Chess Openings or Endgames: Where to Start?


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The answer to whether we study openings or endgames, like chess, is both simple and complex.

  • Of course, if you misplay the opening, you might never make it to the middlegame, never mind the endgame. This fact makes learning openings important.
  • Learning the endgames helps you decide on a strategy for the opening and middlegame. Now we know endgames are essential as well.
  • When asked which are more important openings or endgames? What we really need to decide is which one is more important? The only way to answer this question is to clarify the different roles the opening and endgame play in chess.
  • The best guide to choosing between studying openings or endgames is the time you devote to each. You do not have to choose between openings or endgames but can study both.

Before we can choose to focus on either openings or endgames we need to learn more about the role each plays in chess.

The True Purpose Behind Openings in Chess

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Mastering Opening Strategy

There are many different chess openings, but they all have the same goal, no matter what they are called. Yes, every chess opening has the same purpose.

The opening aims to get you to a middlegame you are comfortable playing.

No matter the current trend in openings or how favorably your chess engine rates the middlegame position, it will not help you if you feel uncomfortable playing it.

The last thing you need is to make playing chess uncomfortable instead of fun. Take comfort in knowing that if you feel comfortable playing an opening, you will find a way to make it playable.

Your Most Important Task in Learning a Chess Opening

Your most important task is to deepen your understanding of your chosen chess opening.

Playing through games of the top players will help you get a feel for the arising middlegame and endgame positions.

Suppose you are looking for a good defense against 1.d4 and are considering the Nimzo-Indian Defense. In your early research, you read the Samisch variation is a critical test of the Nimzo-Indian Defense because it leads to white getting the bishop pair in exchange for a pawn weakness.

Now you begin to learn about what Black gets in return? Are the doubled pawns enough of a weakness to compensate for giving up a bishop?

How do you attack the doubled pawns? How does White defend them? These questions are answered by playing through games, and you don’t need to memorize any lines.

Before you memorize any lines, your understanding of the opening has deepened. Instead of trying to learn variations, you know how to attack the doubled-pawns.

You will place a bishop on a6, a knight on a5, and a queen on c6 or a5. Even if you forget your theory, remembering where the pieces go will help you find the right moves.

A Typical Position in the Nimzo-Indian Samisch Variation

None of the theory is important if you decide you don’t like playing the position with Black.

Maybe, you dislike the thought of having both knights on the edge of the board, even if the engine says this is an equal position.

There are many great databases you can access for free when it comes to finding games in an opening. Here is a game from the Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch Variation to show how effective this excellent defense can be.

If you are thinking of playing the Nimzo-Indian Defense, you can read more about this excellent defense in this article.

Now you are ready to start learning the opening in greater depth, the question is, how much time do you spend on learning the opening?

Ten percent of your total training time is enough if you are making slight adjustments to your repertoire. For example, you are getting good results with 1.d4 except against the Dutch Defense. Learning a new way to play against it shouldn’t need more than ten percent of your training time.

However, if you switch from 1.d4 to 1.c4, you might need to increase this time. Learning a new repertoire could mean spending fifteen or twenty percent of your training time on the opening.

Now it is time to move on to the second part of the question, “Openings or endgames?”

The Important Endgame Phase Is Often Forsaken

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Mastering Endgame Strategy

We spend so much time studying the openings that it seems strange to ask, “Which is more important – openings or endgames?” Yet, the endgame is key to improving your all-around chess play.

World champion Jose Raul Capablanca said, “To succeed, study the endgame before everything else.” This quote clearly shows us where we need to focus most of our attention.

That does not mean we neglect the opening and middlegame. After all, we still need to reach an endgame where we have an advantage or an equal position.

Studying the endgame is essential to know which destinations are favorable for us.

Before you get into your car and start the engine, you know where you are going. You most likely think of your destination and not the start, getting in your vehicle.

Yes, when it comes to chess, we keep our focus firmly on the start of the journey – the opening. Your destination, or endgame, is most important.

Study Endgames and Stop Resigning Too Early

By learning the endgames, we know which positions we can win and which we can hold for a draw. There will most assuredly be games when you fall behind in material, but you can use the middlegame to set up a drawn endgame.

Knowing a king and bishop are not enough to checkmate you, a good strategy is to start swapping off pawns in the middlegame. Think about how you can set the endgame up to exchange the remaining pawns.

A passed pawn can be strong enough to earn a draw even if you are a rook down in the endgame. We tend to resign in the middlegame when we feel we are too far behind in material.

You might be surprised at which endgames you can draw with a significant material disadvantage. Two connected passed pawns can be stronger than a rook, so you could consider sacrificing your minor piece to create them.

Yes, you can go from a minor piece and pawns against a rook and pawns to a winning endgame with two connected pawns against a rook.

Can white win in this position by playing Bxc6? How would you defend the position with Black?

When asking if we should study openings or endgames, the answer is both. Your opening knowledge won't help you in an endgame like this, but losing in the opening won't get you to the endgame.

Play through the endgame in this excellent game with an engine and see if you can find better moves than the players. How much of it did you understand?

In Conclusion – Openings or Endgames?

When attempting to answer which is more important – openings or endgames? the impact on your chess from studying the endgame is more significant than the opening.

Endgames teach you precise calculation skills because a single tempo can mean the difference between winning and losing. You will learn how to get the most out of your pieces from the endgame. You will also understand the importance of active play.

The importance of studying endgames cannot be overstated. Even if you spend twenty percent of your training time learning a new opening, spend double that time learning endgames.

Devote the remaining forty percent of your time to improving your middlegame techniques. Learn the principles of positional play, pawn structures, and tactics familiar to the middlegames in your chosen openings.

This video is from the Mastering Chess Strategy course

Be sure that you always prioritize improving your endgame skills over everything else. There is no doubt that when choosing to study openings or endgames, the endgame is more important.

And in case you are wondering about that endgame position, White can hold on for a draw after Bxc6.

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