Tag Archives: Quality Chess

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.

The Soviet Chess Primer

This review has been printed in the June 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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Maizelis, Ilya. The Soviet Chess Primer. trans. John Sugden. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982996. PB 400pp. List $24.95, currently $19ish on Amazon.

Until very recently it was hard to imagine Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov agreeing on much of anything. That changed when each man ran unsuccessfully to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as President of FIDE. Nevertheless, as someone who remembers the white-hot rivalry of their world championship matches, I was startled when I received the new translation of Ilya Maizelis’ The Soviet Chess Primer from Quality Chess. Both Karpov and Kasparov are quoted on the cover, and they both love this book.

And it’s not just the two K’s who are fans. In his Foreword to this edition, Mark Dvoretsky describes his youthful encounter with Maizelis’ book, calling it “dear to me” and recounting how his personal copies were often ‘lost’ after being lent out. Tigran Petrosian (as Andy Soltis tells it) preferred the book to breakfast, saving his meal money up and buying a copy instead.

Such high regard may be surprising for an American audience, for whom Ilya Maizelis is something of a mystery. If his name is recognized at all, it is as a co-author of the classic Pawn Endings with Yuri Averbakh, although in truth Maizelis was its primary author. The few references to Maizelis that exist in English describe him as a translator and endgame analyst, with special expertise in pawn endings and technical rook endings. Sixty-three of his endgame studies appear in Harold van der Heijden’s definitive study database.

The Soviet Chess Primer is a partial translation of the 1960 edition of Maizelis’ Shakhmaty osnovy teorii (Шахматы основы теории / Chess: Fundamental Theory). Approximately 60% of the Russian text appears in The Soviet Chess Primer; although I cannot read the Cyrillic lettering, it appears that some detailed opening analysis and sections on the history of chess were excised. The translation by John Sugden reads well, and – as one expects from Quality Chess – the production values are high.

A quick glance at the table of contents would suggest that the English title is apt. After Chapter One, “The Game Explained,” readers are taught the “Aim of the Game” (ch 2) and “Tactics and Strategy” (ch 3). More advanced topics, including further elucidations of combination and positional play, follow. Each chapter concludes with a whimsical set of “Entertainment Pages,” where miniatures and ‘fun exercises’ appear, and some of the original drawings are brought over from the Russian.

So far, so good. Closer scrutiny of The Soviet Chess Primer, however, leads me to question the title chosen by Quality Chess for this new translation. Maizelis’ book is fascinating, especially for the reader interested in chess culture and history, but it is not a primer by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not just that the knight’s tour is used (18) to help illustrate how the knight moves. Maizelis includes outrageously difficult mate problems in the ‘fun’ section of chapter one, and his account of the theory of corresponding squares (152) belongs in an endgame tome and not here. The breakneck pace of the book and the complex examples preclude me from thinking it appropriate for the beginner.

Take, for instance, this ‘ancient puzzle’ (72) used to illustrate the restriction of piece mobility. White mates in three moves.

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Solution: 1.Ne6! Bh6-any 2.Ne6xBishop Ba2 3.Nxc2#.

Yes, Black is in zugzwang, but surely there are much clearer and Elo-appropriate ways to illustrate the point than this?

Despite my reservations about the title, The Soviet Chess Primer is a fine book and its acclaim is deserved. I suspect, however, that the particular affection felt for it by former Soviets may have another source. Chess books were hard to come by in the Soviet Union as demand was high and paper was often scarce. It should not surprise us that youthful attachment to cherished books would persist, and in this case the attachment is justified. There are certainly better primers in print today, but few books are more interesting than is The Soviet Chess Primer.

Guided by Structures

Flores Rios, Mauricio. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. 464pp. ISBN 978-1784830007. PB $29.95, currently around $22 at Amazon.

One of the marks of the strong player, as opposed to the novice, is that she knows how to derive some of the positional traits of any given position from its pawn structure. Such knowledge comes from induction and experience, but precisely how one gains that knowledge… well, there’s the rub. A few books – most notably Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess and, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess – have been written to that end. Now Mauricio Flores Rios has made a welcome and important addition to the literature with Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide.

