Endgames in chess can be very complex and intimidating for beginners. But, the truth is that there are many different types of chess endgame and mastering them all is not necessary. Just learning the basics of a few of the basic endgames will put you one step ahead of other chess players. The principles of the endgames are even more important than the details.
What is an Endgame in Chess?
The endgame in chess is the phase of the game that occurs after most of the pieces have been exchanged – the stage of the game that happens at the end. Not every game of chess reaches the endgame, as some games are decided in the middlegame (or even by early checkmates in the opening). However, most games do reach the endgame stage.
In general, endgames have different strategic goals than other phases. One main goal in the opening is to develop your pieces, while in the middlegame your goal could be to attack an enemy king or to protect your own king, but in the endgame, one of the main goals is to try and promote a pawn.
An endgame is generally possess one or all of these characteristics:
- Endgames favor an aggressive king.
- Passed pawns increase greatly in importance.
- Zugzwang is often a factor in endgames and rarely in other stages of the game.
Basic Endgame Strategy
Although there are fewer pieces on the board, endgame positions can be just as difficult as any other position in chess. Many of the same strategical themes from the middlegame apply in the endgame – isolated and backwards pawns are still weak, bad bishops are very much a liability, and a knight in the centre is usually better than a knight on the rim. There are, however, a number of differences that give the endgame a unique character.
Why is the Endgame Important?
Learning endgames is important because it drastically improves your winning chances. Unlike opening theory (which changes often), endgame theory and knowledge are not subject to much change. Many endgame principles and techniques have stood the test of time and will continue to do so. By learning solid endgame play, you are setting yourself up for long-term success!
Strong endgame players can convert the tiniest advantages as well as save bad endgames that should probably be lost. Attaining this power is not easy, but once mastered the rewards add up in the form of extra half-points from winning theoretically drawn positions or drawing tough positions down a pawn (or more).
The amount of points that can be gained (and saved) by correct endgame play is enormous, yet often underestimated by youngsters and amateurs.– GM Edmar Mednis
Chess Endgame Principles
The chess endgame principles are:
1. Master the Basic Checkmates
There isn’t really much to say here. Your ability to win a chess game is based on whether or not you can checkmate the enemy King. But more importantly, and as will be reviewed in Rule #5, you can’t truly make accurate decisions in the more complex situations of a game unless you are confident in your ability to deliver a full point when it matters most. The basic checkmates that must be mastered are:
- King and Queen vs King: Because every King and Pawn Ending ends with the promotion of a pawn. If you can’t checkmate with a Queen, then you can’t truly master King and Pawn Endings.
- Two Rooks (or the Rook Roller) vs King: Because it’s lots of fun!
- King and Rook vs King: Because many Rook and Pawn endings (arguably the most commonly reached practical ending) end with one side having to give up their Rook for a Pawn. If you can’t do this mate, then you can’t win Rook and Pawn endings.
- King and Two Bishops vs King: Because two Bishops are better than one!
- And only once you’ve reached a higher level (Above 1800): King and Knight & Bishop vs King… — When you’re ready!
2. Master the Basics of Technique
This rule is not just another way to remind you to checkmate when you are ahead of large amounts of material. It is more of a “state of mind” or general approach than it is a specific pattern. Basically, the principles of winning won positions (and yes, that makes sense grammatically Cool) can be broken down into a system:
- Keep It “Simple”/Simplify: Basically, if either side possesses more than a full piece (minor) advantage (and in some cases, a clear two pawn advantage is good enough) they should be looking for every opportunity to trade piece. Simplify the position down to its “purest” form (kind of like doing “fractions” in math).
- Keep an “Eye Out”: If/when you’ve achieved a significant advantage, your opponent’s threats just became more important than your own brilliant plans! I know that’s hard to take in, but the point is that “tricks” are all your opponent has left. Chess is much more a science than it is an art.
- Keep Playing Chess: The game isn’t over, despite your advantage. So, pay attention to all the other principles in this article and remember that if there isn’t a clear “path to victory” by trading pieces, you have to keep playing good moves!
3. Push Passed Pawn
Push your passed pawns if you got them .Recognize a passed pawn, and push it! Whether it be a basic Endgame simply begging for one side to march their pawn up the board and promote, or even a more complex position with plenty to think about besides the pawns — you must push your passed pawns!
4. Activate Your King
One thing that really separates the final stage of chess from the rest of the game is King play! Every great endgame player in history not only understood the importance of King activation, but they anticipated precisely when the middlegame was ending, and that it was time to bring out the big guy!
Generally, as soon as the Queen’s have been traded you should consider the possibility of bringing out your King. In cases where there still exist lots of enemy forces (particularly the two Rooks and at least two minor pieces) — you might want to put the reins on your leader, but don’t lose a game because you brought your King into the battle too late!
