Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

Something different

Posted by alifinmath on January 3, 2008

As an amateur chess player, the focus of my attention is on the endgame. This is unusual for most club players, whose attention is mostly drawn towards opening systems and novelties that might garner them a few quick points. Yet the quiet backwater of endgame play — with its hidden subtleties and nuances, and the patient attention to detail it requires — has long had a seductive appeal to me. In this sense it resembles the nuanced and polished proofs one finds in so many areas of mathematics — number theory, algebra, complex analysis. Indeed, a prominent Harvard mathematician, Noam Elkies, also has a reputation for being an accomplished (chess) studies composer.

It is the lack of this quiet, analytical, and pedantic approach that bothers me about finance: the cavalier brushing of details under the rug; the superficial cleverness without philosophical foundations; the emphasis on speed and slick answers (without asking whether they make any sense); the heuristic and shoddy arguments; and the mercenary approach: all these aspects disturb me, go against the grain of my nature. I am not fast, lack slick cleverness, and lack a competitive streak. Quiet, painstaking analysis as an end in itself, and not subject to time constraints, attracts me.

For these reasons, the quiet, technical virtousity of endgame play and analysis has long been my refuge. Keres analyses a single position in twenty pages of close analysis. Hubner analyses a single game over the course of fifty pages (and spends a year doing this). Kasparov devotes twenty pages to the analysis of a single position (in one of his matches against Karpov). But the high priest of close analysis today is Mark Dvoretsky, who finally wrote his magnum opus, Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, a few years ago. This book will still be consulted five centuries from now — not just for the material it presents, but for the way Dvoretsky organises the material, and for the insights that permeate each and every page. John Nunn is another priest of close analysis: his Secrets of Rook Endings covers K+R+P vs. K+R over 320 pages. It is the last word in such positions, and collects and presents the effort of analysts over the past two centuries to understand such positions.

But both Dvoretsky and Nunn cover what we call “technical positions”: i.e. positions with only a piece (or less) on either side, plus any number of pawns. Late middlegame and early endgame positions have not been so well-covered (mostly because they’re less tractable). However, Flear has recently published a book, Practical Endgame Play — Beyond the Basics, where he attempts to do just this. A masterful review of this book can be found here. I suppose I should order a copy for myself. I’m also waiting, with bated breath, for Muller and Pajeken’s How to Play Chess Endgames, which covers similar terrain, but I think more along the lines of Shereshevsky and Slutsky’s two-volume Mastering the Endgame.


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