For any chess amateures, learning the fundamentals of endgames is the first step into the advanced dimensions of chess. In this article, we’ll walk through the most essential endgame principles and tips as well as the various aspects of the final stage of a chess game.
- Quick Summary
- What is considered an endgame in chess?
- Why is the endgame so important?
- Types of Endgames
- Common endgame principles
- King Activity
- The principle of two weaknesses
- Push passed pawn
- When ahead in material, simplify the position
- Use the concept of opposition
- Endgame Patterns
- Checkmating with the Queen
- Checkmating with the Rook
- Stalemate pattern
- Pawn Endgame
- Rook Endgame
- Lucena’s Position
- The wrong corner
- How does a chess game end?
- What is the hardest endgame in chess?
- In chess, the endgame, following the middlegame, typically involves fewer pieces, often marked by the absence of queens. World Chess Champion Jose Raul Capablanca emphasized studying endgames to better understand earlier game stages, a concept also adopted by the Soviet School of Chess.
- Endgames vary, with common types including Pawn, Rook, Bishop (same/opposite color), Knight, Knight vs Bishop, and Queen Endgames. Pawn and Rook Endgames are most frequent.
What is considered an endgame in chess?
There is no clear cut definition that can strictly determine when the game has entered its final stage or not. The final phase of the game, which comes after the middlegame, typically features only a few pieces on the board. Usually, the absence of queens on the board is a good indicator that the game has entered the endgame stage.
Why is the endgame so important?
The former World Chess Champion, Jose Raul Capablanca, advocated that the study of endgames should be one’s priority for improvement, as the middle game and the openings are then understood better in relation to the endgame. The retrospective approach of studying the final stage of the game to understand earlier stages not only deepens our understanding of the game but also guides us on how to capitalize on our advantages. This approach has also been adopted by the Soviet School of Chess, which has produced numerous world chess champions in the past century.
Types of Endgames
There are quite a number of different types of endgames. The most common are: Pawn -, Rook -, Bishop (same or opposite color), -, Knight -, Knight vs Bishop – and Queen Endgames. The first two types are the most frequently occurring scenarios; therefore, it is vital to be acquainted with their theory.
Common endgame principles
As the chess game proceeds and fewer pieces remain on the board, it is usually time for the king to shine. In the middlegame phase, there are many pieces on the board, such as queens and other minor pieces, which could checkmate the king if the king tried a dangerous walk towards the middle of the board. However, when there are fewer pieces, this makes it possible for the king to unleash its power, supporting pawns and other minor pieces. Activating your king is one of the fundamental endgame strategies in the path to victory in the final stage of the game. The evaluation of a position, especially when there are only pawns left on the board, may primarily depend on the king’s activity.
In the diagram above, it looks like kings are opposing, so the side that has to make a move with the king will allow the other king to pass by and march forward towards the pawns. With black to move, black can play 1…h5, putting white into Zugzwang (a German term for the concept of ‘obligation to make a move, but all moves are just bad’). 2. Kg3 e4!, pawn breakthrough; white has to capture back, allowing the black king to become more active. 3.dxe4+ Kxe4 (3.Kf2 exd3 4.cxd4 c2 and 5.c1=Q next) 4.Kf2 Kf4! 5.Ke2 Kg4 6.Kd3 Kxh4 7.Kc4 Kg3 8.Kxc5 h4 and black’s pawn are faster to promote. In this example, the king’s activity was decisive because of the possibility of targeting enemy pawns.
The principle of two weaknesses
If the opponent has only one weakness, they may pile up all their forces around this weakness to defend it. However, when there are two weaknesses, it becomes harder for the defending side to mobilize, and soon they become overloaded with the defensive tasks. Therefore, the principle of two weaknesses is a pivotal technique when converting advantages.
The diagram above features a position from the game between Znosko and Alekhine after 28.Bf2. Black’s rook is putting pressure on the kingside, in particular on the g3 pawn, but also threatening to invade white’s camp on the h-file. However, since white can sufficiently defend one weakness, it is necessary for black to create a second weakness on the other side of the board: 28..b5! 29.b3 a5 30.Kg2 a4 31.Rd2 axb3 32.axb3 Ra8 33.c4 Ra3! 34.c5 Be7 35.Rb2 b4 (fixing the weak b3 pawn) 36.g4 f4! (fixing the f3 pawn).
Black has successfully created two weaknesses and fixed them. With the help of the king, bishop and rook, black will gain one of the pawns and create a passed pawn to win the game.
Push passed pawn
When there are fewer pieces left on the board, creating a checkmating net becomes more difficult. This situation makes promoting a pawn to a queen one of the primary objectives of the endgame. To queen a pawn successfully, usually pawn breakthroughs are necessary in order to create a passed pawn.
White has a pawn majority on the queenside here. To materialize this advantage, white can create a passed pawn with 1.b6 axb6 2.axb6 and no obstacles for the passed pawn on b6 stand to prevent it from marching to the final rank.
When ahead in material, simplify the position
In our example position with the passed pawn in the previous chapter, we have seen how simple it was for white to capitalize on their material advantage. If there were more pieces on the board, they could perhaps defend the 8-th rank, and promoting a passed pawn wouldn’t be such a trivial task. This scenario highlights why it is usually a good idea to simplify the position by trading pieces when you have a material advantage. The remaining material will be unopposed, which will then play a decisive role.
