Understanding Rook Endings?

This review has been printed in the June 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  Note that there are slight differences between the printed text and this version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Müller, Karsten, and Yakov Konoval. Understanding Rook Endgames. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093818. PB 288pp. List $26.95, currently ~$19.60 at Amazon.

There is something of a consensus among top authors and teachers about how to study the endgame. First, there are key technical positions that must be memorized. The precise number of these positions varies – for Dvoretsky, it is about 220, while for de la Villa and Smith it is 100 – but the idea is that players should know certain terminal positions and aim for them in their analysis. This is to be coupled with a study of endgame strategy or typical endgame themes, with Shereshevsky’s Endgame Strategy typically recommended for this purpose.

What comes of such a plan for improvement? Ask Jeffery Xiong, who – as I was writing this review – used his knowledge of rook endings both typical and theoretical in this round one draw with Alexander Onischuk from the 2016 US Chess Championship.

image

30…b3+! 31.Kc1 Ra6 32.Rd8+ Kh7 33.Kd2 Rxa4 34.Kc3 Ra1 35.Rd2 a5!? 36.Kxb3 a4+ 37.Kc4 a3!

Heading for a theoretically drawn rook endgame with 3 pawns versus 2 on the kingside.

38.bxa3 Rxa3 39.Kxc5 h5! 40.Kd4 Ra5 41.Ke4 g6 42.f4 Kg7 43.h3 Kf7 44.Rd6 Ra2 45.g4 hxg4 46.hxg4=

This position is drawn according to the Lomosonov tablebases.

46…Ra7 47.g5 Rb7 48.Ke5 Ra7 49.Rf6+ Kg7 50.Rc6 Re7+ 51.Kd6 Re4 52.Rc7+ Kg8 53.Rc8+ ½–½

With Understanding Rook Endgames, just out from Gambit, Karsten Müller and co-author Yakov Konoval aim to offer readers both elements of a proper education in rook endings. The first four chapters (p.11-222) are an encyclopedic study of positions with up to 7 men: R&P vs R (ch 1), R&2P vs R (ch 2), R&P vs R&P (ch 3), and R&2P vs R&P (ch 4). The final four chapters (p.223-244) treat broader themes, including basic principles of rook endings and theoretical positions with more than 7 men.

The stark differential in page count between the two ‘halves’ of the book is not incidental. On the whole, this is a book devoted to 5-, 6- and 7-man rook endings. More than half of its pages focus on R&2P vs R&P, with each and every position fully checked with new 7-man tablebases. The analysis in the first four chapters is thus entirely correct, and this features prominently in the book’s advertising.

Is analytical certainty important for the average reader? Perhaps. It is nice to know that what appears on the page can be trusted completely, but an excessive authorial fascination with the machines is not without certain risks.

Müller and Konoval present immense amounts of computer-driven analysis throughout the book. There are long strings of analysis derived from the tablebases that lack sufficient explanation. Some positions are given with raw output from the tablebases – see §4.15, “Longest Wins” – and no effort is made to unpack the logic of the moves for the human player.

Chapters 5-8 might leaven the narrow focus of the first four chapters were they not so brief. There are a total of 33 positions analyzed in these chapters, while there are 271 (and 58 section headings!) just in chapter 4. There are also precious few principles and guidelines to be found here. Instead of another abbreviated account of the famous Kantorovich / Steckner position (6.04), why not include a more typical example of the 4 vs 3 with a-pawn ending and use it to explain key plans or ideas?

Müller and Konoval write in the introduction to Understanding Rook Endgames that they adhere to the “dual philosophy” (p.6) sketched at the beginning of this review. I don’t believe that they succeed in this task, as they lose sight of the proverbial forest for the trees. Chapters 1-4 – 73% of the book – contain too many theoretical positions and too much analysis to remember. Chapters 5-8 – a mere 8% of the book! – feel bolted on, added solely to justify the book’s title.

There is plenty of fascinating material to be found in Understanding Rook Endgames, but it is an encyclopedia of theoretical positions and not an instructional work. Non-masters hoping to understand rook endings should instead look to Emms’ The Survival Guide to Rook Endings or Mednis’ Practical Rook Endings.

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