Tag Archives: endgame studies

Mark Dvoretsky: A Retrospective

This article has been printed in the December 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


After learning of the death of Mark Dvoretsky on September 26th via Twitter, I found myself standing in front of my bookshelf, thumbing through one of his many titles. Suddenly I found myself hurled back in time, much like Proust after biting into his madeleine, and in unpacking that involuntary memory, I came to understand why the news of his death had affected me so.

I am old enough to remember a time before the ‘disenchantment’ (to borrow a phrase from the sociology of religion) of the modern chess world, a time before everyone had a Grandmaster in their cell phone and the Internet brought tournaments from around the world into our homes. In the days before the computer, master-level play had yet to be demystified. Amateurs had almost no access to the thought processes of masters and Grandmasters, and without the false security provided by the engine, we rarely understood their moves.

All of this changed when Mark Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Training was published in 1991.

Standing there in my basement, I was 15 years old again, wandering through the local Waldenbooks and discovering a pink book that promised to teach me the secrets of chess. I remember struggling to make sense of the analysis within, and how I persisted in doing so, even when it was evident that I lacked the ability to understand any of what I was reading. Others may not have shared my fruitless dedication, for legend has it that USCFSales stopped stocking the book after too many frustrated returns.

Mark Dvoretsky will be remembered for many reasons. He worked with three World Junior Champions, a Women’s World Championship Challenger, and a myriad of masters and Grandmasters, earning him the unofficial title of “World’s Best Trainer.” He was a very strong player in his own right, winning the Moscow Championship in 1973, the Wijk aan Zee B tournament in 1974, and finishing =5th-7th in the 42nd Soviet Championship. Dvoretsky’s rating peaked at 2540 in January 1976, making him the 35th ranked player in the world at the time. He was also, by all accounts, an honest and decent man.

For all of these accomplishments, I think Dvoretsky’s true legacy lies in his writings. Very few authors contribute something radically new to chess theory, and Dvoretsky, with the possible exception of his concept of the ‘superfluous piece,’ was not an iconoclast. (Pieces, and particularly knights, become superfluous when two or more aim at one square.) Instead, he took the best elements of the Soviet training system, added his own twist – the solving of problems from his famed collection of positions – and shared the fruits of his labor with the world.

It’s not simply that his books are well written, although of course, they are. There is something about Dvoretsky’s style, something intimate – ‘here is what Yusupov saw… here is what Dreev missed’ – that remains powerful, even in the age of the silicon beasts. We are not merely allowed to peek inside Dvoretsky’s chess laboratory. We are invited to join in the search for truth, and in his writings, this task feels as important and vital as anything in the world.

There are two ‘halves,’ as it were, to Dvoretsky’s authorial career. His nine books (seven of which are revised and extended versions of books originally published with Batsford) and two series with Edition Olms made him famous. We will examine them first before turning to more recent titles published with Russell Enterprises.

The School of Chess Excellence (SCE) series consists of four titles published from 2001-2004: Endgame Analysis (SCE 1), Tactical Play (SCE 2), Strategic Play (SCE 3), and Opening Developments (SCE 4). In his recent video series for Chess24 – which I highly recommend for the newcomer to Dvoretsky’s work, and to which I will return shortly – Dvoretsky says that these four books are best understood as “one big book,” covering a wide array of ideas in essay form.

The School for Future Champions (SFC) series takes its name from the chess school run by Dvoretsky and Yusupov from 1990-1992. The five books in the series – Secrets of Chess Training (SFC 1; not the same as the 1991 title, now SCE 1), Secrets of Opening Preparation (SFC 2), Secrets of Endgame Technique (SFC 3), Secrets of Positional Play (SFC 4), and Secrets of Creative Thinking (SFC 5) – were published from 2006-2009 and based on lectures for talented children. While Dvoretsky and Yusupov wrote the bulk of them, guest lecturers like Kaidanov, Kramnik, and Shereshevsky also contributed.

Taken together, these nine titles represent a fairly systematic curriculum for chess mastery. What does that curriculum look like? Interestingly we find the clearest accounts of Dvoretsky’s ‘philosophy’ in his writings on the endgame, including chapters in SCE 1 (“The Benefit of Abstract Knowledge”) and SFC 3 (“How to Study the Endgame”). A particularly cogent articulation also appears in his “Endgames with Dvoretsky” video series for Chess24, released mere weeks before his death.

