I am writing on an article to New in Chess at the moment and I came to think of an old argument I had with a friend about definitions. Basically he was of the opinion that good chess consists of opening preparation, intuition and calculation – and nothing else. I have a different view, cutting things up to minor sections. One of the differences came across when we debated a complex position. He said that it was solved with calculation, while I insisted that it was solved with strategic thinking. He did not see a difference.

Sometimes you have to accept that you do not speak the same languages. He had a lot of good points that were interesting, but here I think that we had a different approach. Unfortunately the debate turned sour and never became fruitful.

In STRATEGIC PLAY I wrote about one of my better ideas: to divide chess decisions into four categories. (Obviously they can be put into more or less categories; it all depends on how you choose to see the game. As far as I am concerned, anything that anyone finds useful is worth investigating.)

These categories are (free from memory – what I actually call them is less important, it is the ideas that matter):

a) Automatic Decisions

Moves that can be made without really thinking about it. Either because it is theory, or because there are no alternatives (legal or sensible).

b) Simple Decisions

Positions that can be solved without calculation (not variations necessarily – read the NIC article when it comes!). I have a training system for this in POSITIONAL PLAY, based on the three questions. It is a very powerful training system and if both 2600-players and my six year old daughter find it useful, it might help you as well.

c) Critical Moments

Positions where the difference between the best move (or two best moves, it is not an exact science, but a way for us to understand how we should relate to the position) is big. Let us say a pawn or +1.00 as the young people would call it.

d) Complex Positions

These are difficult positions that can only be solved with an interaction of positional thinking (b) and calculation (c). These come around only a few times in a game, if at all. They will at times have solutions where a positional aim is solved with counter-intuitive or anti-positional sequences. I deal with this type of positions in STRATEGIC PLAY and ATTACK&DEFENCE.

I find this way of carving the various decisions up useful during the game, in order to work out where to invest my time. Maybe I will write a book about this one day…

Categories: Jacob Aagaard's training tips Tags:
  1. Ashish
    May 6th, 2014 at 02:01 | #1

    Reminds me of this recent blog post by Dana MacKenzie:

  2. Jacob Aagaard
    May 6th, 2014 at 08:24 | #2

    What Dana is talking about is really a slightly different thing. Maybe that is a post for next week. Anyway; today I will be writing non-stop, only disturbed with four conversations…

  3. 1… e5 @ power
    May 6th, 2014 at 10:14 | #3

    Since you delayed launching 2nd edition of Marin’s “Open Games”, here is Bologan’s “Bologan’s Black Weapons in the Open Games: How to Play for a Win if White Avoids the Ruy Lopez” by NIC.

    • Jacob Aagaard
      May 6th, 2014 at 10:21 | #4

      I did not delay it; it was never written. It will happen eventually though. Good to hear of a new Bologan book. He is very good at times.

  4. 1… e5 @ power
    May 6th, 2014 at 11:28 | #5

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I’m very glad that we, 1…. e5 lunatics, will get another book about our pet lines. But I wanted book from my best publisher, Quality Chess.

    In a way I’m disappointed cuase to my mind Marin could have easily updated his book, even Mikhalevski.

  5. Ray
    May 6th, 2014 at 11:52 | #6

    @1… e5 @ power

    Somehow you remind me a bit of ‘Le Bruit qui Court’… did you change your name or is it just a coincidence?

  6. Ray
    May 6th, 2014 at 11:54 | #7

    ‘Play for a win’? I thought 1…e5 was mainly played to draw… (Berlin, Petroff, and even Marshall Gambit) 🙂

  7. Thomas
    May 6th, 2014 at 12:52 | #8

    Ray :
    ‘Play for a win’? I thought 1…e5 was mainly played to draw… (Berlin, Petroff, and even Marshall Gambit)

    This will be the second volume: “How to Play for a Draw if White Doesn’t Avoid the Ruy Lopez”

