Endgame Challenge

John Nunn
Gambit Publications, 256 pages, 17.99

Without wishing to sound too much like Ebenezer Scrooge, I am now of the opinion that the best Christmas presents are the ones you buy for yourself. This year, amongst the Christmas treats I grudgingly allowed myself was a copy of "Endgame Challenge", the latest tome to emerge from John Nunn, who has been amongst the most prolific of British chess writers in recent years.

Nunn has enjoyed the reputation of a most meticulous author and it is perhaps a little unfair that one volume with which he is associated, and which went some way to mar this reputation, is the algebraic edition of Bobby Fischer's "My 60 Memorable Games". Attempting to update Fischer's masterpiece during the Great Man's lifetime was always likely to be a diplomatic nightmare, given the former World Champion's own most fickle penchant for dispute, but it certainly didn't help that numerous errors were introduced to the text. Edward Winter gave a detailed account of this episode at www.chesscafe.com.

However, what of Nunn's latest contribution to chess literature? The subtitle invitation to "Test your skills with 250 Brilliant and Instructive Endgame Studies" strongly echoes "360 Brilliant and Instructive End Games", a 1934 publication of the masterly works of A. A. Troitzky which has more recently (1968) been reprinted by Dover. The difference between Nunn's work and Troitzky's is that Troitzky, who was, according to Ken Whyld, widely regarded as the founder of the modern art of study composition, composed all 360 of his himself. Nunn composed just the one, number 7 (shown below, this week's problem).

However, that in itself does not detract from "Endgame Challenge". There are several significant reasons for wanting this particular book. Firstly, "brilliant and instructive" is about right. Nunn's stated purpose is "to present my selection of the 250 greatest endgame studies of all time in an instructive format". Many of the studies selected are quite breathtaking in the depth and beauty achieved. The second position he publishes (and the positions are published in ascending order of white material) is the Saavedra position, which has been the inspiration of many of the studies to be found on this website in recent weeks. As the term "study" implies, the study of such positions undoubtedly leads to an improvement in one's understanding of endgame positions and with a commensurate improvement in one's play. In his introduction, the author gives specific examples from Grandmaster chess where the knowledge of certain endgame studies could have facilitated the completion of an over-the-board win. The most recent of these is Svidler v Anand (Dos Hermanas 1999) in which Svidler allowed his Indian opponent to get away with a draw when, had he been aware of a particular study composed only two years earlier by K. Stoichev, he would undoubtedly have won the game.

Secondly, the very nature of worthwhile chess publications is that they tend to get sucked into the whirlpool of complete garbage which some authors (and I am keen not to mention any names here) churn out almost incessantly. Doubtless it has always been the case that the good stuff gets sucked in with the bad, but once a print run of a particular volume has been sold out, the enthusiast normally has to rely upon good second-hand suppliers for copies of classics. In a minority branch of our game like study composition, there is a pretty fair bet that journeyman journalists such as myself will occasionally re-publish good material from yesteryear, but a complete collection is not likely to be forthcoming. Nunn's task, then, is to present for the modern enthusiast what he considers to be a selection of the finest material available. There are few authors better qualified to produce a book of this type as, apart from being amongst the world's strongest 50 or so players for much of the the past 30 years (and he was in the top 20 for a fair amount of that time) Nunn is also a highly accomplished solver. He has won the British Championship on more than one occasion, has represented Great Britain in the World Championships and once won the World Open problem solving title.

Thirdly, "Endgame Challenge" represents what is merely the tip of the iceberg of more than a year's work in which Nunn whittled down from a shortlist of some 2500 studies to the remaining 250 largely by testing the studies to destruction on an enormously powerful computer. Anything with a flaw in it was discarded, and in some cases that meant the consignment to the dustbin of some material which was previously considered to be part of the classical repertoire because the computer found a defence to "White to play and win" or, in at least one case, White, to play and draw, actually couldn't because Black had a new line of attack which had hitherto remained concealed. The optimistic implication of this is that Nunn's next book will be "250 classic endgame studies with unsound solutions".

