Joel Benjamin, Liquidation on the Chess Board: Mastering the Transition into the Pawn Endgame (New in Chess, 2015). 253 pp., $22.95/€19.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
If pawns are the soul of chess, then pawn endings are the soul of the endgame. One can hardly navigate through endgames with pieces without some understanding of which pawn endings to head for and which ones to avoid. In fact, there are middlegames and even openings (e.g. the Exchange Ruy and the Berlin) where, to quote from the famous chess theoretician Stephen Covey, one must begin with the end in mind.
With this in mind a player may wish to study pawn endings from two directions: pawn endings proper, where one starts with nothing but the kings and pawns, and positions that can and are even likely to transition into pawn endings. Study of the first sort will involve the usual suite of concepts: opposition, triangulation and other more complicated instances of corresponding squares, tempo moves and zugzwang, races, shouldering ("body checks"), breakthroughs, stalemate, transitions to queen endings and so on. The second sort of study is predicated on the first part, and aims to alert the student to typical patterns of simplification, using the possibility of a favorable transition as a guide, a threat, an alert and so on. Most of the work is done in the first sort of study, while the second helps us to better apply that background knowledge to our practical play. For those who like computer analogies, studying various patterns of liquidation in effect activates our tablebase search program. We're not only thinking about, say, the bishop ending we're in, but are consistently checking on possible pure pawn endings: are they possible? Desirable? What finesses might we need to properly head for such an ending?
American grandmaster Joel Benjamin's book is useful for both sorts of study, using the second approach as its modus operandi. There are 11 chapters of increasing material complexity, in every case involving transitions to various pawn endings. The first four chapters cover endings with each side having the same single piece (queens, rooks, bishops, knights), and chapter five treats bishop vs. knight endings. Chapter 6 presents rook & minor piece endings, chapter 7 two minor piece endings, and chapter 8 examines major piece endings. From there it gets more complex: queen & minor piece endings in chapter 9, three or more piece endings in chapter 10, and finally unbalanced material endings in chapter 11.
Each chapter includes a varying number of exercises; 130 in all if I've counted correctly. There are other small sections, including a helpful set of 30 thematic positions illustrating typical concepts presented earlier in the book. Below each diagram is a short explanation and a list of the game fragments given earlier that they pertain to. There's also an introduction, a glossary; indexes of names, games, and exercises; and a prologue called "The ABCs of Chess" which tells a story about a game he played against Viktor Korchnoi in 1986.
Benjamin had recently become a grandmaster and was suffering against Korchnoi in a game played in Jerusalem that year, but thought that when he sealed his 57th move (57.Kd1) he was perhaps escaping. As far as he could tell at the board, it was a draw, but Korchnoi's confident play up to that point led him to be suspicious.
Now quoting Benjamin:
Before leaving the table, Kortchnoi looked at me and said, 'I know something about triangles.' I was lost in more ways than one, because I still didn't see the win. Fortunately, Dmitry Gurevich, who was 'classically trained' in the endgame (i.e. he grew up in the Soviet Union) showed me the potential finale....
I ran after Kortchnoi and resigned, apologizing profusely for my ignorance. Quite perplexed, Kortchnoi told me, 'It is the ABCs of chess!' Of course he was right....
He concludes the prologue like this:
Pawn endings do not arise out of nowhere; we know of course that every pawn ending started out as an endgame with more pieces on the board. Some endgame works have addressed the issue with chapters on simplification into pawn endings, but this feels insufficient to me. Just as Kortchnoi's mastery of pawn endings led him to an easy win from the rook endgame, studying the transition will help us see the pawn endings evolve and enable us to appreciate and understand them so much better.
Interestingly, in that same year of 1986 I had an ending of my own that would have been suitable for his book, and sadly enough, both my opponent and I also failed to demonstrate our knowledge of the ABCs of chess.
In this position (Black to move) I found a very nice idea, and did everything right...for a while. Later on I goofed things up, but fortunately (for me) my opponent did as well. See if you can work out my defensive idea, and when you're ready you can see how the game went, as well as the way things would have finished in the Benjamin-Korchnoi game by clicking here.
Some final comments about the book: Benjamin's chapter exercises vary in difficulty, and while the content is going to be too much for the least experienced club players it is highly suitable for mid-level players going pretty far up. If you're reading this blog, you're very likely in the target audience. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that everyone go out and buy a copy, but I think that players especially in the range from 1600-2200 will learn something and get a very good workout if they try to solve all the exercises. (This doesn't mean that players outside that range shouldn't get it, only that the maximum benefit will probably go to those rated between 1600 and 2200.)