  8. Indra Polak
    May 6th, 2014 at 13:46 | #9

    Hi Jacob,

    I have a question about your Attack & Defence book, position 12 on page 215: here I first thought 1.. … a5 was the move, (which happened to be the first idea of my trainer as well),
    to get the bishop to a6, threaten the Knight and King to solve the problem of the worst placed piece and by playing Qc4.
    However it fails tactically :(. The solution has the same idea with Bd7 and it does not fail so obviously but…

    the line you give with 1.. Bd7 2. Rxh6 Rc8 3. Bb4? can be improved, white should play 3. Rh3! Qxc5 4.Rg3 g6 5.Qxc5 Rxc5 6. Rc3! Rxc3 (Ra5 is unplayable after Rc7 Be8 Rc8 Kf8 Nc1-b3-c5-d7) 7.Nxc3 Kf8 8.Ke3 Ke8 9.Kd4 Kd8 10. Kc5 Kc7 giving white a just as good Kt vs B ending as after the condemned 1. .. Qc4 line, even the rooks are off which looks even more promising.

    Did I miss something obvious here?

    Nice book btw, a little difficult for me (most of the time I see the first move OK but not all the lines).

    Kind regards,

    Indra Polak

  9. Matt
    May 6th, 2014 at 14:56 | #10


    You did not refer to one of your books in respect of (c) Critical positions.. Is this area covered mostly in the “Calculation” volume?

    I played 2 games in the 4NCL at the weekend, and both took a similar course to one another in that I got a small advantage out of the opening and outplayed my opponent in the early middlegame to establish a clear (plus over minus) advantage. The time control approached together with the critical positions in each game. I didn’t penetrate the positions well enough and made a series of sub-optimal moves and both my opponents equalised. After analysing the games I couldn’t help recalling Jonathan Rowson’s book on adult improvement in which he concluded that one of the biggest hurdles is concentration and recommended regulary taking critical positions on a board with a clock beside and putting in 20-30 mins on each position to really try to get to grips with the position. The theory being that one would stregthen your your ability to concentrate and your abilities to deal with critical positions/complications.

    I am rated mid 2000 ELO and although I am putting a reasonable amount of time into training, so many of my games at the moment seem to take the same course as described above. I am considering trying Rowson’s reccomendation, and am looking for a collection of suitable positions. Any suggestions from the Quality Chess canon?

  10. Jacob Aagaard
    May 6th, 2014 at 16:43 | #11

    @Indra Polak
    You are right, it seems that this exercise is not correct. A pity, the solution was really instructive! The book is difficult, but I hope easy to understand at the same time.

  11. Jacob Aagaard
    May 6th, 2014 at 16:44 | #12

    Maybe I should write a book called CRITICAL POSITIONS. But my finger would at the moment point to UNDERSTANDING CHESS TACTICS, which has 300 training positions (which I selected), QUALITY CHESS PUZZLE BOOK and of course CALCULATION. The latter is meant to cover critical moments, but does not really use that language.

  12. John Cox
    May 6th, 2014 at 17:09 | #13

    Paata Gaprindashvili already wrote a book called ‘Critical Positions in Chess’, (which I suspect would also work for Matt’s purpose), so something very near that title has already been taken.

    Still, there’s a limited number of descriptive chess titles available, of course.

  13. Ray
    May 6th, 2014 at 17:47 | #14

    I also liked Jacob’s older book ‘Excelling at Chess Calculation’, even if it’s from Everyman…

  14. May 6th, 2014 at 18:42 | #15

    Actually I think the big gap in chess literature is playing non-critical positions. Maybe choosing positions where the top players took ages to decide what to do because there was so many non-critical choices.

    I must admit the feeling that the above list is not at all what elite players do, at least not all of them. Chess is such a mixture of knowledge and skill (why does no-one talk about skill?) and we all learn so differently that you have to work a method out for yourself.

    I give one example, even among Grandmasters not everyone can read quickly a game score and analyse the resulting position in their head as if it were on the board in front of them. I’ve a feeling that’s something far more useful to master than any theory or even knowledge.

