John Watson Book Review (84)
There's an end to it all
IM John Watson - Thursday 25th October 2007
In Review Column #26, I reviewed 16 books on the endgame, and in Review Column #65, I talked about 10 more endgame books. One of the themes of the first batch was that a majority of the books claimed to have an approach different from the others, usually a simpler and more comprehensible one that was held to contrast with the usual dry recitations of variations that the other endgame books delivered. That claim persists in endgame books to this day. Oddly enough, I don't recall seeing more than one or two of these maligned 'other' endgame books, with their tedious listings, for 30 years or so! In fact, the only one that instantly comes to mind is Reuben Fine's Basic Chess Endings, a book that people fall all over themselves praising! So you might want to take those claims with a grain of salt.
The first thing that I say to my students about endgame books (and CDs) is that before rushing out to get the latest bundle, they should first consider reading the ones (or one) that they already have. As I've mentioned before, players tend to fall in love with their first endgame book once they actually sit down and read it. I think that's because endgame material tends to be logical, absorbing and elegant in its own way. Furthermore, the standard examples that are normally considered essential and practical are roughly the same from book to book.
That said, we have been blessed with the appearance of some exceptionally wonderful endgame books in past two years, and I'll talk about a few of them that stand out for me. Furthermore, as if the market isn't crowded enough, there is a set of DVDs that simply can't be ignored. My apologies to the authors of the many products that I've passed over (or overlooked); this is always an overcrowded category of books and I simply don't have time to look at them all.
Endgame Virtuoso Anatoly Karpov; Tibor Karolyi and Nick Aplin; 358 pages; New in Chess, 358 pages
Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics; G. C. Van Perlo; 479 pages; New in Chess 2006
Silman’s Complete Endgame Course; Jeremy Silman; 530 pages; Siles Press 2007
Dr. Karsten Mueller Chess Endgames (Fritz Trainer DVD Discs 1-4; Video); Karsten Mueller; approx 23.5 hours total; ChessBase 2006-7(?)
101 Chess Endgame Tips; Steve Giddins; 112 pages; Gambit 2007
50 Essential Chess Lessons; Steve Giddins; 160 pages; Gambit 2006
Secrets of Endgame Strategy; 224 pages; Gambit 2006
Practical Endgame Play - beyond the Basics ; Glenn Flear; 544 pages Everyman 2007
I'll begin with Endgame Virtuoso Anatoly Karpov (subtitled The Exceptional Skills of the 12th World Champion), by Tibor Karolyi in conjunction with and Nick Aplin. This book was on the short list for the prestigious Book of the Year award from the English Chess Federation (ECF; formerly British Chess Federation, or BCF), the most respected of such awards for chess books. It deals, naturally, with Anatoly Karpov's endgames, of which there are plenty to choose from! Karolyi thinks that Capablanca and Karpov 'were the two champions who relied most upon their exceptional endgame skills." Since he feels that at the time of Karpov's reign, 'competitive standards were much higher [than in Capablanca's time]', he says that Karpov 'played endgames at the highest level ever.' A plausible claim.
The first thing to admit is that this is a truly great addition to the literature of the game, even a classic. But it is also a very technical book and, as with Dvoretsky's classic endgame manual, one has to ask who will actually read the book in depth rather than simply stand in admiration of it. I know that even the two endings that I chose to study in depth exhausted me, and I only played over about half of the notes. By the way, you are strongly encouraged to find each game and position in a database and work from there!
Interestingly, the ECF awarders say: 'The book gives 105 of his endgames which are annotated in a lively style, but with deep analysis at critical points. Karpov’s legendary ability to make something out of nothing is well known and Karolyi makes a serious attempt to understand the secret of Karpov’s success. As a result the reader is simultaneously instructed and entertained.' To my mind, they are absolutely correct except for the 'lively style' bit, and that won't help sales.
The examples (105 of them) include an extraordinary number of fantastic, sometimes breathtaking ideas, as a glance through the book and its diagrams shows. A very dedicated young student might find his or her chess life transformed by meticulous study of Karpov. Taking up this style of play, this depth-in-simplicity, could lead one in an unconventional and productive direction, by comparison with the usual immersion in opening study. Of course, it would take an unusual player to proceed along such a course.
Returning to reality, I can recommend this book without reservation. But a warning: Even more so than with most books, what you get from it will depend upon how much you put into it. And that relation is probably not linear, i.e., a small amount of study may reward you only superficially, while true devotion may enrich you for life. Maybe.
Now we come to the two books that will undoubtedly become classics in the field, not necessarily in the intellectual sense that the Karpov book will, but in the sense of teaching and inspiring a general audience of chess fans. Together with Mueller and Lamprecht's Fundamental Chess Endings, I suspect that they will be the most popular books in the field for a long while.
