Home > Jacob Aagaard's training tips > Strategic Patterns, Rules and Straw Men

Strategic Patterns, Rules and Straw Men

 
An old anecdote describes a game in a German club championship. The man playing White is ambitious and proud, but not very strong; he is thinking hard, stressed by the growing number of spectators. After some sweating he plays Re1-a1. The crowd is at first stunned and silent, then one guy cannot contain his laughter any longer and soon the entire crowd is out of control.
 
The game is soon agreed a draw and the white player rushes out of the club, embarrassed and confused. At home he writes a letter to the Dr Siegbert Tarrasch, the chess columnist whose writing the man studies judiciously. He gives the position and asks if he had misunderstood something, or if the rook is not supposed to be placed behind the passed pawn.
 
A few days pass before the reply from Dr Tarrasch arrives. “Dear Sir, Thank you for reading my column. Indeed you have understood my advice correctly and you shall do well to follow it in the future. However, in this very position, Re8 mate appears to be stronger than the move you played.”
 
I saw something parallel in my childhood in my own chess club. Board One on the second team came to the board, sat down, looked bemused at his opponent and played Bxh7+. After the opponent took the bishop, our player went into a half hour think, only to realise that he was now a bishop down for nothing.
 
When I turned 40, Sune Berg Hansen wrote a very nice article about me in Politiken, which can be found on this blog as well. I was asked a few questions in advance and asked to supply a picture, as what they had was rather dubious. It was only a few weeks later that I realised that local papers all over Denmark had an article about me as well. It was incorrectly published the day before my birthday (thus on Rebecca’s birthday) and ended with the stunning quote: “Aagaard describes the way to good chess as preparation, pattern recognition and strong calculation.” Not exactly my words. Actually, I once got in trouble for criticising this point of view, but let’s not go there!
 
Rather, let’s talk for a moment about rules such as “put the rook behind the passed pawn”. We have had a number of books saying that such phrases or observations are useless over the last two decades. I remember one book that said that chess was now proven to be all tactics after Adams lost to Hydra. He probably forgot the part about fine-tuning your brain to calculate 2 million positions a second in the comparison, but let’s not get hung up on the details.
 
Those criticising the use of rules in chess education point to an understanding similar to the one in the first anecdote above. A simple word is unintelligent. And this is indeed what you are if you blindly replace your own understanding with someone else’s. But this is surely not what the greatest players of the early 20th century intended. And it is certainly not the way Mark Dvoretsky intends it – and his books are full of rules.
 
Over the last few years I have refined my understanding of this area a little bit. I think the word “rule” is the main perpetrator here and not just those inventing straw men to criticise (I love the way Dvoretsky and examples from his books have at times been used to argue against rules, while the original text is full of them). The word “rules” gives the wrong associations. Therefore I have started calling them “Strategic Patterns” instead.
 
Take Hendriks’ Move First, Think Later, where he shoots at Jeremy Silman for saying that one of the finest rules we have in chess is that an attack on the flank is well met with a push in the centre. He then moves on to analyse a number of randomly-selected games where White plays g2-g4. In less than half of these examples it makes sense to strike in the centre. Hendriks states that the rule is thus more or less worthless, because it does not even give you a 50% success rate (one objection is that presumably White also knows the rule, so only played g2-g4 because he thought a good central break in reply was not possible). He then continues to say that therefore rules in general are worth very little, which makes sense if you accept this as the finest rule (there is a small problem with accepting blindly half of the claim, while refuting the other half, but let’s leave that for the pub).
 
Hendriks and people who think like him are into patterns. A big part of chess is recognition, he says. And of course he is right. But everything has its limitations.
 
But let us take a characteristic tactical pattern. The Greek Gift sacrifice. Bxh7+, Ng5+ and Qh5. Let us say that we find all the positions where this is possible in our database (less easy than to look for all games with 18.g4). Do you for a second think you will hit more than a 5% success rate?
 
Unfair? Am I being unfair? I’m sorry? I cannot have rules and use them intelligently, while you can have patterns and a fully functioning brain?
 
I am sure you have all noticed my point by now, so I will cut to the chase. The word “rule” makes people believe it is rigid, while the word “pattern” makes people believe that we can pick and choose. That is why I no longer talk about rules, but talk about recurring “strategic patterns”. And yes, I will take my 25% with strikes in the centre against your 0.15% success rate with the Greek Gift any day. But preferably I will have both.
 
What can I learn from this?
 
I mainly teach players of international level, plus children who have to learn to checkmate with queen vs. king. I use “rules” with the GMs and explain the geometry and mechanics of chess for the kids. Players under 1800 should not think about rules, it clouds their thinking for some reason. Go to a tournament with under 1500s and listen to the post mortems. Random strategic ideas are floated all the time and seen as convincing arguments for a move’s validity. I think this is the real inspiration for Hendriks and he-my-lawyer-says-must-not-be-named. They are fed up having to ask these people to shut up and show their moves (of course they would do so politely, as they are nice people). Because in the end, chess is all about the moves. But when you have Dvoretsky, Marin or others, you will see that the strategic understanding and the analytical work are not seen as opposites, but two different tools.
 
