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The difficulty of being Black

December 29th, 2013 57 comments

In a recent review of Nikos’s and my book Playing the French (on ChessVibes and Chess.com), the reviewer Arne Moll expresses some doubt about our understanding of practical chess. You can read the review if you are interested in the detail of the argument and in my reply (given below). But I wanted to give a little thought to the difficulty of being Black in general.

As most of you will have noticed, playing an inferior position is perilous. A mistake in a slightly better position can be annoying, but a mistake in an inferior position can land you in trouble you cannot solve. I will write more about this in the near future, but for now let us just continue as if this hypothesis is indeed a fact.

When you are Black your games will in general fall into two categories. Either your opponents will play sidelines or mainlines. This leads to two different challenges.

Mainlines have a tendency to lead to positions where accuracy is important. New ideas will exist in most positions, but mainlines are popular because of the pressure they put on Black (and Black’s success in neutralizing it). For this reason we often need a lot of theoretical knowledge to defend the black side. It is either this or risk your life in variations where you are worse and the problems you have to solve are harder to solve (because deciding between two inferior positions is harder than deciding between a decent and an inferior position).

Sidelines tend to offer you a number of decent options, all of them leading to decent positions. Unless White has played something problematic, he will not be worse either. In such situations exact knowledge usually decreases in value. Unless we play correspondence chess, it is almost impossible to anticipate what sidelines you will face in your next few tournaments, so extensive knowledge has a tendency to be overkill. Working on your problem solving abilities will be more likely to help you once you end in a respectable sideline.

This is the approach Nikos and I chose for our book. This is the philosophy behind it. It is absolutely up for debate, but our approach is not random.

For the full review of Playing the French, go to: review

Reading this review, I felt it was one long question, asking: why did they offer this line? This post below is my answer, not meant as a criticism of the reviewer. Read more…

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In depth review of the King’s Gambit by Smerdon

September 26th, 2013 45 comments

ChessVibes have an interesting review of The King’s Gambit by John Shaw.

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Different approaches to the same material

September 11th, 2013 No comments

When I sat down to write the Attacking Manual 1 the main goal for me was to make the book very readable. It later made me very happy when Slovakian GM Jan Markos (author of the underrated and generally excellent Beat the KID) said that he had read the book like if it had been a novel. This was exactly the flow I wanted to achieve; the focus being on recurring strategic themes, rather than on calculation.

This does not mean that the material could not have been used in a different way. Chess is a complex game and our minds are complex tools. Obviously they will offer different ways to achieve the same goals.

In his latest post on ChessCafe.com Mark Dvoretsky uses one of the positions from the book to look into calculation. His goal is quite different from mine and the end result is therefore quite different as well. Not better or worse, just different. To my relief the analysis I did six years ago have not been spanked by today’s much faster computers and Mark talks very nicely of my writing, which shows that he is a good friend, as well as awfully kind to youthful amateurs like myself.

If you at all feel inspired to do some heavy calculation, then you should check out his article here.

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“Playing the Trompowsky” – IM Richard Pert responds to a critical review

August 5th, 2013 105 comments

 

In comments to this blog, a review critical of “Playing the Trompowsky” was linked. IM Richard Pert asked for the right to respond. If “everyone is entitled to an opinion” then that must include the author, so I will let Richard take it from here:

 

Firstly I want to say “thank you” to the many readers who have shown support for my first book, which I have written on the Trompowsky. I put a lot of time into my analysis, and my efforts combined with the hard work of the Quality Chess team has, in my opinion, produced a book to be proud of.

 

Unfortunately there will always be people who like to criticize, and this time it’s the turn of Mr Martin Rieger. I don’t know who Mr Rieger is; I’ve never heard of him before, but since he has criticized my work I am keen to respond.

 

My book aims to provide a practical repertoire. Deep analysis is mostly saved for the critical lines, while new positions with a small advantage for White are talked about in more general terms. There will come a point in every game where you have to think for yourself, and my book focuses on what you need to know to get an advantage/promising position, rather than producing a 1000-page manual which is impossible to memorize.

 

I will, in passing, point out that Mr Rieger makes no mention whatsoever of the numerous improvements I provided for White in several of the critical main lines. Instead he has picked out a handful of mostly non-critical lines, then added some of his own non-critical analysis and proceeded to rubbish my book. I don’t want to get into a slanging match with Mr Rieger and I can’t speak German, so I don’t know exactly what he is saying, although I can get the gist of it with an online translator.