Flores Rios’ book is a collection of 140 games and fragments divided by defining pawn structures. His rationale for writing the book, as explained by GM Axel Bachmann in a Foreword, is interesting. Bachmann explains that when he and Flores Rios were teammates together at UT-Brownsville, they discovered that they had very different approaches to studying chess. Bachmann writes that

Mauricio read books, analyzed his games and prepared openings. I did these things too, but in reality the vast majority of my time was spent looking over current chess games and playing. I was surprised when Mauricio told me he had written a book partially inspired by my training methods, and I was certainly interested to see what was in it.

We might say that Flores Rios’ approach is the classical one, not dissimilar from the methods used by all the great players in the pre-computer era. I imagine Bachmann, in contrast, downloading new issues of TWIC each week and playing through each and every game at high speed, turning on the engine to check a few things, and then retiring to ICC for blitz and some R&R.

Bachmann’s study method is basically that proposed in many places by Jeremy Silman over the years. Play through as many master games as possible, as quickly as possible, and you will begin to pick up typical themes as if by magic. But few people possess the sitzfleisch required to play through so many games, and there’s no guarantee that the conceptual osmosis will take place. So we might see Flores Rios’ book as a middle path, where the Grandmaster selects games that are particularly instructive for typical ideas, analyzes them, and distills them down to the most essential patterns and ideas.

We can break the typical pawn structures in Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide down in a few ways. There are five main ‘families,’ for instance: those that come from d4 and …d5, Open Sicilians, Benonis, King’s Indians and the French. Each of those five families is broken down further into 21 categories (with seven additional categories crammed into a ‘catch-all’ section). With each category the defining pawn structure is named and typical plans and ideas are discussed, model games are given, and summaries provided. A set of exercises and solutions round things out.

Let’s take as an example his coverage in Chapter 7 of the Grunfeld Center. It begins with a schematic diagram of the pawn structure in question, and we leave aside for now the question of why the g-pawn remains on g7.

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As part of his introduction to each chapter, Flores Rios offers summaries of typical plans for each side. Here is what he says about the Grunfeld Center.

White’s Plans

  1. Create a central passed pawn with d4-d5, dominate the center, gain space.
  2. Create a kingside attack, which will probably include the moves h2-h4-h5 and e4-e5 to gain control of the f6-square, which is usually weakened when Black develops his bishop on g7.

Black’s Plans

  1. Create a queenside passed pawn, especially after some simplifications.
  2. Pressure the center, place a rook on the d-file and find tactical resources associated with the open position.

In general White will get pretty good middlegame opportunities since he dominates the center and has a little more space. This advantage disappears rather easily, as the position is open and Black has multiple opportunities to trade off pieces heading into a good endgame. One major factor in this position is control of the c-file. If White controls the c-file it will be easier for him to expand, to create a passed pawn, to neutralize Black’s play. Likewise, if Black controls the open file, White’s central or kingside play will face many difficulties. One may say that open files are always important, which is often true. But in this position the open file is even more important than usual – it is essential.

There are then a series of annotated games that are used to illustrate his main points. In the first of the five games in the Grunfeld Center chapter, Flores Rios makes a point so striking (at least to me) that it is worth another diagram.

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The reader should examine this position carefully, as there is more than meets the eye. Players of all levels could glance at this position and say, ‘Chances are level.’ Even my engine agrees with this evaluation. In practice matters are not that simple at all. Black experiences some difficulties, as the e7–pawn is under attack, the a6–pawn is vulnerable, and White intends to take control of the c-file. Black could solve his problems by playing two moves in a row: …Qd7 and …Nc4 momentarily blocking the c-file. Having only one move, Kasparov failed to cope with his difficulties, and played…

21…Re8?! In the post-mortem, Kasparov referred to this move as a positional blunder, saying that after losing the c-file his position was ‘completely lost.’ He probably exaggerated, but the point is clear: fighting for control of the c-file is an essential task in this kind of position.