White is material up here, however, black’s queen-bishop battery threatens a checkmate on h1 at the moment. White can trade the queens off by force with 1.Qd4+ Kg8 2.Qd5+! Qxd5 3.cxd5 Bxd5
Even though this trade has costed white a pawn, it was well worth it, as the pawn on b2 now is a passed pawn, supported by the rook cutting off the c-file from black’s king approaching to the pawn. A sample continuation would be: 4.b4 Kf7 5.b5 Ke7 6.b6 Kd6 7.Rd1! Kc6 8.Rxd5 Kxd5 9.b7 Kc6 10.b8=Q
Use the concept of opposition
Along with triangulation, the notion of opposition is one of the building blocks of the fundamental endgame techniques. Opposition refers to the state of two kings, when they are separated merely by a square. The opposition may occur in various forms such as diagonal, horizontal or vertical. The idea of opposition is that the stronger side in the opposition forces the enemy king to retreat to one side due to move obligation (Zugzwang) and can advance forward. In the example below, white incorporates the horizontal opposition to promote the passed pawn.
1.Kc5! and black’s king has to sidestep. 1…Kd7 2.Kb6 Kc8 3.Kc6! taking the opposition once again, 3…Kb8 4.Kd7 Kb7 5.c5 Kb8 6.c6 Ka7 7.c7 Kb7 8.c8=Q+
Checkmating with the Queen
Delivering a checkmate with a mere queen is one of the most basic forms of checkmate pattern in the game of chess. Therefore, this fundamental pattern is a must-know for any player. The winning technique with a sole queen involves two steps: First we need to restrict the enemy king and box him on to just one rank or file (edges of the board). After that, our king comes closer to the enemy king to support our queen. Let’s see this technique in practice in the following position:
1.Qe6 Kc5 2.Qd7 Kb4 3.Qc6 Ka5 4.Qb7 and now black king is boxed on the a-file. 4…Ka4 5.Kb2 Ka5 6.Kc3 Ka4 7.Qb4# (or 7.Qa6#)
The technique of checkmating with a queen usually becomes most relevant when we promote a pawn to a queen. In other words, this is the true reason for pawn promotions.
Checkmating with the Rook
The rook is the second most powerful piece on the board after a queen. Along with the queen, it is the only piece that is capable of delivering a checkmate when there are no other pieces left on the board. The technique of checkmating with a rook is similar to the technique with a queen, as it also makes use of the restriction idea. A rook utilizes files or rank to box the king on one of the edges of the board.
The Black king here is restricted to the last two ranks already. White needs to let the enemy king have a horizontal opposition so that giving a check with the rook from the side will force the enemy king to retreat one file back. On the final rank, this situation would be a checkmate. An example line would be: 1…Kf7 2.Ra6 Ke7 3.Rb6, a crucial waiting move, 3…Kd7 4.Rb7+, forcing black king to the 8-th rank, 4…Kc8 5.Rh7 Kd8 6.Ke6 Kc8 7.Kd6 Kb8 8.Kc6 Ka8 9.Kb6 Kb8 10.Rh8#
Stalemates are a strategic resort when there is no other hope left.
Black’s queen is pinning white’s pawn from advancing. Black would like to slowly approach the enemy king and pawn to capture the pawn. However, white has the classical stalemate trick here: 1.Kh8! moving out of the pin and threatening to promote the pawn. After 1…Qxf7 the game would end in a draw due to the stalemate rule.
Pawn Endgames are all about promoting the pawns utilizing techniques such as kings activity, opposition, triangulation. Because of their forcing nature, such endings can be calculated by brute force. One of the most useful methods for that is counting tempos. A useful trick for it is to use the square-rule:
Regardless of whose move it is, black king cannot enter the highlighted promotion box in time. If black’s king stood in any square of this box, then he could stop the a-pawn from promotion.
Rooks usually join the game as the latest and thrive more and more as the pieces are exchanged and files / ranks are opened. Rooks Endgames are one of the most commonly occurring types of endgames and therefore any player needs to be familiar with its basic theory. The Lucena’s Position (The Bridge) and Philidor Position are regarded as the most fundamental techniques to know for this stage of the game.
White’s main idea is to build a bridge on the 4th rank to block the rook checks. 1.Rd1+, we chase the enemy king away so it cannot approach the pawn 1…Ke7 2.Rd4 Ra3 3.Kc7 Kc3+ now the king will come closer to the rook without leaving the pawn undefended 4.Kb6 Rb3+ 5.Kc6 Rc3+ 6.Kb5 Rb3+ 7.Rb4 and no more checks left.
The wrong corner
Sometimes one side is left with an edge pawn and a bishop, while the other side has no material. If the defending side manages to get into the corresponding corner of the board in time, then there is no way for the other king to drive the defending king away from blockading the pawn.
No matter which side is to move here, the position is a theoretical draw because black king always shuffles between g8 and h8 squares. If white pushes the pawn to the h7 square, it will then create a stalemate situation.
If white had a light-squared bishop in the starting position of the example, the nature of the position would not change, as it would be in the case of ‘wrong corner’. For a bishop to play a supportive role in promoting the edge pawn, the promotion square has to be the same color as the bishop.
In this example, white can play 1.Bd4, controlling the h8 square. 1…Kg8 2.Kg6 and white’s h-pawn is now unstoppable.
How does a chess game end?
A chess game can end in several ways including checkmate, stalemate, draw by agreement, draw by the fifty-move-rule, draw by threefold repetition, draw by insufficient material, time forfeit, resignation.
What is the hardest endgame in chess?
Queen endgames are considered the most complex endgames in chess and even confuse chess engines sometimes.