“Play the opening like a book, the middle game like a magician, and the endgame like a machine.” — Rudolf Spielmann
Inspired by The Queen’s Gambit – the popular Netflix mini-series about a female chess wunderkind who upends her male-dominated world – I want to share the single best principle that the game of chess has ever taught me.
This is the art of endgame. Simply stated: how to finish.
Allow me to set the board so readers not familiar with the intricacies of chess can appreciate why this matters.
Chess is a board game about 15 centuries old. It is played on 64 squares with 32 pieces. There are two armies and there is only one way to win. You must capture the King. This is called checkmate. “Endgame” is the series of moves to navigate this final stage.
A child can learn the game in a day. Given several lifetimes, it is unlikely this child would achieve total mastery. Chess is called “a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe”. There are more possible chess games that can be played than atoms in the known universe. The exact number is 10^120, or the number 10 with 120 million zeros, and it is referred to as the Shanon number. It was proposed in 1950 by a mathematician who wished to illustrate that computers could never solve chess. In 2020, supercomputers with vast intelligence still have not succeeded.
Given the parameters of this infinite game, why do people even play? The teacher in me wishes everyone to experience the many benefits of chess. Critical thinking. Confidence. The skill of maintaining calm under fire. These are just a few skills that chess teaches its students.
The real reason to play is that chess is so much fun. I discovered it as a boy, and it never let me go. Over time as my understanding evolved, the art of endgame – how to finish – is where I began to discover the gold.
When I was younger, I thought chess was all about winning. I liked the taste of battle or the feeling of outmaneuvering an opponent. Without question, winning is deeply satisfying. But as I grew, I began to see that the deeper lesson is all about finishing. Coincidentally in chess, to win is to finish and to finish is to win. This practice is concentrated in the endgame.
Here is the crux–perhaps, a most familiar one: Finishing what you start is the most difficult part. The study of endgame requires determination, and it does not release its secrets easily.
For those conditioned to instant gratification, few things can feel more frustrating. This is not anyone’s fault. As humans, we seem to forget how easy it is to start a thing, and how hard it is to finish. An experienced chessplayer is more likely to spend a long time thinking about how something will end before even making a move. This is the fundamental difference. The delta between having a great idea and making a great idea real.
A quick example will further illustrate this point.
Suppose I set up a challenge and said “There are 25 possible moves. Most of them are okay. But only 1 move is a surefire win.”
- Where would you shift your attention?
- How would you use your time?
- What choices would stand out to you?
If you truly wish to succeed, you might spend time on the moves that make the most sense. You might seek a decision that connects to your ultimate purpose. You can call it a goal or an objective. The outcome is the same. This sharpening of vision is the art of endgame.
This is the million-dollar secret, played out on a chessboard. Most beautifully, it can be applied to almost any endeavour with fantastic results. The art of endgame is not merely a way of thinking. It is a specific way of seeing. This is why experienced chess players spend countless hours studying how the game can end.
This very useful skill can also be applied multilaterally to any professional project or personal goal. It is easy to become confused in the middle, and this is one reason why many great ideas fail. An understanding of the endgame brings clarity.
This is the best life lesson that chess has taught me. Start with the end and study how to get there. Be patient. If you have practiced endgame, you have already done the hardest part. When the opportunity does arise, strike with confidence. Finish well.
You can tap into this mode at any time. I think most chess players, Beth Harmon included, would certainly agree.
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