The most important point is that patterns are to a great extent non-verbal, both those that are visual and sequential and those that are abstract (the strategic patterns). You can explain them verbally, but you cannot evaluate them verbally – and simply recognising them is not an evaluation! In the end it is just patterns you can recognise. If they offer you prospects or not is quite another matter. Knowing them gives you options, you still have to evaluate if this is an option that improves your position or not. If we take the very limited research to heart, no matter the pattern, there is less than a 50% chance that it will be useful for you on this move. But the more patterns you know, the more you can pick and choose the one that is right for this situation.
 
If you recognise yourself as a less than 2000 rated player who uses rules a lot in your games; please focus on the tactics. The reason you are under 2000 and those kids keep on speeding past you, despite all of your knowledge, is because the basic mechanics of chess are still a mystery to you. You cannot start with the abstract. A theory of the world needs a physical foundation to be evaluated in.

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  1. Steve
    October 21st, 2013 at 18:37 | #1

    He-your-lawyer-says-must-not-be-named? Have you really been threatened with legal action for disagreeing with someone about chess strategy? I read so many good reviews of his books that I read them all. It almost ruined my chess. I was only cured (and started enjoying chess again) by reading Excelling at Chess.

    Another aspect that you don’t emphasise is that finding the right way to apply the rules / strategic patterns is extremely complex and difficult, but only knowing the rules will make you search. Everyone knows that in the Keres Attack 6…, d5 and 6…, e5 are basically rubbish. Kasparov & Nikitin’s book really opened my eyes by giving 6…, Nc6! and commenting that it corresponds to the rule that a counterstrike in the centre is the best way to meet a flank attack. (The fact that the analysis in this section was the worst in the book and Kasparov avoided this position is another story.)

  2. guest222
    October 21st, 2013 at 20:09 | #2

    I like to think of them of “strategic guidelines”, that need to be checked, as well as possible, through calculation.

  3. Stigma
    October 21st, 2013 at 21:12 | #3

    I wonder if you had talked about “strategic patterns” from the start, would there have been as much basis for disagreement with he-who-must-not-be-named and especially Hendriks? Of course the word “pattern” introduces some confusion too, since it’s not at all clear how similar two positions have to be to qualify as exemplars of the same pattern.

    “Players under 1800 should not think about rules” is interesting because it turns some of the writings of Silman and he-who-must-not-be-named completely around: They would use rules as a crutch to approach the complexity of chess for club players who can’t (yet) play competetently by relying on intuitive pattern recognition combined with calculation.

    Earlier today, I told a group of kids that in the opening they should 1) develop their pieces starting with knights and bishops, 2) fight for the centre and 3) get castled early, and when all that was under control, 4) plan to get their rooks into the game. They didn’t seem all that confused by those rules 🙂

    What if the general situation is like this: EVERYONE should do as much of their “thinking” as possible by means of calculation and intuitive pattern recognition, built by exposure to thoundsands of positions, exercises and classical games. This is just so much more efficient than consciously going through a “method” or list of principles or rules every move. But when our intuition fails to lead us on to promising ideas, we should fall back on rules. So the set of situations where rules are helpful are in some sense unique to each player, and certainly very different for a complete beginner, an average club player and a Super-GM.

  4. October 21st, 2013 at 21:56 | #4

    What, precisely, prompted this latest salvo in a dormant war?

  5. Björn
    October 22nd, 2013 at 08:46 | #5

    One anecdote a bit opposite to the Tarrasch story is from one of my own games: I was playing an IM on the first board of a team match. I ended up in a difficult rook ending one pawn down and lost. After the game was over, the captain of my team (rated around 1900) asked:”Why did you not just put your rook behind his passed f-pawn.” I explained that it had been my first candidate move, but my calculations did seem to show it did not work. The IM nodded in agreement and rattled of a quick variation that matched mine. “Of course”, when I switched on the computer, it showed within miliseconds that putting the rook behind the pawn actually leads to a draw due to a stalemate trick. Neither player had seen it when calculating ahead, but if I had played the “more rule-based” of two moves I believed to be losing, perhaps I might have found the salvation once it was less deeply down the lines.

  6. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 09:38 | #6

    @Steve
    No, I have not, I am just trying to be funny.

  7. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 09:39 | #7
  8. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 09:47 | #8

    @Stigma
    Although I might seem like a veteran with the views of a dinosaur, I really was not around 125 years ago when people started calling them rules.

    Actually, I had maybe published an opening book when W wrote his first book, where he among other things were rubbishing exactly those rules.

    Regarding the kids: Yesterday I had second helpings and today I was weighing a pound less on the scales. Clearly second helpings are making me lose weight? Point being: the long term effects of what you are teaching them is not immediately apparent. Maybe it is good, maybe it is harmful. I would guess maybe the second.

    When I talk about development with the kids I work with, I compare chess to team sports, like football, and try to explain the need to play with all the pieces. I go for an intuitive understanding. Is this better? Hard to prove either way, but at least we are trying to teach them something :-).

  9. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 09:52 | #9

    @John Hartmann
    See, this is exactly what happened the last time around. I discuss chess and people think it is about attacking people.