In a video entitled, appropriately enough, “Philosophy,” Dvoretsky makes a few interrelated claims about his approach to chess training. First, he argues that it is essential to develop intuition, or what he describes in SFC 5 as “the ability easily and quickly… to grasp the essence of the position, the most important ideas… and to assess the promise of particular continuations.” (41)

How do we do this? Through the conjoined tasks of study and solving. Dvoretsky offers a vision of how this might work in SFC 1, a book that IM Greg Shahade has called “the best instructional chess book of all time.” Players should increase their knowledge of general principles and ideas through the study of chess classics and rigorous self-analysis. Solving carefully chosen exercises reinforces what has been learned and boosts calculative, evaluative and imaginative skills. Enriching intuition in this way allows players to correctly apply relevant rules or principles in novel situations.

We can see the value of this training method in this adjourned position (SCE 1, 64-7; also, Chess24, “Endgames with Dvoretsky”), taken from the 1980 Candidates Match between Nana Alexandria and Marta Litinskaya.


What should White play after the sealed 41…Rf8?

One idea would be use the opposite-colored bishops to construct a fortress. Initial analysis showed that this was difficult: if 42.Rd2 then Black plays 42…Rf4! and White has multiple weaknesses while Black’s pieces are active.

Dvoretsky, who was Alexandria’s second, quickly intuited that another rule – positions with rooks and opposite-color bishops favor the attacker – was more applicable here. Activating the rook was necessary. But how? 42.Ke1?! seemed a likely choice, but after 42…Rf4! 43.Rc1 (if 43.a5 Rxg4; Modern engines prefer 43.Rd3!? Rxg4 44.Rg3 Rxg3 45.fxg3 and the endgame is probably drawn) 43…Bxf2+ 44.Kd1 Bb6 Black kept the advantage.

Only 42.Kg1! was sufficient to save the game.

Black’s best chance lay with 42…Rf4 43.a5! (stopping Bb6; 43.Rd3!? is possible here too) 43…Rxg4 (if 43…Kc7 44.Kh1! Rxg4 45.Rb1! (with the idea of Rb7+) 45…e4 46.Rb4 Rh4+ 47.Kg1 Bxf2+ 48.Kf1! and White draws after exchanging rooks) 44.Rc1 Kc7 45.Rb1 e4 46.Rb4 Bxf2+ 47.Kf1! Be1! 48.Ra4!! and analysis shows that White can draw.

Litinskaya played the inferior 42…Kc7?! allowing Alexandria to draw easily after 43.Rb1 Bxf2+ 44.Kh1 Rb8 45.Rd1 Rd8 46.Rb1 Rb8 47.Rd1 Rd8 ½–½

Had Dvoretsky’s authorial career ended with those nine titles, his position in chess history would have been secure. Luckily for us, he kept writing. His books with Russell Enterprises are some of his best, extending his earlier work and opening up new avenues of inquiry.

Unfortunately I cannot discuss all of Dvoretsky’s books with Russell for lack of space, but merely touch on the highlights. In particular I want to thematize two signature features of Dvoretsky’s work – prophylaxis and the use of endgame studies – as they appear in his later books.

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (DEM) was published in 2003 to tremendous and deserved acclaim, and is now in its 4th edition. It consists of 1100+ examples and exercises, using novel textual devices to demarcate 220 ‘precise positions’ for memorization (blue print) and dozens of typical endgame schemata (bold italics). DEM is perhaps Dvoretsky’s best book, and certainly his best known. It is widely recommended by top teachers to those looking to learn endgame theory.

Although he did not invent it, Dvoretsky is often associated with the concept of prophylaxis or prophylactic thinking. Prophylaxis requires that players consider what the opponent wants to play were she on move, find an answer to that question, and then use that answer to help guide analysis.

This idea is discussed in SCE 3 (“Don’t Forget about Prophylaxis!”) and SFC 4 (“Prophylactic Thinking”), but I think Dvoretsky’s clearest rendering comes in Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources (2015). The book is the Platonic ideal of Dvoretsky’s training philosophy, containing hundreds of exercises for solving and clear examples to orient intuition.

Endgame studies are also a key component of Dvoretsky’s methodology, and in two ways. Solving studies can be useful in training imagination and calculation, and they can also be used as set pieces for ‘two-handed play’ between training partners. (SCE 1, 207, 200) His interest in studies spans his publishing career, with a full book – Studies for Practical Players (2009, co-authored with Oleg Pervakov) – devoted to the topic.