 

I will respond to the two examples that Mr Rieger emphasizes the most in his analysis. His opening point concerns the following line:
Read more…

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ACP

April 16th, 2013 43 comments

Calculation won the ACP book of the year prize with one vote ahead of How I Beat Fischer’s Record. Sort of random and a bit undeserved, as Judit’s book is far richer than mine. But obviously people care most about improvement, so a training book always has an advantage.

This is not said to be ungrateful. I am terribly chuffed and proud and want to thank everyone who voted for me. I only say that it is a shame John and I did not vote, as we would have voted for Judit!

At the same time congratulations to Ruslan Sherbakov, who won the Chess Publishing members vote for the best opening book of 2012. Previously this was won by Avrukh and Marin. We are big fans of Sherbakov and think he is a worthy successor. If I am a worthy successor to last year’s winners of the ACP award, Nunn and Dvoretsky, I am less sure.

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My best ever review

February 6th, 2013 5 comments

Today in his always interesting column at ChessCafe, FM Carsten Hansen, gives what is probably my best ever review for Grandmaster Preparation – Calculation. It is not so much the six stars as well as some quotable sentences that make me so happy. But rather a few other facts:

* Carsten is not generally a Quality Chess devotee, although he is by no means hostile either. For example: Boris Avrukh’s GM11 got 5/6 stars, while other books got 6/6 in the same column. To me Boris is the best author of opening books there is – and this is his best book! So fair and positive when we deserve it, but maybe with more of a taste for typical Everyman books!?

* Carsten and I played a few times from 1989 to 1991 in Denmark. I think it was three draws, the first of them a blitz game. To say that we did not click back then is accurate, but these days we have an occasional pleasant exchange of e-mails. The main reason I bring this up is the simple truth that a prophet is never appreciated in his home town. It has taken almsot a decade longer to gain a reputation with people of my own generation in Denmark, compared to with the rest of the world. That I have won Carsten over completely is therefore a big victory for me.

* Finally – and this is really the most important thing by a mile for me. The review clearly shows that Carsten has worked with the book and found it to be exactly as I intended it to be. For a writer this is always the dream; for the reader to understand his book exactly and to appreciate it. When this reader is a critic, well, it is home run!

Carsten did bring up one interesting point in his review:

“My only criticism of this book is a fairly simple one, and one that I have with most other books that have test positions or puzzles to solve. I do not understand why the test positions have to have the players names listed. Strong players will likely recognize the positions based on the name references and thus know the solutions.”

Andrew and I are in first this morning and debated it a bit. In the end we agreed that it came down to a choice.

On the one side there is Carsten’s, on the other side my point of view:

* For people who like name indexes, it is nice to be sent to the positions as well as the solutions.

* It is not very likely that a strong player will recognise the position through the names and not through the position itself. And if he does, he would not necessarily know the right move.

* If you recognise a game position, this does not mean that you know what the best move is. I have a taste for positions where good players made mistakes. I like it when the amateur does better than the world class player. I recently sent a position (without names) to a few very strong players. They all said they knew the game, but none of them found the right move! Actually, learning to think even when you have some recognition of the position is something I want my students to develop.

* I think it looks better!

So, in the end we have possible negative and positives in both directions. I like my choice, Andrew was more undecided – but then he hardly ever change a point of view!

If you don’t want to read all of the view, here is the conclusion:

“Studying Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation carefully will make you a much stronger player, open your eyes to new possibilities, allow you to immerse yourself into positions from completely different angles, and see possibilities that would have surprised you before. This book teaches your mind to think differently and solve complicated task; provided you have taken the time to work your way through this book. It is written for strong players and those who are serious about improving their chess understanding and their ability to calculate accurately. To benefit from this book you should probably be rated at least 2000. Nevertheless, there is really no limit to how strong you can be to benefit from studying the material.”

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Review of Positional Play on ChessCafe

January 3rd, 2013 101 comments

We have a policy of not publically disagreeing with reviews of our books. There are several reasons:

1) It almost always looks like sour grapes
2) We certainly don’t want to complain when the reviewers are too generous, so we feel it unsporting to do so when they are unfair in the other direction
3) We have great respect for reviewers and what they do; their contribution to our field is often voluntary and when done well, includes giving up a lot of their time to advise others.

Once or twice we have violated this rule. The most memorable was when MY SYSTEM came out. The review was not fair, in our opinion, about the translation. At first I personally was quite worried we had gotten it wrong, so we sought independent advice to confirm we had not. But once studying the review again, we realised that the reviewer had gotten it wrong and for that reason wrote a polite comment to the website.

Hemingway said that you should not read reviews, because they either were wrong or told you something you already knew. Now the thing about Hemingway’s advice is that this probably only applies for people with the same level of assurance in their own ability as Hemingway. I personally want to know how people who read my books interact with them. I never act as if anything is perfect, even if I feel that it is. It is just too limiting.

