Spring Ahead by Improving Your Endgame

When I first started playing chess, I spent a lot of time studying the opening. Inspired by the World Champion at the time, Garry Kasparov, I spent hours memorizing lines in the Sicilian and King's Indian and dreamed of catching my opponent with my opening "preparation." However, twenty years later, older and perhaps a little wiser, I find myself preferring to study the endgame. This is for a few reasons. First, my ability to memorize enormous amounts of opening theory is declining. Also, my children are starting to learn chess, so I find that it's easier start teaching them the endgame since there are less pieces on the board. Finally, I've come to see the beauty of the endgame in the games of Capablanca and Rubinstein. I'd like to share a few of the recent lessons I've learned and been able to apply in my games.

Precision with the Pawns

This game was one of my early successes since my recent love for the endgame. Although king and pawn endgames are not incredibly difficult, precision is needed in specific positions. In the following game, I didn't play the most precise moves, but I learned a lot analyzing the nuances of this position.
[pgn][Event "?"]
[Site "Internet Chess Club"]
[Date "2016.11.01"]
[Round "?"]
[White "John"]
[Black "Bryan Castro"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "C01"]
[WhiteElo "1650"]
[BlackElo "1756"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "8/1p6/p1p3p1/4pk2/PP1r2RP/5P1K/8/8 b - - 0 47"]
[PlyCount "21"]
[EventDate "2016.??.??"]
[TimeControl "5400+30"]47... Rxg4 $1 {Seeing that I could get back to protect the e-pawn, I eagerly
entered this pawn endgame. I don't play the best move, but fortunately my
opponent didn't see it. We both enjoyed studying the analysis after the game.}
48. fxg4+ Kf4 $2 {What's wrong with this move? It's a matter of zugzwang.} (
48... Ke4 $1 {And now it is White that must make an unpleasant choice.} 49. a5
{Trying to give the move back to Black.} (49. h5 gxh5 50. gxh5 Kf5 51. Kg3 Kg5
52. Kf3 a5 $1 {The point here is that Black gets a well-known pattern where
his two pawns one file apart protect each other.} (52... Kxh5 $2 {even two
pawns up, Black had to play very accurately to win, as this move shows how
easily White can draw if Black doesn't play the best moves.} 53. Ke4 Kg5 54.
Kxe5 b6 55. Kd6 a5 56. bxa5 bxa5 57. Kxc6 Kf5 58. Kb5 Ke6 59. Kxa5 Kd7 60. Kb6
Kc8 61. a5 Kb8 {and Black draws.}) 53. bxa5 c5 54. Ke4 c4 55. Ke3 Kxh5 56. Kd2
e4 57. Kc3 e3) (49. Kg3 {White can try to block Black's king.} a5 50. bxa5 c5 {