  • A better choice was 21…Nc4! 22.Bxe7 Re8 (22…Nb2? 23.Qd2 Nxd1 24.Bxf8 winning a pawn) 23.Ba3 (23.Bg5? Nb2–+) 23…Nxa3 24.Qxa3 Rxe4 25.d5 “when White’s position is somewhat easier to play, but Black should be able to hold with care.”;
  • 21…Qb7 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxe7 Qxe7 24.Bxe7 Re8 25.Bc5 Rxe4 “with level chances, though Black will need to be careful after…” 26.d5!?;
  • Black loses a pawn after 21…Qd7? 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxa6

22.Rc1 += A logical decision, taking control of the essential c-file.

This note is typical of Flores Rios’ style and ability. He is very good at explaining what is going on to his audience, who are mostly non-grandmasters and who also tend to rely on engine evaluations a bit too much. These notes are backed up with concrete analysis, and in most cases he hits just the right note when trying to balance brevity and depth of analyzed lines. I also found some of the explanations of endgame positions very useful, with the discussion of the value of space in an endgame from the IQP chapter popping into my head during a few of my own games.

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Flores Rios was consciously trying to emulate his college textbooks when writing Chess Structures. Each game is tagged with a learning objective, and ‘final remarks’ are provided after each game as well. It seems that a lot of thought went into the pedagogical makeup of the book, and that effort has paid off grandly. This is among the best non-beginner works for learning chess that I’ve seen.

Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide is not a primer of positional play; for that, try Michael Stean’s Simple Chess, Herman Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, or Silman’s aforementioned How to Reassess Your Chess. Instead, you might think of Chess Structures as positional chess ‘finishing school.’ Flores Rios does an exceptional job of clearly describing the interrelation between pawn structure and planning, and he offers his readers a stockpile of typical plans and ideas in most of the major pawn configurations. Here’s hoping that this is not the last book we see from this young Grandmaster!

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.

The Book of the Year?

Smith, Axel.  Pump Up Your Rating: Unlock Your Chess Potential.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013.  ISBN 978-1907982736.  PB $29.95.

In a year where chess fans have been blessed with a multitude of great books – Ivan Sokolov’s Sacrifice and Initiative in Chess immediately comes to mind, as does Bronznik and Terekhin’s Techniques of Positional Chess and the Aagaard Grandmaster Preparation Series   – International Master Axel Smith might well have written the best among them.

Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating is, in truth, two books in one.  The first half of the book is an advanced course in chess strategy and thinking.  The second is a tested and thoughtful guide to chess training and improvement.  Were either half sold on their own, they would be worth your purchase.  As things stand, this book is a must-buy for the improving chess player and – especially – for the player who isn’t improving, but would like to.

The first two chapters of Part I (“Positional Chess”) discuss two very difficult elements of chess mastery.  Chapter One, entitled “No Pawn Lever – No Plan,” introduces readers to the role played by pawn levers or breaks in positional play.  Smith argues, through examples from Agrest’s play, that in the absence of chronic weaknesses, it is pawn levers that help to determine plans and direction of play.  “If there is neither a weakness, nor an achievable pawn lever to play for,” Smith writes, “[…] it’s difficult to find a good plan.  That’s why pawn levers are the first think to look for when creating a plan.” (42)

Smith takes Ulf Andersson’s games as his model in Chapter Two (“Fair Exchange is No Robbery”).  Here we are lead through the different types of exchanges and material imbalances, and we are given thematic examples of how to play such imbalances properly.  It has recently dawned on me – particularly after watching one of John Watson’s games at this year’s US Open – that one of the marks of chess excellence is the ability to unbalance positions to one’s advantage.  This chapter is one of the finest explanations of this topic that I’ve seen.

Chapters Three “(“Auxiliary Questions”) and Four (“Calculation”) deal with chess thinking and proper calculation.  In Chapter Three Smith offers a list of questions that players might ask themselves as they analyze positions.  Among the most important of these is whether or not the position is critical, meaning that “a decision is difficult and can’t be taken back.” (118)  While I’m not convinced that a checklist of questions is really practical during over-the-board play, Smith’s questions show us how to suss out the essentials of any given position.

