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Trying to Understand Endgame

May 7, 2015

Don’t pack up your chess pieces yet

There are endings to everything. They are universally inevitable and common to both life and chess.

This inspired Samuel Becket (1906-1989), an Irish avant-garde novelist and playwright, who lived in Paris for most of his adult life, to write the one-act play, tragi-comedy Endgame. [1] Beckett is widely regarded as among the most influential writers of the 20th century. [2]

The Endgame is considered, along with Waiting for Godot, to be one of Beckett’s most important works. He himself was an avid chess player, fascinated with the artistic and metaphorical possibilities of chess.


Endgame, play by Samuel Beckett

In Endgame, Beckett uses the chess endgame as a metaphor to tell the story of four characters, or players, in the “endgame” of their ancient lives. As in an endgame position in chess, the stage is barren, a board whittled down to only four chessmen, two of which are static.

Hamm is a metaphorical king, sitting in his chair, unable to stand and blind. Clov, his limping servant, unable to sit, is a mobile supporting piece such as a bishop, lacking the robust natures of a knight or a rook; and Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, with no legs, are the static relics of a defensive row of pawns, residing in two garbage cans.

At previous stages of the game, the players’ lives were populated with other people and activity. They refer to earlier times in which they traveled, had material possessions, and knew people besides the each other – but now, that world is gone.

Throughout the play, the players go through repetitive rituals that are part of their endgame. They make routines out of their lives and do whatever it takes to get through one more day. The game has lost appeal it may have once had. The players are essentially resigning from the game.

Chess endgameApparently, the above goes true with majority of chess players too. It’s a pity, many a well-contested game is utterly spoiled through the lack of knowledge and interest in playing the endgame. Yet it is constantly happening. Once in the finishing stage of the game, it loses appeal it may have once had to players. They are playing quickly and routinely, doing whatever it takes to get through one more move. Again, they are essentially resigning from the game.


Don’t get bored with life. Enjoy chess and life to the fullest in the endgame too

It’s a typical behavior and a huge mistake of inexperienced players. As a matter of fact, the difference in playing strength between the master and the amateur is most marked in endgame play.

At no other stage of the game is each single move of such importance: sometimes, it either wins or loses. Neutral, non committal moves are rarely available. Just because there are fewer pieces on the board, it does not mean things are simple, or less exciting (look how many tactics may arise in endgame).

In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before anything else, for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middlegame and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame. — Capablanca

“It makes it easier to judge and use the potential of your pieces and to understand their interaction. So not only your endgame technique, but also intuition and positional understanding are refined. In the endgame, plans must be found all the time – so it sharpens your strategic eye as well.” [3]

As Vasily Smyslov put it, a knowledge of the endgame is the magic key to the secrets of chess mastery.


Endgame offers insights into chess that will lead to fuller understanding and better play

So don’t resign from your game too early. Don’t pack up your pieces just yet, before the game, the play, finishes or starts again, the ever-repeating cycle, the next performance of the human tragedy, the cosmic joke.

© 2013 iPlayoo!


1. The play was written in French (entitled Fin de partie) and then translated into English by the author himself.

2. “He’s not f—ing me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy — he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not — he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.” –Harold Pinter on Beckett

3. Artur Yusupov in Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual

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