Previewed by Steve Lopez

I've said it here in ETN often enough. And now you're gonna hear it again: everyone sucks at the endgame. Sure, once in a while you come across some mutant grandmaster who's an acknowledged wizard at endgames but most of us are just plain bad at them. Of course, this doesn't stop anyone from ignoring this particular deficiency. How to Play the _____ Opening books and CDs outsell endgame instructional materials something like twenty or thirty to one. I guess the conventional "wisdom" is that if you can whack your opponent in the opening you won't need to worry about the endgame. The trouble is that it seldom works out that way. You learn a ton of opening variations, your opponent plays something weird at move eight (taking you out of "book"), you come out of the opening dead even, struggle through the middlegame, emerge a pawn up in the endgame, and then lose (or maybe draw) because your endgame technique stinks. You've done it, I've done it, it's a far too common thing.

Nobody likes to study the part of the game at which they positively reek, but the sad fact is that's the area where you really need to concentrate, the area of your weakness. And, for the vast majority of us, this means the endgame.

Studying any facet of the game of chess is work, and work is what's required for improvement. I've talked to scores of chessplayers over the years who are searching for that "magic bullet", some book or program that's going to turn them into a grandmaster with absolutely zero effort. Sorry, but it doesn't exist and it ain't gonna happen. You have to work hard to get better. The trick is to not work any harder than you need to -- and that's where a new ChessBase CD comes in. For learning the basics of the endgame, Martin Weteschnik's Fritz Endgame Trainer - Pawn Endings is as painless as it gets.

The basic concept of the CD is simplicity itself: you're taught a particular endgame technique and then you try a similar position (or several) against Fritz (or any of the other "sister" programs that we offer: Junior, Shredder, Tiger, Hiarcs, Nimzo). The two key features are these: the instruction is completely painless and you get to test your endgame technique against a computer program before you try the concepts out against a human. Both are crucial and we'll deal with each in turn.

Fritz Endgame Trainer - Pawn Endings is divided into six chapters:

  1. Elementary checkmates
  2. Pawn promotion (basics)
  3. The king
  4. K+P vs. K+P
  5. More pawns and passed pawns
  6. Weakness, strength and many pawns

Weteschnik uses a variety of instructional techniques on the CD. You'll see the standard text screens and annotations within replayable games. But he also makes generous use of multimedia: you'll often be shown a narrated animation of how a particular checkmate or concept works. The pieces move themselves on a chessboard graphic while the author narrates what's happening. Learning these endgame concepts doesn't get any easier than that.

These intructional pieces are coupled with actual "combat training". This differs from what you usually find on most ChessBase training CDs. On other CDs, you test yourself in timed training questions, which are essentially timed and scored "find the best move" problems. These work well for opening and middlegame CDs in which testing of only one move is required, but endgames rely on finding a series of "best moves". For this you need a sparring partner -- and that's where Fritz comes in. You first learn about a particular endgame concept, then you click on a link to load a similar position into Fritz and play it out against the computer. This reinforces the instruction by allowing you to immediately use the concept under actual playing conditions.

And the cool part about using Fritz is that you can play these positions as often as you need to until they become second nature to you. Fritz won't complain about having to play the same position over and over again, nor will Fritz make fun of you if you mess up (as long as you have the "Talk" feature turned off, that is).

The exact instructional sequence varies as you progress through the chapters on the CD. In the early going, you're shown a concept and then asked to try it out against the computer. Later chapters work a bit differently; since they build on previously-learned concepts, you're often asked to try a position against Fritz before seeing the solution (although the text screens usually give you an idea of what to expect before you start playing). After you finish the course, there's an additional database of fifty endgame studies that you can also play against Fritz.

Now I know that this will sound like some kind of typical "rah-rah" hyperbole, but here's the plain truth. I've been playing chess for nearly forty years and have read a whole big heaping pile of chess books. I've only ever seen two or three of endgame books that I really liked (and benefitted from); the rest are gathering dust. Aside from a couple of the old ChessBase University floppy disks (which are no longer available, by the way), I have never seen an endgame instruction course as easy to use and painless to learn from as Fritz Endgame Trainer - Pawn Endings. It's as close to a "spoon fed" or "magic bullet" endgame course as you're likely to ever see.

Now we come to the question that I know is burning on everyone's lips: what level player is this CD geared toward? Tricky, man, tricky. The first couple of chapters are very basic, the kind of stuff that you learned (or should have learned) when you were just starting out: mating with a Queen or Rook against a lone King, King + 1 pawn vs. King endings, all that jazz. But the later chapters get into multiple pawn stuff that's a lot more challenging; I know a lot of USCF Class B players who won't do the exercises correctly against Fritz on the first go (or maybe not even the first few tries). So I would have to say that anyone from a beginner to USCF Class C will definitely learn a lot from this disk, while the benefits to Class B players will depend on the amount of prior endgame study they've done. The cool part about knowing King and pawn endings like the back of your hand is that this knowledge carries over to the late middlegame ("If I hoover these last pieces off of the board, I'll have a winning pawn structure" -- I've done this myself and it's easier than you think. Pretty satisfying, too, when you're racking up the wins and leaving your opponents shaking their heads, wondering what just happened).

Note, also, that this CD is not intended to be a standalone product like most of the other ChessBase training CDs. It doesn't come with a copy of ChessBase Reader, because the interactive exercises rely on the use of a chess engine. In theory you could use this CD with ChessBase itself (by firing up an engine and whacking the spacebar when you want the engine to move), but for maximum ease and minimum hassle you'll want to be using this CD with one of the Fritz family of playing programs.

So if you're a typical chessplayer (and by that I mean one whose endgame technique just plain rots), I'm sure that you'll find Fritz Endgame Trainer - Pawn Endings well worth the time (and minimal effort) you'll put into it. My fervent hope is that there will be more such CDs from ChessBase in the future. Sometimes you can't just hoover the last couple of pieces off the board and I'm having some real trouble lately with my Knight endgames for some reason (hint, hint).

Until next week, have fun!

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