Study Endgames?

Tim Hanke posted a blog post on June 11th, entitled “Study Endgames” on GM Nigel Davies’ excellent “Chess Improver” chess blog, which you can read here: http://chessimprover.com/study-endgames/

First of all, I am a big fan of Tim’s and the Chess Improver blog.  I think they write a lot of interesting articles, and give a lot of great advice.

Tim’s article was entitled “Study Endgames”.  He starts off saying

“Tactics are all very well;  You can go reasonably far in chess if you are very good at tactics, and not much else.”

I totally agree 100% with this idea.

But then he says,

“But that is crude hacking, not chess”.

hmmm…ok….

then he adds

“You would do better in the long run if you are well rounded”.

Now on the surface this makes sense.  We are always told that it is good to be well rounded at things.  No one wants to be a “one trick pony”.  No one wants to be a “hack”.

One-Trick-Pony

BUT – what if you have limited time?  What if you have limited energy?  What if you have a family, friends, career, school, etc, etc.

What if you don’t have TIME to be well rounded.  What if you want to get better at chess, get a higher rating, win more games, win prize money, but don’t have time, or don’t care about being “well rounded”.  What if your time is precious, and you want to get the most “bang for your buck”??

THEN I think it is important to study tactics first and foremost.

Tim Hanke adds,

“Tactics books are also very popular.  One book out there – written by an amateur, not a master – encourages players to improve by studying only tactics.  This is not the time sanctioned way to become a better player.”

Now I can only assume that he is talking about my book, Tactics Time! 1001 Chess Tactics from the Games of Everyday Chess Players.  He doesn’t mention my book by name, but it is the number one selling chess book on amazon, and I am an amateur player, and I pretty much support the idea of only study tactics.

ChessTacticsBook

So if you follow Tim’s idea to be “well rounded” you would possibly spend

  • 20% of your time on openings
  • 20% of your time on middlegame
  • 20% of your time on endgames
  • 20% of your time on strategy
  • 20% of your time on tactics.

This would be a well rounded approach that says that all parts of the game are of equal importance.  This would be a logical approach.

well-rounded-breakfast

The problem with this approach, is that it is great in theory, but doesn’t take into account the Pareto Principle.

The Pareto Principle, also known as the “80-20 rule” states for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

80-20rule

So in this case that 20% that is the most important are the TACTICS, and 80% of class player games are decided by TACTICS.

So you should really spend 80% of your time on the tactics, and 20% on the rest combined.

80-20-rule2

Tim points out that all of the great players were really good at endgames.  Of course this is true.  They were also amazing at openings, middlegames, strategy, tactics, etc.  They had to be well rounded, and not have any holes in their game to be great.  If they would have had a hole in their game, their opponents simply would have exploited this, and we would have never heard of them. 

No one is saying you can become a world class player by only doing tactics problems.

The point that Tim misses is that there is a HUGE difference between the games that are being played at the 1200-1600 level (a typical USCF “tournament” player), and the games of these greats.

I have looked at thousands of class player games.  I collect them like baseball cards, and run them through the computer, and have studied them like Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees.

JaneGoodallMost chess authors/writers/bloggers/etc don’t do this.  Most chess writers play through thousands of Grandmaster games, famous games, etc.  As a result they get a warped view of the chess world.

What I have found is very simple – most games at the class level are being decided by very simple tactics.  1-2 move tactics.

This is the elusive obvious of the chess world.

Class level games are not being decided by endgame skill.  If the game actually goes to an endgame, it is because the players missed a tactic earlier in the game.

I once saw a lecture by Master John Jacobs at the Dallas Chess Club.  He made a comment that stuck with me.  He said

“Most class players are not triangulating each other to death”. 

John understood that most players are winning by primitive means, and not through this endgame technique where you try to put your opponent in zugzwang.

NM Dan Heisman has written that he got all the way to Master before ever learning the “Lucena Position“, which is supposedly one of the most important endgames to know.  I have personally never seen a game won or lost at the class level because of a player knowing the Lucena Position.

I simply advocate the study of tactics, because that is what helps class players win more games.  “Quick fixes” and “hacking” WORK at the class level.

Now I am not trying to tell someone who is 2300 – “just study tactics”.  That would be ridiculous.

Or if there is some teenage kid who has no job, no responsibilities, and is on summer vacation with 8 hours a day to devote to chess, and wants to become a Master someday – sure study everything you can get your hands on.

Even at around the 1850-1900 level I think you start to get diminishing returns.  At this point, you do have to become more well rounded.

But for someone who is 1200-1300, the returns can be amazing.  You can easily gain 200+ rating points in a year with a consistent study of tactics and only tactics.