    If I should come with a straight answer it will be that I will not be bullied away from writing about chess strategy by people who have other point of views. Am I attacking anyone? No. Neither are Hendriks when he writes about Excelling at Chess Calculation and Critical Moments. I disagree with what he wrote, but do I feel insulted. No. Actually I feel interesting: someone actually cared enough about what I wrote to disagree with me. (I should say that if I was Carsten Hansen, I might be less happy, but Carsten is cool and could probably not care less :-)).

    The reason I refer more to Hendriks is because I do not want to go through an old debate, where the argument on my side is that there are rules in chess and the argument on the other side was that I was a bad person.

  10. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 09:54 | #10

    @Björn
    Yeah and my grandmother drank and smoked heavily and lived to 93 (true story). You cannot do statistics on one incident :-). The real question is if knowing about the rule was useful, but in this case it seems not. Yes, it is a typical pattern, but you could not make it work. I think you did your best and chess is just very hard.

  11. Indra Polak
    October 22nd, 2013 at 12:00 | #11

    I agree that Patterns is a more popular word to express guidelines/rules. The same thing happens in Software Engineering :). I think its more a semantic thing than a practical difference. It is obvious that not all rules can be followed in each position. To know when to apply a rule/pattern is the real knowledge. Without that knowledge, rules/patterns make no sense. But by knowing them, one is pushed into certain directions in thought that might prove useful.

    To determine if a rule/pattern is useful in a position, one can calculate variations, or use experience: what did the old masters do in positions “like this” when this rule/pattern was applied by them? Our memory works much more efficient when positions can be categorized using these rules/patterns. Instead having to memorize exact positions, one memorizes general patterns/structures and the used patterns/rules that were applied to direct the way to play a position. Its all a matter of efficiency, and it is the way humans have learnt to deal with their environment in an efficient way. How do we recognize that a random chair is indeed a chair? By using rules/patterns. Not by learning all possible chairs by rote, since that number is infinite and does not fit into our limited brain.

  12. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 13:16 | #12

    @Indra Polak
    I agree entirely.

  13. Stigma
    October 22nd, 2013 at 13:34 | #13

    @Jacob Aagaard
    Actually, given the other things I’ve written here, I should agree with you that building an intuitive understanding must be better! But it’s so easy to fall back on the standard pedagogy where rules, guidelines and verbalized understanding rule the day. I catch myself doing this all the time. I guess a few rules can’t be that harmful as long as we expose the kids to lots of good examples to take in…

    Btw. now if rules are called “patterns” obviously the debate can no longer be about patterns (typically understood as visual/intuitive) vs rules (typically understood as verbal). Instead it’s about how much of our thinking should be “verbal” and methodical on top of the intuitive pattern recognition that (everybody in the debate surely agrees) takes place on all levels and plays a major role in actual decision-making under time pressure.

  14. Stigma
    October 22nd, 2013 at 14:00 | #14

    P.S. with “time pressure” I fmeant not just time trouble, blitz etc. but all parts of an OTB game, which Hendriks rightly describes as “solving problems that are too hard in too little time”.

    Still, the impressive playing strength world-class GMs display even in blitz and simuls has been a standard argument for the centrality of pattern recognition.

  15. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 14:13 | #15

    I too think it would be interesting if the debate moved on.

  16. October 22nd, 2013 at 14:25 | #16

    Jacob, I think you’re trying to have things both ways here. You’re the one who ever-so-slyly inserted Watson into the conversation by dubbing him (very transparently for those who know the history) “he-who-my-lawyer-says-shall-not-be-named.” This insinuates that there has been threat of legal action – or worse, that Watson is Voldemort! – and I think this is patently untrue. If you want to lump Watson in with Hendriks, why not just do so plainly? I understand that there is a history here, but you’re the one who keeps reopening wounds, and this isn’t the first time that you’ve returned to the battlefield for reasons that are opaque at best.

    One of your fellow QC editors has in the past attributed some of your verbal excesses to the fact that you’re not a native English speaker. Maybe so. If you’re so obsequious about Watson’s work save the one disagreement about rule-independence, however, I might suggest that you tone down the rhetoric, even in blog posts.

  17. October 22nd, 2013 at 14:45 | #17

    For what it’s worth, having studied with him, and having read and truly enjoyed quite a lot of your work, Jacob, I’d wager that your pedagogical style for someone like me would be exactly the same. First, you’d tell me to stop being such a patzer. 🙂 Second, you’d ask me to focus on the tactical needs of positions, sprinking in ideas / patterns / ‘rules’ to remember as applicable, i.e. the f5 square in Ruy / Giuoco positions is important, pawn structure helps determines who is better in Q vs 2R, etc.

    In other words, tactics – as you say above – are everything for the U2000 crowd, but tactics flow from positional understanding or ‘strategic patterns.’ There was a reason Spielmann could never, despite his having a tactical eye equal to Alekhine’s, get the same positions as Alekhine to launch those attacks. His understanding just wasn’t as profound. The same is true for so many of we amateurs, we who do our online Tactics Trainer but can’t ever get to those attacking positions in our games. (Unless we’ve read AM1, AM2, and the new Sokolov book, that is!)

    I also suspect that given what you write in Strategic Play about the nature of complex decisions, and given what you say in Practical Chess Defense about the way the computer has changed practical play, that ultimately you think that at the very top levels GMs are basically pragmatists. That’s what, I think, Watson meant by ‘rule-independence.’ He did not mean that there are no rules for GMs. Rather, GMs have internalized the rules to the point that their intuition knows when they can be abandoned.

