Tag Archives: Jacob Aagaard

Making Better Decisions

This review has been printed in the October 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Aagaard, Jacob. Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1907982354. HC 408pp.

There was a moment at this summer’s Paris Grand Prix involving Magnus Carlsen and Maurice Ashley that, besides being meme-worthy, was revelatory of the nature of competitive chess at the highest levels.

In the post-game interview after his tense rapid win over Etienne Bacrot, Carlsen took umbrage at Ashley’s characterization of the World Champion’s play as not entirely ‘smooth.’ Carlsen demonstratively pushed back against this line of questioning, asking Ashley what exactly he expected from him: “…what do you want me to do? Do you want me to get a huge advantage from the opening and then push it all the way [to victory]… is that the only way you can win a ‘smooth’ game? Is that your point?”

There was a time in chess history when these ‘smooth’ wins actually took place. If we look at the games of Capablanca or Alekhine, for example, we find precisely the kinds of talent mismatches that produce ‘smooth’ victories. The opposition often failed to recognize deep positional threats until it was too late, with the result being that many of these early contests are paradigms of strategy and attack. Numerous teachers recommend the collected games of Capablanca and Alekhine (among others) for precisely this reason.

Modern chess is not nearly so neat and tidy. With the wide dissemination of information in print and electronic form, and with the ubiquity of the computer, we have seen something of a leveling of the playing field at the highest levels. Players are much ‘wiser’ than they used to be, and what Alekhine once said of himself – that to defeat him, you had to win in the opening, the middlegame, and the ending – is true of all of today’s elite.

But Carlsen is still the World Champion, and he still wins more than he loses. How? There seems to be something of a consensus: what Carlsen does better than his opponents is solve problems. Instead of relying on a store of killer opening novelties, Carlsen is content to try and find positions that he understands better than his opponents, and use his superior decision making skills to successfully outplay them. It may not be ‘smooth,’ but it seems to work.

Isn’t this, at its core, the nature of competitive chess? The player who makes better decisions over the course of a game or, less charitably, who makes fewer bad ones, will usually come out on top. Training our decision making abilities would therefore seem to be critical for success in over-the-board play, and improvement would, quite literally, require that we rewire the way we think.

Such considerations have long been at the heart of Jacob Aagaard’s oeuvre. In one of his first books, Excelling at Chess, Aagaard implored his readers to think like humans instead of machines, sketching an approach to chess improvement on the basis of that key insight. He compared the differences between amateur and professional thinking in Inside the Chess Mind. And he served as the occluded co-author of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, both of which received high praise in these pages.

Aagaard’s latest book, Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box, is the sixth and final volume in the Grandmaster Preparation series and in many ways its lodestar. The title, a cheeky nod to Doctor Who, is also emblematic of Aagaard’s approach to improvement. It is only through the steady sharpening of basic chess skills, many already in our conceptual toolboxes, that we can begin to make better decisions and ultimately improve our results.

The great bulk of Thinking Inside the Box – most of Chapters 3 through 11 – revolves around decision making, and it is a useful lens for discussing the book as a whole. More specifically, it involves an in-depth discussion of the four types of decisions players encounter over-the-board. These are:

1. Automatic moves, or “decisions [that] you can make quickly.” (113) These might be theoretical openings or endings, forced moves or recaptures, etc. We are warned to double-check that the move is indeed automatic, and then to make it.

2. Simple decisions, which are largely intuitive and involve choosing between multiple candidate moves. These decisions rely less on calculation than on intuition or principle, and at some point, players simply have to guess when choosing the ‘best’ move.

3. Critical moments, where “the difference between the best and second-best move is large.”[1] Aagaard usually compares these to algebra exams. Critical moments can only be decided through intensive calculation, and any inaccuracy can lead to failure.

4. Strategic (or “complex”) decisions involve difficult positions that resist being decided through any of our individual decision-making skills (calculation, intuition, theoretical knowledge, general principles, bald hunches). All of our tools must be brought to bear on these positions, but ultimately, we have to guess here too.

I happened to attend this year’s US Open in Norfolk as I was reading Thinking Inside the Box for this review, and it was constantly on my mind during my games. One position is particularly pertinent in this regard. Here, in my 7th round game, I had the White pieces, and my opponent had just played his 32nd move.

