When I gave a brief overview of my chess study plan I said that the cornerstone of the plan is endgame study. Every day where I have a time block allocated to study chess, I use at least some of that time for endgame study.
There are many arguments against this approach. These include that it would make more sense to start with opening study, since every game has an opening, while not every game has an endgame. Surely you need to get through the opening and the middle game before your endgame skill is of any use. If you prioritise endgame study at the cost of the opening, then you may be crushed before you can show your skill with triangulation, the Lucena position, or two bishops versus bishop and knight.
So why do I choose to study the endgame at the cost of opening study? The reality is that many club chess players, and this means players up to around and Elo rating of 2000 or 2100, often play irregular lines. Weak players do so because they probably don’t know better – that was and mostly continues to be the case for me. Strong players often do so against weaker players, I suspect to negate any basic book knowledge the weaker player may have; to make them uncomfortable early on. In a recent league game where I played White against a player rated 1802 – I was rated 1435 – the opening moves were 1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 h6 3. e3 g5 4. Bd3 g4.
An online opening database with about 3.2 million games shows 1. …Nf6 is the most popular reply to 1. d4, while 2. …h6 is the twelfth most popular move for games that started 1. d4 Nf6 2. e3 …, having been played only 24 times in around 320,000 games! Apparently 3. c4 was more accurate for me after that, but the point is that, if I was relying on specific openings rather than opening principles and positions, I would have been stumped after move 2. As it turned out the weaknesses he created on the king side with those early thrusts cost him, as he provided me with my best win to date!. So you may spend hundreds or thousands of hours memorising all sorts of variations of your chosen opening, for your opponent to go out of book by move 2. Then what?
There are many examples of grandmasters who studied the endgame in detail before they focused on studying openings. IM Josh Waitzkin told Chess Life (August 2007) that
“… (you) should start with the endgame instead of the opening. Studying positions of reduced complexity you can gain an early understanding of certain deep principles that would be impossible to feel in complex middlegame positions. Then, once we understand the principle, we can apply it to much more complex positions”.
Former World Chess Champion José Raul Capablanca had a similar view:
“In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else, for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame.”
I feel there is also a logical argument in favour of the ‘endgame first’ approach. When you know which endgame positions win, draw and lose, you can aim for desired positions. As a simple example, if you are down two pawns to one and can force a pawn exchange that leads to your opponent having a rook pawn rather than a non-rook pawn, and your king can get to the key squares in time, you can force a draw. Without endgame knowledge you may not have known to play for this position.
There is an argument that the simpler positions in endgames teaches you how to calculate more accurately.
There is also the solving argument. Endgame tables prove that chess is solved for around 6 or 7 pieces. Of course it is too much information to use in reality, but the principle is that if you work back from known (solved) positions, then you know what you are aiming for. If you had to solve tic-tac-toe, you would start with one tic to be made to win (the endgame), then work back from there to determine which tics in different positions get you to that known (solved) position.
Finally, although endgame study is my priority, that does not mean that I entirely neglect other aspects of the game. I do study the opening, but within very tight constraints and with the aim of getting to familiar positions in the middle game, rather than to eke out a 0.1 pawn advantage with some obscure variation. I also study tactics (this is my second priority after the endgame) and strategy (more passively and to a limited amount). More on these other aspects of the game later.
Those are some of the reasons I believe endgame study should take priority. Now to what I do with my endgame study time. Virtually all of it is studying with a book and playing the positions out over a real chessboard until I understand the concept. My books of choice are Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, three books by John Nunn – Understanding Chess Endgames, Chess Endings 1 and Chess Endings 2 – and Mark Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. Silman’s book is divided by playing strength. I have worked through the sections up to 1799 USCF. The reasons I stopped there are that it was one section above the grading group I am currently in, and I thought Nunn’s Understanding Chess Endings would be a good bridge between Silman’s more elementary work and more advanced studies. I am about 10 (of 100) topics into Nunn’s Understanding Chess Endgames. When I complete that, I plan to return to the later chapters of Silman’s course, before tackling Nunn’s two more advanced books. I plan to round off this initial endgame study phase with Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. These books are likely to keep me occupied for somewhere between eighteen months and two years. There are other books which I plan to study after that, but that is for later. In addition to the book study, I do the two endgame positions Chess Tempo allows me to do for free every day.
In the next post I’ll talk about the second priority in my chess study plan, tactics.