The review in Question

The review in question this time is by Vijay Raghavan on ChessCafe.com and is a very serious review. He clearly spent a lot of time on it and on the book as well. I have great respect for this and I hope you will remember that, as I go into the factual issues and the criticisms of my book in what follows.

I want to comment on Vijay’s two overarching points of criticism:

1) The chess
2) Writing style

But before I get to these, I will give most readers a chance to bail out immediately. The review gives 4/6 and says that “All in all, GMP2 has an excellent compilation of practical positional exercises”, which is probably what most people care most about!

The Meat on the Bone – The actual misreadings

Although I wrote the second section first; I think most people will not really care too much about it, so I put it in the bottom.

Let us start with his factual criticism.

There are two significant drawbacks to Aagaard’s three-question method, in my humble opinion. First, the method gives primacy to more or less static positional features such as “weaknesses” and “bad pieces,” while ignoring the role of dynamic possibilities due to incidental piece configurations;…

There are many problems included in this section.

1) “The method” is not a method, but a training method. I tried to make that very clear in the book. I always tell my students that it can be used if you are in a tight spot and don’t know what to do, but that it would drive you crazy it you tried to use it all the time. It is a way to develop your intuition and to access your already existing chess intuition.

I think some of his further misreadings and criticisms initiate here.

2) “Bad pieces” is not a static feature. It is entirely dynamic. Actually it is often the most important dynamic feature in most positions. He does not mention the third question “the opponent’s idea” in this section, but certainly this is more often a dynamic than a static approach.

The following:

since these possibilities are often the only way to pursue a positional advantage, their neglect in GMP2 leads to questionable didactics and reductionist thinking.

thus fall away as incorrect in my humble opinion.

The second drawback to the three-question method lies in what IM Hendriks dubs the ‘dogma of the respectable order’ in his book Move First, Think Later (MFTL). In GMP2, Aagaard gives us his own version of the dogma. He disparages the habit many players have of calculating as soon as they see a position; instead, he suggests that “[you should first] take the time to ask yourself the three questions … before you start applying the knowledge by looking for the best move. If you do this, you will soon see how focusing your mind on the three important parts of chess that these questions relate to, makes a big difference.” To me, this approach seems practically impossible to apply. Part of the difficulty is that marrying “weaknesses” to the three-question method creates a vicious circularity. According to Aagaard, a weakness is a “square of importance, which is poorly defended (if at all), and which can be exploited.” In the three-question method, therefore, one must first see if a “square of importance” is “poorly defended and can be exploited” but this would need at least some calculation, which we are told not to do until we have located the weaknesses!

There are a few things I disagree with here. The first thing obviously being that I am offering a method. It is a training method with the goal of improving your intuition. But let us forget this for a moment and say that you actually could do this on every move.

Would I be saying that you cannot quickly check a few moves? No!

What I am saying is that before you start to CALCULATE – which is an entirely different thing than seeing (which is what you do when you check 2-3 moves ahead in a few directions). This is when you start to use CANDIDATE MOVES, and maybe even various thinking techniques as ELIMINATION, COMPARISON and so on.

The second criticism, that the weaknesses only show up after lines are calculated is just foreign to me. Let us have an example:

This game, Adams – Giorgadze is used by Vijay in his review. In the book I have intentionally highlighted the g6-pawn to say that this is a weakness (I am describing “the hook”). Does this mean that it is the only weakness in the position? No, the f7-square, the h7-square and h6-square are all serious weaknesses too. The fact that nothing actually happens on f7 in the game does not mean that the square is not important.

So, what weaknesses are not important? Well, c6 is highly unlikely to be important and b3 is not.

Will listing those weaknesses give you the best move automatically? No, obviously you need to see a few lines as well. You always do.

The correct move is 29.h4! with the intention to soften the black kingside. Vijay wants to make this into a question of calculation by saying that this only works because of 29…Bxh4 30.Qh6 Be7 31.Bxg6. This is of course true. And yes, as he points out, the h4-move does not make a lot of sense if you do not have this. Say, if the black king was on g7.
On the other hand; I would not point out the h6-square as undefended if the king was on g7. The fact that I did not do this in the book is because I was explaining something else.
Chess always has positional and tactical elements. All the time. The reading of my book and “method” that it is all about positional chess and that variations don’t matter does not, as I see it, fairly represent what my book is about.
But actually, I feel the review was a misreading all the way:

Off on the wrong foot? Writing style and cultural differences

The way the review starts, it feels as if Vijay and I got off on the wrong foot. He starts by giving my latest results and when I got my titles and so on. (I would not personally end my resume with the 3.5/8 at the Olympiad, but with the Scottish Championship, which I won a month before. I play better when I am not ill!).

