Running time: 115 minutes
In chess, the endgame is where calculation and intuition reign supreme. In the final stages of a game, one fleeting moment might define the difference between victory, a draw or even defeat.
Reviewed by Steve Lopez
It's been almost two years since I reviewed the five video set of GM Alexei Shirov's best games and I've been looking very much forward to a new dvd release from the Latvian master of sacrifice. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the new release "Shirov! (Best Endgames Vol. 1)" was an endgame video. I had literally no idea that Shirov is an acknowledged master of the endgame. But that's simply another case (in an unfortunately long string) of my not thinking clearly.
As I've written on my own website and in some of my other Internet columns, gambiteers and players with a sacrificial bent must become good endgame technicians. If the gambit fails or the sacrifice doesn't work out as planned the only thing that can save the game (short of a convenient blunder by the opponent) is to outplay one's opponent in the endgame. Being a sacrificial player practically forces one to become an expert on the endgame.
So, had I thought the process completely through, I'd have realized that Shirov simply had to be a superior endgame technician in order to play in the middlegame style he's adopted. In the (admittedly rare) instances in which calculation fails and his sacrifices don't work, endgame technique saves him. Many players have the impression that endgames are dry and boring. That's just not the case. Endgames are as dynamic as any other phase of the game. But, with the advent of short sudden death time controls over the last ten or fifteen years, the art of endgame mastery is slowly dying out and many intermediate-level players don't seem to place as much importance on the endgame as they should. Endgame technique will often turn drawn games into wins and can sometimes even reverse "lost" positions into draws or wins. But many of us don't spend enough time on the endgame and our play suffers accordingly.
This dvd will vividly illustrate the point that the endgame is a dynamic and exciting phase of a chess game. Six endgames are covered on a tape that runs approximately 115 minutes.
The format of the dvd is the same as the earlier "Best Games" series with Shirov. GM Ron Henley acts as host and moderator, discussing the games with Shirov. The same three camera setup is used, cutting between the two grandmasters and a wallboard. The color scheme on the wallboard makes it very easy to distinguish the piece from the squares (unlike many other chess dvds in which the board is simply a blur).
How deeply does the commentary delve into each ending? Consider the following position, from an early Shirov game against Ruzhyale:
What a wonderfully unbalanced position! In this endgame, Shirov (as Black), has a knight and pawn against three connected passed pawns for White. With Black to move, even an average chessplayer can see the initial move in the position. But then things get complicated. Shirov demonstrates the vast amount of calculation that was required in this ending; he states on the dvd that he spent fifty or sixty hours analyzing this ending in the months after the game. What makes this endgame really interesting is the fact than in this position he had just a hour to make twenty moves, so he was forced to do a lot of analysis very quickly. It takes Shirov and Henley over thirty minutes on the video to discuss the intricacies of this endgame (and it's admitted that there's not time for all of the analysis that Shirov did in the months following the game).
Other endgames on the video include a tricky minor-piece and pawn ending against Akopian, a very hairy endgame in which Shirov had two bishops against Kramnik's rook, a straight rook endgame ("the most difficult" form of endgame, according to Shirov) in which a single move spells doom for Jan Timman, and another game against Kramnik which illustrates the technique of exploiting a positional advantage in the endgame.
Of course, we can't have a Shirov dvd with a sacrifice somewhere. Fans of the sacrificial style will be gratified by the inclusion of a game against Topalov in which an amazing bishop sacrifice by Shirov decided the issue (and which some chess writers have termed "The Move of the Century"). But Shirov didn't sacrifice his bishop just for the sake of tossing some wood; there was a sound reason for the sacrifice, and this is well explained by Shirov on the dvd.
The technical aspects of the dvd are similar to that of the prior "Best Games" series. As stated previously, the color scheme of the chessboard is well thought out; the pieces are clearly distinguishable and don't blur into the squares as happens too often on other chess dvds. Henley is a fine host for the dvd; he typically offers his comments as questions, which Shirov is only too happy to expound upon. The questions are often ones that the viewer is thinking;
GM Henley seems to have a knack for knowing what to ask and when to ask it. Shirov himself is a fairly engaging character. Of course, he speaks with a Latvian accent, but it's not thick and it's easy to understand what he's saying. There's not quite as much humor on this dvd as on the previous "Best Games" series, but I still got a laugh or two from some of Shirov's comments. And you can really tell that he's quite fond of his Bishop sacrifice against Topalov - he fairly beams with pleasure as he recounts that particular game (and rightly so; it is an incredible move). Face facts - chess videos aren't "Oscar" material, but this tape is as entertaining as they come. You may not want to view the full 115 minutes at one sitting, but I did it painlessly over two sessions. The endgames are interesting and Shirov can be a lot of fun in his commentary.
In fact, my only quibble with the dvd is with the occasional momentary (a second or less) sound dropouts, which are the result of deliberate editing rather than accidental faults in the taping process. I'm getting used to them, however; the first one still jars a bit, but the other half-dozen or so are hardly noticeable.
For whom is this video intended? It's not a "basics of the endgame" dvd. Most players rated 1400 and up should be able to enjoy and benefit from this dvd, but some practical endgame knowledge and experience is a must. If you don't understand basic king and pawn techniques in the ending, it would be best for you to brush up on them before viewing this dvd. Certain basic endgame knowledge is assumed on the part of the viewer.
A viewing technique that I found helpful (and which I described in my previous review of Shirov's "Best Games" series) would be to search for the games in an electronic database and then print them out, keeping them (and a chessboard) close at hand while viewing the video. This allows you to keep track of the main line position (acting as a "bookmark") while Shirov demonstrates various alternative lines on the wallboard. I found this to be a great aid in comprehending the material on the dvd.
Will you learn a lot of practical endgame technique from this dvd? That's hard to say. As I stated, this is not a "basic endgames" tape; it's more like a lecture in which a grandmaster illustrates his best endings. What the tape will clearly illustrate is the beauty and magic of the chess ending. Referring back to Shirov's previous "Best Games" series, I can't honestly say that the series drastically improved my game. However, after viewing them, I was certainly more alert to sacrificial possibilities in my own games. Inspired by the videos, I was able to recover from a blunder in one of my postal games with a carefully-considered (but questionably sound) sacrifice that threw my opponent completely off track and allowed me to go on and win. Had I not viewed the dvd,
I'd never have considered the sacrifice I played.
So, if nothing else, the dvd "Shirov! Best Endgames Vol. 1" will follow the trend of its predecessors and inspire you to look more closely at your own chess endings, and you'll hopefully find resources that you previously weren't aware existed. You'll certainly learn that knowledge and precise calculating abilities are certainly a must in many chess endings. Very few players are good at the endgame and anything that helps us to improve that phase of the game is a good thing. This dvd clearly fits the bill and I recommend it to any intermediate to advanced player who wants to see and hear a master of endgame technique explain his art clearly and in an engaging manner.