It is a pretty simple recipe

  1. Get better at tactics. 
  2. Push wood until your opponent makes a tactical mistake.
  3. Punish them.
  4. Win game
  5. Repeat

You can win a lot of games this way at the 1200-1300 level.

Is it glamorous?  No.

Does it work?  Yes!

Most of us do not have the time to do everything we want with chess.  We would all love to have the time to play through every game and variation in Garry Kasparov’s “My Great Predecessors” series.  But unfortunately many people buy the book, and never make it past the first chapter.

MyGreatPredecessors

I’ve actually had several people tell me that my chess tactics book is one of the few chess books they ever finished.  Since it is an eBook, you can read it on your phone, and do a problem or two whenever you get a few spare moments. 

Let’s face it – chess is supposed to be a fun hobby for most of us.  If you want to become a titled player someday – sure you are going to have to become well rounded at some point.  But for the rest of us, that want to just win some games at our local club, the study of tactics can be a quick ticket to success.

If I thought endgames were the key to rapid success, I would advocate that.

Tim then goes on to say

“This is not the time sanctioned way to become a better player.”

I totally agree that it is not.  That is why I get a lot of people who read my stuff and either LOVE it or HATE it.

The people who LOVE it tend to be people who are stuck at the 1200-1400 level, and have followed all the “time sanctioned advice”, and got nowhere.  Then they try my idea of just study tactics, and they start to see HUGE results. 

The people who HATE it are the people who are already pretty good players – 2000 or above.  These players had to become strong players “the hard way” – thousands and thousands of hours of study, and they resent anyone who offers a “short cut”.  They see that as “cheating” or a “hack” or “not real chess”, etc.

Tim also points out how I am an “amateur” player.

WhatIsThisAmateurHourI am not sure if this is meant to be some kind of insult or something, or lower my credibility.

The ironic thing is that Tim’s current rating is less than 100 points higher than mine.  He is not a professional player either, so what makes his advice better than mine?

I am reminded of a joke…

What is the difference between a professional chess player and a large pizza.

pizza

The pizza can feed a family of four.

So really, I have no desire to be anything other than a chess amateur.  I only started playing and studying once I was an adult, I am mostly self taught, and I am pretty proud of my accomplishments in the chess world.

I am not really even sure that many of these players who are professionals make such great teachers anyway.

There is something called the “Curse of Knowledge” that I think affects many strong players.

From Wikipedia:

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias according to which better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.

So what happens is that these strong players become so good at chess, that they can no longer relate to players at a lower level.  They cannot even comprehend what it is like to not see that a piece is hanging, or that a pawn is under protected, or seeing the danger of a double discovered check, etc.

Now, I am not saying all strong players are bad teachers.  I went to some of GM Ron Henley’s lectures at the National Open in Las Vegas this past weekend, and they were outstanding.  This guy can play, and relate to weaker players.  I was extremely impressed with his teaching skills.

But many stronger players do not have this ability.

Tim concludes with saying that we should listen to the wisdom of the past.  I think it is great to learn from others, but also look for ways to work “smarter not harder”.

Michael de la Maza was the first to come up with this idea of just study tactics.  When it first came out about 10 years ago he was RIDICULED.  Now, the idea of doing this is one that has become fairly common, but not universally accepted. 

It reminds me of this quote:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788 – 1860)

I think that the idea of doing lots of tactics study is slowly approaching the “self evident” stage.  I think it will take a few more years, but it will eventually get there.

Just like sabermetrics changed the way the game of baseball was played and managed, I think that players who focus on the study of tactics will change the way the game of chess is played and taught.  Players who can’t keep up tactically will have to either work on their tactical skill, or continue to lose games to those who do.

I hear from people almost every single day about how my book and newsletters have helped their chess game.  I get emails, tweets, facebook posts, etc.  I have people coming up to me at tournaments and literally thanking me for my book.  

I hear from people who were frustrated with their chess game, and then all of a sudden after switching to a tactics only diet, suddenly gain 100 rating points.  I have people send me positions, and games, giving me the credit for their win (even though they were the ones making the moves).

I have also heard “horror stories” from people who spent a ton of time and money taking chess lessons and following the “time honored advice” that is out there, and their ratings actually went DOWN.

ratinggoingdown

I have never heard a single person ever tell me – I followed your advice, and my rating went down.  I have never heard a single person tell me – I started to study more tactics, and now I lose more games.  I only hear the complete opposite!

So, sure, study endgames if you want to be a “well rounded player”.  But if you just want to win more games – keep working on your tactics!

 






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7 thoughts on “Study Endgames?

  1. Terrific article! I get the newsletter with the problems, but didn’t know about the blog (you probably mention it in your email, but I look at the board and then scroll to the bottom). Anyway, nice job!