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After 33.Rc2! Rxc3 I realized that I had encountered a critical moment in Aagaard’s sense of the term, one where a miscalculation could turn what had once been a winning position into a draw. I correctly decided that I had to look as deeply into the position as I could, burning through 15 of my remaining 25 minutes in the process.

What I discovered was that after my intended 34.Rxc3? the position was drawn: 34. ..Bxc3 35.Rc1 e2 36.Kf2 e1Q+ 37.Rxe1 Bxe1+ 38.Kxe1 Kxe6 39.Ke2 Ke5 (39. ..b5! is also equal) 40.Ke3 b5!=. Luckily for me, there was an alternative, and I found the much superior 34.Rac1!. After 34. ..Rc5? (34. ..Bd4 35.Kf1; 34. ..e2 35.Kf2) 35.Rxc5 bxc5 36.Rxc5 e2 (36. ..Bd4 37.Rc1 e2+ 38.Kg2 Kxe6 39.Kf3 Kd5 40.Kxe2; 36. ..Kd6 37.e7!) 37.Rc1 Bd4+ (37. ..Kxe6 38.Kf2) 38.Kg2 Bc3 39.Kf2 my opponent resigned.

That some may view this example as an automatic decision instead of a critical one is a strength of Aagaard’s system and not a weakness. By focusing on decisions and moments instead of positions, he highlights the first-person nature of decision making in chess, as well as the ways in which effective training can sharpen those decisions.

This is the practical upshot of Aagaard’s methods. In studying the nature of our decision making and considering our specific strengths and weaknesses as players (Chapter 3), we can try to locate and correct our personal weaknesses. I have discovered that I struggle with simple decisions, calculating too much and taking too much time in doing so. You cannot imagine how liberating it was to read that even Grandmasters have to regularly guess, and with this admonition firmly in mind, I have managed to limit my time trouble woes in recent games.

Aagaard’s discussion of the nature and limits of calculation (Chapters 7-8) was similarly illuminating. Borrowing heavily from the work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, he distinguishes between two modes of thought: System 1, which is “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious,” and System 2, which is “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.” (157) Calculation for Aagaard is not merely ‘seeing variations.’ It involves “finding variations you do not see intuitively.” We improve our calculation by slowing down and actively searching for moves and ideas that are not intuitive, or those that we do not immediately see. This is Kahneman’s System 2 in action, and while Aagaard is careful to remind us that we must not over-rely on our calculative abilities (167), it turns out that even the World Champion could stand to activate System 2 from time to time.

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After playing 25. ..exd3 in his victory over Peter Svidler in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, Carlsen was asked about 25. ..Bxh3! in the post-game press conference. The idea is brilliant: after 26.dxe4 (26.gxh3? Qxh3) 26. ..Rg5 27.g3 Bg4 28.f3 Rb2!! 29.Qxb2 Bxf3 Black’s attack is irresistible.

Most commentators – including Ian Rogers in these very pages (June 2013) – argued that Carlsen had missed something, that he’d made a calculative oversight in not playing the bishop sacrifice. Aagaard, who was in attendance, saw something different. Carlsen just hadn’t seen the candidate move. Once he did, it was trivial for him to analyze it to its end, and Aagaard reports that it took Carlsen all of 10 seconds to confirm that it was “completely winning.”

Thinking Inside the Box is an immensely rich book, and another review could be written about what has been left out of this one. The discussion of opening study is solid, as is the account of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ and its relevance for chess improvement. The appendix on nutrition, however, seems out of place, and I do not see the need for Aagaard to once again dredge up his decade-old debate with John Watson. This is especially true as he ends up agreeing with Watson in describing rules as having pragmatic validity in a broadly Deweyian sense. (237-242)

Very few chess books have stuck with me the way that Thinking Inside the Box has. I think it is Aagaard’s finest work, filled with useful insights, and I find myself reflecting on it frequently as I play and study. It is not an easy book by any standard, but I suspect that most players seriously looking to improve and capable of self-criticism would do very well to read it.


