Tag Archives: Jacob Aagaard

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.


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.


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 >