world chess champions

Endgame Fundamentals: World Champions on Endings

By Donny Gray

World Champions of chess are a rare breed indeed. Since 1886 when Steinitz was recognized as the 1st official world champion to present day, there have only been a handful of players that could claim this title. What they have to say about chess should be listened to for sure!

All of the world champions had things to say about chess in general, as well as the opening, middle game, and endings. The following quotes are mainly about endings, as that is what we learn here in this column. Some of the following are not strictly about endings, but they do apply just the same.

Some of the quotes are quite profound and thought-provoking, like Botvinnik’s “A knight ending is really a pawn ending.”

Some of the quotes are just simple statements of facts, like Fischer’s “All that matters on the chessboard is good moves.”  Or Lasker’s  “The hardest game to win is the won game.”

And some of the quotes seem like a really great idea, but how in blazes do you accomplish it?  Such as Tal’s “You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.”

The best and most useful quotes, not surprisingly, come from the most famous of all ending players: Capablanca. His ideas on the endings should be studied by everyone from beginner to Grandmaster.

So now sit back and let the world champions teach you about endings!



The King is a fighting piece – use it!

In the ending, the king is a powerful piece for assisting his own pawns–or stopping the adverse pawns.



The hardest game to win is a won game.

When you see a good move, look for a better one.



A passed pawn increases in strength as the number of pieces on the board diminishes.

In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else. For whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and opening must be studied in relation to the end game.

Endings of one rook and pawns are about the most common sort of endings arising on the chess board. Yet though they do occur so often, few have mastered them thoroughly. They are often of a very difficult nature, and sometimes while apparently very simple they are in reality extremely intricate.

The best way to learn endings, as well as openings, is from the games of the masters.

The winning of a pawn among good players of even strength often means the winning of the game.

The king, which during the opening and middle game stage is often a burden because it has to be defended, becomes in the endgame a very important and aggressive piece, and the beginner should realize this, and utilize his king as much as possible.

To improve at chess you should in the first instance study the endgame.

Ninety percent of the book variations have no great value, because either they contain mistakes or they are based on fallacious assumptions; just forget about the openings and spend all that time on the endings.

You may learn much more from a game you lose than from a game you win. You will have to lose hundreds of games before becoming a good player.



Play on both sides of the board is my favorite strategy.

Chess will always be the master of us all.

According to general opinion, rook endings belong to the technique of the game. One can agree with this, adding that even an approximate mastership for the majority, and at the present moment there is no chess player who could be called the impeccable one in rook endings, with no exception for either the present or former champion of the world (Lasker & Capablanca) (1927).



In king and pawn endings, an extra pawn is decisive in more than 90% of the time

In endgames with pieces and pawns, an extra pawn is decisive in 50% to 60% of the time.

The king plays an important role in endings

Initiative is more important in the endgame than in other phases of the game. In rook endings the initiative is usually worth at least a pawn.

Two connected passed pawns are very powerful. If they reach the 6th rank they are generally as strong as a rook.


I claim that nothing else is so effective in encouraging the growth of chess strength as such independent analysis, both of the games of the great players and your own.

Memorization of variations could be even worse than playing in a tournament without looking in the books at all.

A knight ending is really a pawn ending.

If you are weak in the endgame, you must spend more time analyzing studies; in your training games you must aim at transposing to endgames, which will help you to acquire the requisite experience.


My fascination for studies proved highly beneficial – it assisted me in the development of my aesthetic understanding of chess, and improved my endgame play.


You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.

Without technique it is impossible to reach the top in chess, and therefore we all try to borrow from Capablanca his wonderful, subtle technique.

I go over many games collections and pick up something from the style of each player.


In almost any position the boundless possibilities of chess enable a new or at least a little studied continuation to be found.



My forte was the middle game. I had a good feeling for the critical moments of the play. This undoubtedly compensated for my lack of opening preparation and, possibly, not altogether perfect play in the endgame. In my games things often did not reach the endgame!

The shortcoming of hanging pawns is that they present a convenient target for attack. As the exchange of men proceeds, their potential strength lessens and during the endgame they turn out, as a rule, to be weak.

The power of hanging pawns is based precisely in their mobility, in their ability to create acute situations instantly.

The best indicator of a chess player’s form is his ability to sense the climax of the game.


All that matters on the chessboard is good moves.

A strong memory, concentration, imagination, and a strong will is required to become a great chess player.

You can only get good at chess if you love the game.

Concentrate on material gains. Whatever your opponent gives you…take, unless you see a good reason not to.

That’s what chess is all about. One day you give your opponent a lesson, the next day he gives you one.

The turning point in my career came with the realization that Black should play to win instead of just steering for equality.


Pawns not only create the sketch for the whole painting, they are also the soil, the foundation, of any position.


Chess is mental torture.

When your house is on fire, you can’t be bothered with the neighbors. Or, as we say in chess, if your king is under attack, don’t worry about losing a pawn on the queenside.

When I was preparing for one term’s work in the Botvinnik school I had to spend a lot of time on king and pawn endings. So when I came to a tricky position in my own games I knew the winning method.



It is rightly said that the most difficult thing in chess is winning a won position

Chess is like body-building. If you train every day, you stay in top shape. It is the same with your brain – chess is a matter of daily training.


It is important that you don’t let your opponent impose his style of play on you. A part of that begins mentally. At the chessboard if you start blinking every time he challenges you then in a certain sense you are withdrawing. That is very important to avoid.

You could say that both Fischer and Carlsen had or have the ability to let chess look simple.


Of course, analysis can sometimes give more accurate results than intuition but usually it’s just a lot of work. I normally do what my intuition tells me to do. Most of the time spent thinking is just to double-check.

Contrary to many young colleagues I do believe that it makes sense to study the classics.


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