Nearly Finished: lessons from the chess endgame

[First published in The Vacuum]


"Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished." – Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Sometimes, after the initial emergence of the armies onto the field and their first battles, there is not yet a checkmate, nor even a likely winner. Perhaps the Queens have been swapped, and some other pieces also exchanged, and the forces available to each side are equal, or approximately so; then we enter a new phase, the endgame. The armies have each suffered too many losses for there to be the possibility of a direct attack on the king, but the game can still be won. The goal now is to recruit extra troops, by promoting a pawn to a Queen; perhaps a pawn can already see a route through to the touchdown, but more usually the side with the advantage must adopt a slower approach, jockeying for position and seeking to create a combination of threats that cannot all be met at once.




"If you have any doubt what to study, study endgames. Openings teach you openings. Endings teach you chess."

-- Stephan Gerzadowicz, Thinker's Chess.



"Well, hmmm, endgames, yes, they are important, Yaaaaawwwwnnnnn!"

-- Norbert Friedrich

The normal values of chess are transformed in the endgame. Pawns that may be cheerfully offered in a gambit in the opening phase are now carefully shepherded. The King, who until now has been hiding fretfully in his castle while the fearsome Queens stalk the board, now ventures out and takes a full share of the battle, being more effective in the attack, it is said, than a Bishop or a Knight. Formerly, speed and accuracy were essential to success, but now, there is no need for hurry.

The endgame is often deprecated by club players, who often regard an exchange of queens with a shrug and the expectation of an early trip to the bar. But this neglect and disdain is unjustified. In some respects the endgame is chess in its pure form. It's a long way from any help from prepared moves in opening books, a long way from the thud-and-blunder of the middlegame. The simplified positions of the endgame allow for much deeper analysis, more exact judgements, a greater role for logic. There are chess endgame studies, a branch of chess where composed endgame positions show the full potential of the chess pieces in carefully contrived set pieces of analytical geometry, and show the beauty inherent in the rules of chess in a way that a routine tournament game may not. It is also the phase where the differences between players of different levels are said to be seen most sharply.



 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.

– Jose Raul Capablanca, World Champion 1921-1927

 A characteristic of this kind of endgame is the switching of the attack from wing to wing. This is not a random thing. The broad pattern of this game is that White (Capablanca) first draws Black's (Kupchik's) King and Rook over to defend the Queen's-side; Black's King's-side is then less well-defended; so White switches his attack to the King's-side; in trying to defend himself there too, Black becomes disorganised; White finishes with a two-pronged attack on both wings.

– David Hooper

The rules of chess limit the longest game that is possible. A draw can be claimed if 50 moves (50 each by White and by Black) care made without a pawn being moved or a piece being taken. So, the longest chess game theoretically possible is 5949 moves, but in fact the longest game actually played was a mere 269 moves, contested between Nikolic and Arsovic at Belgrade in 1989. This monster is quite the exception; most games, even games featuring an endgame phase, reach some sort of decision long before then.

The greatest player of chess endgames was also perhaps the greatest ever player of chess, a Cuban genius called José Capablanca, World Champion from 1911-1927. He learned the game at four years old by watching his father play, and revealed his grasp of the game by laughing when he saw an illegal move made. His claim to understand how to play was at once challenged, and he promptly won the game. He was a truly natural player; someone once said, "chess was his mother tongue". Some like it hot... Capablanca was always supernaturally cool. His play has been variously described as deft, subtle, accurate, intuitive. How did Capablanca approach the endgame? His naturally calm and elegant style was ideally suited to this phase of the game. He was never in a hurry; he seemed always immediately to understand what to do, always in control; he played quickly and confidently, making moves that seemed quiet and even slow, but which collectively were irresistible.

  Suddenly Capablanca came into the room. Learning the reason for the dispute the Cuban bent down to the position, said 'Si, si,' and suddenly redistributed the pieces all over the board to show what the correct formation was for the side trying to win. I haven't exaggerated. Don Jose literally pushed the pieces around the board without making moves. He just put them in fresh positions where he thought they were needed.

