Tag Archives: Karsten Müller

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.

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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.

For the kids?

This review has been printed in the October 2015 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.

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Hertan, Charles. Basic Chess Openings for Kids: Play Like a Winner from Move One. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915971. HB 160pp. List $18.95.

Müller, Karsten. Chess Endgames for Kids. London: Gambit Publications, 2015. ISBN 978-1910093610. HB 128pp. List $16.95; currently $13.56 at Amazon.

The number of children playing chess continues to grow, but there remains relatively few good books for them to study. Part of this involves a generational shift away from paper and towards the world of apps, but I suspect that it also has to do with the difficulty of actually writing for children. There are precious few instructional works that manage to entertain and enlighten without sliding into farce.

Two books explicitly aimed at kids – Basic Chess Openings for Kids by Charles Hertan, and Chess Endgames for Kids by Karsten Müller – have recently been published. Both authors have impressive track records, but do these new efforts really work as books for children?

Basic Chess Openings for Kids is Charles Hertan’s fourth book with New in Chess, and his third written for children. The new book has much in common with its predecessors (Power Chess for Kids and Power Chess for Kids 2), including its terminology and the four helpful characters who ask questions along the way. For those unfamiliar with Hertan’s earlier works, a brief chapter on piece value and counting attackers / defenders is included, as are a glossary of terms and twenty quiz positions.

Hertan believes that the main goal of the opening can be summarized as follows: “get your pieces into action quickly and effectively!” (10) He argues that development or mobility is thus key to good opening play, and to that end, he devotes full chapters (2-5) to developing knights, bishops, rooks and queens. Chapter 6 focuses on the relation between pawn and piece play, analyzing two pairs of opening ‘schemes’ to make his points. The book concludes with an outline of five typical opening mistakes in Chapter 7.

Hertan’s basic strategy – investigating what each piece ‘likes’ to unpack good piece play – is solid, and his ideas-based approach to the opening is good for beginners. The reading level is not simple, so it might vex young readers, and I do worry a bit about the wide variance in the level of ideas presented. It’s one thing for beginners to see why knights like to be on c3 and f3, and another entirely for them to grasp the concept of outposts or knight maneuvers in the Ruy Lopez. I suspect that this is a book that would reward re-reading as players climb the ratings list.

Karsten Müller is, with apologies to our own Daniel Naroditsky, the world’s leading authority on the endgame. Having authored three classic books and fourteen DVDs on the topic, Chess Endgames for Kids is his work aimed at the youth market. The book is very good indeed, but I’m not convinced that it’s really designed for kids.

Chess Endgames for Kids consists of 50 distinct lessons or mini-chapters. Some of the initial lessons cover very basic endgames, including king and queen versus king and king and rook versus king. The complexity ramps up dramatically, however, and it does so very quickly.

Just about half the book is devoted to king and pawn endings and rook and pawn endings. The king and pawn coverage begins with the rule of the square, key squares and the opposition. I’m not convinced that most juniors need to know more than this before they reach Class C. Reti’s famous study (Lesson 12) is more aesthetically pleasing than educational for the beginner, and Bahr’s Rule (Lesson 15) is simply overkill.

We find much the same in the lessons on rook and pawn endings. The analysis of basic positions like Philidor and Lucena (Lessons 34-36) is useful and appropriate for novice players, but even Hikaru Nakamura lacked knowledge – or so he claimed on Twitter, anyway – of the Vančura position (Lesson 38) in his draw against Radjabov at the Gashimov Memorial in 2014.

Knowing Vančura is obviously important, as is the concept of the bodycheck in rook versus pawn endings (Lesson 32). The question is: for whom? Beginners would do probably do better with Winning Chess Endings by Seirawan or Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, and younger novices might best served by starting with Ten Ways to Succeed in the Endgame by Onions and Regis.

Chess Endgames for Kids is best seen as a terse endgame primer, slightly less complex than similar efforts by de la Villa (100 Endgames You Must Know) and Nunn (Understanding Chess Endgames). It is excellent for players with some experience who need to learn key theoretical endings, and it’s a steal at $16.95 in hardcover.