  2. I am a very fortunate + or – 1500 player. I have two lessons a week with a grandmaster! (I exchange them for English classes). I’m also translating Tim’s Tactics Time to Portuguese first and later to Spanish. I translate at least 30 pages a day. But I always try to solve the puzzle first. I’m doing puzzle 455 now. I told my GM teacher that I was devoting all my chess study time to tactics. I told him I’d play only three openings: 1. b4 if White; and either 1….d5 ou 1….b6, depending on whether my opponent starts with 1. e4 (which I answer with 1…d5); or any other move, which I answer with 1…b6.

    My coach wasn’t 100% sure my study method was solid, but he went along. We study positions from Master games and my games exclusively, and mostly concerning tactics.

    The results are in: in about three months, I’ve improved my rating at ICC to 1400 and to 1900 at Chess Cube. An average of 100 rating points better on both sites!

    I hope this testimony helps those 1200-1500 players who are still unsure whether they should follow Tim’s (Brennan, of course!) advice to devote their ‘oh-so-precious’ time to tactics.

    As Tim says, ‘happy tactics’.

  3. I am one of those frustrated players who has gained 130+ rating points this season since discovering your book and emails. Even more pleasingly, I won my club U1500 Championship this year with 7.5/8 and a 1700+ tournament performance. The book is one of only 2 of the many, many books I have tried to read that have improved my game, the other being “Zuke ‘Em”. I don’t think it is any coincidence that both books are written by amateur players. A book could have the best possible advice for winning at chess in it but if it isn’t written in a way accessible to me as a lower graded player then it becomes a nice ornament on my bookshelf and little more.
    I have had to do some teaching in my job and have found that understanding the student is at least as important as understanding the subject matter.
    We need more chess books by the apparently maligned amateurs and not fewer.
    (As an aside, one phrase I have seen in many books by masters which really sets my blood boiling is “and the rest is technique”. If I knew the technique I wouldn’t have needed the book in the first place!)

  4. I agree that the tactics studying definitely improves my chess game as well as that of my students (I hover around 1800 USCF most times).

    However, yesterday, I realized that despite taking lessons for a year, five of my students still struggled to mate with a Rook and a King because honestly, they rarely get to that position. Similarly, two of my students have trouble getting two pawns and a Rook past a Rook.

    I think what happens is once people start using the tactics, they get a distinct advantage in the game, but then they still need to study the endgame. Otherwise, they find themselves unable to win the won game.

    Also, it’s funny, but a lot of lower level players hate the endgame because they think it is boring…until I say that now that they are actually coming out ahead of their opponents, most of their endgames will be determined by whether or not they can make an extra pawn count.

    Keep up the good work! :) You are making a difference!

    Cheers,

    Donna

  5. The article discuss many things. However I would like to comment some of them.

    First of all – I am a chess amateur and I LOVE chess. My rating is about 1900-1950 range as I do not practice and study chess since 2010.
    However when I was 1300-1400 player – I have made an experiment: I have solved about 10.000 chess (tactics) puzzles. Most of them were very simple, but a small part of it was quite hard to me. After playing many games and reading a few books (I have had no idea about positional play, endgames, strategy or openings) I have gained about 300 points in a few years (from 1400 to 1800).

    I am sure most of the games (at the amateur level) are decided with the tactics. I have studied the book “555 miniature games” (opening traps) by Mazukevich. Beside that I have solved about 2000 chess puzzles for players rated 1600-2000. It has given me quite different view on chess and now I know that up to 1700-1800 level – you should do the chess tactics puzzles (every time trying to solve a bit more difficult ones) until you are able to see “the shots” (2-3 moves) in a few seconds (!).

    Nowadays when I look at the positions – I can see simple “shots” (tactical/combinational solutions) immediately! Most often it takes me about 5 to 15 seconds (depending on the complexity of the position).

    I think Tim should make another post (and podcast!) and explain what he calls “tactics”. I believe “studying tactics” is NOT just doing the puzzles (no matter how easy or hard), but in addition it should be learnt (taught!) how to attack (!) the opponent’s position. Most people below 1800 are quite weak at defence (they just cannot defend with vigour and great resistance). It is the reason why “tactics and attack” should be taken into consideration.

    And what about studying endgames? It depends on the teacher (coach). The more often the endgame stage is reached and the pupil do not know how to proceed…. the more often it should be studied. It would make NO SENSE (to me) to reach winning position (not just once, but regularly) and would not be able to convert it to won game. However studying “tactics and attack” should be treated much more serious… until the student (pupil) is going to reach 1800-1900 level of play. In that case he (or she) should be taught what should be done at endgames.

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  7. When I wrote my article which you reference, I wasn’t talking about you or your book, which I haven’t had the pleasure to see. I agree that most amateur players can get the best practical results by emphasizing tactics.

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