5. Play “Backwards-to-Forwards” Chess
This is a favorite “concepts” or “mind-sets” for beginners, as it can change their entire approach to the game when they “get it”. You must recognize your goal or long term strength/opponent’s weakness to attack before you can ever expect to make an accurate decision with what’s in front of you. Basically, most players drastically (to the point of “tragic comedy”) misplay endings because they never take 5 minutes to stop, make some mental notes about all the long term weaknesses and strengths of their position, before they start making moves.
6. Use the Principle of Two Weaknesses
This rule is more of a concept or idea that has become a staple part of every good coach’s “endgame teaching repertoire”. Basically, teaching their students that against tough defense — even a clear advantage like an extra pawn may not be enough. Many Rook endings are drawn after all, and minor piece endings always have the potential that a player might sacrifice and leave you with an extra piece but no winning chances.
So, rather than beating your head against the “proverbial wall” with one advantage, let your advantage serve as a clamp on your opponent’s ability to defend a different target. By creating a second weakness you often increase the strength of your first advantage.
7. Be Concrete & Calculate
Unlike any other “phase” to chess, the endgame requires more knowledge of specific positions and patterns. What if you realized that in the majority of the endgames you play, the result is likely already decided or forced if the best moves are played by both sides? It means that being general and/or trying to evaluate things intuitively is very risky.
As a beginner, you can’t expect yourself to have the knowledge of technical positions that a master level (let alone a Grandmaster) player would have. But what you can do is take my piece of advice as something similar to the “never turn your back on the ocean” saying, ie — approach the endgame like every move could be your last!!! Be concrete, calculate, “don’t move until you see it”, etc… If you play chess with a healthy fear of endings and that they are actually the hardest stage of the game where there is the most to calculate, then you will be on the right track already.
8. Fewer Pieces Mean Less Room for Error
Similar to our last rule, this principle is in place to remind you of the scary fact that endgames require the most precision of any stage of the game. Unless you are simply lost and only postponing things to avoid going home, or totally winning and enjoying the torture of your helpless opponent — then you are by definition involved in a relatively equal ending that requires, here it comes, your complete focus and hard work!
Endgames can be divided into three categories:
- Theoretical Endgames: These are the positions where the correct line of play is generally known and well-analyzed, so the solution is a matter of technique.
- Practical Endgames: These are the positions arising in actual games, where skillful play should transform it into a theoretical endgame position.
- Artistic Endgames: These are deliberately created positions which contain a theoretical endgame hidden by problematic complications.
Common Types of Endgames
Following are the most common types of endgames in chess:
1. Pawnless Endgames
Pawnless endgames are the endgames in which only a few pieces remain, and none of them are pawns. The basic checkmates are a type of pawnless endgame. Generally endgames without pawns do not occur very often in practice, except for the basic checkmates of king and queen versus king and king and rook versus king and queen versus rook. Others that do occur occasionally are a rook and minor piece versus a rook and a rook versus a minor piece, especially if the minor piece is a bishop.
The study of some pawnless endgames goes back centuries, by players such as François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795) and Domenico Lorenzo Ponziani (1719-1796). On the other hand, many of the details and recent results are due to the construction of endgame tablebases.
The assessment of endgame positions assumes optimal play by both sides. In some cases, one side of these endgames can force a win; in other cases, the game is a draw (i.e. a book draw).
Queens and rooks are major pieces whereas knights and bishops are minor pieces.
Following are the important pawnless endgames:
A. King and Queen vs a King
Delivering a checkmate with a king and queen against a lone king is quite easy. The basic technique involved here is driving the king to the edge of the board, which the queen can do by herself. It’s faster if you use your king and queen together, but this increases the probability of a stalemate, so beginners should do it without the king. One such situation is described below:
Cutting the black king off along the fifth rank.
1…Kc7 2.Qa6 limits Black’s king to the last two ranks.
During this phase, notice how White’s queen always stays a knight’s move away from the black king, and how no checks are necessary. Moves like 2.Qc6+? only allow Black’s king more freedom after 2…Ke5.
2…Kf6 3.Qd5 Kg6 4.Qe5 Kf7
After 4…Kh6 5.Qg3 White’s goal has been achieved: the black king is trapped on the edge. White will then bring his king to f6 to force mate.
5.Qd6 Kg7 6.Qe6 Kh7
Black’s king is forced to the edge of the board no matter what he does, e.g. 6…Kf8 7.Qd7.
Now that Black’s king is stuck, the white monarch comes in to finish off his adversary.
9.Qg5 doesn’t spoil anything, but it isn’t necessary. Unlike the king and rook vs. king mate, here Black’s king doesn’t have to be trapped in the corner.
