 14.Rhd1 h6 15.e5 Nh7 16.f4 Rac8 17.g4 g6
Well, limiting counterplay is going great so far. Black’s Knight is a sad horsie, with no possible moves. Black’s Bishop isn’t much better. Once I put a Knight on d5 (hint, next move), it will have no forward squares, either. If Black has no counterplay, then I cannot lose. I might not win, as it could be a draw, but I can’t lose. I thus have no risk.
18.Nd5 Kg7 19.h3 Rfe8 20.Ba6 Rb8 21.Nc7 Re7
My pieces are now all much better than his, and I began to wonder what to do here. How do I continue? Then I remembered my goal: trade pieces. True, my Knight is awesome, but trading pieces cannot hurt me.
22.Nxe6+ Rxe6 23.Rxe6 fxe6 24.Rd7+ Kg8
You see, trading pieces only helped me with my advantage. I learned this from GM Smirnov: if your opponent has a bad piece, trading other pieces highlights just how bad it is. Black doesn’t even have the barest hint of counterplay, and White is dominating so much it seems as if I’m up much more than a pawn.
Actually, my position is so overwhelming that Black will lose material in the next few moves regardless.
25.Bc4 Ra8 26.Bxe6+ Kh8 27.Bf7 g5 28.f5
I’m now up two pawns, and both of them are connected passed central pawns. This is beyond winning. Black played a few more moves, but the position is no longer in doubt, and I won before move 40.
Did you notice the simplicity here? I got a better position, and then I kept my better position. Black never had a chance. Once I won the pawn, I was able to lock the position down and never had any doubt. That’s the power of good endgame technique.
I’ll be the first to admit that endgames have not been my favourite chess stage for most of my life. It’s hard to study, it’s hard to know what’s going on, and most endgames are dry and uninteresting. The better I’ve gotten, though, the more I appreciate endgames, and they have really improved my results. Here’s an in-depth analysis of a game I played in 2016 against a player over 2000 rating, and it was the endgame that was the difference.
I should say, I’m not a very good endgame player. It’s probably my weakest link. That said, most other players are even worse, and that lets me win a few extra games. A little time invested here can reap a prolonged harvest down the road. If you were to get really good at endgames, I imagine chess would feel a heck of a lot easier.
Just remember the basic idea: when up material, trade pieces and limit counterplay. It’s simple and it works.