Chapter Four follows in the tradition of earlier works by Kotov, Buckley, Tisdall, Nunn and Aagaard, outlining a theory of how best to approach calculation.  Smith is generally skeptical of Kotov’s famed ‘tree of analysis,’ but argues that some structure of calculation is necessary.  He takes the best from multiple authors and sources, and in the end I think he offers a very well considered method of structuring our calculative efforts.  The chapter, in my opinion, stands up to the best efforts in the genre.

As useful as I found Part One of Pump Up Your Chess, Part Two was, frankly, even more impressive.  Here Smith offers a full-blown training program for chess improvement, a program that helped Smith jump from expert to IM in just over two years.  Now, data is not the plural of anecdote, and we should not judge Smith’s prescription solely from its success in his own practice or that of his talented students.  How does it look to the class player?

The training program involves four key components: (1) analyzing your games and making a ‘list of mistakes;’ (2) using a De la Maza-esque program to study tactics; (3) doing serious opening work via the creation of ‘opening files’ in ChessBase; and (4) mastering approximately 100 key theoretical endgames.  Clear goals are to be set and chased, and Smith repeatedly argues that improvement is most likely when players have training partners.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of Smith’s book is that it contains, so far as I know, the first system for chess training that integrates chess software and engines.  Authorities since Botvinnik have held that self-analysis of games is a necessary condition for real improvement.  Smith’s program for self-analysis in Chapter Five adds two key conditions to this task.

First, he explains why players should not (initially) analyze their games with the help of our silicon friends.  We don’t have access to Houdini during the game – unless our name is Ivanov, of course! – so we should get used to analyzing with the engine switched off.  After we check our analysis with our training partners and finally the computer, we are instructed to make a ‘list of mistakes’ derived from our analyses.  The list is to be updated after each tournament, with the goal of eradicating as many of the typical mistakes as possible.

The discussion of opening study in Chapter Seven is more enlightening yet.  Here Smith describes his method for creating opening files, an example of which is available from the Quality Chess website.  We are admonished to approach opening study as human players, to moderate our use of the engines, to analyze human-looking moves, and to annotate key positions with our own words and not just with Informant signs.  A slew of tips and tricks for ChessBase use are scattered both here and in an appendix, many of which will be new to even the power user.  (I’ve been using ChessBase since its DOS days, and I learned a lot here.)  The discussion of preparation also warrants repeated reading.

To study tactics, Smith borrows from his friend Hans Tikkanen and prescribes a two-tiered approach.  Players should first go through basic motifs and themes.  After that, they should select a set of mixed theme problems and solve them repeatedly until they can run through the set quickly and without mistakes.  This second part, which resembles the infamous De La Maza program for improvement, is not uncontroversial.  Still, Smith makes a case for his recommendation, and even those unconvinced by the need for repetition will find much here to study.

I’m also less convinced by his method for endgame improvement.  Here, Smith says that you learn endgames by playing them and then analyzing them afterwards.  There are also approximately 100 theoretical endgames to memorize, all of which Smith provides in pgn format at the Quality Chess website, and four of which – Q&P vs Q, QvR, ‘short-side’ R&P, and R&P where the king is cut off – are analyzed in Chapter Eight.  It suffices, Smith argues, to study these theoretical endings only once, after which they need only be looked at once a year.  From my perspective, this approach seems impractical, especially for the class player.  Some Shereshevsky or Muller & Pajeken is useful insofar as they teaches a feel for endings and for strategic chess more generally.  The feel is the hardest thing; Philidor can be memorized, but becoming a good endgame player is more than just getting to theoretical positions that we’ve seen before.