  15. Matt
    May 6th, 2014 at 22:41 | #16

    The term “complications” is often used in annotations I read which I suppose is a way of saying a number of critical positions. I have seen a lot of examples at my level (2050 FIDE) of good positional play but there is often a complete inability to deal with “complications”/”tactics” once they arise. Once you can break through that you seem to start reaching more endgames as contests are not so often decided on the first round of tactical exchanges.

    To give an example from a game. 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 c5 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3 Nc7 6.Nf3 Nc6. 7.0-0 e5 8.a3 Rb8 9.Rb1 a5 10.d3 Be7 11.Nd2 Be6 12.Nc4 f6 13.Qa4 Kf7 14.Nxa5 Nxa5 15.Qxa5 b5 16.f4 b4 17.axb4 cxb4 18.Ne4 Qd4+ 19.e3 Qxd3 20.fxe5 Rfc8 21.Ng5+ Kg8 22.Be4 Qxf1+ (missed that one!) 23.Kxf1 fxg5. General principles aren’t much help here and White needs to find some good moves (starting with 24.Bd3) to stay in the game and if he can he may be better. I failed to do so

  16. Thomas
    May 7th, 2014 at 08:02 | #17

    I agree more with Mark on this point. My (Rating around 2250) main problem positions are the non-critical ones. “What is a good move, if there are no apparent attacking ideas and no weaknesses within reach?” “How to strengthen your position without allowing too much?” etc.
    I often get good positions, but see my advantage fade away slowly beacause I follow the wrong ideas.
    Ok, I also have some tactical weaknesses, but thats another story.

  17. Ray
    May 7th, 2014 at 08:17 | #18

    I lose games both because of tactical oversights and lack of mastering the basics of positional play 🙂 (my rating is 2200). GM Rep Positional Play is reallt great to train the latter!

  18. Jacob Aagaard
    May 7th, 2014 at 11:22 | #19

    @John Cox
    Unfortunately, unlike his masterpiece IMAGINATION IN CHESS (the positions, not the theory), it is an appalling book.

  19. Jacob Aagaard
    May 7th, 2014 at 11:24 | #20

    It is definitely a good book. They did not manage to ruin it!

  20. Jacob Aagaard
    May 7th, 2014 at 11:27 | #21

    @Mark Crowther
    Sorry, Mark, this gap does not exist. I know a lot of people think so, but it is untrue. For example, we have Mueller’s Positional book in his Puzzle book series and both Positional and Strategic Play from myself.

  21. Jacob Aagaard
    May 7th, 2014 at 11:29 | #22

    I strongly suggest POSITIONAL PLAY for you. And I also strongly suggest that you email me 4-5 positions where you had a feeling of losing touch and I will write a blog post based on it.

  22. Willy
    May 7th, 2014 at 12:51 | #23

    @Jacob Aagaard

    Jacob: My first post on this forum. I wonder whats your opinion of Muellers Chess Cafe Puzzle series? Could I use it in combination with your GP-series, or is it an easier series of exersises?


    • Jacob Aagaard
      May 8th, 2014 at 10:22 | #24

      From what I have seen of it, absolutely. I did give Karsten a bit of feedback on one of them before publication. Probably vol. 2. But yes. Karsten is one of the five great chess writers in my opinion.

  23. John Cox
    May 7th, 2014 at 13:37 | #25

    @Jacob Aagaard

    I think ‘appalling’ is a bit strong, but it’s nowhere near as good as IiC, for sure.

    I think Mark is getting at something a bit different than the books you mention; those tend to focus on positions where a given plan is actually better than the alternatives. There’s not much written about positions where there’s not a specific plan that should be adopted. Largely because it’s very difficult to write about generally as opposed to talking about with an individual, I think.

  24. Matt
    May 7th, 2014 at 14:11 | #26

    @John Cox

    @John Cox

    Although they are specific to the opening I found working through the Marin books (particuarly the second volume) on the English extremely helpful in respect of the formulations of plans where there no obvious targets/weaknesses in the opponent’s position, especially the improvement of one’s pieces. This also comes through in the Polgar books presumably due to Marin’s input there as well.

