This is the end.

      The best chess advice you’ll ever get comes from a music teacher. When learning a new piece, music students play the parts they know, until they reach some part they can’t play. What happens then? They slow down, stumble, stop.

      They go back to the top, play the parts they know, maybe get through a little of the tricky part, then slow down, stumble, stop.

      This music teacher tells you: Learn the last measure of the song first.

      Learn the last measure of the song first, then when you’ve got that, back up to the next-to-last measure. Learn that, and going forward, you already know the last one.

      You’ve got two measures under your belt, back up again, learn the second-to-last. As you’re practicing each unfamiliar part, you’re always heading toward the parts of the song you know.

      Eventually, you work your way back to the first measure, and after you learn that, you can play the whole song.

      Chess should be learned the same way. Learn all there is to know about the positions with two kings on the board. Add a piece to the board to make three. Learn king and queen vs. king. King plus rook vs. king. King plus pawn vs. king.

      Get those done, add another piece to the board. Now you’ve got four pieces on the board. Learn king plus bishop plus knight vs. king. King plus two bishops v. king. King plus pawn vs. king plus pawn.

      It’s been nearly 50 years, and I’m still working on king plus two pawns vs. king plus one pawn. But I reckon if I work diligently, and live a really long time, I can work my way back to the positions with 32 pieces on the board. Those are the hardest ones.

      Chessplayers who think they should learn chess from the opening going forward are exactly like those music students who are learning a new song. They play a few moves of an opening they know, reach some position with which they are unfamiliar, and slow down, stumble, stop.

      You can play an opening perfectly, but where does that get you? It gets you into the middlegame forest, where you wander around bewildered.

      How can you possibly play a middlegame well unless you know the end of the song? Er, chess game, I mean. If you don’t know how to play the endgame, how can you judge in the middlegame whether you should simplify the game through exchanges to reach that ending, or to complicate the game by keeping pieces on the board in order to avoid the ending?

      With the endgame on the horizon, you must be able to recognize whether that ending is good or bad for you. If the endgame ahead is bad for you, swap pawns. If the endgame ahead is good for you, swap pieces.

      You can’t put pieces back on the board to return to an opening you know. The endgame is inevitable, while many games hardly have any opening at all. Consider the Exchange Ruy Lopez:

Click or tap on a move in the game text for a popout display board.


If you’re on the black side of that, where are you?

      If a chess game boils down to king vs. king, it’s a draw. But let’s play a different game: With White to move, the goal is to cross to 8th rank. If White reaches the 8th rank, White wins. If Black prevents the white king from making progress, Black wins.

      There are two — and only two — winning moves for White. The student should work this out.