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Review of Positional Play on ChessCafe

January 3rd, 2013 106 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?

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