These are, of course, minor concerns when set against the overwhelming value of Smith’s book.  Pump Up Your Rating is among the best books of its kind, offering its readers a training program that takes advantage of chess software and engines while not being stultified by them.  It leads its readers through some elements of chess strategy that aren’t often treated in the literature, and it does so with skill and aplomb.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Or, to put it differently: recently I learned that I qualified for the Nebraska State Closed Championship.  I will be the lowest rated player in the field, and I have a lot of work to do on my game.  Pump Up Your Rating is the blueprint I’m using for that work.  That’s how highly I think of this book.

“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 >

Nessie and the Tromp

Shaw, John.  The King’s Gambit: A Grandmaster Guide.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013.  680pp.  ISBN 978-1906552718.  List $29.95; currently (9/27) $20.76 at Amazon.

Pert, Richard.  Playing the Trompowsky: An Attacking Repertoire.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013.  264 pp.  ISBN 978-1907982750.  List $29.95; currently (9/27) $22.45 at Amazon.

Nessie and the Tromp.  Sounds like the title of a buddy comedy, doesn’t it?  “Nigel Short and Andy Samberg are Nessie and the Tromp!”  (Call me, show runners!)

By ‘Nessie,’ of course, I refer to John Shaw’s long-delayed and equally long-awaited book on the King’s Gambit.  (I assume that it took on the name because it, like Nessie, was often said to have been sighted, but no proof for its existence could ever be produced.)  And ‘the Tromp’ is the traditional shorthand for the Trompowsky opening, which originated in the 1930s, was made famous by British players in the 80s and 90s, and is now the subject of a new study by Richard Pert.  With the publication of Nessie and the Tromp, Quality Chess has added two quality titles to its list, further burnishing its reputation as a leader in chess publishing.

That QC would spend so much time and effort on the King’s Gambit might, at first, surprise people.  Bobby Fischer famously proclaimed it busted way back in 1961.  Nigel Short, who has been known to play a gambit from time to time, was quoted in 2011 as saying that “[t]he only reason the King’s Gambit is playable is because Black has about ten good lines, but he can play only one at a time.”  With the computer-fueled skepticism about gambits of all types so prevalent in modern theory, why take up such a flawed opening?

It is John Shaw’s belief that the King’s Gambit is not in fact dead, or at least not dead for over-the-board players.  (Correspondence players may not want to push that f-pawn – see page 6.)  Over the course of 680 pages, Shaw takes up nearly every possible variation of the King’s Gambit, subjecting even minor lines to extensive – and I mean EXTENSIVE – analysis.  His conclusion is that there is no sure way for Black to force an advantage.  In the Accepted lines, however, White must play 3.Nf3 (rated as equal/unclear) as 3.Bc4 is slightly better for Black.

I am not a King’s Gambit player with White, but I do play 1.e4 e5, and I’ve thus spent some time working on a KG response.  Using Micawber’s outstanding distillation of forum analysis from chesspublishing.com, I picked up the Modern Defence via the Falkbeer move order (1.e4 e5 2.f4 d5 3.exd5 exf4) and have done well with it.  The variation is solid and active, avoiding all of the crazy Accepted theory that Shaw enumerates so well and leaving Black with chances for a good game.

When comparing Shaw’s analysis in chapters 9 and 10 with what I had via Micawber and other sources, I was impressed.  He offers improvements to existing theory at every turn, and he does a fairly good job at explaining what’s going on instead of just dumping reams of wordless analysis onto the page.  (Fear not, lovers of wordless analysis.  There’s plenty of it here.)  I’m not an expert on the King’s Gambit, but I felt like Shaw was offering an honest assessment of the lines in question, refusing to gloss over the problematic continuations for both Black and White.  It reminded me an academic study of the opening, soberly and judiciously taking up all the evidence and offering readers an extremely well-considered snapshot of the lay of the land.

Some may find the book’s size and claim to comprehensive coverage overwhelming.  This is not a repertoire book like Pert’s; no, this is an encyclopedia.  It seems to me that Shaw might have thrown his less dogged readers a bone with a chapter length overview of theory and his conclusions.  Club players would have benefitted from a discussion of general themes, recommended (and non-recommended) variations, key innovations, etc.  My guess is that thirty or so pages would have sufficed.  Were such a chapter keyed to the rest of the book with, say, markings on the fore edge, it would have been a welcome addition.  I also suspect that a repertoire-style rendering and abridgement of this work would sell well, especially to club players.