and Black will queen a pawn as well as stop White's pawns easily.}) 49... Kf4
$1 50. h5 {Otherwise, White loses material for free.} gxh5 51. gxh5 Kg5 52. Kg3
Kxh5 53. Kf3 Kg5 54. Ke4 Kf6 {and Black wins. Here you can see the importance
of not advancing the e-pawn earlier. On e5, the Black king gets back just in
time to protect it.}) (48... Kf6 $2 {I wouldn't have played this} 49. a5 Ke6
50. Kg3 Kf6 51. Kf3 Ke6 52. Ke4 Kf6 53. h5 gxh5 54. gxh5 Ke6 55. h6 Kf6 56. h7
Kg7 57. Kxe5 {and White wins.}) 49. h5 $2 {A blunder for a blunder. Not seeing
a4-a5 (which I didn't see during the game either), he goes all-in on the
passed h-pawn. I was in some time trouble so perhaps he was trying to pressure
me by playing this move quickly, but I was able to count that I got back in
time.} (49. a5 $1 {Now Black's problem is tthat he only has two choices...to
move the king away from White's pawn majority or to advance his e-pawn, which
will be weak after White trades kingside pawns and Black has to stop the
h-pawn.} e4 {Advancing the pawn allows it to get taken when White pushes his
majority.} (49... Kf3 50. h5 {Pushing the pawn majority now that Black's king
is too far away to stop it.} gxh5 51. gxh5 e4 52. h6 e3 53. h7 e2 54. h8=Q e1=Q
{Although Black is a pawn up, I think it is very difficult to win this.}) 50.
h5 gxh5 (50... e3 51. Kg2 {White has to stop the pawn.} (51. hxg6 e2 52. g7
e1=Q 53. g8=Q Qh1#) 51... gxh5 52. gxh5 Kg5 (52... e2 53. Kf2 Kg5 54. Kxe2 Kxh5
55. Kd3 Kg5 56. Kc4 Kf5 57. Kc5 Ke5 58. Kb6 Kd6 59. Kxb7 c5 60. Kxa6 cxb4) 53.
Kf3 Kxh5 54. Kxe3 Kg4 55. Kd4 Kf5 56. Kc5 Ke6 57. Kb6 Kd6 58. Kxb7 c5 59. bxc5+
(59. Kxa6 $4 cxb4 60. Kb7 b3 61. a6 b2 62. a7 b1=Q+ 63. Ka8 Qh7 64. Kb8 Qc7+
65. Ka8 Qc8#) 59... Kxc5 60. Kxa6 Kc6 {= With the well-known drawing pattern.})
51. gxh5 Kg5 (51... e3 52. Kg2 Kg5 53. Kf3 Kxh5 54. Kxe3 c5 {At some point
this will need to be played in order to have drawing chances.} (54... Kg5 55.
Kd4 Kf5 56. Kc5 Ke5 57. Kb6 Kd5 58. Kxb7 c5 (58... Kc4 59. Kxa6 Kxb4 60. Kb6 c5
61. a6 c4 62. a7 c3 63. a8=Q c2 64. Qa1 {and Black wins.}) 59. bxc5 Kxc5 60.
Kxa6 Kc6 {=}) 55. bxc5 Kg5 56. Kd4 Kf6 57. Kd5 Ke7 58. c6 bxc6+ 59. Kxc6 Ke6
60. Kb6 Kd6 61. Kxa6 Kc6 {=}) 52. Kg3 Kxh5 53. Kf4 Kg6 54. Kxe4 Kf6 55. Kd4 Ke6
56. Kc4 Kd6 57. Kd4 Ke6 (57... Kc7 58. Kc5 Kc8 59. Kb6 (59. Kd6 Kd8 60. Kc5 Kc7
61. Kd4 Kd6 62. Kc4 Ke5 (62... c5 63. bxc5+ Kc6 64. Kb4 Kd5) 63. Kc5) 59... Kb8
60. Kc5 Kc7) 58. Kc5 Kd7 59. Kb6 Kc8 {=}) 49... gxh5 50. gxh5 Kg5 51. Kg3 Kxh5
52. Kf3 Kg5 53. Ke4 Kf6 54. a5 Ke6 55. Ke3 Kd5 56. Kd3 e4+ 57. Ke3 Ke5 {White
resigned.} 0-1[/pgn]