[1] Aagaard, Jacob. “Critical Moments – two opposing definitions.” Quality Chess Blog (blog), Quality Chess. July 11, 2017. http://www.qualitychess.co.uk/blog/6113#more-6113

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Gelfand’s Lofty Standard

This review has been printed in the February 2017 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 (with Jacob Aagaard). Dynamic Decision Making in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1784830137. HB 288pp. List $34.95.

Positional Decision Making in Chess, the first volume in Boris Gelfand’s ‘Decision Making’ series, was published by Quality Chess in 2015 to critical acclaim. (See the September 2015 issue of Chess Life for my rapturous review.) Now Gelfand’s second book, Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, is available. Does it live up to the lofty standard set by its predecessor?

The title of Gelfand’s new book accurately describes its contents. His main theme is decision making, with a particular focus on (a) how Gelfand makes practical decisions over the board and (b) his handling of dynamic positions. While Gelfand’s articulation of his thought processes is clear and mainly successful, the lens he uses (dynamical play) makes its complete exploration very difficult.

Gelfand describes the “core” of his books as follows:

I want to explain the thinking that has led to my reasonable success as a chess player, and not ‘cheat’ in the process. It is quite easy to analyze a variation with the engine and then explain why it works. And this certainly has its uses, but to me it is more interesting to talk about how we find the moves in the first place. This is the key to playing better chess. (260)

The goal of the books in this series thus far is to offer an honest accounting of how a super GM like Gelfand decides on his moves. The analysis tries to follow Gelfand’s in-game stream of consciousness, and because he cuts no corners, it can be incredibly complex. A recurring theme of the book is Gelfand’s warnings about overreliance on the computer.

It is a mistake to assume that Grandmasters think like engines. Because humans cannot begin to match the machine in terms of calculation, because we can’t see everything like the computer does, at some point we have to “guess.” (8, 86) Decision making on the basis of limited information (guessing) relies on intuition, evaluation, and judgment. (160, 218, 226).

Gelfand’s point seems to be this: humans cannot calculate their way to good decisions. We must rely on “general considerations” (15) while we play, and we must use our intuition to take decisions that we cannot fully calculate. How do we train intuition, and in this case, how do we train our sense of dynamics?

There’s the rub.

It’s important to be clear about what we’re talking about. Dynamics involves the ephemeral in chess. Some temporary feature of the position must be converted into an lasting advantage before it dissipates. (8) Dynamic chess involves intuition and calculation for Gelfand, but devolves to neither. (9). It is not strictly tactical or strategic in nature, the very distinction being somewhat artificial in his view. (61)

For all of the analysis in Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, and for all of the exquisitely careful explanation of decisions and thought processes, there is nothing to my eye that explains how Gelfand senses dynamism in a position. He just does, and more than that is hard to explain.

This is not a knock on Gelfand (or his co-author Jacob Aagaard). Dynamic Decision Making in Chess is a wonderful book, one of the best of its kind, but like every book on dynamics, there comes a point where analysis and explanation fail and we must simply bear witness to genius.

Again, let me be clear. I am not claiming that the great moves of the masters are somehow ineffable or beyond reason. Instead, what I am arguing follows from the block quote above.

It is easy, as Gelfand notes, to retroactively explain the logic of a brilliant move. What is more difficult is clearly articulating the move’s genesis without falling prey to what John Dewey called the ‘philosopher’s fallacy,’ where the results of analysis are taken to accurately represent what was experienced before analysis began.

Studies of dynamic play are, in my experience, particularly susceptible to this kind of fallacy. While Gelfand works diligently to break down the logic of his best moves – his 11…Ra6!! against Karjakin from the 2009 World Cup, for instance (227-239) – there is a level of analysis beyond which he cannot go. It took him 40 years of study and solving (54, 134) to find such moves, and their intuitive, unconscious origins are not easily excavated.

Does this mean that Dynamic Decision Making in Chess fails in its project? Absolutely not. It may lack the clarity and focus of Positional Decision Making in Chess, but this is due to Gelfand’s ambitious handling of a very difficult subject and his refusal to simplify his thought processes for the sake of expediency. The analysis is best suited for experts and above, but players of all strengths can’t help but learn from this book.

A Bootcamp for the Endgame

Aagaard, Jacob.  Grandmaster Preparation: Endgame Play.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2014.  ISBN 978-1907982330.  376pp.  HB $36.95.  Amazon price will vary.