The first is Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics by G. C. Van Perlo. When I first realized that this book had won the 2006 ECF Book of the Year Award, I wondered if it weren't an aberration. After all, a book of "More than 1,000 sparkling tricks and traps"?? Where has the dignity of our game gone? Then I saw outrageously positive reviews from columnists, respected grandmasters, and others. Finally, I noticed that the book won 2006 ChessCafe Book of the Year as well!
Well, I took a closer look. The thing's addictive! Watching players fall for the most insidious traps, or resign prematurely while neglecting improbable salvation, is undoubtedly entertaining. Let's face it: Schadenfreude is even more prevalent among chessplayers than the general population. Then I realised what every thoughtful reader had: that along with those cute trick positions that the reviewers had shown (the same positions, of course), Endgame Tactics was a full of practical chess material. To be sure, the book is stuffed with entertaining trickery, but there's educational trickery as well. For one thing, some of the tricks are standard techniques necessary to win a certain kind of position. Furthermore, many if not most of the examples contain themes, however surprising, that repeat themselves in similar positions, and most are found in grandmaster games. This means that the more of these positions you learn, the more often you will pull a half point or full point out of a hat. Finally, there are many 'book' endings that van Perlo offers illustrate not so much 'tricks' or 'traps' as blunders, often by famous masters, when proper knowledge of the endgame would have saved the point. The rook endings section is particularly full of these. One thing people like about this book is that you can absorb fundamental lessons while being entertained. In fact, Van Perlo's book is organised traditionally, according to general ending type: Pawn Endgames, Queen Endgames, Rook Endgames, and Minor Piece Endgames. Then we find very specific subsections which allow us to gain familiarity with not only the characteristic tactics of a specialised ending but the traditional solutions. These subsections are just as specific as an ending enyclopaedia might contain, for example, rook+pawn versus rook+pawn all the way to rook+5/6/7 pawns versus rook +5/6/7 pawns, or rook with 5 or 6 pawns versus rook with 4 or 5 pawns. It's difficult to find a missing category.
That's not to deny the most important aspect. When all is said and done, it's the ability to make us sit back and smile that makes the difference. As the ECF Committee put it: 'The New in Chess team has edited and organised the material so that there is considerable instructional content in the book. But the winning factor for the judges was the sheer entertainment value - a rare commodity in the chess world these days.'
There is a school of thought that says that endgames are mostly tactics. I think that if you toss in the word 'calculation', they may have a point. At any rate, tactics such as the ones in this book will continue to crop up for as long as chess is played.
I believe that Jeremy Silman's Silman’s Complete Endgame Course (subtitled From Beginner to Master) deserved strong consideration for the 2007 ECF Book of the Year award; see the two books above. With the possible exception of the near-universally praised San Luis tournament book, which I have yet to see, I am positive that I would have voted it for first place (excluding my own books from consideration, of course!). Nevertheless, The BCF judges went with the Karpov book for their endgame pick, and chose not to include Complete Endgame Course on their short list.
There is some irony in this, because I'm convinced that Silman's book will take its place in history as one of the most popular endgame books ever. It has already caught on with the average player in a big way, confirming Silman's status as the king of instructional writers. He writes in a clear and casual style, and time and again has shown the ability to reach those who feel intimidated by the lofty approach that a grandmaster will often take.
The book's cover says that it is "designed to "speak" to a player in a very personal way, Silman's book teaches the student everything he or she needs to know at his or her current rating level, and builds on that knowledge for each subsequent phase of the player's development." That's a good description of the author's fundamental idea that drives the book. Instead of merely making the examples increasingly complex, he defines what he thinks is necessary to know at specific rating levels. For example, the beginner or unrated player needs to know how to checkmate with an extra queen and rook, two rooks, and finally with a lone extra rook. Second, he or she must understand the difference between checkmate and stalemate. But no more! Silman's idea is to wait until you climb in strength before you worry about more advanced material. Then, as a Class 'E' player (that's 1000-1199), one must learn with what material you can mate, and learn queen versus bishop and queen versus knight. Mates with two bishops and bishop and knight are left for later. But you are also introduced to the concept of 'opposition' and playing the most elementary king and pawn versus king ending. That's enough for now: It's so easy to forget how little near-beginners know and can handle! In Class D (1200-1399), one begins to use the 'opposition' to win (or draw) king and pawn endings when the king is in front of it's own pawn, and here for the first time we add more pawns and see the idea of one pawn holding up two, followed by how to win by allowing your passed pawn to be captured while winning the opponent's other pawns. The D player also learns about distant opposition, and cases of a single piece versus a lone pawn. And so forth all the way up to master. By the time you get to Expert, for example, Silman emphasizes a 'flow-chart' method that breaks down complex positions into ones that you already know. I urge those who get the book to look at that chapter; this simple idea appears in a few other books, but never in an organised form. In fact, Silman may be the first to give it explicitly as a general technique, and not merely singular examples. The last, lengthy chapter is made up of 'endgames for pleasure', the majority of which are by "The Five Greatest Endgame Players of All Time" (Lasker, Rubinstein, Capablanca, Smyslov, and Fischer). Not the selection that I would make, but there exist numerous wonderful endings by most any great player, so it really doesn't matter.