Knowing What's Important

One of the toughest parts for me to understand in the endgame was that I didn't always need to calculate everything if I understood what the most important elements in the position was. The following problem that I encountered helped solidify this concept in my mind.

Lev Gutman vs. Christopher Lutz

[fen]8/8/8/8/1KP4P/3r4/4Rk2/8 b - - 0 84[/fen]
Black to move and win.
Show Solution
[pgn][Event "?"]
[Site "Bad Zwesten GER"]
[Date "2000.01.05"]
[Round "7"]
[White "Gutman, Lev"]
[Black "Lutz, Christopher"]
[Result "0-1"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "8/8/8/8/1KP4P/3r4/4Rk2/8 b - - 0 84"]
[PlyCount "9"]
[EventDate "2000.??.??"]84... Kxe2 {Black had to see that his king was needed to assist him in
stopping the c-pawn.} 85. c5 Ke3 $1 {This is the only move. Deep calculation
isn't necessary. It is only necessary to realize that White can make one move
at a time and the Black's king has enough time to support his rook. Also
notice that the a-pawn's presence is irrelevant as Black will have enough time
to stop it as well.} (85... Rd4+ $2 86. Kb5 Rxh4 87. c6 Rh8 88. Kb6 {and Black
will have to sacrifice the rook to stop the pawn from promoting.}) (85... Rd1
$2 {Bringing the rook behind the passed pawns doesn't help either.} 86. c6 Rc1
87. Kb5 Kf3 88. Kb6 Kg4 89. c7 Kxh4 90. Kb7 {and there's no way to bring in
the king to assist.}) 86. Kc4 Ke4 87. c6 (87. Kb5 Kd5) 87... Rd1 $1 88. Kc5 (
88. c7 Rc1+) 88... Ke5 {Black's rook and king will win the c-pawn after either
89.Kb6 Kd6 or 89.c7 Rc1+ 90.Kb6 Kd6.} 0-1[/pgn]
I was able to use this concept in the following game, in which I had blundered away a material advantage, but was able to recover to reach the following position:
[pgn][Event "?"]
[Site "Internet Chess Club"]
[Date "2017.01.19"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Bryan Castro"]
[Black "CR"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "D04"]
[WhiteElo "1784"]
[BlackElo "1768"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "8/8/2p2p2/3p1p2/1N1n1P1k/P4K2/1P6/8 w - - 0 53"]
[PlyCount "31"]
[EventDate "2017.??.??"]
[TimeControl "2700+45"]53. Ke3 {At this point, I had to regroup. I got up from my chair and tried to
clear my head. I reminded myself that even though I was a pawn down, my king
was much better placed than my opponent's, and my passed a-pawn would be hard
to stop. The adrenaline was pumping, but I was confident. Also, I had recently
been studying knight and pawn endgames, which also gave me a boost.} Ne6 (53...
c5 54. Nxd5) 54. Nxc6 Kg3 55. a4 Nxf4 56. Nd4 $1 {I spent a lot of time
considering what to do here. Besides this, which analysis proves to be the
best move, I also considered pushing my a-pawn or attacking the d-pawn with my
king. I realized though that I had to prevent Black's knight from getting over
to the queenside - or at least make the job hard. The knight on d4 blocks
Black's d-pawn which prevents the knight from going to d5. Also, e6 is no
longer available to the knight. It will have to take the long way around to
stop the a-pawn.} Kg4 57. a5 Ng6 58. a6 Ne5 59. a7 Nc4+ 60. Kf2 Nb6 {Covering
the a8 square. However, this was the exact types of positions I had been
studying recently and calculated that I had a forced win from here.} 61. Ne6 $1
{Keeping the king out of f4.} Na8 62. b4 {The method: Push the b-pawn and then
use the knight to deflect the Black knight.} d4 {Here is where I had to
realize the most important aspect of this position, that victory depended on
me promoting one of my pawns. Realizing that I would need my knight to force
one of my pawns through, I just had to make a quick check that my king could
hold off Black's pawns in time.} 63. b5 (63. Nxd4 $2 {I realized that I had to
let my king deal with the d-pawn, otherwise the Black king gets into the
position, with a draw the most likely result.} Kf4 $1) 63... d3 64. Nc7 d2 (
64... Nxc7 65. b6 Na8 66. b7) 65. Ke2 f4 66. Nxa8 Kg3 67. Nc7 f3+ 68. Kxd2 {
Black resigns. I'm just in time to stop Black's f-pawn.} 1-0[/pgn]

