Saturday, March 24, 2007

Silman's Complete Endgame Course: A Review

Jeremy Silman's long-awaited endgame manual, Silman's Complete Endgame Course, is now out in stores. I picked up my copy last week, and have plowed through about half the material in it. Surprisingly, this book is encouraging me not to study the endgame, and that is its author's intent.


Let me explain. The book is actually divided into sections based on what the author thinks is essential knowledge for a player to know to achieve a certain chess rating. The material is divided according to the USCF ratings system: below Class E (Unrated -1999); Class D (1000-1199); Class C (1200-1399), and so on. After Class A there's also material for Experts (2000-2199), Masters (2200-2400) plus a final section of "Endgames for Pure Pleasure" for everyone. For all the levels up to about Master his suggestion is for students to read the book up to one class level beyond their current rating, and then put the book down and study other areas of chess until they've achieved that next level bracket.

I both agree and disagree with his division of material, and general advice. Mostly I agree. Quoting Dan Heisman from one of his ChessCafe articles:

I have heard from students about instructors
teaching players rated 1200-1300 Philidor and Lucena positions. Yet I
know someone who lost an easily drawable Philidor position because
he did not know the technique and never heard of it. My point? That
player was me: I had been playing tournament chess for 5½ years and
my USCF rating was about 2100! Sure, if I had known the technique I
would not have lost, but the point is that I got to 2100 without ever
even hearing about the Philidor draw because such specific knowledge
is only marginally useful (not useless!) and I was pretty good at {tactics,
piece activity, time management, thought process and general principles}.

Most of the endgames you encounter will be more complex than the basic positions you commonly find in endgame manuals, and in these situations your weaknesses in tactics, general principles, and sloppy thought processes (as well as your opponent's) will be the overriding factor.

Let's see what Silman's book would have a class C player like me study. The Class C chapter covers some very basic pawn endgame principles (opposition, rule of square, rook pawns tend to draw, outside passers are an advantage). There's a brief mention of opposite-colored bishop endgames, and bishop or knight vs. rook pawn is covered briefly (most importantly, the "wrong-coloured bishop" draw). The Lucena and Philidor positions for rook endgames (yes, the same endgame Heisman said he didn't know as a 2100 player) are introduced. Basic queen vs. pawn endgames are covered.

If you haven't studied endgames at all, none of the above sounds familiar. In that case, you should definitely start studying endgames! For me, most of the above was "old hat" and suggests that, for my level, that endgames aren't a big problem (which was my conclusion even before I started on this book). However, I did realize I should play over a few of the Philidor and passive-rook endgame examples as a refresher (a couple of the "white wins" scenarios didn't seem that clear to me). Also, although I knew the basic Q vs. P strategy, and have played it out many times in actual games, I wasn't playing as "crisply" as in the technique Silman shows.

So, let's see what Silman thinks I should study if I want to achieve my desired "B" category. We have: K vs. isolated pawns (e.g. the principle that two pawns separated by one file, and on the same rank, can protect each other without assistance from the king); elementary breakthroughs; triangulation; outflanking; rook and two connected passed pawns vs. rook; rooks on the 7th rank; more opposite bishop endgames; the 2-bishop mate. Although some of this is pretty basic to me (the opposion and opposite-colored bishop endgames in particular), some other material is stuff that I've studied before but obviously not gotten rock-solid (K vs. pawns separated by 2 files, for example).

On the whole, Silman's recommendations seem sound. The material does seem, on the whole, level-appropriate, and the advice to study other areas of your game besides endgames is sound. I disagree with dogmatically following his advice.

First, some principles are quite basic, can be learned easily, but aren't covered until much higher chapters in the book than their ease of learning would suggest. You can argue, for example, that the "principle of two weaknesses" isn't critical at lower levels, but the idea is so simple there's no reason not to learn it. I think if the endgame is present in a basic endgame manual such as Pandolfini's or Alburt's books, there's no reason not to study them. If it happens to make sense and stick in your mind, great. If it doesn't quite make sense, you can come back to it when you reach the next level. I think Silman would consider Soltis' Grandmaster Secrets: Endgames an advanced book, but I think anyone that has studied at least one beginner's endgame book would benefit greatly from reading it. I've also studied pawn endgames a bit (key squares, critical squares, some corresponding squares theory) and I think it's been immensely helpful. Silman doesn't cover the key squares in some basic pawn endgames till Class A. For example:

The colored squares are critical squares for Black's pawn. If white's king lands on any of those 3 squares, he wins. You can argue that you can be a B-player without knowing this, but it's pretty easy knowledge to pick up.

Second, I believe that studying more advanced material can help you in many ways. An example of a book that's definitely intended for stronger players, but that I feel I benefited greatly from, is The Final Countdown by Van Riemsdijk and Hajenius. This starts with relatively simple pawn endgames, but rapidly gets into complicated endgames requiring knowledge of corresponding squares. I wouldn't recommend this book to most people, but it really opened my eyes to how to use the opposition in pawn endgames. I've already mentioned Soltis' book, which is great because a lot of the content is more general principles and less technique. I think that studying more advanced endgame material also helps develop your calculating, visualization and planning skills. For example, if you can play through some basic pawn endgames in your head (e.g.: white K on d1, black K on d8, white pawn on d2) or at least by looking at the board and calculating to the end, then you're improving your ability to visualize several moves into the future. Although it would be a LOT of work, I intend to play through all the "basic" endgames in blue text that are in Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual before I die. The final section of Silman's book, "Endgames for Pure Pleasure", does give a taste for more intricate endgames, but I would strongly recommend supplementing this with Soltis' book.

Silman may be correctly supplying the basic endgame knowledge required to attain a certain level. However, I feel that time spent studying endgames isn't wasted unless you either are trying to memorize, or cannot understand the complexity of the ones you're working on. Nonetheless, Silman's book can help you determine if you have weaknesses in your endgame knowledge, and helps you determine where to best spend time in order to improve as a player. Although some of the material in the book is "common knowledge" to me, his descriptions of certain endgames help to cement that knowledge in. The book is rather thick from all the written descriptions, and Silman's writing style is talky and somewhat goofy (and downright naughty in at least one place: "my opponent's bishop...eyeing my monarch in a lecherous state of rut"), but the style works for me. I strongly recommend this book to class C players and up; lower classes will of course benefit, but will use a smaller portion of the content.

1 comment:

Ron said...

Great blog! And I like the detailed review of the Complete Endgame Course. I just added you to my sidebar and my blogline feeds. Keep up the good work. :)