  18. Indra Polak
    October 22nd, 2013 at 15:02 | #18

    Another thing I want to mention here: even the advocates of pure calculation must stop somewhere and evaluate the position. This evaluation will at that moment have to rely on rules/patterns and positional truths which were proven by experience to hold for most positions, but there will always be exceptions, so there will always be the chance that the evaluation is wrong after you calculated 20 ply deep. Clearly, this is not the way forward. Only a combination of the two strategies will work in practice, and they should be viewed as complementary.

  19. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 15:31 | #19

    @Indra Polak
    Their argument is that you evaluate the position based on your intuition, which again is greatly influenced by your memory and pattern recognition. It is not an argument without merit. I think it makes sense to add strategic patterns in there.

  20. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 15:39 | #20

    @John Hartmann
    Honestly. I can certainly be humorous about this without being unpleasant. And with John and his supporters, they always play the man and not the ball. Some people think there is a merit to this or think that when I disagree on chess philosophy, I am playing the man. I do not agree that I am doing this here. But again we are back to the problem with Excelling at Chess. I used humour in that book and some people did not get the jokes.

  21. Indra Polak
    October 22nd, 2013 at 15:47 | #21

    The distinction between verbal and visual pattern is also a matter of efficiency. Each verbal rule has to be “visualized” to be applicable for a certain position since we humans view positions in our head (at least I do) by an image and not for instance by a verbal list of all its characteristics.

    Of course it would be very efficient if every verbal rule could be made into a visual pattern recognition problem for the human brain. However, experiences with languages suggest that the human word is far better capable of capturing universal truths using language than using images. They are also much easier communicated (in books for instance). Imagine a way to instruct people how to apply a visual pattern to a certain position without using the written word. You could highlight important aspects of the position using colors etc, weaknesses, targets etc. But to express the relative importance of the pattern wrt other patterns, and for instance when not to apply the pattern seems awkward without using language.

    But I agree that eventually the written rule will be transformed by chess players into an autonomous (subconcious) pattern recognition problem which they are able to solve very quickly without having to retrieve the verbal version. That is why GM’s immediately look at the right candidate moves and other mortals also look at moves that “break the rules/patterns”. And only when asked they might rephrase their version of the written rule. But it is not present anymore in their thought process since they have internalized it by experience and practice.

    To get at that ideal situation the brain has to be trained again and again and over again.

  22. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 15:49 | #22

    @John Hartmann
    My training style is different, but I will in no way state that I am better or worse in any way :-).

    Regarding the Spielmann quote, I have to disagree.

    Tactics does indeed happen in good positions and the building up is definitely a different thing. However, like in football, you can be good at heading the ball in the net and at the same time rubbish at finding a good position in the box. These are related, but not connected skills.

    What Spielmann meant is that Alekhine was a better strategic player, but not a better tactician than he. To continue the metaphor, if Spielmann could escape the defence as well as Alekhine, he would have been as good to put his head to the ball.

    I do think you need a basic feel for the mechanics of chess before you can think strategically. Development I would include in the mechanics, tactics as well. Coordination of the pieces. Stuff like this. Strategy comes later.

    But this is just one opinion of course.

  23. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 15:50 | #23

    Btw. My three question system is designed to work on the mechanics of chess and I use it universally, with 2600s and with small children.

  24. October 22nd, 2013 at 15:55 | #24

    @Jacob Aagaard
    Of course humor and intellectual tussle aren’t mutually exclusive. All I’m saying is that in this situation, with so much water under the bridge, humor doesn’t always come across as intended. Your jibes with Silman a few years ago on this blog were hilarious, but they could also have been read as mutually disrespectful. The same is true with the above Voldemort line. I think it was too cute by half.

    Just so we’re clear, by the way, I play the ball. I wrote about the great Watson-Aagaard debate long before I started studying with him. See Hartmann, John. “Garry Kasparov Is a Cyborg; or, What ChessBase Teaches Us About Technology.” In Philosophy Looks at Chess, edited by Benjamin Hale, 39–63. Chicago: Open Court, 2008.

    Interested readers will find that I thank you, Jacob, in the endnotes!

  25. October 22nd, 2013 at 15:58 | #25

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I’m not sure that you and I disagree about our interpretation of the Spielmann line. It might just be semantics.

  26. Indra Polak
    October 22nd, 2013 at 16:04 | #26

    @Jacob Aagaard to evaluate a position on the basis of your intuition is a bit vague to me. Some people have a good intuition and some have bad. It is a way to say “I don’t know” why I played this, it just feels right.

    Chess players with perfect intuition do not need to calculate further than one move.

  27. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 16:28 | #27

    @John Hartmann
    I think it is a great stretch to go from what I read to Voldemort and then from there to something seriously negative. I really do not want other people to dictate how I write – which is quite different from saying that I do not listen to comments or are influenced by them. But I judge what I should write, not others.

    For a later book I asked Watson if I could write referring to his work and if he wanted to have an early view, with a possible veto against it being included in my book. He said it was fine and he did not mind. I wrote the piece and had people check if there was anything that could be seen as disrespectful. Everyone agreed there was nothing. Once published the hounds were on me again.

