Chess dopers - how rigid are openings and endgames?

I only play chess at junior idiot level, trying to look a few moves ahead and treating it as an exercise in non-deterministic realtime strategy, or something.

So it was quite a surprise to be told (many years ago) that professional chess players play set openings and endgames, with only the mid-game bit being open to flair and deep cunning, etc.

But how true is that? Exactly how rigidly defined are the openings and especially the endgames? Surely if a player finds himself cast as the loser in what was playing out as a predetermined sequence of endgame moves, he’s either rebel and try to escape destiny, or concede as soon as he saw it coming, wouldn’t he?

So how precisely determined are they?

They aren’t “determined.”

Openings: Everyone who is anyone in chess has access to a database of every important game played in, oh, the last couple hundred years. This database is constantly being added to with games happening even as we type. Knowledgeable chess-types take these games and do two things with them:

  1. Assign them an opening categorization (there are a couple different digests of openings used, the one used primarily is the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings). Thus, all openings that start with 1. e4 are grouped together, then divided into those that start 1. e4 e5, those that start 1. e4 e6, those that start 1. e4 c5, etc. etc.

  2. Analyze them to see if they offer anything new with regard to how to play the opening that was used. That is, did they play some new move that hasn’t been used before, and how did it fare? Or, did they play a series of opening moves that had been played before, but when they got to the “middle” game, made more out of it than others have in the past?

Since everyone has access to these games, and the expert opinions about them, if you are going to play chess at a very high level, you have to be aware of opening lines that will leave you in a bad position, by consensus. Since each side strives to avoid bad positions, the result is actually a fairly narrow set (compared to the entirety of “reasonable” possibilities, that is, openings that use what would be considered decent opening tactics, not stupid things like moving a knight four times, or moving only the pawn in front of the rook, etc.) of possible openings that get played, at least to the depth of 8 or 9 moves. If you are really fascinated by the subject, pick up an openings book, say Batsford’s Chess Openings 2 or something of the like, to see what sort of thoughts go into opening strategies on a line by line basis.

Endgames: Endgame theory is pretty well established, and has been for some time. It’s natural that you want to know what happens when you get to the end of the game with certain combinations of pieces and/or pawns, because that’s how you decide in the middle game what threats and tactics will be worth pursuing. For example, it doesn’t do much good to go to great effort to gain a pawn advantage if when all is said and done, the endgame you are headed for being up a pawn is known to be a drawn result, with best play on both sides!

Since it is so well studied, there are really very few endgames where the parties to the game don’t have a pretty good idea what the result will be if it continues to be played. Obviously, people can make mistakes, and sometimes a game is played on in a seemingly “hopeless” position just for that reason. But if we are in an endgame where I and my opponent know I am lost, and know WHY I am lost, then what is the real point to playing on?
So to finish answering your question: a good player does two things:

  1. Learns the classic endgame theories so that he/she doesn’t lose/draw games that should be won. This, frankly, is exactly where the beginner should START learning chess, because it also helps you learn the power of the pieces to study their effect on endgames.

  2. Establish an opening “repetoire”, usually consisting of a stock opening move for white (such as 1. e4 or 1. d4), combined with a knowledge of the most likely responses to that move and how to handle them, as well as a stock response as black to each of the likely opening moves white can make (for example, playing 1. d4 d6, 1. e4 e6, 1. c4 f5, etc.), and knowledge of how to handle white’s likely responses to your stock black openings.

There’s a lot of stuff in between the opening and the end game. Selection of a particular opening is largely a matter of taste. A friend of mine used to like excitement, so he often played the King’s Gambit. It also helped that it was out of style and many players didn’t know how to defend against it. When you look at a listing of the moves in a particular opening, ask yourself why these are considered the best moves. What’s wrong with the moves that were not made. Sometimes the book will point out alternate moves that look good but end in disaster, or that are actually reasonable choices. The openings are really not that rigid, especially at the amateur level.

For endgames, you need to know the basics of how to force mate with various pieces, and how to advance and promote pawns. Look for the book “Basic Chess Endings” by Reuben Fine.

The openings are well-defined, as all games start in the same position; there are a limited number of moves that don’t lead to annihilation at the hands of a skilled opponent. The openings used by the best players, I’m told, run to 30-35 moves.

The endgame isn’t that rigid; there’s a well-defined theory about how to handle certain common situations, but there’s a lot of variation in how those situations develop. For example, if each player ends up with a king and a rook, there’s a whole body of thought on how to play it, but there’s 64 squares on the board, y’know? Also, there’s the hope that someone will make a mistake. Nonetheless, there often comes a point where it’s clear to both players that the game’s over, and the game is often conceded without playing to mate.

ETA: or what they said

This aspect of the game is what killed my interest in chess. I enjoy playing the game. I don’t enjoy memorizing lists. When I realized that becoming even moderately good at chess would involve as much of the latter as the former, it just lost its appeal.

I never was fond of chess, but this kind of stuff is what has always discouraged me from truly competitive PC gaming.

Vox Imperatoris

The endgame is fairly mechanical and computer analysis has apparently determined KQ v KBB is mate in 71 moves. I hope someone has studied it just in case it comes up!

Actually its the one thing computers are a lot better at than humans.

:confused: What competitive PC games require you to memorize lists?

I assume you mean chess. I was never much good at adding 1,000,000 numbers together a second myself.

I stick to the Ruy Lopez.

I lose at lot

Yeah chess, computers are better at endgames than humans.

I’m still wondering how they brute forced KQ v KBB, you’ve got about 20 moves each side so you have to eliminate moves that are going backwards or losing your queen, but it seems like a ridiculously huge number rather than a moderately huge number.

If I had to guess, I’d say he’s talking about Real Time Strategy games. If you don’t construct your initial base in the right order, you may find yourself starved of resources, or vulnerable to early attack.

It’s essentially just brute force, working backwards from all mate or drawn positions to every possible position. The databases of these moves are known as Endgame Tablebases. Here is a website which will let you query any position with at most 6 pieces, including the kings.

Regarding endgames generally, one of the main reasons for developing these tablebases is that computers are quite bad at many endings without them. There are many endings which will take a large number of moves to win, but for which the winning process is very straightforward for a strong player. The computer has no concept of such strategy, and can only discover the win by searching to the appropriate depth.