Dvoretsky described solving studies in SCE 1 as “pleasant, but useful.” Much the same can be said for the study of his books. So long as chess is played, Mark Dvoretsky’s books will be certainly be read, both for pleasure and for improvement.

Pleasant and useful!

EG Magazine.  Published by ARVES (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Endgame Study). Subscriptions are €25/yr. Pay via Paypal to <arves@skynet.be> or inquire with Marcel Van Herck, treasurer, at the same e-mail address. The ARVES website is <www.arves.org>.

Many players like solving studies. It is pleasant to try one’s strength and to look for the single, non-obvious and beautiful way of winning. Not only pleasant, but also useful!

The epigraph comes from Mark Dvoretsky’s first book in English, Secrets of Chess Training, published way back in 1990.  This book was famously not about training per se, but rather it focused on three key aspects of analytical excellence: the endgame, adjournments (which no longer exist in the age of the silicon monster) and endgame studies.  This third section was perhaps the most surprising of the three.  Endgames studies are composed positions with specific stipulations – White is to win or draw.  Unlike problems, the number of moves to complete the stipulation is not specified.  And besides being difficult to solve, good studies are usually quite beautiful.

Dvoretsky believes that studies are very good training fodder for players looking to improve.  His trademark idea, explained in that early book, was to have two of his students play a study out against each other as if it were a real game and without knowing the stipulation.  No small number of cooks (errors) were found in this way.  You find a handful of studies in most of Dvoretsky’s more recent works, including his Endgame Manual and the new 2nd edition of his Analytical Manual.  He also co-authored a dramatically underrated book specifically about studies – Studies for the Practical Player: Improving Calculation and Resourcefuless in the Endgame – with Oleg Pervakov, one of the leading study authors in the world today.

Dvoretsky is not alone.  It would seem that Magnus Carlsen trained for the recent World Championship by solving endgame studies.  Check out the position he showed on Twitter in August as an example of how he was preparing for Anand.  White is to move and win.


(Here’s the answer, by the way.  Note that this position was an award winner in a composition tournament dedicated to Dvoretsky’s 60th birthday!)

There are many books on studies available if you look hard enough.  Kasparian’s two books – Domination in 2545 Endgame Studies and the newer 888 Miniature Studies – are among the best, and Jan Timman’s The Art of the Endgame is a wonderful book that seems to have fallen stillborn from New in Chess’ press.  There is also a quarterly magazine devoted specifically to the endgame study.

This magazine is EG, published in the Netherlands by a Dutch study association.  Its editor is Harold van der Heijden, the mastermind behind the essential study database HHDB.  The magazine is the periodical of record for the world of studies, and I can hardly think of a better specialized magazine in chess or any other topic for that matter.  Each issue is a labor of love for its authors and editors, and this love shows on every page.

What’s in EG?  Each mailing consists of the magazine proper along with (in most cases) a ‘supplement’ that contains summaries of awards given in study competitions from around the world.  The magazine contains a few standard elements:

  • ‘Originals,’ with new studies submitted to EG;
  • ‘Spotlight,’ which is a hodge-podge of cooks, news, and opinions;
  • various contributions by Emil Vlasak on issues related to chess and computers;
  • obituaries of leading figures in the study world
  • summaries of the most important awards or solving tournaments
  • original articles about historical OTB and study tournaments, specific themes in studies, historical personalites, etc.

In the April 2014 issue there are 63 studies (along with 103 in the supplement) given as diagrams with full answers.  They are scattered amidst three obituaries, an article on pawn endings in the studies of Vitaly Kovalenko, and a fascinating piece on news in the world of endgames and tablebases by Vlasak.  Yochanan Afek’s study from the Timman 60 JT – also named 2012 Study of the Year – is one of the highlights of the issue.  White is to move and win; the answer is here (and it’s well worth your time).


Endgame studies are not everyone’s cup of tea.  Sometimes they have an artificial taste about them, and sometimes they’re just too complicated for mortals like me to solve.  If, however, you are interested in beauty in chess, you might consider having a look at some studies.  If you want to improve your analytical skills and your imagination, you should definitely consider solving some studies and perhaps even start solving.  And if you get into studies, you should absolutely consider subscribing to EG.  It’s a fantastic magazine, a great value for the price, and it opens up a little corner of the chess world that you just might start to call home.