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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Review: Silman's Complete Endgame Course

Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, by Jeremy Silman, 2007 Siles Press, Algebraic Notation, paperback, 530 pp.

I have two questions for you:

1) How many books covering the endgame do you own?

2) How many have you really read in-depth?

My guess is your answer to #1 is “a few” while your answer to #2 is likely “to be honest, none.” And you’re not alone. Every endgame book I’ve seen has something useful to offer, and it’s clear that a tremendous amount of work has gone into most of these texts.

The problem is, as you know if you’ve studied much endgame theory, is that endgame analysis is so wide and deep that it’s very easy at some point (usually sooner rather than later) to just close the book in frustration.

Silman’s Complete Endgame Course comes to solve this problem. Whereas pretty much every other endgame book is understandably organized by theme (there has to be some organization!), Silman takes a different and unique approach. “Chess students need to be told which endgames are important for their particular level,” he writes in his Introduction. “Studying endgames that are too advanced for their rating-level will only depress them and waste their time.”


Moreover, he says, “By telling players that they only need to know a finite amount of easily digestible material (based on their strengths/ratings) you give them hope and confidence.”

If you’re a martial arts student, you’re not taught black-belt level material until you’re ready for it. You start with a white belt, and gradually progress, one stage at a time, until you’re ready for more challenging moves.

Silman has taken this simple, but previously untried approach, to endgame instruction. He divides the book into sections based on rating, as follows:

Part One: Endgames for Beginners (unrated–999)
Part Two: Endgames for Class “E” (1000-1199)
Part Three: Endgames for Class “D” (1200-1399)
Part Four: Endgames for Class “C” (1400-1599)
Part Five: Endgames for Class “B” (1600-1799)
Part Six: Endgames for Class “A” (1800-1999)
Part Seven: Endgames for Experts (2000-2199)
Part Eight: Endgames for Masters (2200-2399)
Part Nine: Endgames for Pure Pleasure

A player at any level, but particularly beginners and class players, can open this book without that familiar feeling of intimidation and pending frustration. Suddenly, it’s laid out so simply – if you’re a relative beginner, Silman just teaches simple “overkill mates” in which one side has an overwhelming material advantage. As anyone who has worked with beginners can attest, this is anything but simple for students who just haven’t been taught what to do when they’re a queen up on their opponent. Such students don’t need to be concerned about the opposition or the Lucena position.

Each instructional level then increases bit by bit, with Silman adding just enough new material that he deems appropriate for the given rating level. In addition, each section ends with a “Summing Up" summary of the key points covered. Several tests are then presented to check the student’s comprehension of the material.

The first three chapters average about thirty pages each, so readers at these levels don’t have an excessive amount of information to assimilate. Chapter Four, for Class C players, is when things get more serious and difficult. At this level, Silman explains, “You’ve probably become serious about moving up the ranks. To successfully do that, you’ll need to expand your endgame arsenal and master a series of easy to learn but critically important positions and concepts. Now it’s time to take it to another level, to digest ideas that might appear difficult and even profound, but will turn out to be easy to grasp and remember – once you put a little effort into it, of course!”

And that’s the key. Silman presents things in a very straightforward, understandable manner, with excellent diagrams, but ultimately the reader must put in the effort to see any results.

In this Class C chapter, which is one of the most lengthy in the entire book at about 70 pages, some of the topics covered include:

  • A more advanced look at the opposition, which had been introduced earlier
  • The Trebuchet position
  • King and two doubled pawns vs. a lone king
  • The special case of rook pawns in K+P vs. K
  • The square of the pawn
  • Bishop and wrong colored rook-pawn vs. lone king
  • Bishops of opposite colors
  • The Lucena Position
  • The Philidor Position
  • Queen vs. advanced pawn

“Wow! That was a lot of material!” Silman says at the end of the chapter. “However, you now have an extremely solid endgame base that puts you far ahead of most of your competition, and even ahead of players a few hundred rating points higher than you that should have mastered these endgames long ago, but never got around to it. Trust me when I tell you that the time you’ve spent learning everything in Part Four will likely prove to be the most rewarding study time of your chess life. You’ll see the effects both in your newfound confidence, and in the results you gain against people who were once your equals, but now are not in your league once an endgame is reached.”

How’s that for confidence-building?

The material continues to increase in complexity, a level at a time, as the reader is ready. The final chapter, though, is a departure from this pattern. Titled "Endgames for Pure Pleasure", it is intended for readers of all playing abilities. Silman points out that tactical shots can occur in endgame situations, and presents several interesting examples, as well as 40 tactics problems that the reader is advised to either try, or to just enjoy. For example, here is one simple but enjoyable problem:

It is White to move and win. The solution? Simply 1.Rg8+! Regardless of Black’s reply, the white king will capture the black rook, and then there’s nothing to stop the a-pawn from queening.

This final chapter concludes with a discussion of Silman’s choices for “The Five Greatest Endgame Players of All Time.” His selections were Lasker, Rubinstein, Capablanca, Smyslov and Fischer, and he presents multiple endgame snippets from each player.

International Master Jeremy Silman certainly doesn’t lack self-confidence, which is evident in his statement, “I strongly recommend that you put aside all other endgame books and trust your endgame study to Silman’s Complete Endgame Course.” But as they say, if it’s true, it ain’t braggin’!

Silman has a point when he says, “Jumping from book to book is a fast track to nowhere…This book is designed to make players who are disgusted with endgame study feel that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Further enhancing this endgame manual is its excellent physical production. The paper quality is good, text and diagrams are clear – it’s just an impressive book to hold in your hands.

Nevertheless, any book this size is bound to have some inadvertent errors, and Silman has compiled a list of errata at his website:

Now time for a couple teasers:

  • In the “Class E” section, Silman introduces the topic of the opposition. In the “Class D” part, he discusses what he calls the “magic rectangle,” a simple but effective way of maintaining the opposition when kings are far apart. I have not encountered this treatment of the opposition elsewhere.
  • In his “Class B” section, Silman presents the following diagram. It is White to move and reach f8, g8 or h8 by force. It doesn’t look like it should be possible. Can you do it?

Yes, there may be a few misplaced apostrophes, inconsistent capitalization and one may quarrel with which rating division to place certain concepts. Silman’s Complete Endgame Course is not an endgame magnum opus along the lines of Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, but this book is an excellent jumping-off point for the vast majority of players. There have been a number of fine endgame books lately (see some of my other reviews), but if you’re only going to purchase one endgame manual this year, this is your book. I know this book has been out for over a year now, but better late than never!



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