 Suddenly everything became clear. The correct scheme of things had been set up and now the win was easy. We were delighted by Capablanca's mastery...

-- Alexander Kotov, Think Like a Grandmaster






 Whether this advantage is decisive or not does not interest Capablanca. He simply wins the ending! That's why he is Capablanca!

-- Max Euwe , World Champion 1935-37

The things that came so easily to Capablanca come rather harder to the rest of us but are to be sought after – perhaps not just in the realm of chess. Capablanca not only understood how to play the chess but also the man. From a grasp of the overall position comes a plan, and the plan can be implemented in a number of steps... Perhaps the steps must be taken in a particular order, and at once, but more often there is time to play slowly. One can feint, delay, undo and then repeat manoeuvres... The psychological difficulties inherent in defending a slightly inferior position against an opponent who is in no hurry to press matters should never be underestimated. The books on the chess endgame may emphasise theoretical considerations, technical recipes that some players repeat like magic charms: "in an endgame with just kings and a rook each with a rook's pawn for one side, the game is drawn if the pawn has advanced to the seventh rank, but may be won if the pawn is no further than the sixth...". Theoretically marginal positions account for a small proportion of endgames actually played. The practical endgame is more often decided by judgement and character than a prior consultation with a book of spells.

There are players who specialise in the endgame; then comes the phase where they renew their focus, and new opportunities to play for a win present themselves. Perhaps the position is equal, but likewise, we believe, is the start position of a game of chess, and that is worth playing: so, let us play some more chess, and I will play better than you... This type of game is sometimes disparagingly referred to as an "endgame grind", but this doesn't give proper respect to the skill that professional players bring to garnering points late in a session. They can find ways of making life difficult for their opponents even in the most placid of positions, their pieces drift into slightly better places, you find your options becoming more and more restricted until finally you die of asphyxiation or lash out through boredom or frustration. If you want to win tournaments, particularly the unforgiving "weekend Swiss", every possible half-point must be harvested; there are no prizes for conceding draws against undistinguished opposition. The killer instinct of a top player is never more clearly shown than in the endgame: it is the instinct of a cat with a mouse. Simon Webb once wrote about playing a "dead drawn" position against Tony Miles in this sort of mood: he described being in turn puzzled, frustrated, impatient... he lost.




 ... I was surprised to see that Capablanca did not initiate any active manoeuvres and instead adopted a waiting game. In the end, his opponent (Ragozin) made an imprecise move, the Cuban won a second Pawn and soon the game.

 'Why didn't you try to convert your material advantage straight away?' I ventured to ask the great chess virtuoso. He smiled indulgently: 'It was more practical to wait'.

-- Mikhail Botvinnik, World Champion 1948-63

 It was night. I went home and put my old house clothes on and set the chessmen out and mixed a drink and played over another Capablanca. It went fifty-nine moves. Beautiful, cold, remorseless chess, almost creepy in its silent implacability.

When it was done I listened at the open window for a while and smelled the night. Then I carried my glass out to the sink sipping it and looking at my face in the mirror.

'You and Capablanca,' I said.

-- Raymond CHANDLER, The High Window, final sentences.

What can we learn from chess? Lessons from life, perhaps, but also lessons about ourselves. Shallowness, muddle-headedness, vagueness, haste, unfounded hopes and fears; all are rapidly exposed and punished on the chess board. Benjamin Franklin wrote how chess can teach us "foresight, circumspection, and caution"; EM Forster regarded the chessboard as "a forcing house where the fruits of character can ripen more fully than in life", and these two sides of the coin are surely both true. Poker is said to reveal personality, but how much more starkly does the game of chess, where nothing is hidden, in the end.

Games and ideas referred to in this article can be found at x/games/vacuum.pgn

Samuel Beckett's Endgame can be read at