    So, no, I don’t care about this line of criticism. I care about chess and I can make simple jokes here, as long as they are not out of line (all my articles are edited and at times things are toned down/removed, just to avoid misunderstandings).

  28. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 16:29 | #28

    @Indra Polak
    Petrosian only calculated one move forward according to Dvoretsky.

    It is a very big discussion and we have a deadline coming :-).

  29. Jacob Aagaard
    October 22nd, 2013 at 16:30 | #29

    @John Hartmann
    Our disagreement is as much semantics as “goal” and “no goal” are different only by semantics. I am sorry to say it like this, but you got this one wrong. Maybe my explanation is poor?

  30. October 22nd, 2013 at 16:32 | #30

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I know exactly what you refer to in paragraph #2. So far as I know ‘the hound’ was Silman, not Watson. Silman is not Watson’s spokesman. And neither am I. 🙂

  31. October 22nd, 2013 at 16:35 | #31

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I think we need to clarify what you mean by ‘strategy’ and how it is different from basic mechanics. I may have misused your new neologism of ‘strategic patterns;’ other than that, I don’t see how we disagree. The entire problem for Spielmann was escaping the defenders – on that we agree. Are you saying that amateurs do not suffer the same problem?

  32. October 22nd, 2013 at 16:45 | #32

    If you put an amateur – me, or any other – in front of CT-Art, we will get problems right in ways that we won’t if faced with the same positions over the board. What’s more, we probably won’t even get to those positions over the board, since we don’t know how to ‘elude the defenders.’ Now, obviously we’re not able to calculate / make combinations / ‘head the ball’ as well as professionals; still, I think that the point holds that amateurs who solely study tactics a la De La Maza will fail in many of their attacks because they don’t know how to get to the positions that allow them to use their tactics. We need to learn how to build up the attack too, and if that’s ‘basic mechanics,’ then we agree.

  33. brabo
    October 22nd, 2013 at 17:23 | #33

    To put patterns and rules under the same umbrella is too simple. A pattern consists of a concrete setup of pieces and is linked to concrete moves (e.g. the Greek sacrifice). On the other hand a rule tells you just a concept in a much less stable configuration so much harder to judge if it is good or wrong.

    I reread the book MFTL and I can’t find where Hendriks stated that rules make in general little sense. What I did read, is that one should put out the critical antennae when an author presents some rule or principle and shows no sign of interest in proving its empirical value. This is something completely different. It doesn’t exclude that rules can’t be good but just that teachers should be very careful with presenting rules which have a low successrate. More advanced players can indeed define when a rule works but as Hendriks mainly teaches young inexperienced players he has realized over time that it is rather harmful to teach rules with a low successrate as they don’t have the ability yet to realize that the rule shouldn’t be followed blindly.
    General rules like king safety first, complete your development aren’t bad as they work in 99% of the cases but Hendriks mainly makes a point about this less good working rules which confuse young inexperienced players.

  34. Ray
    October 22nd, 2013 at 17:48 | #34

    Can we please not start the whole discussion again? I have the feeling that there is little progress in the arguments being exchanged… It’s starting to become something like a text exegesis on Hendrik’s book – a bit similar to theology :-).

  35. Stigma
    October 22nd, 2013 at 17:51 | #35

    @John Hartmann
    Most of the positions in CT-Art were chosen or created by Maxim Blokh to be hrelevant to practical, real-life play. OK, there may be too many queen sacs and Convekta added lots of endgame studies in version 4, but I don’t mind a bit of chess beauty when I study.

    I usually do better in tournaments when I have gone through lots of the easier problems form CT-Art the week before (levels 20-40 in my case). I hear from time to time people claim they don’t get anything out of tactical pattern training, which I find really hard to understand. Maybe they don’t train with enough repetitions, or don’t aim to spot the solutions in a few seconds, instead using the entire book/program as calculation training? But pattern recognition must be automatic and immediate, that’s the whole point! I suspect that Axel Smith’s “woodpecker method” is similar to this (note to self: buy Pump Up Your Rating!).

    Sure, you often need the strategic patterns (whether intuitive or verbal) to actually get to those tactical positions. But the tactics are in some sense more fundamental than the strategic build-up. I have on my desk a large book with only mating combinations that I’m now working through as a “prequel” to Attacking Manual 1 and 2. Building up a winning attacking position and then failing to find the forced mate (or winning endgame liquidation, for that matter) is just as tragic as the problem Spielmann supposedly struggled with.

    And let’s not forget, on amateur and even master level there are lots of points to be won on tactical pattern recognition alone, simply because opponents often blunder no matter how well they had played strategically!

  36. October 22nd, 2013 at 18:03 | #36

    I don’t disagree with anything you said. 🙂

  37. Stigma
    October 22nd, 2013 at 18:12 | #37

    Hrmpf, I should have said something more controversial then, to start a real quarrel! 🙂

    I guess we’re both smart enoug to avoid both extremes: Relying too much or too little on tactics.

