Word of the Week, 8/15-8/20/11 – endgame


The last possible phase of a game of chess, although quite often games end in the middlegame or even in the opening.  Many attempts have been made to classify just when the middlegame finishes and the endgame starts.  Considerable simplification is necessary, but the queens being exchanged is certainly not a sufficient (or necessary) criterion.  The key concept is that in an ending the king ceases to be primarily a liability to be guarded, but becomes a fighting unit, and the main battle revolves around the creation and advancing of pawns.  This does not mean that the king is not subject to any attack, or that complex tactics cannot occur, however, but just that the need to activate the king overrides the dangers.

~ The Mammoth Book of Chess, Graham Burgess (FIDE Master and Chess World Record Holder)

One of the beauties of chess lies in how well it functions as a metaphor for human reality, right down to the pieces who are human characters.  Despite its apparent order and rules is a “black and white jungle”–chaotic and deceptive, often at the mercy of the creative force that pushes the pieces–just as with life which, despite rule of law and laws of nature, is difficult to calculate.  It is the dichotomy of order and lawlessness that makes it both compelling and apt in describing life.

The endgame is the perfect case study of this concept.  On the one hand, the definition is clear: the last possible phase of a game of chess, but sometimes this occurs in the middlegame or even the opening–especially when inexperienced players try their hand.  The transition from the middlegame to the endgame defies classification.  Considerable simplification is necessary but no set criteria for that exists.  The key turns on the king’s activity: the transition from merely being a liability to being activated.  (Chess players use the word activation to mean a piece is in play from its starting position–sometimes only that it is free to move from its starting position.)  In other words, the other hand of the definition is the inherent ambiguity surrounding entry to what constitutes the last possible phase of a game of chess.  Working backwards from the end to the point of transition from the middlegame to the endgame preoccupies many of the most astute scholarly, historical minds.  I will develop this essay to consider the obvious example of one of history’s most dramatic examples of endgame: the fall of the Berlin Wall in U.S. vs. U.S.S.R chess match.

Life has its many checkmates and it is often in global events, such as politics or war, when the comparisons are most frequently made.  In chess, the game ends when the opponent’s king is in checkmate.  This means that the king has been put in check–meaning that in the next move the other side would capture the enemy king–which often happens with some frequency in the game, but in mate the king cannot escape.  Defense and offense are often interchangeable by this phase of the game, differentiated perhaps only by one’s willingness or astuteness to exploit advantages gained or blunders made.  This is different from earlier phases in the game where advantages are being sought and balance is often kiltered to one side or the other.  For example, in David Shenk’s The Immortal Game, A history of chess, he explains the chess problem set forth in al-Adli’s 9th century book about chess, which introduced the world’s first known chess problems:

White to move; White to checkmate in three moves

Black has an extremely strong position, but it is white’s turn.  If it were black’s turn, the next move would be checkmate for the white king.  However, as the caption explains, white can checkmate the black king in three moves.  The only pieces left on the board are the kings, both rooks for each side, one pawn for each side and one knight for each side.  The kings can move one square in any direction and capture opposing pieces except for the opposing king.  The rooks can move as far as they choose horizontally and vertically, but no diagonal movements or piece-jumping.  The pawns can move forward only, except when there is an opposing piece ahead of them diagonally, in which case they may capture that piece.  The knight moves up two squares and over one (an l-shape on the board) and is the only piece that can jump other pieces.  The key for white in the above scenario is that it must keep the black king in check with each move or it will lose.  The solution follows:

White knight to h5+ (check to black king).

Black rook captures the white knight to defend the king (Rxh5)

Again, white forces check to the black king: White rook captures the black knight on g6 (Rxg6+)

The Black king defends itself and must capture the white rook that threatens it (Kxg6)

White gets checkmate: White rook moves behind the black pawn and diagonal to the black rook--nothing can take it, but the king cannot escape: checkmate!

White’s defense is keeping up the attack; if in a move  white fails to check the black king and compel black to defend, black can return to the offensive, winning in one move.  The reason white is so confident in victory is simple: with each checking move, black has only one option, so white is assured victory with these moves and assured defeat if it makes any other.

The above is an example of an endgame scenario, although we have to acknowledge that it began before we joined the action.  The ambiguity of its start, if not its end, is one of the characteristics that differentiate the endgame from the opening.  Chess openings are set moves, often anywhere from ten to fifteen moves long and sometimes longer.  They are compelling pieces of a chess player’s development, because, “every game has an opening, and therefore certain opening principles are important to every game,” as Bruce Pandolfini states in Chess Openings: Traps and Zaps.  The primary purpose is to set the board in one’s favor and create an advantage for oneself in the middlegame and endgame.  But, as Pandolfini goes on to say, “Too many players study the opening almost religiously, by rote, and misuse the versatile and adaptable tools it puts at their disposal.”  This highlights another key difference between openings and endgames: openings follow a prescribed, even if adaptable, path, whereas endgames function without prescription, based only on the tools, strategy and applied tactics of each player.

The middlegame is the phase in which the player either a) seeks to exploit the advantage created in the opening, or, b) seeks to regain the advantage after blundering in the opening.  In Weapons of Chess, An omnibus of chess strategy, Pandolfini explains the principles of progression and how one uses the tools at one’s disposal: “Weapons of Chess is mainly about strategy, with emphasis on the middlegame.  Strategy means abstract thinking and planning, as opposed to tactics, which are the individual operations used to implement strategy.  Tactics are specific; strategy is general.  Tactics tend to be immediate, strategy long-term.”  The middlegame’s conclusion, the transition to the endgame, is obviously as muddled as the endgame’s commencement.