  25. Jacob Aagaard
    May 8th, 2014 at 10:16 | #27

    @John Cox
    Obviously I am only giving my own view and doing so freely (to old to worry about if anyone thinks I am slacking off the opposition or similar nonsense!). I bought near 20 copies of IMAGINANTION IN CHESS, because it is one of the best puzzle collections of all times. A fellow Scot does not like it, because it has too many mistakes. It is true that between 10% and 20% of the exercises do not hold up to computer testing (with my own this is maybe 2-3%, or even lower!? – No one reaches perfection there). I don’t like his theoretical stuff, but this is only a few pages.

    With THE CRITICAL POSITIONS he has gone for another concept, which is quite good. Unfortunately we are looking at 60-80% incorrect chess positions. I know because I checked the whole book with an engine to see what I could use for my own students. It is just too much; thus I called it appalling.

    Regarding POSITIONAL PLAY and positions where you have many options. I beg to disagree. In that book I present a training system that offers you a way to analyse the positional aspects of the position, understand what to worry about and what to play for. Yes, the exercises are meant to have only one solution. Who wants an exercise where you can play 5-10 different things? But the training program and the way to view things are not reliant on this. 2600s use it during their games to work out what to do, not knowing what is going on at all. Very recently I had a training session with a very very talented young man I work with (I think a future star), where he expressed great surprise that the three questions also helped a lot with dynamics and tactics. This made me think that I should put a new post up about them. Luckily I was sent a few games, which should help along the way.

  26. Indra Polak
    May 8th, 2014 at 10:43 | #28

    I do not find it very surprising that the three questions are also helpful in dynamic situations. Most tactics and dynamic positions are about where to hurt the opponent the most (or defend against the most hurting moves), the struggle for initiative. The “dynamic” part is often another way of saying that there are lots of possibilities (lots of pieces active, lots of possible pawn moves). It therefore immediately helps you to find candidates to explore. And if the evaluation is about a dynamic vs static advantage trade-off, the dynamic evaluation is very dependent on weaknesses, good-bad pieces and threats/inititiative. So any move that improves the three questions will also improve the dynamic evaluation.

    The only caveat I notice is that sometimes you do not play critical lines because you first want to improve another piece (why calculate that mind-boggling sac if I just can transfer another piece to the scene with a threat).

  27. Jacob Aagaard
    May 8th, 2014 at 12:05 | #29

    @Indra Polak
    You cannot blame the hammer for the carpenters choices…

  28. Indra Polak
    May 8th, 2014 at 12:23 | #30

    Tuesday I played a game on my club (I had the black pieces) in which the three questions were used quite frequently. After move 16 the pawns are fixed and black starts to play against the weakness d4 and white’s bad bishop. He then wants to put a Knight on f5 so forces an exchange of his white squared bishop. After that white struggles to get rid of the strong Knight but this is not allowed. The remaning black bishop helps to guard the strong Knight and to put pressure on the white pawn chains.

    In between this “positional” struggle black manages to improve his pieces while white keeps defending. Then white misses a tactical stroke (the weakness of d4 tells) after which the better coordinated black pieces manage to mate the white king 5 moves later. I played Rxd4 instead of Nxd4 because I did not want to turn his bad bishop into a good one after Bxd4 Rxc1 Bc3. Engine disagrees here but I like the positional approach. If white improves his last move with Bd6+ which I feared during the game because white wins an exchange in that line the engine found a fantastic queen sac that immediately decides the game.