  38. Stigma
    October 22nd, 2013 at 18:31 | #38

    I will say among adult club players especially, being too weak tactically while relying on their pet openings and deep “understanding” is a much more common problem than the opposite; De la Maza-style tactics mania. Sadly this isn’t too controversial either: Even the advanced trainer Aagaard, the guru of positional play for the masses Silman and the chess philosopher Rowson will happily tell you that below a certain level (2000? 1800? 1500?), tactics is king.

  39. October 22nd, 2013 at 22:29 | #39

    Now, now – which one of you was Googling me to determine my rating?

  40. Stigma
    October 22nd, 2013 at 23:31 | #40

    @John Hartmann
    Which one of me, you mean? Neither I nor me, actually: I was just pushing one of my hobbyhorses; the huge value of tactics training done the right way. I mentioned club players because masters and above have usually found some good way of working on tactics; that’s partly why they are masters.

    I’m only around 2150 FIDE myself, not exactly world-class. But I find these debates on training philosophies too interesting not to join in.

  41. October 23rd, 2013 at 05:06 | #41

    Search results show up on my blog. Somebody was doing their due diligence on me. 🙂

  42. Jacob Aagaard
    October 23rd, 2013 at 10:19 | #42

    @brabo
    Hendriks personally refuted that statement. He is not only talking about teaching young players, but about chess in general. And yes, I read the book and subsequent conversations with him very differently. For example the 18.g4 chapter, where he says something like: if we cannot trust the finest rules, then what use are they?

  43. Jacob Aagaard
    October 23rd, 2013 at 10:21 | #43

    @John Hartmann
    This is as hard to define as the line between the opening and the middlegame, which no one have successfully done, though most people understand the difference.

    And you seem to miss the point. The play leading up to the combination and the combination itself are two very different things and it was the play leading up to it that Spielmann said he did worse than Alekhine.

  44. Jacob Aagaard
    October 23rd, 2013 at 10:23 | #44

    @Stigma
    The systemised approach De La Maza recommended is sort of nonsense. But the idea of spending a lot of time looking at a chess board and thinking is not his invention and has been a stable of the chess training for a hundred years.

  45. Jacob Aagaard
    October 23rd, 2013 at 10:25 | #45

    @Ray
    Clearly a lot of people are interested in chess philosophy and debating it does expand everybody’s understanding. So, why should we not debate it when no one are forced to read the debate?

  46. Stigma
    October 23rd, 2013 at 10:35 | #46

    @John Hartmann
    Well, of course I looked it up after you mentioned it yourself in post #41. I’m not totally devoid of curiosity! But again, we can debate these things out of general interest without it having to become personal.

  47. Stigma
    October 23rd, 2013 at 10:36 | #47

    Err, that should be post #39 of course.

  48. brabo
    October 23rd, 2013 at 10:57 | #48

    @Jacob Aagaard
    From the many existing reviews of MFTL, it is clear that many people have different interpretations of what exactly is explained. Even if Hendriks himself would intervene then I doubt we would get a final verdict as anyway it is in the interest of the author to keep the discussions boiling.

    Just 2 small examples from your last post to indicate that many different interpretations are possible.
    Chess in general can be interpreted as chess for 99% of the players (so rated below 2200?) or for the full 100% . It is a big difference to talk about teaching chess to 99% of the players or 100% of the players.
    The finest rules can be interpreted in many ways. What are fine rules? Rules widely established in the training courses, best rules, special rules,…?

    John Watson made a nice bookreview of MFTL on TWIC and indicated one of the big weaknesses was the use of the English language in the book. We should not forget that Hendriks is not native English so translations from Dutch to English can lead to some funny unintended interpretations. I opened 2 weeks ago in parallel to my Dutch blog now an English blog and I immediately noticed that it is much harder to put the right nuances in the English text compared with the Dutch text.

  49. Stigma
    October 23rd, 2013 at 11:41 | #49

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I did not mean to recommend De la Maza’s method. Judging from the blogosphere, the most common effect of it seems to be chess burnout!

    I’m just happy that I could quote both you, Silman and Rowson, possibly three of the most anti-De la Maza chess authors, on the huge importance of tactics training (though it’s very far from the whole story on chess improvement of course).

    Because when Silman talks about imbalances and Rowson talks about “doing and being”, “gumption” etc. some people will always draw the wrong conclusion that these things are as important or more important than being able to spot tactical shots quickly. Having a complete understanding of the imbalances in a position (whether verbal or intuitive) is not much use if our deep plan allows a skewer or a pretty mate in 4.

  50. Ray
    October 23rd, 2013 at 11:56 | #50

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I guess you’re right. I’m just not that interested in reading the same arguments over and over again, but of course I can always choose to not read them :-).

  51. Ray
    October 23rd, 2013 at 11:58 | #51

    @brabo
    What’s wrong with Google Translate? 🙂

  52. Jacob Aagaard
    October 23rd, 2013 at 12:47 | #52

    @Stigma
    Oh yes please :-).

  53. Jacob Aagaard
    October 23rd, 2013 at 12:50 | #53

    @brabo
    I did not get the vibe that Hendriks wanted to debate a lot. On the contrary!

    I think a lot of the “he could mean something else” is rather pointless. The text says what the text says. End of story. If the author meant something else, well this would always be the case (when we talk about nuances, whatever language we talk in). But we should debate what is stated unless it is retracted, I think.