10.Qg6?? stalemate was what Black was hoping for.
Note: Beware of this trap!
10…Kh7 11.Ke5 Kh8 12.Kf6 Kh7 13.Qg7#.
B. King and Rook vs a King
This mate takes longer to do than king and queen vs. king, because the king and rook have to work together to trap the opposing king on the edge (often in the corner). The most commonly taught technique involves confining the opposing king into a box using the rook, which is protected by its own king. Then, the box becomes smaller and smaller until the king is forced into the corner.
1.Kc2 Ke5 2.Kd3 Kd5 3.Ra4 Ke5
After the king’s position is improved, the box can be constructed:
The box is d8-d4-h4.
Now it’s e8-e4-h4.
The box can’t be reduced immediately, so the king creeps closer.
6…Kf5 7.Kd5 Kf6
7…Kg5 8.Ke6 Kg6 9.Rf4 Kg5 10.Ke5 Kg6 11.Rf5 Kg7 12.Rf6 Kg8 13.Kf5 Kg7 14.Kg5 Kh7 15.Rg6 Kh8 16.Kf6 Kh7 17.Kf7 Kh8 18.Rh6# is similar.
Back to shrinking the box: the process repeats itself. Notice that just as in K+Q vs. K, no checks are necessary until the actual mate.
8…Kf7 9.Re6 Kg7 10.Ke5 Kf7 11.Kf5 Kg7 12.Rf6 Kh7 13.Rg6 Kh8 14.Kf6 Kh7 15.Kf7 (see diagram)
Note: If it somehow transpires that White reaches this position but it’s his turn to move, all he has to do is move the rook anywhere along the sixth rank (except Rh6+ of course!). Then, Black’s king is forced to move to h8, and White gives checkmate with Rh6#.
The alternative method is based on the opposition of the kings with the rook being far away. From the same starting position as before:
1.Kc2 Ke5 2.Kd3 Kd5
Once again, White must improve the position of his king first. Now, once the kings are in opposition, he checks along the fifth rank to push the black king back.
Black has no choice but to give ground.
3…Kc6 4.Kd4 Kb6
4…Kd6 5.Ra6+ immediately cuts Black off the sixth rank.
5.Rg5 Kc6 6.Rh5 Kd6
6…Kb6 7.Kc4 Kc6 8.Rh6+ is the same sort of thing.
7.Rh6+ Ke7 8.Kd5 Kf7 9.Ke5 Kg7 10.Rb6 Kf7 11.Ra6 Ke7 12.Ra7+ Kd8 13.Ke6 Kc8 14.Kd6 Kb8 15.Rg7 Kc8 16.Rh7 Kb8 17.Kc6 Ka8 18.Kb6 Kb8 19.Rh8#.
Using either method, it should take about 15-20 moves to deliver the mate. Theoretically, it should take no longer than 16 moves to checkmate, but depending on the position, one might have to use a mixture of the two techniques to do this.
C. King, Bishop, and Knight vs a King
The bishop and knight checkmate in chess is the checkmate of a lone king which can be forced by a king, a bishop, and a knight. With the stronger side to move and with perfect play, checkmate can be forced in at most thirty-three moves from any starting position where the defender cannot quickly win one of the pieces.
The exception is the “stalemate trap” . These exceptions constitute about 0.5% of the positions. Checkmates are possible with the defending king on any square at the edge of the board but can be forced only from positions with different material or if the defending king is in a corner controlled by the bishop or on a square on the edge next to a corner; however, mate adjacent to the corners not controlled by the bishop is only two moves deep (with the same material), so it is not generally encountered unless the defending side plays inaccurately.
Although this is classified as one of the four basic or elementary checkmates (the others being king and queen; king and rook; or king and two bishops against a lone king), it occurs in practice only approximately once in every 6,000 games.
2. Endgames with Pawns
Endgames with just kings and pawns are fundamental to an understanding of the endgame as a whole. When there are other pieces still on the board, there is always the possibility that those pieces may be exchanged, leading to a pawn endgame. For that reason, not only is it important to know how to win a pawn endgame, it is also important to know when is a good or bad idea to initiate exchanges leading to a pawn endgame.
Rule of the Square
Sometimes pawn endgames are easy – if the enemy king is too far away to catch your pawn, it can run all the way to the end of the board. A quick way to tell if the enemy king can catch your pawn is to use a method known as ‘the square’. Picture an imaginary square running from the pawn to the end of the board, and an equal number of squares to the side. If the enemy king can step into the square, then he can catch the pawn.
It’s illustrated in the figures below:
Here, you can see the square of the pawn, extending from d8 to g5.
1… Kc5 2. g6 Kd6 3. g7 Ke7
Every time the pawn advances, the square shrinks, and the black king can never step inside it.