All of these features point to the unique nature of chess as compared to other games, especially in the case of the endgame.  Firstly, there is no element of chance or luck, unless you wish to consider an opponent’s blunder luck (and I prefer not to because it is based on the consequence of the other’s foresight or lack thereof not the random rolls of dice or drawing of cards).  Secondly, unlike most games which require some minor amount of calculation or little at all, chess requires foresight.  Thirdly, it is not necessary to deliver a smothering, systematic extermination of the opponent to win as in the case of Risk or Monopoly; the opponent’s king must be checkmated, regardless of any other piece captured.  Finally, it is a game that pits one mind versus one other mind; one vs. one; there is no team in chess while the game is on.

It is often the case for inexperienced players and those with limited acumen or study, that the endgame begins well before one identifies that one is in the midst of it.  The ineffective chess mind is often oblivious to the nuances and moves in game being played, but without retraining it is easy to reinforce mediocrity and failure.  Jeremy Silman, author of The Amateur Mind, Turning chess misconceptions into chess mastery, describes this in his introduction to his chess problems:

“We don’t have to go over this game, I already know where I went wrong.”

I’ve heard this line from students for many years now, and in virtually every case, I find that their view of the game’s errors was based on an opening mistake or a major tactical blunder.  When I point out subtle errors (which are far more common and more important than mere blunders), they are often amazed to find that I’m criticizing moves and ideas that they were proud of in the actual game.

~ The Amateur Mind, Jeremy Silman

I find this most interesting when one considers the evaluation of history, personal or global.  By the point at which Nixon gives his “I-am-not-a-crook” speech, he is already in the endgame.  What triggered that transition from middlegame to endgame probably varies based on one’s perspective or involvement in Watergate.

Observe, again, the value and ease of the game as a metaphor.

The Cold War over 32 black and 32 white squares

During the Cold War, competition of every kind, particularly head-to-head competition, stood in place of pitched battles (for the most part).  The Cold War was the ultimate chess match: two powers waging bloodless (for the most part) war.  Of course, much of this was hinged on the perception of the spectators, and how the two powers created that perception.  Chess matches, along with international sporting competition, music or dance presentations and the space race, were important battlefields in this war for supremacy of two combating ways of life.

Much like their more athletic counterparts, youngsters with an aptitude for chess were identified at a young age and groomed in the weapons of chess as early as possible.  Their training included various methods of psychological warfare.  Josh Waitzkin, the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer, written by his father, and himself the author of two books: Josh Waitzkin’s Attaching Chess and The Art of Learning, in the latter book describes his encounter with such trained chess players:

The competition for the top of the American scholastic chess ranking was stiffened by a tremendous influx of Soviet immigrants.  As the Soviet Union fell apart, many of the powerful Russian players looked for opportunity in the west…  Many of these new rivals were armed with a repertoire of psychological “tricks” that presented serious challenges.

One of the more interesting tactics was implemented by a Russian boy whom I had trouble with for a period of months before I caught on to his game.  He was a very strong player so our clashes were always tense, but for some reason I tended to make careless errors against him in the critical positions.  Then one day, an old Bulgarian Master named Rudy Blumenfeld approached my father in the Marshall Chess Club and asked him if we were aware of what this boy was doing to me.  We were not.  He explained that in the climatic moments of the struggle, when I had to buckle down and patiently work my way through the complications to find a precise solution, this boy would start to tap a chess piece on the side of the table, barely audible, but at a pace that entered and slightly quickened my mental process.

~ The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin

Many Soviet chess masters would become defectors to the U.S., unable or unwilling to proscribe their creativity and expression for the state.  Bobby Fischer would have his mental breakdown in part because of his own pawn’s role in the global chess match.  But, these are not the most compelling associations I have with chess and the Cold War.  That is reserved for the moment when the world looked around and realized, without a doubt, that the U.S. vs. U.S.S.R chess match was in the endgame: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall: Endgame

Here we must return to our earlier theme of the endgame’s ambiguous nature, particularly in identifying its beginning.  By the time the Berlin Wall falls, the endgame has already begun, but it is in this move that there can be little doubt the Cold War will end one way or the other.  Within a few days of East and West Germans meeting atop a concrete symbol of division that had carried every threat of a very hot war, not only was the endgame known, but that inevitability that often creeps in for those who can calculate that far ahead grew stronger and indicated that, not only was it the endgame, the winner was known, too.

Below are two news reports from November 1989.  The first, is a Special Report from Peter Jennings and colleague Barrie Dunsmore, reporting the East German announcement that its people will be able to leave at their choosing and visas would be granted.  The second is ABC News “Nightline”, the following day, with the journalists wondering aloud if this is really the beginning of the end of the Cold War; the conflict they have spent their entire professional lives covering.

Dunsmore’s comments regarding Gorbachev are worth considering.  Is it Gorbachev’s rise that marks the transition from middlegame to endgame?  An older player in the game, say Kruschev or Stalin, would certainly not have allowed East Germany’s defection from the program.  Or, is the key move the establishment Poland’s Solidarity movement; Pope John Paul II’s visit behind the Iron Curtain; the Hungarian uprise; the election of Ronald Reagan; the election of Margaret Thatcher; or, is it something more subtle, maybe even earlier?

Historians will debate this for many years still to come.  The ambiguity of the move is perhaps one of the finest analogies between chess and life.  It prompts me to wonder and to ask if the popular uprisings in Muslim countries signal the plays of an endgame in Muslim-West relations.  There are similarities, certainly, but the differences are significant and provide strong caution against over-stretching the parallels.  Clearly, there are moments on the board and in life when the endgame is more clearly identified after the end is known and the king is dead.


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