As far as chess training goes, the endgame has probably driven the deepest wedge among chess players. Quite indisputably, we have always been sorely divided over the value of studying endgames.
Someone as great as the Cuban World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca said that the endgame must be studied before anything else, for the opening and middlegame must always be played to arrive at winning endgames. Many, however, find the study of endgames to be tedious, and most endgame books to be very dry and technical.
Personally, I love endgames and studying them is always well-worth my time and effort. Winning and drawing technical endgames are an exact science, and the moments spent mastering them are never wasted. Studying the opening and middlegame always has you wondering whether the information gained could soon prove useful, but not when it comes to the endgame. The stuff that you commit to mind and memory are always those of everyday and tournament play.
The endgame is as important as the opening and the middlegame, and studying it without feeling condemned to boredom is a matter of finding the right books. With that said, let me share eight books that not only superbly teach the endgame but also ingeniously entertain.
Reuben Fine’s magnum opus, Basic Chess Endings, is one of the first great endgame books. Since its publication in 1941, it served as the ultimate reference book for generations of chess players until about the dawning of computers.
Fine’s book is a true classic for its completeness and clarity. It includes just about any conceivable endgame, from King and Pawn, Rook and Pawn, Bishop and Pawn, Knight and Pawn, Minor pieces, Rook vs. Minor pieces, Queen vs. Minor pieces, and Queen vs. Rook. Fine explains all these endgames very clearly, and often formulates rules for many positions that are very easy to remember.
The book, moreover, is a perfect a cross between an endgame reference material and an instructional text. You can research actual game or tournament endings with it, or read it from cover to cover as part of your long-term study plan. Surprisingly, it reads light and breezy, too, when many books of its age tend to be linguistically awkward and flowery. It speaks directly and clearly, giving the same feel of its contemporary counterparts.
The obvious downside of very old books, of course, is that they have not been computer-checked. Still, this book gets many of its lessons right, and playing through the chapters with a strong computer program will do away with its few inaccuracies.
In all, this book is a wonder of chess literature, given its breadth and scholarly treatment of the endgame. It remains as one of the definitive endgame books, even if many others aided by modern technology have come after it.
2. Essential Chess Endings by James Howell
If Fine’s Basic Chess Endings is the quintessential reference material, then James Howell’s Essential Chess Endings is the ultimate instructional manual.
Howell’s book is every bit as good as Fine’s, except that Howell prunes down his coverage only to the most essential endings, those that you are really likely to encounter. Fine’s book may take patience to work through, and if you’re pressed for time or wish to take your endgame skill to a good level as quickly as possible, then Howell’s book is the way to go.
As far as studying technical endgames are concerned, this book may be the best you will ever come across. By technical endings, we mean those whose results are either conclusively a win or a draw with correct play.
This book contains just about all the technical endgames that need to be mastered, especially those that arise from King and Pawn and Rook and Pawn endgames. For the winning ones, Howell gives the fastest, most efficient, and often only way to win. For the drawn ones, which covers cases where one side is down in material or concedes some other advantage, he gives the fool-proof method of holding the draw.
Having all the technical endgames under one cover alone makes the book very useful, but it even doubles its value by maximizing your results whether you are defending or pressing. If you’ll find yourself in these losing endgames, Howell teaches the toughest way to resist, which would only increase the likelihood of your opponent slipping and fumbling away the win. In theoretical draws, he gives various ways to press your advantage and test your opponent’s technical knowledge, increasing your chances of squeezing out a win.
Every chapter of the book ends with a series of tests, which are all superbly selected to reinforce the all-important winning or drawing method. They are very vital to the reader’s mastery and retention of the lessons.
This book is a must-have, and should be one of the first endgames books of every chess player.
3. The Greatest Ever Chess Endgames by Steve Giddins
Of all endgame books, this one by FM Steve Giddins’ gives the best combination of instructional and entertainment value.