Now why would I say that we get off on the wrong foot? Is it just because he mentions my bad performance at the end of a summer with three big successes? Not really, it is more things like this:

The back cover of GMP2 informs us with careless hyperbole that “[Aagaard’s] training material is used by amateurs, grandmasters, and World Champions alike.” (Really alike? Were the World Champions too numerous to list?)

It is back to the good old days when we were criticised for 6.Bg5 Nbd7 not being a main line and GM6 therefore having false advertising. This is a sales text and not name-dropping. There is no hyperbole, careless or otherwise – the text is simply true. ‘World Champions’ is correct (and I am not talking about youth, junior, women, or chess solving to get to that, even though that would increase the count), but sometimes we have to show some discretion, which is why names are not given. You may guess that this sales text was a slight twist on comments said in private.

But anyway, the sentence is grammatically and factually correct. As I said, we are off on the wrong foot.

This is a recurring theme in the review; let us take another example:

Every now and then Aagaard shows a penchant for making absolute judgments without offering concrete analysis. “White is just winning” is a favorite pronouncement, and there are other caustic versions such as “The rest is humiliation.” (I wonder why so many chess writers feel it necessary to insult the losing player in their comments. In Chapter 2, Aagaard holds up the Ukrainian GM Kazakov as an “inconsequent opponent” for GM Topalovic and takes off on a tangential excursion into pop psychology that “hopefully better explain[s] [Kazakov’s move] than his understanding of chess.”)…

There are two points to this.

First off, you can always put in more variations and explanations. With a book of 222 exercises on over 300 pages, I think I added quite a bit. But I certainly made a lot of choices and deleted as much as I included. I do understand that not everything will be obvious to everyone. But I just cannot anticipate every idea and question that every reader will have! And even if I did, the book would be unreadable.

Sometimes I find it difficult to understand a few remarks from some reviewers; and they are usually American I have to say, so it might be a cultural thing. But it is really a question of why they think that the moves and the man are one? Or why they think it would be better to write a book in the way you would write a phone book. The moment you say that a player made a mistake, you are apparently antagonising the reviewer and insulting the player. ‘The rest was humiliation’ – well it looked that way to me. But I cannot say that this is an insult to the guy. Really, where is the insult? If I went nuts and turned up to work naked, I am sure that the others would be insulted (although maybe not surprised), but where would I have humiliated them?

No, what is humiliating is apparently that he ended up in the situation; ergo that he made mistakes. It is the only way to take offence. So, we are back at the real problem for a writer in such a world view: how can you explain chess coherently without discussing mistakes? I personally cannot.

And even when you are careful to explain that mistakes happen for an otherwise strong player, you are “on a tangential excursion into pop psychology”.

Clearly we got off on the wrong foot. I still have a feeling it is a cultural thing, but the bottom line is that Vijay does not like my chatty style and others do. I have seen it before; it is a question of liking my humour or not. Or sometimes maybe even of getting it?

[…] “White could have saved himself a bit of agony and resigned here. Instead he fought on till move 47 without ever getting back in the game.” I imagine GM Edouard did not have any great illusions about his position, but is it really so bad that he should have resigned? What do you think?

Categories: Reviews Tags:

Six stars

September 5th, 2012 12 comments

One of my favourite sites on the net is www.chesscafe.com, where you can get interesting articles and reviews of a high quality. About a year ago they changed their review system from five to four stars, without making it obvious for people like myself who suffer from mouse-clicking-too-fast syndrom. A number of 4/4 reviews were frustrating, not only because people believed it was 4/5, but also because there were books where the reviewer did not rate the books equally, but still they all got 4/4 (or quite close).

So I suggested Mark that they changed their rating system again to 6 stars and marked them as filled or not, so it was easy to understand and with some range. To be honest I stole the idea from the Danish newspapers, mainly Politiken. It has worked really well since, despite my 4/4 for my books were nicer than 5/6 I got since (what the fuck!).

At least we have a few other books that make the top mark from time to time. Both the Karpov’s Strategic Wins 1 and Karpov’s Strategic Wins 2 made it, recently Chess Tactics from Scratch and now Mayhem in the Morra!

I have to say that the pleasure of 6/6 beats 4/4 together with books you really do not respect quite a bit, even if there is a difference of taste and opinion you can use as a shield for your feelings. And when other companies get 6/6 for their books, I immediately get them from the London Chess Centre!

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