Anyone who plays the King’s Gambit will need to buy this book.  Anyone who plays against the King’s Gambit will have to at least borrow this book from a friend, just to make sure that Shaw hasn’t busted their favored response!  It is really an impressive work, and it was well worth the wait.  Well done, Mr. Shaw.

Note: Neurotics such as myself will be glad to know that the spine is sufficiently strong to support all 680 of those pages, and the book lies flat without (visibly) damaging it.

While my review of Shaw’s book was based mainly (though not exclusively) on my study of a small sample, my review of Richard Pert’s new book Playing the Trompowsky: An Attacking Repertoire is the fruit of intensive study and analysis.  I have gone through the majority of the analysis in the book – excluding the chapters on 1.d4 d5 2.Bg5, although I may return to them in the near future – and checked it with powerful incarnations of Houdini and Stockfish via the Chessbase Cloud.  I am currently testing it in my games, both online and over the board.  The jury’s still out on my handing of the Tromp, but Pert has done both the Trompowsky and himself justice with this book.

The subtitle of Pert’s book is “An Attacking Repertoire,” and the marketing department at Quality Chess is not exaggerating on this point.  Pert, an IM who has played the Tromp for at least 15 years, has modeled his suggested repertoire on some highly aggressive lines being played by the world’s best players.  For those of us who might not be as skilled in the breathing of attacking fire, he also includes – at least in the Tromp chapters – calmer alternatives that still retain some bite.

Let’s dig a bit deeper, and have a look at exactly what Pert recommends.  You can find a much fuller description of his repertoire choices in the sample pdf at the Quality Chess website.

Trompowsky:
vs 2…e6, both 3.e4 (35pp) and 3.Nd2 (12pp)
vs 2…c5, both 3.Nc3 (16pp) and 3.d5 (13pp)
vs 2…Ne4 – 3.Bf4; vs 3…c5, both 4.d5 (12pp) and 4.f3 (33pp); vs 3…d5, 4.e3 (21pp)
vs 2…d5, both 3.Bxf6 (14pp) and 3.e3 (13pp)
Rare 3rd moves (2…Ne4 3.Bf4 and now 3…g5 or …e5, for example) – 7pp
Rare 2nd moves (notably 2…g6) – 7pp

Dutch: 2.Bg5 (20pp)
1.d4 d5 2.Bg5 (29pp)

The first thing to notice is that this is explicitly (p.7) a repertoire book, and not a brick of theory a la Shaw.  Pert is not covering every variation in Trompowsky theory.  So, for example, there’s no mention of 6.Nd2 instead of 6.d5 in the 2…Ne4 / 4.f3 chapter, and neither 3.h4 or 3.Bh4 are analyzed after 2…Ne4.  Presumably Pert believes in the variations he has chosen, and indeed, there is plenty of his praxis in the book to back this up.  There are dozens of his unpublished blitz games from ICC in these pages, and they serve to flesh out the repertoire suggestions.  Blitz, as every chess player knows, is all too often a comedy of errors; those errors on the master level tend to appear in the tournament games of we mere mortals.  “Antidrome’s” (Pert’s ICC moniker) games are quite useful in this regard.

Still, if one of the repertoire variations is dodgy, or if it isn’t to your liking, there can be problems.  I’m not convinced that one of Pert’s recommendations is sound.  The line in question runs

1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 Ne4 3.Bf4 c5 4.d5 Qb6 5.Nd2!?

“I like this move,” Pert says, “with which White takes the fight to his opponent.”  Black has two options: either play 5…Nxd2 (“most common but I am not sure if it’s best”) 6.Bxd2 Qxb2 7.e4, when Pert says that “White has fantastic compensation for the pawn and stands better in my view;” or, Black can play 5…Qxb2, which Pert thinks is best.  After 6.Nxe4 Qxb4+ 7.c3!? Qxe4 8.e3 we reach the critical position.

image

Pert offers no less than four options for Black: 8…g5 (strongest), 8…b5?!, 8…e5 (critical alternative), and 8…d6.  The natural (for club players, anyway) 8…g6 is not mentioned, but then, it appears never to have been played except for in a recent Team4545 game by my opponent!  One could also see 8…e6 as a vaguely reasonable move for Black.