  54. Jacob Aagaard
    October 23rd, 2013 at 12:54 | #54

    @Stigma
    My main problem with the “no rules” is that it limits our tools; I have no problem with seeing value in preparation, calculation, tactics and pattern recognition. This is why I think it makes more sense to talk about strategic patterns; it is just one possible way to look at things.

  55. brabo
    October 23rd, 2013 at 14:20 | #55

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I wrote that i doubt Hendriks will intervene in the discussion so I neither believe there is a vibe of Hendriks willing to debate. So unless you say something very different, I do not understand why you mention on the contrary.

    A text can have a double meaning, be written figuratively, describing, detailing,… Each reader uses his own filter and therefore reads/ sees different things. I certainly use a very different filter than yours so seeing very different things in this book which I explained lengthy on my blog. B.t.w. did you read the article?

  56. October 23rd, 2013 at 14:25 | #56

    @Jacob Aagaard
    (1) If you won’t define terms, how can you say that the difference between what you and I said wasn’t semantics?

    (2) From post #31: “The entire problem for Spielmann was escaping the defenders – on that we agree.” You, from post #43: “The play leading up to the combination and the combination itself are two very different things and it was the play leading up to it that Spielmann said he did worse than Alekhine.”

    How do we disagree?

  57. October 23rd, 2013 at 14:26 | #57

    @Stigma
    I didn’t take it personally. I just thought it funny that someone would take the time to look up my rating, as it’s not terribly impressive.

  58. brabo
    October 23rd, 2013 at 14:47 | #58

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I believe rules should only be taught when they are easily applicable. This means without too many exceptions, easily understood by the targeted audience and can be executed in little time.
    Today we see a lot of teachers using rules which don’t comply with these requirements bringing more harm to the students than good.

  59. Ray
    October 23rd, 2013 at 15:54 | #59

    @Jacob Aagaard
    That’s what I meant with ‘text exegesis…

  60. brabo
    October 23rd, 2013 at 16:53 | #60

    I just came home and checked my book MFTL. There exists no 18.g4 chapter. There exists chapter 7.Ïf white advances with g4, block his aggression with …g5. Also I didn’t find anything where Hendriks writes that fine rules are of no use. He talks about some specific fine rules and how useless these are but nowhere I can clearly read that he makes such strong statement as you do.
    You mention in an earlier comment that the text says what the text says. Even if I have some troubles with that then at least please use exact quotes so which can be found back in the book.

  61. My Cistern
    October 24th, 2013 at 00:03 | #61

    @John Hartmann

    Your rating is quite interesting, you are obviously an intelligent well educated person who has spent a lot of time and money on chess, yet your FIDE rating performance is quite suprisingly low in the Elo 1700s given your intelligence and effort.

    It shows that being able to talk a good game is not the same as playing a good game.
    I find myself during conversations post chess games that my own chess knowledge often seems wider and deeper than players whose performance outstrips mine.

    My feeling is a lot of chess ability depends on learning and playing when young. Just like no matter how much one studies a foreign language one cannot gain the fluency of a native speaker.

  62. Jacob Aagaard
    October 24th, 2013 at 15:03 | #62

    @brabo
    I think you found the right place. But also the introduction is quite useful in this connection. We can always split words over this, but I do not think Hendriks position is in question on this.

  63. Jacob Aagaard
    October 24th, 2013 at 15:06 | #63

    @John Hartmann
    1) Sometimes the answer might not be on the terms you want or structured in the way you expect. This does not mean it is not the right answer.

    2) In a twisted way you might say the same as I said, but it really comes across quite differently and not as the same understanding.

  64. Jacob Aagaard
    October 24th, 2013 at 15:09 | #64

    @brabo
    I should probably add that the only reasons why I care about what these guys (Hendriks & Watson think) are that: they are clearly very intelligent and interesting people, their books have a lot of great things in them, even if I disagree with some details and they are influential writers that people relate to.

  65. Jacob Aagaard
    October 24th, 2013 at 15:11 | #65

    @My Cistern
    By the way, I do not care about people’s rating. I am quite interested in hearing people’s opinions.

  66. October 24th, 2013 at 16:22 | #66

    @Jacob Aagaard
    Jacob, this is rich. You’re going to pull the ‘I’m a GM and you’re not so you can’t possibly understand why I’m right and you’re wrong’ card, even though you acknowledge that we’re saying the same thing? Really?

  67. Jacob Aagaard
    October 24th, 2013 at 16:44 | #67

    @John Hartmann
    No. Where did that come from?

  68. October 24th, 2013 at 16:44 | #68

    Alright, that’s a bit unfair given comment #65. Still, I’m not sure why (1) definition of terms is unnecessary. You’ve introduced something new – ‘strategic patterns’ – to talk about what was previously discussed as rules. Fair enough. Apparently these ‘strategic patterns’ aren’t part of ‘basic mechanics,’ which is another term I’ve not seen in your works. So what we used to call rules aren’t part of basic mechanics? (2) I am sure that I don’t understand the pedagogical needs of someone like me; if I did, I’d fix myself and get to expert. Still, even after I recast what I was saying in your football-laded metaphors, and in precisely the same way that you did, I’m wrong? Maybe that’s your column for next Monday!

  69. October 24th, 2013 at 16:45 | #69

    @Jacob Aagaard
    It came from #63.

