Learning from Gelfand

This review has been printed in the September 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Gelfand, Boris, and Jacob Aagaard. Positional Decision Making in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78483-006-9. 288pp. HB $34.95. [Note that Quality Chess has only released the hard cover version to specialized chess retailers, and a paperback should be on Amazon in the nearish future.]

Positional Decision Making in Chess is Boris Gelfand’s second book, the first being his 2005 My Most Memorable Games. Were it simply another batch of his annotated games, it would well be worth our attention. Very few of the world’s elite put pen to paper (fingers to keys?) while they are still active players.

Most of Kasparov’s many books emerged only after his retirement. Books by Anand and Kramnik predate their World Championship reigns, while the bulk of Shirov’s output now comes in DVD form. Recent works by Giri and Polgar are excellent, but Giri’s best years are ahead of him while Polgar has retired from tournament play.

So when a player like Boris Gelfand – a six-time Candidate, the 2012 Challenger for the World Championship and the 13th ranked active player in the world – writes [1] a book about his games, we chess bibliophiles tend to take notice. And all the more in this case, for Gelfand has given us a superlative book.

My Most Memorable Games is, on the whole, a traditional ‘best games’ collection. It is evident from even the first pages of Positional Decision Making in Chess that Gelfand has something else in mind with his new book. As he writes in the Preface,

…the intention of this book is not to focus on the accuracy of the moves I made at the board… but on the thought process that led me to finding them in the first place. … [T]hroughout we have focused on the reasons for the decisions and plans I made, and also the limitations of my thinking during the game. (8)

While (sometimes copious) analysis of Gelfand’s games is provided, the real focus of the book is how Gelfand takes decisions over the board, with positional decisions front and center. The games of Akiba Rubinstein – Gelfand’s favorite player – are enlisted in this effort, and special emphasis is placed on Rubinstein’s influence on Gelfand along with his relevance for contemporary chess theory.

There is much to like here. It’s good to see Rubinstein get his due as player and theoretician, especially as there are very few legitimate books about him in print. Gelfand’s annotations are clear, and his descriptions of his opponents are both respectful and revealing. The book’s surprisingly personal feel is amplified by the photographs strewn throughout its pages.

For me, however, the central theme of the book only appears between the lines of the text: Gelfand’s relationship to the computer. No one can dispute the changes wrought on chess and its play by our silicon friends. Nor, if we are honest, can we overlook the way in which most players trust engine evaluations blindly, almost outsourcing their thinking to the computer. (Look at Twitter or the ICC chat during the next big tournament if you doubt this.)

What is most interesting to me about Positional Decision Making in Chess is seeing how Gelfand, a member of the last generation to come of age before the rise of the machines, thinks about engines and their limitations. Gelfand trusts his intuition – this word appears repeatedly in the text – and prefers to view engines as tools for understanding rather than as infallible oracles. Rarely have I seen such honest and practical discussion of the topic. For instance:

…I am a strong believer in the value of a chess education built on thorough knowledge of the classics [like Rubinstein – JH]. Any attempt to emulate the engines and their 2,000,000 moves a second is doomed to fail. We need to supplement calculation with all other weapons available. And one of these is intuition, which is strongly rooted in pattern recognition. (58)

Extremely often the computer will suggest moves that no human would consider. And when we do not feel it delivers us a clear understanding of why this move is good, I cannot see that it makes sense to follow its recommendations. (199)

If only those kibitzers on ICC would heed Gelfand’s warning!

By providing us a window into his decision making, and by showing us – warts and all – both the limits and triumphs of his thought, Boris Gelfand does much more than merely offer us edifying games to study. The author of Positional Decision Making in Chess is an exemplar for all of us who struggle to learn from the computer without succumbing to its siren call. This might well be the book of the year, and serious students of modern chess practice should not miss out on its lessons.


[1] I would be remiss if I did not mention the role of Gelfand’s ‘helper,’ Jacob Aagaard, in the construction of this book. Aagaard, himself a very well regarded author and pedagogue, recorded extensive discussions with Gelfand and used them as the basis for the written text. It appears that most of the conceptual content should be attributed to Gelfand, while the style, structure, and some of the pedagogy are Aagaard’s.

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4 thoughts on “Learning from Gelfand

  1. Mike Vuolo

    Thank You for the review. I usually get my Chess life in the middle of the month. Every book seller is out of the book already. Must be fantastic.

    Reply
  2. Paul Brøndal

    Very nice review. I have also read the book and really enjoyed it. The way Gelfand goes into the depth of chess is truly amazing. Currently, I’m reading Learn from the Legends, Marin. The first chapter here also has a lot of emphasis on Rubinstein and his way of handling rook endgames. Btw, this is also a fantastic book!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Gelfand’s Lofty Standard | Chess Book Reviews

  4. Pingback: Making Better Decisions | Chess Book Reviews

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