Endgame Challenge

John Nunn

Reviewer: Timothy Randall
240 pages

Dr. John Nunn demarcates the boundary many players by choice or indifference never cross, into the realm of chess problems and studies. “Chess is full of artificial divisions”, writes Nunn. “Over-the-board players have little contact with postal players and neither of these groups talks to problemists. Even in the little world of chess composition there is a division between problem composers and study enthusiasts.”

Just comparing the proportion of opening versus endgame books published, many players remain looking on the outside of this bubble, and that is sadly their great loss. Please read the words from some heavy hitters who argue in favor of the use of endgame studies and problems for player improvement:

“Most players have an uneasy feeling about composed studies. They don’t like those ‘White to play-and-win’ positions they see in magazines because they seem artificial. Yes, most studies are artificial. But what amateurs might like about them is that the solution is usually 100 percent tactical. You don’t have to know esoteric, technical positions. Just work out the tactics. In fact, one of the best ways to improve your winning technique is to work on endgame tactics.” (GM Andrew Soltis – “What it Takes to Become a Chess Master”)

“What it may lose in realism is more than compensated by the fact that it is uncluttered by inessential detail … giving it a permanent abstract clarity which can only prove an aid to logical thinking and retention in memory. (John Littlewood – “Chess Coaching”)

‘Richard Reti’s definition of endgame studies was: ‘Endgame studies are endgame positions with extraordinary content.’” (GM Jan Timman – foreword from Mark Dvoretsky’s “Studies for Practical Players”)

“No one pretends that solving problems is going to help over-the-board play, but there is more to chess than going up (or down) a few rating points each year. Endgame studies are of help in improving tactical vision… (and) offer a painless way to learn some endgame theory.” (GM John Nunn – “Solving in Style”)

Former world champion Gary Kasparov’s opinion begs to differ, “I am fond of solving chess problems and, particularly, chess studies. The time I take to solve studies tests my sporting form and I use many ideas in practical play.” (again from “Secrets of Spectacular Chess”)

“Many trainers, such as Mark Dvoretsky, recommend solving studies as an excellent self-training technique, and I can only endorse their view….Will looking at the studies in this book help you win games? The short answer is yes.” (John Nunn – contradicting himself a bit in “Endgame Challenge”)

“For those not convinced by the empirical evidence, there are several plausible reasons why looking at chess problems and studies will improve your chess…Firstly it should enhance powers of chess fantasy by building up the ‘vocabulary’ of tactical ideas and patterns…Secondly, solving problems and studies require very clear, logical, precise, goal-orientated thinking…Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the question of motivation…(which) is critical to competitive success.” (GM Jonathan Levitt and IM David Friedgood – “Secrets of Spectacular Chess”)

If you already recognize the worth of utilizing chess studies and problems, I am certainly preaching to the choir. For the majority of players, consider, if you will, the possibility that the above soapbox pitch on the value of acquiring such books has validity; for your erudition I showcase three books of varying levels on this chess world subset.

Stalwart authors John Beasley and Timothy Whitworth have teamed to produce “Endgame Magic”, an exceptional text, which could serve well either as an introduction to endgame studies or as a treasure trove of over 150 samples of sublime beauty that could be shared at a chess club or within a chess lesson. Absent of stupefying jargon, the readers are provided pithy biographical snapshots and representative creations of perhaps familiar composers including Reti, Troitsky, Smyslov, Kasparian, Grioriev, and Kubbel, as well as dozens of lesser-known artists. A few over-publicized positions such as Reti’s famous pawn promotion chase or the heralded Saavedra underpromotion theme are included, but for studies neophytes, most of these handpicked chestnuts will be unfamiliar, and are likely to charm and delight even the most curmudgeonly chess players’ hearts. Chapters include promotion races, fortresses & blockades, avoiding a loss by stalemate, perpetual harassment, decoys & diversions, corresponding squares (the hardest chapter), losing the move, frolics & fantasies, and, finally, “the grand manner”. Each problem is provided with multiple diagrams allowing for appreciation sans board. Apparently out-of-print, this 192 page book published by Henry Holt is absolutely worth searching for (www.abe.com). Warmly recommended for players rated 1600 and up (but don’t hesitate considering this book for any rated player.)

Climbing up the latter in scholarly presentation if not difficulty, readers may also enjoy Dr. Nunn’s “Solving in Style”. This previously out-of-print book, recommended for players rated 1800+, has been resuscitated by Gambit Publications. The author provides chapters explaining the solving subtleties of standard mate in standard mate-in-two and mate-in-three (and longer!). For those whose tastes venture to the wild side, the reader may elect to engage in esoteric self-mates, helpmates, reflexmates, as well as retro-analytical problems. But for those whose interest focuses on endgame studies, two chapters provide 27 instructional examples followed by 26 problems for which the reader may sharpen his skills. Theses samples cannot help but both challenge and instruct would-be problem solvers of all degrees of success. Explanatory detailed solutions which extend well beyond mere variations and a succinct annotated bibliography rounds out this 238 page book.

The trifecta of this review is another classic by Dr. Nunn, “Endgame Challenge”. If the problem sets in the above two books provided insufficient intellectual stimulation, readers are served 250 brain-busters whose heavily detailed solutions alone take up nearly 200 of the 256 pages of this book. Nunn has reportedly examined about 20,000 examples from the monolithic Van der Heijden database, and those problems finally selected have passed through Nunn’s DeepFritz/dual processor/Nalimov tablesbases ringer. Over 100 composers are represented, though the author appears to favor Gurgendize and Kasparian, though not without reason. Nunn references the two chapters on studies in his “Solving in Style” which readers review as warm ups prior to tackling these challenges, which are recommended for motivated players rated 2000 and up. Disclosure: Of the three books, the last is the one through which I have journeyed the least distance, but as an amateur cover I shall never give up, never surrender.

Let us part with some thoughts from “Endgame Magic”: “A game is the chess equivalent of an episode from real life, humdrum or exciting almost by accident, whereas a study has the cultivated intensity of a short story; and if you conclude that the best thing to do with a study is to forget about real chess life for a moment and play it through for sheer enjoyment, you will be entirely correct.”