  70. October 24th, 2013 at 16:50 | #70

    I understand that this is just a blog, that you are taking time from your real job to answer we plebes, etc., so I don’t want to drag this out unnecessarily. Really, though, I’m interested in the answers.

    I suspect that in the end, the question of how intuition is trained is the key to what we’re talking about, the Watson-Aagaard debate, the Hendriks-Aagaard debate, and probably chess improvement in general. How do verbal rules – fallible, limited, etc – become incorporated into intuition to the degree that they don’t need to be consciously accessed or, for the strongest players, they can be discarded as needed?

  71. KIA Fan
    October 24th, 2013 at 17:47 | #71

    John Hartmann :
    @Jacob Aagaard
    It came from #63.

    You misunderstood what he tried to say in #63

  72. PeterM
    October 24th, 2013 at 18:12 | #72

    Rules, pattern. I do not know if the following fits somewhere…..

    Monday i played a rapid game. I (2164) played a lower player (1800) and the following happened:
    1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. Nf3 c5 6. dxc5 Bxc5 7. Bd3 Nc6 8. Qe2 0-0.

    And I sank into thought… Well, Bxh7, Ng5 etc, ok. But then after Kg6? Qd3 f5, Qg3. Ok, looks nice, but is this a win? In the game I found Qe7 troublesome, and my computer gives Qa5. Not that simple.
    In the end I went for it, hoping that I will find an answer. Because of limited time (rapid game) I had no time to spend to much time.

    After the game, my opponent (he didn’t take on h7, but played Kh8) told me how stupid he was that he didn’t look at Bxh7. I told him about my feelings, that I was not so sure it was good, but he didn’t want to take a look.
    Also an other player, rated somewhere around 1800, told that this was very easy. It was in step 3 of the method of Cor van Wijgerden. Why did I spend time on it, for a player above 2100 this is a must to know……
    Well, maybe it is clear by rule (?) for him that Bxh7 works, but for me it isn’t.

  73. Mario
    October 24th, 2013 at 18:37 | #73

    @John Hartmann
    Heuristic maybe a a better term than intuition ¿?

  74. Jacob Aagaard
    October 24th, 2013 at 20:27 | #74

    @PeterM
    My machine is saying 12…Bxf2+!? is nice as well. But yes, this is a typical “tactical pattern”.

  75. Jacob Aagaard
    October 24th, 2013 at 20:30 | #75

    @John Hartmann
    I did not pull the GM card. However, I have been trying to explain something as well and this is maybe what you are objecting to. Sorry if it could be misinterpreted. The Internet is great for misunderstandings.

  76. Jacob Aagaard
    October 24th, 2013 at 20:31 | #76

    @John Hartmann
    To me it is a debate about chess. The names are irrelevant. And the questions generated in this debate are very useful for clarifying aspects. And in doing so, my own understanding will increase no doubt. So yes, maybe for Monday, though I am very busy at the moment.

  77. October 24th, 2013 at 22:01 | #77

    @Jacob Aagaard
    …and now we circle around to my original concern. 🙂 Seriously, though, I look forward to our mutual continued attempts at clarification.

  78. Jacob Aagaard
    October 25th, 2013 at 10:18 | #78

    @John Hartmann
    Being precise is quite a difficult exercise 🙂

  79. Indra Polak
    October 25th, 2013 at 14:10 | #79

    @PeterM: why did “that other player” questioned the time you spent on it? All Bxh7 sacs might work or they might not work. You always have to calculate the lines….and there is no harm in it as well. If it wins it is time well spent, and if it does not win you will be very happy with your extra bishop. The important point is that the candidate move Bxh7 and some variations should immediately pop in your brain in that position. It clearly did.

    Suppose Bxh7 would work in any position…that would be nice for us white players haha.

    Another point is the evaluation. If there is no forced mate you face a difficult evaluation problem. Is the invested material worth it or not? Here experience counts. And having read Attacking Manuals :). Attack ratio etc. What also helps is to imagine that you are the other side. Would you like your position? Sure extra piece but hey…my king is in danger. And personal style ofcourse. Some are happy to sac stuff for vague attacking chances, others only sac things if they have calculated mate or other material return on investments.

  80. Indra Polak
    October 25th, 2013 at 14:38 | #80

    Btw what is the line Nxe6 (instead of Qg3?) since Qe7 can be followed by Nxd5 and then Nxe5 loses queen to Qg3+ and taking the Ne6 steps in a fork on f4. Then you have 3 pawns and an attack for the piece so the sac seems sound to me. Black could give the Q and 3 pawns(!) for 3 pieces but I would prefer white in that case. I did not check these lines with engines so…but that would for me be the more logical follow-up.

  81. PeterM
    October 25th, 2013 at 16:16 | #81

    @Indra Polak
    Well, Nex6 might be better, but still, not very clear after a move like Qa5 or Qh4.
    Just like Qg3, unclear.

    I should have played Bf4 instead of Qe2, that is the normal move, and that would have made Bxh7 a lot more impressive…..

    But the funny thing of the game was the blockade in thinking of my opponent (and the other player), they are too much programmed. Maybe that hinders them in getting better.

    (I hope hinders is a good Englisch word…..)

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