Reader Mailbag: What about studying endgames?

I received this really nice email from Bill Chandler of Denver, Colorado.

Bill writes:

Dear Tim,

I have been very impressed with your “Tactics Time” newsletter and am very intrigued at your emphasis on tactics. I agree with you, that Tactics is the #1 source of improvement for any class chessplayer. I am also liking the fact that you emphasize study with play, as a lot of titled European players summarize that Americans don’t get good at chess because they spend all their time playing and not studying.

However, I wish you to consider something. When I was working for ChessFM and Tony Rook, I had a chance to converse with a lot of titled players. One such player was National Master Elliot Ness who, at the time, ran a youth chess camp in the Seattle area. He says the correct way to learn chess is to start backwards. Studying tactics is fine and well and he didn’t discount that, but he had a reason why you do this.

Tony Robbins often said if you tell a brain where it is supposed to go, the more likely it is to take you there. Starting with the endgame, and doing problems in that area, you get the feel of how the pieces coordinate themselves, you also have a better idea of how the pieces function in space. However, the key important thing is, just like you say on your website, repetition is the mother of skill. Your brain can more effectively sift through a position with 6 or 7 pieces on the board than 26. Once you build enough mental stamina to know where pieces go and how endgames are supposed to work, then you can reverse engineer your middlegame positions to head to those endgames where you know you have clear advantages, and just as you can go from endgames to middlegames, you can do the same going from endgames to openings. Jeremy Silman puts this in his Reassess Your Chess as Dreaming up a Position and figuring out what it takes to engineer it. If you know where your want to go and can give your brain a goal of where it is headed, then it can more effectively get there.

I would like to know your opinion on this,




Tim’s response:

Thanks Bill for the well written, and well thought out letter!  I really appreciate the nice complements, and feedback!

The main reason I choose to focus on tactics, is like you said, it will give a class chess player the most “bang for their buck”.  Most adults, have a limited amount of time for chess study.  Many people may have the time, but not the money to purchase a lot of chess resources (such as books, lessons, DVDs, software, etc).  A good tactics collection can often be purchased at a reasonable price, and provide hundreds or even thousands of chess problems that can be solved over and over again, until the student can solve the problems almost instantly.  The student can spend just a few minutes a day looking at tactics, or many hours, depending on their schedule.  There is a lot of flexibility built in.

The main problem I have with the “study endgames first” school of thought (Anthea Carson, also advocates this idea, and I have discussed it with her in the past), is that you might be an “endgame expert”, but if you are not good at tactics, you will not be getting to an endgame in the first place!

My good friend Pete Short (whose USCF rating is normally in the 1400-1600 range) is without a doubt a better endgame player than I am.  He understands “Triangulation” very well, for example, and I have seen him win some impressive games with his endgame technique.  He understands it better than me, and could teach it better than me, and has spent more time learning about it than me.  If we got to an even endgame, he would probably have an advantage over me.  Despite this advantage in knowledge, however, if we were to play each other, there is a good chance I am going to get a tactic in on him, before he can even get to an endgame, because I am stronger tactically.

Trying to make it into an endgame against a stronger opponent may have worked in Rocky IV, but I don't recommend it for your chess game

It would be like a boxer who spends a lot of time working on his cardio, so that he will still have energy left for the 10th round of a fight.  But in all of his fights, he is getting knocked out cold in the first or second rounds, because he forgot to lift weights also, and his opponents are physically stronger than him.  Sure if he can get to the 10th round, he might have an advantage, but if the game is over in the second round, what is the point?

To me studying tactics is what will allow you to get to the endgame without losing material.  If you can’t do this, then studying the endgames is a moot point. 

Given enough time and energy you should study all aspects of the game – openings, middlegames, strategy, endgames, tactics, psychology, time management, etc.  But if you don’t have unlimited time and energy, and can choose only one, I would say choose tactics.

If Tony Robbins is serving Kool Aid, Bill and I will have another glass please!

 I am also a huge Tony Robbins fan (as you know).  Tony talks a lot about a person’s “perceptual filters”.  He mentions how your brain is processing everything that is coming in the five sense (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) and deciding what to keep, and what to throw away.  99% of all the things coming in our senses have to be thrown away, because our brains just can’t process it all. 

This is one of the huge benefits of studying tactics – you are training your perceptual filters, so that they will not miss an opportunity when it is presented.

Tony uses the example of getting a new car.  For example, I drive a Mazda MX-5 Miata.  If another Miata drives by me on the road, I can’t help but notice it.  Other people who don’t have the Miata in their “perceptual filters”, might not notice them at all, but I will spot one driving past me on the highway at 80 miles an hour going the opposite direction 4 lanes over.  I can’t NOT see it.

I try to do the same thing with chess tactics with repeated study.  So I can’t NOT see a knight fork – it just jumps out at me.  Or a smothered mate, back rank mate, overloaded piece, pawn fork, bishop check on f7, etc.

A lot of Jeremy Silman’s ideas I think are great for when you don’t know what to do, and already have a strong tactical foundation.  But to follow a “plan” all of the moves have to be sound tactically.  And if they aren’t – while you are busy following your plan, your loose pieces will be falling off the board.

I have looked at a lot of amateur games at this point putting together my database, writing newsletters, blog posts, columns, and just for fun.  I can tell you that most games played with players below 1800 are not decided because one player has better endgame technique or understanding than the other.  Most all of the games are decided by simple 1-2 move tactics. Not even complicated tactics – fairly simple ones.  Both players make good moves, one person makes a mistake, the other person takes advantage, and grinds out a win.

So while I certainly don’t have a problem with a person studying endgames, if they enjoy it, I think that most players under 1800 are going to improve their game the fastest, and raise their rating the fastest, by focusing on the study of tactics.

Thanks again for the nice letter and food for thought!


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