Lessons from Capablanca

Many years ago, I had a chess lesson with GM Gregory Serper when we lived in Cleveland, OH. He recommended I study a book by Capablanca but couldn't remember the name. When I got home from the lesson, I went online and saw two books by Capablanca - My Chess Career and Chess Fundamentals. I quickly ordered My Chess Career and got an e-mail from Mr. Serper that said that he had remembered the title of the book, Chess Fundamentals. A poor college student, I didn't purchase that book, but have benefited from my mistake for many years afterward. The following classic taught me the power of active rooks and the importance of the king in rook and pawn endgames.
[pgn][Event "?"]
[Site "New York, NY USA"]
[Date "1924.03.23"]
[Round "6"]
[White "Jose Raul Capablanca"]
[Black "Savielly Tartakower"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "A80"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "4k3/p1p2r1p/1p4p1/n2p4/P2P1P1P/2PB2P1/6K1/R7 w - - 0 27"]
[PlyCount "51"]
[EventDate "1924.03.16"]27. h5 $1 {White's rook gets the h-file.} Rf6 28. hxg6 hxg6 29. Rh1 Kf8 30. Rh7
{and the 7th rank.} Rc6 31. g4 Nc4 32. g5 Ne3+ 33. Kf3 Nf5 34. Bxf5 $1 {White
gains a passed pawn and with his more active rook all he needs is to bring his
king into the position.} gxf5 35. Kg3 Rxc3+ 36. Kh4 Rf3 37. g6 Rxf4+ 38. Kg5
Re4 39. Kf6 $1 {Black's f-pawn prevents checks from the rook.} Kg8 40. Rg7+ Kh8
41. Rxc7 Re8 42. Kxf5 Re4 43. Kf6 Rf4+ 44. Ke5 Rg4 45. g7+ Kg8 (45... Rxg7 $2 {
The king and pawn endgame is hopeless.} 46. Rxg7 Kxg7 47. Kxd5 Kf7 48. Kd6 Ke8
49. Kc7 Ke7 (49... a6 50. d5 b5 51. d6) 50. d5) 46. Rxa7 Rg1 47. Kxd5 Rc1 48.
Kd6 Rc2 49. d5 Rc1 50. Rc7 Ra1 51. Kc6 Rxa4 52. d6 {There is no stopping the
d-pawn without losing the Black rook.} 1-0[/pgn]
I used this lesson in a recent game in an OTB tournament. I allow my opponent an active rook as well, but my passed pawn are far more advanced than his, and I'm able to use a tactic to ensure promotion.
[pgn][Event "QueensKnight Valentine Day Open"]
[Site "Buffalo Seminary"]
[Date "2017.02.11"]
[Round "3"]
[White "Richard Hennessey"]
[Black "Bryan Castro"]
[Result "0-1"]
[WhiteElo "1567"]
[BlackElo "1788"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "8/4k1p1/5p1p/pp2rP2/6P1/7P/P4K2/2R5 b - - 0 36"]
[PlyCount "31"]
[EventDate "2017.??.??"]36... Kd6 37. Rc8 $1 {My opponent knows he has to play actively or get slowly
run over.} b4 38. Rg8 {My opponent goes for my pawn, and I have a decision to
make...defend or attack.} Rc5 $1 (38... Re7 $2 39. Ra8 {and my opponent is
back in the game.}) 39. Rxg7 Rc2+ 40. Kg3 Rxa2 41. Rg6 Ke5 $1 {He can have my
h-pawn, my pawns will get there first.} 42. Rxh6 b3 43. Rh8 b2 44. Rb8 a4 45.
Rb5+ Kd6 46. Rb6+ Kc7 47. Rb4 Ra3+ $1 {This check gives me the time to block
for the pawn.} 48. Kh4 Rb3 $1 49. Rc4+ Kd6 50. Rd4+ Ke5 51. Rxa4 b1=Q {White
resigned.} 0-1[/pgn]