Some of the instructional material above may seem conventional, but Silman's book emphasizes to the student that the important thing is to master the strictly limited material at hand, rather than get confused by endings that won't help your results at that level. Perhaps even more importantly, Silman is able to use his teaching experience and talk to his readers in a way that they can handle, in a friendly manner and without condescension.
Of course, there are many fine endgame books that guide the improving reader along in a gentle manner, and some have original approaches for doing so. But few if any of them connect with the reader like Silman does, and in the last analysis that's what many lower players value most. I'll also repeat the point that David Ellinger in ChessCafe makes: "[This ...] demonstrates who this book will truly serve best: anybody who coaches chess. For me, as a perpetually near-2000 player who does part-time coaching, I’ve got in my hands a great resource that will have something for every student, no matter the rating." This is a good point, and I think it applies more precisely to teachers of groups of kids. There are many thousands of classroom and post-school chess teachers in the United States alone, mostly volunteers (do the math by extrapolating from a city's population), and they have to deal with different skill levels in each class. Silman’s Complete Endgame Course is ideally suited for these situations.
Isn't that enough of brilliant endgame works? But let's not forget that we are entering into a modern age with a slowly increasing number of electronic products. In the realm of CDs and DVDs, one endgame product stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: the 4-disc DVD series 'Dr. Karsten Mueller Chess Endgames', published by ChessBase. Karsten Mueller is the co-author with Frank Lamprecht of Fundamental Chess Endings (Gambit 2001), in my opinion easily the best encyclopaedic endings book. Indeed, FCE has been my main reference and teaching tool since it appeared. One good thing about that book is that it has clear explanations, and another is that there is an emphasis on practical endings that are likely to arise in your games (several endgame books share this philosophy, but especially Silman's book). Those two qualities are also part and parcel of Mueller's DVD series, which like other ChessBase DVDs, has Mueller facing the viewer and talking about the position on a board (which is also facing the viewer). His explanations are aided by arrows and highlighted squares, which of course change from position to position. ChessBase Reader is included on the DVDs so that you can view them without having to purchase ChessBase.
That's the format. The content is probably best described (well, okay, easiest for me to describe) by excerpting from the ChessBase description of each DVD (skipping over repeated portions):
'Endgames 1 – Basic knowledge for beginners
The first part of his training series can be started without any endgame knowledge. Only knowledge of the rules of chess is assumed. But for a lot of club players this course will be a welcome brush-up, as a glance at the content confirms. The topics range from elementary endings such as mating with the queen, with rook and with two bishops and mating with bishop and knight.
The DVD also teaches the fundamentals of pawn endings, knight vs. pawns endings, bishop vs. knight endings, queen vs. pawns endings plus knight and bishop endings, including endings with bishop of the same and of opposite color. Those who have always felt that studying the endgame from textbooks is too uninspiring and too arduous will enjoy this DVD and certainly profit from it. Video running time: 5.5 hours'
I should say that I found this DVD surprisingly elementary and even began to wonder if it were for appropriate for players with tournament experience. But 27.5 hours is enough to cover some ground, and Mueller doesn't take long to raise the bar.
'Endgames 2 – rook endgames
... Part II is dedicated exclusively to rook endgames: rook versus pawn, rook and pawn versus rook, rook and rook pawn versus rook, rook and two connected pawns versus rook...
... Complete video running time: 5 hours.
This disc starts out innocently, but by the end Mueller is stopping at some point of an ending and saying something like 'and White wins', when I'll bet many in the intended audience will be taken up short and have to pause the tape, or even go back to see why. There's nothing wrong with that, of course.
'Endgames 3 – major piece endgames
The third part of the endgame series tackles queen endings, rook against minor pieces, queen against rook and queen against two rooks. Queen endings are not nearly as mysterious as they appear at first sight. Knowing a few rules of thumb and principles will make things very much easier for you. In the case of rook versus knight or bishop, you should not only know how to draw a pawnless endgame, but also when a fortress can be set up and when not. Something similar is the case for queen against rook, except of course that when there are no pawns the queen wins against the rook. In the duel against two rooks, further aspects come into play such as the coordination of the rooks... Complete video running time: 7 hours.
