Archive for April, 2013

Critical Moments

April 29th, 2013 94 comments

In Chapter 14 of his wonderful book Think First, Move Later, Willy Hendriks takes objection to the well-established idea of critical moments, with a direct reference to my book Excelling at Chess Calculation (Everyman 2004).

Obviously I am honoured to be the antagonist in a full chapter of Hendriks book, even if he does not elevate me to the level of a Bond villain. Especially because he initially represents my explanation of what a critical moment is rather truthfully.

The position I use to explain the concept and which Hendriks represents is this:

Aagaard – Ong, Sweden 2003

After Black’s last move, to my horror I realized that 18.e5 would be met with 18…Bb4. I understood quickly that unless I found something strong, I would be seriously worse. For that reason I struggled with the position for almost 50 minutes before I came up with the solution:

18.e5 Bb4 19.Bf5!! Bxe1? 20.exf6 Qb6 21.Be3 Rxe3 22.fxe3 Bxg3 23.Qg4 Bf2+ 24.Kh1 Qxf6 25.Bxc8 h5 26.Qd7 Bxc8 27.Qxc8+ Kh7 28.Qc2+ g6 29.Rf1 1–0

So far all is well, but then Hendriks starts to psycho-analyse (me?), claiming that it is all hindsight. Maybe there could have been no 19.Bf5 available. His argumentation is probably fairly represented by this quote: “With hindsight it’s easy to say: ‘there I went wrong, that was the critical moment, why didn’t I use some more time there?’”

Read more…

Categories: Jacob Aagaard's training tips Tags:

Quality Chess Newsletter – ACP Book of the Year Prize

April 25th, 2013 16 comments


Dear Quality Chess Reader,

All modesty aside, we must announce another Quality Chess prize winner – in fact a 1-2. Jacob Aagaard won the Association of Chess Professionals’ 2013 Book of the Year prize for Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation. In second place, just one vote behind, was How I Beat Fischer’s Record by Judit Polgar. My personal congratulations to both authors.

This award means that Jacob is the chess author who has won the most prizes – ACP, ECF, Boleslavsky, ChessCafe and Guardian. It was close with Mark Dvoretsky and John Nunn before, but Jacob now has his nose in front.

In a supersized chess file (pdf or pgn) there are many games from the Danish Championship and Danish Blitz Championship, plus analysis that updates and adds to Grandmaster Repertoire 12: The Modern Benoni. The new Danish Champion is GM Davor Palo, but who is their new Blitz Champion? It was another prize for GM Jacob Aagaard.


John Shaw

Chief Editor

Quality Chess


Categories: Authors in Action, Newsletter, Prizes Tags:

What is Calculation?

April 22nd, 2013 9 comments

In his generally thought provoking, deeply intelligent and beautifully human book Think First, Move Later Willy Hendriks talks about various concepts. One is calculation, another is combinational vision and a third is seeing. But when reading the book I did not get the impression that the author had a clear definition of all of those; especially calculation.

In order to have a meaningful conversation, it is good to know if you mean the same things with the words you use. We can all think of words that have two opposite meanings, with my personal favourite being the word original, which prior to around 1750 meant “as it was in ancient Greece” or something to that effect; a permanent truth. After this of course it has meant “not seen before”, which is the way we use it today.

When discussing things or explaining complex points, it is good to agree that a cat purrs rather than barks. I have often made the mistake of believing that people would understand what I meant, when I used common terminology, only to find that this was not the case. A recent example was a review where my book Positional Play apparently did not deal with dynamics. As one of my three questions is: which is the worst placed piece, I found this confusing, but rereading it today, I see that the reviewer is a bit all over the place:

Adams-Giorgadze 29.h4!

Taken from Adams-Giorgadze, Groningen 1997. The correct move is 29.h4! to put further pressure on the hook (a type of weakness) on g6. The reviewer insists that the tactical point that 29…Bxh4 is refuted by Bxg6 and Qh6 (in either order) is dynamics. Something very similar in Hendriks book is called calculation.

Let me give my own definition of some of these words (which others are by no means forced to follow!). Hopefully they will be meaningful and helpful to those reading this blog.

Dynamics: The immediate aggressive potential of the pieces. e.g. a dynamic advantage means your pieces are ready to do harm, while the opponent is uncoordinated.

Tactics: Operations based on very concrete variations.

