“Not for the Faint of Heart;” On Aagaard’s GM Preparation: Positional Play

My review of Jacob Aagaard’s Grandmaster Preparation: Positional Play has been printed in the December 2013 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced, with footnotes!, here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Aagaard, Jacob. Grandmaster Preparation: Positional Play. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2012. ISBN 978-1907982262. Paper $29.95.

Writing on the theme of “[t]he feeling for danger” in an early issue of New in Chess, Mark Dvoretsky mournfully noted that

…[o]f utmost importance is to solve a series of problems on one’s own, but this is exactly where one is confronted with a basic problem.  As far as I know, no chess reference book exists in which the problems are arranged according to the skills which could be developed by solving them.  (85/8, p.44)

I have always found it curious that Dvoretsky, a trainer whose methods revolve around the solving of carefully chosen positions by his pupils, did not confront this predicament in his many books.  Certainly readers are faced with ‘exercises’ and ‘questions’ in most of his works, but the positions are comparatively few and they are given in the body text, making solving difficult.  Dvoretsky was said to have commissioned a computer program in the mid-1990s that would feature his collection of problems, but to my knowledge, the program never gained wide release.

Now Quality Chess, the upstart publishing house founded by Jacob Aagaard and John Shaw, has stepped to fill this need with two series of books.  The first, a nine volume effort, was penned by Artur Yusupov, Dvoretsky’s pupil and collaborator.  Designed for players rated 1400-2100, Yusupov’s ‘training course’ [1] was widely praised and the just winner of the 2009 Boleslavsky Award for chess literature.  The second, Jacob Aagaard’s Grandmaster Preparation series, is in the midst of its publication run, and its second volume, Positional Play, is the subject of this review.

The Grandmaster Preparation series is, as its title suggests, designed for would-be GMs and their ambitious friends.  Of the six projected volumes – Calculation, Positional Play, Strategic Play, and Attack and Defence have been released thus far, with Endgame Play and Thinking Inside the Box (on chess philosophy and improvement) still to come – Aagaard rates Positional Play as least taxing, suitable for players roughly 1800 and above.  Calculation, Endgame Play, and Attack and Defence are progressively more complex, and Strategic Play is rightfully said to be fiendishly difficult. [2]  If “improvement begins at the edge of your comfort zone,” as Aagaard (citing Rowson [3]) has recently reminded us, [4] then even we ambitious B players can feel justified in our study of Calculation or Positional Play. [5]

All of the books in the GM Preparation series are workbooks. [6]  The chapters consist of short introductions to specific themes followed by dozens of illustrative problems to solve.  Positional Play, Aagaard’s favorite [7] in the series thus far, is unique in that it offers readers a training plan for improving positional awareness based on three questions: (1) Where are the weaknesses? (2) Which is the worst-placed piece? (3) What is your opponent’s idea?  The first three chapters in the book (‘Weaknesses,’ ‘Pieces,’ and ‘Prophylaxis’) take up each question in turn, beginning with illustrative analyses of the questions at work, and followed by thematic problems for solving.  The book concludes with one hundred and fifty mixed problems and their detailed solutions.

While Aagaard claims that players of all strengths have found these questions helpful, there remains the potential for some misunderstanding of their utility. [8]  I do not understand Aagaard to claim that these three questions are ‘all you need’ (7) during OTB play; rather, much as professional baseball players hit off tees to hone their swings, chess players can use these three questions during training to sharpen their positional acumen.  The questions can be used during the game, but the real aim of the questions and solving is training one’s focus and intuition.

Aagaard is an excellent writer and a skilled pedagogue.  His examples clearly illustrate the themes he is trying to describe, and the solutions to the exercises are clear and comprehensive.  In some cases, because what is obvious to stronger players is not always obvious to me, I had to work through small tactical nuances – why can’t she take that pawn? – glossed over in the notes.  I saw this as a feature, not a bug; if the point of the book is to learn by doing, a little additional work is actually beneficial.

Positional Play, like all of the books in the Grandmaster Preparation series, is not a book for the faint of heart.  Effort, however, will be repaid with increased understanding and perhaps even Elo points to boot.  It can be warmly recommended to players over 1800 and those slightly lower if plucky and willing to work.

[3] Rowson, Jonathan.  Chess for Zebras: Thinking Differently about Black and White.  London: Gambit Publications, 2005.  14.

[5] Aagaard says in a comment at his Quality Chess blog that players might start with Calculation before attacking Positional Play, but ultimately, they can begin with either one.  < http://goo.gl/Om6nad >

[8] See Dennis Monokroussos’ review of Positional Play < http://goo.gl/ouPr8i > and Aagaard’s possible response < http://goo.gl/NUUz9l >


5 thoughts on ““Not for the Faint of Heart;” On Aagaard’s GM Preparation: Positional Play

  1. Pingback: The Book of the Year? | Chess Book Reviews

  2. C M D

    I have a copy of the training program to which to you refer–the one that Mark created back in the 90s. Dvoretsky used to come to Boston occasionally and when I was playing actively in my late teens and early twenties I had the good fortune to have lessons with him at the house of Bill Kelleher. Mark gave me a copy of the program, along with printed instructions and a handwritten letter.

    I don’t know why I hung on to this stuff all of these years–the computer program is on a 3.5″ floppy and requires a hardware key (that plugs into a parallel port!) in order for the program to function!

    I’m not sure what I should do with this stuff. I recently learned that he passed away and this is a bit if a museum piece or part of his legacy. If you have some ideas please let me know!

    1. fullcityplus Post author

      Hi CMD – please contact me via the contact page so we can discuss this privately. I’m very interested in this material, and I’ve got a few ideas about preservation, etc. Very interesting stuff!


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