Pert claims that White gets “sufficient compensation” or “good compensation” in most of the lines that follow from the above position.  Other lines – many, in fact, both here and in the other chapters – end with the Informant sign for initiative.  After intensive analysis with multiple friends both silicon and human, I’m just not convinced.  Pert’s glasses seem slightly rose tinted.  Take, for example, the following continuation.

8…g5 9.Bg3 Bg7 10.Rc1 d6 11.Nf3 (Radjabov’s move 11.h4, by the way, just looks odd) 11…Qg6 12.h4

image

Pert analyzes 12…gxh4 and 12…h6.  Why not 12…g4?  I’ve done some work on this position and I think Black’s just better.  The White bishop and knight don’t do much, Black’s queen is safeish, and Black’s king is not in any immanent danger.  And pawn is pawn.

This type of slight booster-ism for White’s prospects is not uncommon in the book.  Part of this is just the nature of the beast, as repertoire books tend to be a little biased towards the repertoire being recommended.  (The lack of bias in The King’s Gambit is something that Shaw should really be congratulated for.)  There are numerous lines, some sacrificial and some not, that Pert evaluates as White’s having the initiative.  The computer – Houdini or Stockfish at least 25 or 26 ply – would beg to differ, saying Black is slightly for choice.  It might well be the case that these lines are just the sort that even modern computers don’t understand, but when you see the same evaluation mismatch again and again, it’s hard not to attribute some user bias to the author.

That said, Pert does consistently offer more than one variation for White in the Tromp chapters, so that readers can choose between sharper and more solid continuations.  Such flexibility is one of the virtues of the Tromp.  So if, for instance, you tend not to believe in a specific line – 2..Ne4 / 4.f3 Qa5+ 5.c3 Nf6 6.d5 Qb6 7.e4!? in my case – you can ‘bail out’ into another line like 7.Bc1.  For my part, I think 6.Nd2 is stronger, if not more sane, for White.  It’s not in Pert, but Peter Wells’ book has excellent coverage if you’re interested.

Other reviewers have criticized Pert for omissions and oversights, claiming that he skipped obvious moves, failed to cite relevant books and analysis, etc.  After working through the majority of the analysis in the book. I think they’re overstating their case.  Yes, Pert should have cited Aveskulov’s book, and there are always alternative moves that could be covered.  So what?  Looking at the analysis, and given all of the other analysts he cites, it’s obvious that Pert did his research and checked virtually all of the appropriate sources.  It’s just as obvious that he poured his own homebrewed analysis into the book, and the effort shows in the finished product.

There’s lots more that could be said about Pert’s book.  I haven’t touched on his rendering of 2.Bg5 against the Dutch, a move that is fun to play for White and dangerous for the player of the Black pieces.  I can’t say much about the ‘Pseudo-Tromp,’ since I’d already decided to play the Neo-London against 1…d5 and skipped that chapter. Smile  (More on this choice in a forthcoming review of Danielsen’s Chessbase video.)  Given the late hour and the fact that I have two tournament games tomorrow, one of which will nearly certainly feature the Tromp, let me wrap things up by saying:

Playing the Trompowsky can be recommended to a wide range of players.  Attackers and counterpunchers alike will find lines they can champion.  Readers can construct a new and nearly complete repertoire for White after 1.d4, or they can use the Tromp as a way to play against specific opponents or problematic variations.  Club players can throw 2.Bg5 out, secure in the knowledge that the lines are sound and probably better known to White.  Masters, particularly those comfortable with playing for the initiative (given the repertoire choices), will find well-analyzed fodder to surprise their foes.  It’s because of Pert’s book that I am now playing the Trompowsky on a regular basis.  What better recommendation could I give than that?