Giddins agrees with Capablanca that the endgame should be studied before the opening and the middlegame. He believes that it’s in the endgame where one learns the true power of the pieces, and how this could be harnessed in the opening and middlegame. He thus produced this book that not only imparts the most practical endgame lessons but provides fireworks as well. How he succeeds, and the book has come down as a superb instructional material that is a joy to read from cover to cover.
This book divides its chapters into the most common endgames such as King and Pawn, Rook and Pawn, Bishop and Pawn, Knight and Pawn, and Minor Piece endgames. At the beginning of each chapter are introductions to these endgames where Giddens lays down the essential considerations for both sides, all of which are then illustrated in the chapter’s games.
Learning from this book comes in different layers. On a basic one, it will get you to treat the different types of endgames correctly from both sides, or it will make you aware at least of the important guiding principles when you encounter them. Gaining the opposition, activating the Rook, and placing pawns on the correct color complex are all important principles it teaches in Pawn, Rook and Bishop endings respectively.
On a secondary layer, all its chapters transcend their classification and piece-distribution to illustrate general principles that are extremely necessary in the endgame. The principle of two-weaknesses is a pervading theme in the whole book, and this is a concept that is vital in winning all types of endgames. Increasing your advantage incrementally before delivering the coup de grace (known by the principle “Never Hurry”) is another of its dominant themes.
On top of this all, it will simply make you love the endgame. The Knight endgame between Harry Pillsbury and Isidor Gunsberg in the great Hastings 1895 is one of the most magical I have ever seen, and had me decide on the spot that endgames are always there to be loved.
4. How to Play Chess Endgames by Karsten Muller and Wolfgang Pajeken
If there are technical books that illustrate how to win theoretical endgames, there are those, too, that teach how to get them. This is such a book, and it’s an excellent one of its kind.
Here, Muller and Pajeken illustrate how to play endgames correctly, beginning at points where the game hangs in a balance and both sides haven’t gained a decisive advantage yet. They teach important endgame concepts such as King activity, Rook activity, Pawn play (creating passed pawns, pushing passed pawns, activating pawn majorities), simplification, schematic thinking, exploiting weaknesses, prophylaxis, the Bishop pair, transforming advantages, domination, fortresses, and the stalemate motif. Knowledge of all these is necessary to create an advantage or grab the initiative from equal positions, after which one’s proficiency in technical endings may prove handy for the full point.
This book can help your game in several ways. First, it will improve your endgame “feel” by giving you good understanding of the concepts taught. Second, it will sharpen your eye for these concepts, and hence also improve your ability to judge the favorability of liquidating into endgames. Third, with its emphasis on the importance of calculation, replete as it is with examples where accurate calculation rewards endgame play with the full point, you will also strive to improve your calculating ability.
In all, this endgame book that is the perfect complement to technical ones is something you can’t do without.
5. Vassily Smyslov: Endgame Virtuoso by Vassily Smyslov
Endgame skills may be improved by studying the games of great endgame players, among them Rubinstein, Capablanca, and the author of this next featured book, former World Champion Vassily Smyslov.
Smyslov was one of those great players who studied the endgame before the opening and middlegame and became outstandingly proficient at it. Endgames being very strategic in nature, he in fact developed an overall playing style that is also predominantly strategic and intuitive.
Here in this game collection are the endgames of the man who seemed to have exquisitely combined and mastered all that has been taught in endgame books (most especially those featured in this review). You will see balanced games drift slowly in his favor by his deep understanding and masterful application of the concepts taught by Muller and Pajeken. When he arrives at technical endgames, you will see the winning method executed to perfection. He seems to end the games all in the same way – in deadly zugzwang. All these, of course, also illustrate accurate calculation that snuffs out the opponent’s counterplay to ensure the win.
One of the primary values of this book is that it is very objective. It gives accurate assessment of the games and even Smyslov himself is sometimes critical of his play. This contrasts sharply with other biographies and great-player game collections where authors sometimes show far too much reverence for their illustrious subjects. Perhaps, great players should always annotate their own games!
If you prefer to study the endgame through biographies and game collections, this book must be in your list.