In the following example, black is able to step inside the square and catch the pawn.
1… Kc4 2. g5
It doesn’t matter that the black king is not in the square after the white pawn moves, so long as he can move back in again.
2… Kd5 3. g6 Ke6 4. g7 Kf7 5. g8=Q+ Kxg8
The white pawn becomes a queen, only to be captured immediately after.
A. Queening a Pawn
If you have a single pawn against a bare king, whether or not you can get the pawn to the end of the board will depend on whether or not you can get the enemy king out of the way. Simply pushing the pawn can often lead to stalemate, as in the example below:
The result is a stalemate, as white’s method of play hasn’t worked out.
B. Rook Pawns
Although the side with the extra pawn has good chances of winning using the technique above, there is an exception: If the pawn is a rook pawn – an a-pawn or h-pawn, which start in front of the rooks at the edge of the board – then there is no way to force the enemy king out from his blockade, and the game is usually drawn.
In this position, there is no way for white to force the black king out from the corner.
1. Ka6 Kb8 2. Kb6 Ka8
Gaining the opposition doesn’t help white here – there’s not enough room to outmaneuver the black king.
3. a6 Kb8 4. a7+ Ka8 5. Ka6
If white had another piece such as a light-squared bishop, that could be used to force black out of the corner, but here it’s just stalemate.
3. Endgames with Minor Pieces
Endgames where each side has a king, one or more pawns, and a single minor piece fall into four categories – knight vs knight, bishop vs knight, bishop vs bishop where the bishops are on the same coloured square, and bishop vs bishop where the bishops are on opposite coloured squares. Each has its own character, so we will look at each separately.
A. Knight vs Knight
In many ways, knight vs knight endgames are similar to pure pawn endgames, as the knight is a fairly slow piece. Usually, the side with an extra pawn will win, just as in pawn endgames, and the technique is much the same – centralize your king and knight, and push your pawns where you have a majority to create a passed pawn. One thing to look out for is opportunities to sacrifice the knight in order to promote a pawn, such as in the following typical example:
Here material is equal, and neither side has a passed pawn, but black can use a knight sacrifice to break through:
1… Nxb2! 2. Nxb2 a3
Here, the limited maneuverability of the knight is exposed, because although the black pawn needs two more turns to promote, the white knight cannot catch it:
3. Nd3 a2 4. Nb4 a1=Q
Black can easily win with a queen against a knight.
B. Bishop vs Knight
Usually, the bishop is the preferred piece in the endgame, because its long range movement allows it to influence events on both sides of the board, whereas it can take the knight several moves to cross from one flank to the other. In general, knights become weaker over the course of the game; as more pieces are exchanged, their ability to jump means less and less, while their slow speed becomes an issue as wide spaces open up on the board. Meanwhile, the bishop increases in strength as more diagonals open up. On an open board, with pawns on both wings, the knight is often unable to keep up with the bishop, as the following example shows.
1. Bb6 Nb7
White attacks the black pawn, so black defends it. Now white switches to an attack on the other side of the board:
2. Bd4 Nd6 3. Bg7 Nf7
The black knight makes it just in time to defend on this side too.
White switches back to the queenside again, and this time the black knight is too far away to defend, so white will win black’s a-pawn.
C. Bishop vs Bishop of the Same Coloured Square
When both sides have only a bishop, the game can be difficult to win even when you have an extra pawn. This is because it can be difficult or even impossible to budge the enemy king from a square that the bishop cannot attack. Here is an example:
D. Bishop vs Bishop of Opposite Coloured Squares
Opposite coloured bishop endgames are notorious for their drawshness. It can be impossible to win, even when you are two pawns up. The problem is that the enemy king and bishop can make a blockade on the opposite coloured square to your bishop, leaving you with no way to break through. Here is an example where even three extra pawns are not enough to win:
It may be a little bit of a cheat, since one of white’s extra pawns is a doubled pawn, but even so, white is three clear pawns to the good and cannot break black’s blockade.
1… Bf1 2. Kd4 Bb5 3. Bf8 Bf1 4. Kc5 Bb5 5. Kb6 Bf1
That’s all there is to it – black leaves the king on f5, and shuffles the bishop around on the b5-f1 diagonal, and there is nothing white can do, because he has no influence over the light squares.
In general, if you have extra pawns, you should try to avoid trading down into an opposite coloured bishop’s endgame. On the other hand, if you’re behind on pawns, look out for opportunities to exchange down to opposite coloured bishops, as the opposite coloured bishop endgame is a good place to try and save a draw.
We realize that the topic of chess endgames can be dry, and we hope to have shed some light on the topic. We hope you found this article useful and would love to hear any feedback you have about chess endgames or this article in general. If you have any questions, please write it in a comment below.
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