    1.e4 c5 2.f4 d5 3.d3 e6 4.Nf3 Nc6 5.e5 Nge7 6.Be3 Nf5 7.Bf2 h5 8.c3 Be7 9.Be2 Bd7 10.Na3 Qa5 11.0-0 0-0-0 12. Nc2 f6 13.Ne3 Nh6 14.h3 fe5 15.Nxe5 Nxe5 16.fe5 g6 17.d4 cd4 18.cd4 Kb8 19.Be1 Qb6 20.Bc3 Bg5 21.Nc2 Rhf8 22.Bd3 Bb5 23.Qe2 Bxd3 24.Qxd3 Nf5
    25.Rf3 h4 26.Raf1 Rg8 27.Bd2 Be7 28.Bc3 Rc8 29.Ne3 Ng3 30.Re1 Bg5 31.Ng4 Nf5 32.a3 Rc4 33.Rd1 Rgc8 34.Nf2 Be7 35.Qd2 a6 36.Kh2 Qc6 37.Rc1? Rxd4 38.Nd3 Rc4 39.Rcf1 d4 40.Bb4 Rc2 41.Qe1 Bg5 42.Rxf5? (Engine points out a fantastic queen sac after 42.Bd6+ Nxd6 43.Nb4 Bf4+ 44.Kh1 Qxf3! 45.gxf3 Nf5 46.Nxc2 Rxc2 and black wins!) Qxg2#

  29. Jacob Aagaard
    May 8th, 2014 at 14:45 | #31

    @Indra Polak
    Nice game. There was one moment I did not really understand (no pc, just me). Why did you not exchange knights on e3. Your thoughts would be very welcome.

  30. Indra Polak
    May 8th, 2014 at 16:11 | #32

    I did not exchange Knights because I thought my Knight would be more useful attacking d4 than his would be defending it. And I thought his Knight on e3 was badly placed (obstructing his Bishop and other pieces) while mine at h5 had more useful possibilities (to hop to f5,g4 or e4 in cases). For a short while I thought about letting him exchange on f5 giving me an open g line to attack, that looked promising as well. And as a sub-concious idea I was afraid that without the Knights the f-file would be used to exchange some rooks which I thought I needed to make something of the simplified position, or he could use f6 as a forward post…I did not like that idea :). So mostly subconcious ghosts.

  31. Jacob Aagaard
    May 8th, 2014 at 20:38 | #33

    @Indra Polak
    I have no opinion, only …Nh6 looked a bit odd and slow to me. The best I could see was that it would return to get exchanged later; but this is not an analytical opinion, only a quick thought.

  32. Indra Polak
    May 8th, 2014 at 22:48 | #34

    I analyzed your suggestion a bit with the pc, its true the eval drops after nh6 to equality and the engine suggests Nxe3 Bxe3 and then h4. But a bit later we still arrive at equality after a3 Qc7 h3 fe5 fe5 g5 d4 Rhg8 Nh2. And Nh6 should have been answered with exf6 after which my intention was gf6 to open up the g-file, however the greedy pc then proceeds to capture h5 and black has some compensation in the centre and an open file. Still equal (0.13) though.

    I had a magnificent future in my mind for that Knight! So i did not want to exchange it.

  33. Indra Polak
    May 9th, 2014 at 09:05 | #35

    Sometimes I notice strange coincidences in my games. For instance, last game I won because my opponent did not see a mate by a queen on g2, the game before that my opponent missed exactly the same mate except it was on b2 and not a pawn was taken but his Queen. It does not happen often you end your game with a mate in 1, but two games in a row using the same piece on almost the same square and the same pin motif? A pure coincidence but the odds seem astronomical. Not that I am complaining though…

  34. Jacob Aagaard
    May 9th, 2014 at 09:59 | #36

    It is an interesting concept. To me it was neither right nor wrong, just interesting.

  35. Indra Polak
    May 9th, 2014 at 10:31 | #37

    During the game it reminded me of a line in the Aljechin were white retreats his Knight from e5 “because he has more space” and the side with more space should avoid exchanges. The reasoning behind this is that with more space, you can get your pieces to more (and therefore probably better) squares than the opponent can, and you can react more easily to change. In my game I do not have more space (I think) but I thought I had more promising squares for my Knight.

  36. Steven Carr
    August 6th, 2014 at 22:51 | #38

    POSITIONAL PLAY is probably the most helpful book I have ever read on chess. I suddenly begin to have some idea of what grandmasters are doing,. This book has raised my chess strength a lot.

    I can’t recommend it too much.

  37. Jacob Aagaard
    August 7th, 2014 at 00:58 | #39

    @Steven Carr
    Thank you.

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