6. Fundamental Chess Endings by Karsten Muller and Frank Lamprecht
This production by Muller and Lamprecht is a modern version of Fine’s Basic Chess Endings. It’s the encyclopedic type but reads like a textbook, and can be well used as a reference or everyday study material.
With a classic like Fine’s, what’s the need for a book like Muller and Lamprecht’s? Well, for several compelling reasons.
First, it’s a given that knowledge in chess accumulates. Being sixty years apart, you can be sure that Muller and Lamprecht’s book has the more definitive assessment of many positions from various piece-distributions. Some of Fine’s statements in his book needed thorough testing and affirmation. Second, with their authors’ access to computer assistance, this latter book simply gives the more accurate analysis. It makes wins more efficient, and reduces analysis slips and missed defensive resources almost to a nil. Third, it has the more practical approach, and given the shortened time control of modern tournaments, it gives the easier and faster grasp of winning and drawing methods. In today’s play, drawing knowledge at the latter part of the game in quick-time regulation will often have to be instantaneous.
This book has virtues, too, apart from being just modern. It is, most of all, an excellent mix of instructive prose and analysis. It also gives an excellent summary of the general principles it teaches at the end of every chapter, followed by aptly chosen exercises that reinforce its lessons.
In sum, this is another must have book that can stand alone or complement other older encyclopedic works like Fine’s Basic Chess Endgames.
7. Secrets of Pawn Endgames by Karsten Muller and Frank Lamprecht
This is another book by the same authors, but the only one to deal with a specific endgame – King and Pawns.
Many chess players do not probably feel the need for a specific book on King and Pawn endgames. Most general endgame books cover them, and they do not really occur very often. Rook vs. pawn endgames are way more common and give more reasons to be studied independently.
Yet, there is virtue into looking at King and Pawns more deeply. The most compelling is that a good foresight and accurate evaluation of a pure King and Pawn endgame affects your handling of the earlier stages of the endgame. Which of the several pieces remaining should you exchange, and is it favorable to simplify into a pure King and Pawn endgame? In short, your mastery of King and Pawns tremendously improves your ability to assess endgame liquidations.
If you also feel that the general endgame books you have used breeze through their King and Pawn chapters and you need a specialized one on this subject, then this is just about the best book you can find. Endgames concepts and techniques such as the Opposition, the Distant Opposition, Shouldering, Triangulation, Bahr’s Rule, Steinitz Rule, The Rule of the Square are all here and are hammered to your chess consciousness with superb exercises.
King and Pawn endgames become a world in their own in this book. They are so rich, and so much about them have to be mastered.
8. One Hundred Endgames You Must Know by Jesus de la Villa
This is another one of the best endgame texts, written in the same mold as James Howell’s Essential Chess Endings. It is sure to go down as a modern classic if it is not yet one already.
Like Howell, de la Villa attempts to encapsulate all the known and most common technical endgames into one book. He explains them clearly and reinforces their winning or drawing method so that executing them overboard becomes second nature. His book shares many of the outstanding characteristics of Howell’s, and among them are their comprehensiveness and their ability to impress the lessons with excellent summaries and superbly chosen exercises at the end of every chapter.
Whereas Howell’s confines himself to just essential endgames, however, de la Villa takes a step further and includes endgames that may not be too common, but whose principles are all essential to similar positions or to general endgame play. Thus, de la Villa’s work may be bulkier, meatier, but may be tougher to get through.
Which book to get, then, is all a matter of preference. If you want a lighter material that will get your endgame sharp in not much time, you can go for Howell’s book. If you have no qualms, however, with a more complex one that will take more commitment to digest, but that may also prove more helpful to your endgame in the long run, then you can opt for de la Villa’s book. Better still, you can go for both books if time isn’t much of a concern for you, for the lessons in one will only serve to reinforce the other.
These, then, are my eight best chess endgame books. They are sure to elevate your understanding and skills in the endgame, just as they will provide you with many hours of study pleasure.