The Maestro

When it comes to rook and pawn endgames, I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the great Akiba Rubinstein. In the following game, a well known classic, Rubinstein invokes a weakness in Black's structure then takes exploits the weakness, eventually creating a passed pawn and slowly maneuvering despite Alekhine's fierce counterplay.
[pgn][Event "?"]
[Site "Karlsbad"]
[Date "1911.09.21"]
[Round "23"]
[White "Akiba Rubinstein"]
[Black "Alexander Alekhine"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "D15"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r7/p3k2p/1pR3p1/1P1p1p2/3P1P2/4P1P1/4KP2/8 b - - 0 35"]
[PlyCount "82"]
[EventDate "1911.08.21"]35... Kd7 36. f3 Re8 37. Kd3 Re7 38. g4 Re6 39. Rc1 Re7 40. Rh1 Ke6 41. Rc1 {
One aspect this game and others by Rubinstein taught me was that one has to be
patient and probe for weaknesses. The maneuvers of the rook here are like a
boxer throwing jabs at an opponent to see how he reacts.} Kd7 42. Re1 Rf7 43.
Ra1 Kd6 44. Rc1 Kd7 45. Rc6 Rf8 46. Ke2 $1 {The idea behind this move is what
earns the exclam! Rubinstein brings his king around to invoke Black into play .
..h6. Then he goes about exploiting the weakness.} Rf7 47. Kf2 Rf8 48. Kg3 Re8
49. Rc3 Re7 50. Kh4 h6 {Preventing the king from reaching g5. However, by
advancing the pawn, Black commits himself to protecting this and his other
kingside pawns.} 51. Kg3 h5 52. Kh4 (52. gxh5 gxh5 53. Kh4 {also seems good. I
won't argue with the master's treatment though.}) 52... Rh7 53. Kg5 fxg4 54.
fxg4 hxg4 55. Kxg4 Rh1 56. Kg5 {Instead of defending passively, Alekhine
decides to play actively.} Rb1 57. Ra3 Rxb5 58. Rxa7+ Kd6 59. Kxg6 Rb3 60. f5
Rxe3 61. f6 Rg3+ 62. Kh7 Rf3 63. f7 Rf4 64. Kg7 Rg4+ 65. Kf6 Rf4+ 66. Kg5 (66.
Kg7 {works also as in the game.}) 66... Rf1 67. Kg6 Rg1+ 68. Kf6 Rf1+ 69. Kg7
Rg1+ 70. Kf8 Rd1 71. Ke8 Re1+ 72. Kd8 Rf1 73. Rd7+ Kc6 (73... Ke6 74. Re7+ Kd6
75. Ke8 {and Black will lose his rook.}) 74. Ke8 Rf4 75. Re7 {Now threatening
to advance the pawn.} (75. f8=Q $2 Rxf8+ 76. Kxf8 Kxd7) 75... Kb5 76. Rc7 $1 {
A subtle finesse, cutting the king off.} (76. f8=Q $6 Rxf8+ 77. Kxf8 Kc4 78.
Rb7 $2 (78. Kf7 $1 {is the proper method, bringing the king in as we saw in
the Gutman-Lutz game.}) 78... Kxd4 79. Rxb6 {and amazingly, this position is a
draw!}) 1-0[/pgn]
I remembered these ideas in the final endgame. I gradually developed a plan, but used Rubinstein's probing rook moves while I gradually moves my pawns up the board. Eventually, I am able to cut off my opponent's king and use my own king to win a pawn. My opponent resigned before I had the opportunity.
[pgn][Event "?"]
[Site "Internet Chess Club"]
[Date "2017.02.08"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Boxermam"]
[Black "Bryan Castro"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "C03"]
[WhiteElo "1800"]
[BlackElo "1794"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "8/1R3pk1/4p1p1/8/7P/4P2K/5r2/8 w - - 0 42"]
[PlyCount "34"]
[EventDate "2017.??.??"]
[TimeControl "5400+30"]42. Kg3 Re2 43. Kf3 Rh2 44. Kg3 Rh1 45. Ra7 {White's problem is that his king
can't protect both pawns at the same time. By attacking his pawns with my rook,
I am able to distract his king while I slowly advance my pawns.} Kf6 46. Ra5
Rf1 47. Rb5 Rf5 48. Rb4 e5 49. Rb6+ Kg7 50. Rb4 (50. Rb5 Kf6 51. Rb6+ Ke7 52.
Rb7+ Ke6 53. Rb6+ Kd5 {and my king gets to an even better position.}) 50... Rf1
51. Ra4 f5 52. Ra7+ Kh6 53. Kg2 Re1 {White wants to keep his rook on the 7th
rank to try to restrict my king, so I'm able to maneuver my own rook around
his.} 54. Kf2 Rh1 55. Kg3 e4 {Now he can't leave the h-pawn. He resigns his
rook to passively protecting the e-pawn.} 56. Ra3 Rf1 {However, my rook now
can cut off his king and I can bring my own king into the action.} 57. Kg2 Rf3
58. Rb3 Kh5 {White resigned, seeing that he would be losing his h-pawn.} 0-1[/pgn]

A Work in Progress

Although I was very pleased with the endgames I shared with you today, I realize I have a long way to go. From my experience and talking to my chess friends and opponents, I think a lot of amateur players do not enjoy studying the endgame. However, I think adding a little study and training to balance out your study of the opening and middlegame can only benefit you. There are a lot of great resources out there. Two that I use a lot are Jeremy Silman's Complete Endgame Course and Jesus de la Villa's 100 Endgames You Must Know. I also recommend the classic Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov, which has a very helpful chapter on studying the endgame. Spring is a great time of year. The flowers are blooming, and the grass reveals itself after months of snow (at least where I live). Maybe this is the season for your endgame to blossom. Check out the books that I mention as well as the games of endgame virtuosos like Capablanca and Rubinstein. You never know, perhaps you may even enjoy it!

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