In my on-going quest to break 1800, I’ve made a number of changes to my study habits.  First, I swallowed my pride and returned to the basics, starting at the beginning of the Stappenmethode series of workbooks and working through each Step (and Step Plus) in turn.  (I will have a review and discussion of the Steps Method in the weeks to come.) I also deprioritized openings and emphasized endings, especially the playing out of set endgame positions against human opponents or weak computer engines with clock and board.

Now, having received Jacob Aagaard’s newest book, I have enough training material for the endgame to last me many, many months.

Grandmaster Preparation: Endgame Play is the fifth book in the Grandmaster Preparation series.  (See my review of the second book, Positional Play, for more information on the series as a whole.)  Endgame Play is, at root, a collection of 430 endgame positions along with their solutions.  They are grouped into twelve chapters; most of the chapters are constructed according to typical material, but the final three are devoted to key endgame themes.  Approximately one-third of the positions are ‘pure’ rook endings.

Each chapter begins with a short introduction to the topic at hand, and this is followed by the positions for solving.  Immediately the reader understands that this is not an endgame primer; for that, Aagaard recommends Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual and de la Villa’s 100 Endgames You Must Know.  This is a workbook.  Let me repeat this: this is a work-book.  Of course you can just set up the positions on your board / screen and play through the answer, but the real purpose of Endgame Play (and, I think, the whole of the GM Prep project) is to whip your chess into shape through practice.  It’s not just enough to ‘know’ the theory.  If you can’t prove it OTB, it does you no good.

Let me give you an example from recent club play.  On the board next to me on Monday night, a very promising junior lost a rook endgame where White had a 3-2 pawn advantage, but all pawns were on the kingside, no pawns were isolated or doubled, etc.  The junior, playing Black, had seen some of the key defensive ideas in a previous training session, but either ‘forgot’ what to do or simply crumbled under time pressure.  His practical strength was not equal to his theoretical knowledge, and so he lost a game that was completely drawn.

Aagaard’s prescription in Endgame Play is simple: the ambitious player must know the theoretical positions and she must be practiced in playing typical positions out.  Dvoretsky is sufficient for the first part, but we must sit down and solve positions or, better, play them out with training partners if we are to gain practical experience.  Endgame Play contains 430 positions ideally suited to this task.

Here’s a sample, taken from Chapter 7 (“Complex Minor Piece Endings”).  Set up the position and take the White pieces against an engine like ExChess or against a human training partner.  (Playing against Komodo or Houdini is just too depressing!)  White is to move.

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Ok.  How did the game go?  Compare it with Aagaard’s analysis and try to figure out where you went wrong.  Do this enough and soon you’ll be squeezing full points out of half-points, and saving half-points where your position merits none.  Practice may not make perfect, but it does make better.  In an age of sudden-death time controls, that’s no small thing.

In his Foreword to Endgame Play, Karsten Müller specifically points to the chapters on opposite-colored bishops and rook and bishop vs rook and bishop as being exemplary.  And so they are.  For me, however, the material on rook endings is particularly useful, and the chapter on fortresses is absolutely fascinating.  Because this is not a pedagogical work per se, some of the chapter introductions are slight.  The introduction to the fortresses chapter is one of the longest in the book, and the illustrative examples work well to inspire ‘fortress hope’ in the reader.

It’s obvious that Aagaard poured immense time and effort into this book; on the Quality Chess Blog, he writes that he spent more time on Endgame Play than on any of his others.  The analysis in Endgame Play is detailed enough to answer most every reader question, but it does not pretend to be encyclopedic.  As Quality Chess books tend towards excessive analytical verbosity, this attempt at balance is appreciated.

The books in the Grandmaster Preparation series are “aimed at ambitious players.”  Nowhere is this more true than with Endgame Play.  I suspect that only the most dedicated of players under 2000 will truly benefit from Endgame Play, but ambition and dedication mean more than playing strength in this situation.  The class player who puts in the time and work solving the positions in this book will undoubtedly see a jump in her endgame skills and her rating. The aspiring master should tear through these pages and devour every problem. This is a fine book, possibly the finest of the Grandmaster Preparation series, and it is a book that is well worth your purchase.

“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 >