Fourthly, Nunn has placed the solutions at the back of the book, or, to be more precise, the studies at the front. The diagrams themselves occupy a mere 42 pages (6 per page) whereas the solutions take up the next 200. This is a considerable bonus as in the majority of books of this sort the diagrams and the solutions are on the same page, thereby making it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid seeing at least part of the solution before one attempts to solve the studies oneself. It is in this area is that the author comes into his own as the detail of the solutions leaves little to be desired. Having said that, a book of this type must invariably assume a certain amount of background knowledge of basic endgames. An excellent example of this is the third study (M. Zinar, 1981). Here, the starting position of two white pawns (c3, e2) versus one black one (c7) and the kings on f8 and c5 respectively, reaches positions in two of the variations in which White queens the e-pawn while the black pawn is still on c4 (left diagram below). The point of the study is that, with the black pawn on c3 (Black's next move) the position is drawn provided that the kings' positions prevent the white queen from approaching with a sequence of checks. This study would be lost on a player who was not aware that a position with queen v. pawn on c2 or f2 is a draw because of the stalemate threat after Ka1 (h1) (right diagram below). It is to be hoped that such solvers, having got this far, will have the gumption to want to fill in their background knowledge.
Forsyth: 5K2/2p5/8/2k5/8/2P5/4P3/8 Forsyth: 8/8/2K5/8/8/1Q6/2p5/1k6
Black, to play, draws because White
cannot prevent the pawn's advance to c2
Drawn. 1...Ka1 2 Qxc2 is stalemate

"Endgame Challenge", then, is not really the book for the dabbler, although no doubt doing no more than setting up the board and playing through the solutions will provide some satisfaction. The best way to use a book like this is to take on one position at a time and find as much analysis as possible, writing down the various lines of play. When you think that you have exhausted all the likely possibilities, look again for the unlikely ones. That is the beauty of a good endgame study - but don't expect to do much more than to scratch the surface if you have spent less than half an hour on each diagram. In my view, to get the best out of chess problems and studies they should be approached as a social activity so that the participants can "bounce ideas" off each other.

Gambit Publications achieved the 2002 Book of the Year with "Fundamental Chess Endings", Muller & Lamprecht's superb volume on practical endgame play. Watch out for John Nunn's "Endgame Challenge" repeating the achievement in the coming 12 months - if it does, it will be the third occasion that this author has won that award, and deservedly so.

8/5p1p/8/6k1/8/6P1/5PP1/7K Forsyth: 2b4k/8/5Pr1/5N2/8/8/8/K1B5
White to play and win Last week's solution (V. Korolkov, 1st Prize, Lelo 1951):
1 f7 A fairly obvious start, especially in view of the broad hint given last week.
1...Ra6 Not 1...Rg8 2 fxg8 Kxg8 3 Ne7+ and wins, nor 1... Rf6+ 2 Bb2, pinning. Much of this is eliminating the alternatives - remember Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The rook is unable to control the queening square, so other measures are necessary.
2 Ba3! Again, the only possible move: 2 Kb2 3 Rf6 or 2 Kb1 Bxf5.
2 ...Rxa3+
3 Kb2 Ra2+
Not 3...Rb3+ 4 Ka2 and there are no more checks.
4 Kc1!! If 4 Kxa2 Be6+ wins the pawn nor 4 Kc3 Rc2+ 5 Kb4 Rb2+ 6 Kc5 Rc2+ 7 Kb6 Rb2+ 8 Kc7 Rb7+.
4 ...Ra1+ 4... Rc2+ 5 Kd1
5 Kd2 Ra2+
6 Ke3 Ra3+
7 Kf4+ Ra4
8 Kg5 Rg4+!
Once again, the rook sacrifices commence. But White dare not capture! 9 Kxg4 Bxf5+ 10 Kxf5 Kg7 11 Ke6 Kf8 12 Kf6 stalemate.
9 Kh6! Again, the only move to win. 9 Kh5 or 9 Kf6 both allow 9 ... Rg8 and draws. Quite incredibly, White's king flight has set up a mating net.
9...Rg8! 9...Rg6 10 Kxg6 Bxf5+ 11 Kf6! and the pawn queens. At last Black's rook has reached the 8th rank and can control the queening square. White cannot win now, surely...?
10 Ne7! Be6 Black defends against the threat of 11 f7xg8 mate. Incidentally, 10...Rf8 allows 11 Ne6 mate
11 fxg8=Q+ Bxg8
12 Ng6 mate
Breathtaking, stunning, marvellous...
This study was one of many published in Levitt and Friedgood's "Secrets of Spectacular Chess" (Batsford, 1995) but, incredibly, didn't make the cut into Nunn's book (maybe he thought it had already had a recent airing). Levitt & Friedgood advise anyone who does not find this study exciting to give up chess straight away.

© Peter Walker 2002

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