The Endgame

The term – the endgame – hardly seems to do justice to this phase. In it most simple usual expression, the endgame means that time in the game after the players have played out a significant number of moves when a checkmate, a resignation, a draw, or a stalemate is inevitable. However, an endgame may be inevitable as early as White’s second move (the two-move checkmate)! Most players would not classify the two-move and three-move rapid checkmates, and those in four moves, fives moves, etc., occurring during openings, as being true endgames…how can they be when the middlegame has not even been played? “Grandmaster Tarrasch once said, ‘Before the endgame the Gods have placed the middlegame.’ ” [quoted from The Complete Book of Chess Strategy, Grandmaster Techniques from A to Z by IM Jeremy Silman, at page 109]. Further, an endgame if played out fully may require upwards of twenty or more moves; e.g., a Rook and a King against a lonely opposing King often presents an endgame requiring many moves to make the mating net. So why are not at least some of those moves still part of the middlegame then? The answer lies in the key of the interrelationship between the phases.

The truth be told, it is often difficult to discern when a game has progressed from the middlegame to the endgame. For example, in any particular game some might say, “It was on the twenty-seventh move.” Others though might say “No, it was on the twenty-ninth move.” Who would be right? Probably both and probably neither. Now that certainly seems an implausible, illogically odd answer, doesn’t it?

If one looks at any particular concluded game with many pieces and pawns still on the chessboard in a typical, normal pattern of the players’ plans clashing on the board, then most likely the game concluded during the middlegame. The less pieces and pawns on the board may signal the game concluded in the endgame. This is simplistic, however, because of the many variables that can play a role in the conclusion of a chess game. These include: games ending suddenly with an overwhelming crushing defeat because of a deadly blunder, or a suddenly found hidden checkmate, an agreed draw, perpetual check, or surprise stalemate. The ending of a chess game, of course, can occur in the opening (e.g., two moves with Fool’s Mate, and four moves with Scholar’s Mate).

Another means to distinguish between the middlegame and the endgame is to analyze the final several moves of the game. If the game’s end was a foregone conclusion regardless of any possible attempts by a player in danger of losing the game to prolong the game hoping for someway out, easily discernible several moves before its conclusion, then the game most likely ended in the endgame.

Hopefully, it is obvious that the dividing line between the middlegame and endgame is not as clear-cut as it usually is between the opening and the middlegame. The opening entails only those moves before necessary to bring the players to a position where their respective plans begin to clash with significant tension. Naturally, in all openings there is tension from the initial moves. White has the initiative and Black is trying to take it away. However, it is not until the early skirmishes and battles settle themselves out into predictable patterns recognizable as favorable or unfavorable lines do the plans begin to seriously clash and create the tensions giving rise to the middlegame.

The tutorials have stressed the importance of the interrelationship between the phases. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than when deciding whether a game has entered the endgame. Above, the discussion centered upon games that have been concluded. But what about a game in progress? The distinction made based on the number of pieces and pawns on the board usually at best is an imperfect measure. And one obviously one cannot use the final several moves to discern whether the endgame had commenced. Or can one?

Yes, certainly this may be done for those situations where it is easy to discern the moves that would ensue to reach an inevitable conclusion. These are the situations where resignations happen the most because the player on the wrong end of the balance equation (that is…parity in the game) generally recognizes he or she will be defeated. The player recognizes that there is no hope of preventing a loss, or so very little hope that playing on would be most likely a boring exercise in futility. He or she thus smartly and correctly resigns, going on to another game with the hope of winning.

We see again the importance of pattern recognition in a game of chess. The endgame is at its very heart, the epitome of pattern recognition. There are many different patterns possible for the players to play in order to reach an endgame. These different patterns are the available lines emanating from the opening, and which open up even further in the middlegame through the clashing together of the players’ plans. When the pattern recognition falls into a recognizable inevitability for the game concluding favorably to one of the players, then the endgame has been reached.

We come fully circle. The opening affects the middlegame, which affects the endgame, which is controlled by the opening that is played. And indeed all the way back to the beginning tutorial, The Objective of the Game, and what I labeled as a Foundation to Play Chess: Pattern Recognition, Developing a Plan, and Executing the Plan.

A well-developed mating net is the primary pattern recognition tool to spot an endgame. In order to conclude a game as quickly as possible, it is critical that a player have the ability to spot a coordinated, focused mating attack. He or she must be able to do move order and calculation, and discern the series of sequential, progressive attacking moves and/or pawn advances designed to hem in and block the opposing King from moving. How does the player trap him at a square where checkmate is forced – that is to say, spot the matting pattern yielding the mating net? By developing and using chess vision, and employing all the skills and tools the player has learned and studied. Mating nets may occur in the middlegame as well, and indeed can be quite common and pedestrian in that phase. Often, however, the focus in a plan usually is to establish a mating net for an endgame resulting from the clashing of the players’ plans in the middlegame.

In developing a plan for a game, a player therefore must consider and employ the tactics and strategies designed to create mating nets against the opposing King. In devising possible mating nets toward which the player intends to work during the game, he or she must consider the full range of tactical and strategic maneuvers. What will accomplish the goals and when? Does he or she use pins, sacrifices, skewers, traps, entombment, isolated pawns, pawn storm, and so on?

For example, a player may devise a game plan that has intended moves designed to create a remote isolated pawn. The player intends to try to use it in the endgame to gain pawn promotion. The player intends thereafter to use the piece gained by promotion to create a mating net to checkmate the opposing King. As part of his or her plan, the player must therefore create the tactics and strategies designed to protect and defend the isolated pawn against the likely attack against it by the opposing player in the middlegame. The player must also devise protection (i.e., defense) for the pawn more so for the endgame. The player has to begin thinking about all of this in the opening. Once again, we see the importance of the interrelationship between the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame.

Yet, it does no good to say, “Hmm, I’ll shoot for this pin or that entombment,” without being able to construct what the player desires to do after that and why. On developing a plan, the process therefore devolves into a matter of making choices of the moves and pawn advances, alone and in combinations, which the player desires to make designed to bring the game to the endgame where the player will win. Naturally, during the game a player’s focus may shift toward a draw or stalemate if the player’s plan has lost too many skirmishes and battles. If it appears the player will end up on the wrong side of the hyphen sign (1-0 or 0-1), he or she may be forced by circumstances to abandon his or her game plan and shift concentration and focus toward seeking to create sufficient tension to reach parity (1/2-1/2) (draw or stalemate).