'Chess Endgames 4 – Strategical Endgames
In the fourth volume of the endgame series a lot of themes with more material are included like rook and minor piece vs. rook (and minor piece), rook vs. two minor pieces, double rook endings, queen and knight vs. queen and bishop, the bishop pair and endgame principles. Typical topics are: the so called Fischer endgame rook and bishop vs. rook and knight, which occurs quite frequently in practical play and is very often favourable for rook and bishop; with opposite coloured bishops the presence of one rook each greatly increases the winning chances of the attacker compared to the pure opposite coloured bishop endgame (see DVD 1); when are queen and knight stronger than queen and bishop; which drawing methods exist in the pawnless endgame rook and bishop vs. rook, which is quite often won over the board. Complete video running time: approx. 6 hours.
I could comment at length upon these videos but will have to cut this short. Whether you enjoy them may depend upon whether you like Mueller's style. He obviously knows his stuff and moves along at a healthy, appropriate pace. But he comes across as rather distant and lacks the charisma that other ChessBase presenters have had. By the way, one feature of these discs is that, at least in some, you get a database of the positions discussed, complete with notes and even arrows, etc. In the early ones, I may not have installed them correctly, but I don't see the games listed; they can be saved from the video board and notation if need be. At any rate, having these endings as positions to play through, and to go back and forth in, is very useful.
Steve Giddins' 101 Chess Endgame Tips is still another first-rate book that simply must be mentioned, if not given the longer description it deserves. Giddins uses 101 endgame positions, an original selection from many sources, to illustrate key ideas and techniques that arise in the endgame. 65 of the positions are arranged around issues related to a single piece, and 36 of them are in the realm of 'strategy and technique'. He provides both easy-to-learn tips and broader guidance. There's a lot of content here - it's surprising how much about types of endgames and the way to conduct them can be fit into 101 positions. Still, not every ending can be covered, and this isn't a 'complete' book in the sense that Silman's, Van Perlo's, or Mueller's video version are.
The book caught my eye and in my opinion is a cut above the ordinary, particularly due to the author's extremely clear and efficient way of presenting ideas. The other advantage that we can all appreciate, whether beginner or master, is that you can easily read it without a chess board (or computer) because there are a minimum of variations on each page with plentiful diagrams. That makes it a pleasure to browse through. It's difficult for me to compare 101 Chess Endgame Tips with the works above, because its approach and structure are so different. But I can say that this is an excellent and enjoyable book, and you can't go wrong with it.
[An aside, not related to endgames: Giddins has written another excellent book, 50 Essential Chess Lessons, published in 2006 by Gambit. It is a teaching text that uses 50 very well-selected complete games - not the usual suspects - to illustrate various kinds of positions from opening to endgame. Giddins gives descriptions of key ideas of the games, tips for how to play them, and what to look out for. Again, the book's effectiveness is based upon its very clear and easy-to-digest presentation. I reviewed this book at length on one of my radio shows and can highly recommend it for average-strength players.]
As I indicated above, I haven't have time to read, much less assess, the many endgame books that have appeared recently. But let me mention two important ones.
Lars Bo Hansen's Secrets of Endgame Strategy (224 pages;Gambit 2006) has been praised by at least two reviewers (unfortunately, not many endgame books are reviewed), and although I haven't read the book it looks very good. Hansen has a 38-page chapter on general principles and takes a more holistic approach in general, for example, he has a 22-page chapter on "The Role of Pawns in the Endgame", rather than breaking the endings into categories. His examples tend to be more complex than in any the above books except the one on Karpov. Most major material distributions are discussed. Hansen says that his emphasis is on endgame strategy and the 15 principles that he thinks 'constitute the backbone of strategic endgame play'.
Glenn Flear's Practical Endgame Play - beyond the Basics (Everyman 2007) appeared on my doorstep just yesterday! It weighs in at 544 pages with, naturally, heaps of examples. As far as I can see, most major modern players from 1980 on are well represented, but there isn't much from World Champions until Karpov. Flear himself is involved in a great number of endings, perhaps 150 or so (a guesstimate from the Index). He is an endgame expert who has written at least four other books on that phase of the game. With the exception of a few pages on situations in which one side has two extra pieces, Flear's book is entirely about endgames of every type with two pieces versus two pieces or two pieces versus one. That's quite an undertaking. I do note a comment from the Introduction that connects with this review: 'Positions with one piece each or less are very well covered in chess literature. But those with a little more material are not. In fact, it can be very frustrating trying to find any sort of book that covers rook and minor piece versus rook and minor piece. Do you have any in your collection?' [Emphasis his]. Amusingly, Van Perlo's book above has a chapter of no less than 61 pages on this very subject! Of course, these are quite different types of books, and Flear's point is well-taken: I suspect that few if any other endgame books deal with this topic in depth.
Again, I'm sorry to give these books short shrift and probably represent them inaccurately, but I guess any mention is better than none. Hopefully I'll get to others as time goes on.