Combinational vision: The ability to spot well-known tactical patterns.

Seeing: To me this includes something like why 29…Bxh4 does not work. It is definitely because of a tactic. But what it is not (for me) is:

Calculation: Forcing yourself to look for moves/variations either a) beyond your natural horizon or b) outside of your intuitive spectrum.

Obviously, the last two are subjective. What a GM sees, others will have to grind their way through with gritted teeth (calculation). When you work on your calculation, you will automatically improve your ability to see. You are slowly (very slowly) pushing your horizon away from you.

Sorry if this post is a bit technical, but it will all make sense when I discuss Hendriks book a bit more intimately next week, specifically Chapter 14, in case you want to read it in advance.

(A final note on the review: To make some sort of point, the reviewer puts the black king on g7 in a comparative diagram, to make a point I don’t fully understand. Obviously chess is not an entirely static game; the pieces move! But at the same time, chess is also a static game, so those armed with poor understanding and a computer will struggle to understand quite a lot.)

Categories: Jacob Aagaard's training tips Tags:


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.

Categories: Authors in Action, Reviews Tags:


April 15th, 2013 111 comments


Inspired by Willy Hendriks’ book Move First, Think Later, I want to write about a subject I have been thinking about for some time.
Before I get to that topic, I will say a few words about the book. Hendriks swings between clever insights, self-professed modesty and falling for the Dunning-Kruger effect  🙂 which he even portrays in the book. One of the big highlights for me is his estimate that a tournament of nine rounds with a score of roughly either +1 or -1 on expected score is just as much about chance as anything else. There is no reason to over-interpret, Hendriks explains.
Something similar happened in Wijk aan Zee this year. My student GM Sabino Brunello scored 11/13 and qualified for the B-group. It was quite an overscore, though he was one of the pre-tournament favourites. When asked by journalists after the tournament why he had scored so many points, he correctly said that he had no idea and that he had actually played rather badly for a while and only regained the recently lost rating points with this result. Sure, he played well, but chance was also a factor, as well as something called the winner effect, which I will probably write about another time.
I have been a chess trainer since the late 1980s, when I was still a relatively weak junior player. Obviously I was a poor trainer for the first 10-15 years, but since then I have learned a lot and now feel that I can consistently help people get better at chess. I still prefer to see myself as an expert on chess literature rather than as a trainer, but I have taken on a few more training jobs in the last few years than I previously did. Also, I now feel confident enough to charge a rate that makes it worth my while to engage intellectually and emotionally with the work of improving someone’s chess. However, there are definitely trainers out there who offer better value for your money than working with me; especially as many chess professionals are struggling to make ends meet and therefore need all the work they can get.

Read more…

Categories: Jacob Aagaard's training tips Tags:

Goal Setting

April 8th, 2013 46 comments


On request I will talk a bit about goal setting this week. In the general style of this blog, it will not be a to-do-list or in any other way clear advice that will work for everyone. It will be my own reflections and experience with goal setting, which probably will be more interesting for the older readers, while the really young and restless, might find the lack of commitment to any position frustrating. But I will try to give advice to them as well.

In what is known as “coaching” the most famous goal-setting acronym is SMART goals. The idea is that your goals should be: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-dependent.

The idea behind this is rather obvious. The goal will be easy to track when you are on course to its completion. The famous metaphor used in relation to this kind of goal setting is an aeroplane, which will be off course 95% of the time, but will always arrive at the right destination more or less on time. (The oldest source I have heard this from is Tony Robbins in the 1980s, but many have repeated it as if it was their own since then, so maybe it is even older? I think it is a Robbins original, because a lot of people repeat his ideas in book length as if they were their own.)

This kind of thinking will definitely appeal to some, specifically those with no second thoughts. You set your goal, you do the work, you arrive at your destination after some problems on the way, but still more or less as you expected.

But obviously this brings us back to the basic question I like to ask about more or less anything: what is the function of setting a goal?

Read more…

Categories: Jacob Aagaard's training tips Tags:

The problem with failure

April 1st, 2013 64 comments

Good judgement comes with experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.” – Tony Robbins

A lot of the people I know suffer a lot when they lose a chess game. Especially younger guys, though I once had the pleasure of being insulted by an old guy rated 600 points lower than I, after I surprisingly prevailed in 22 moves.

I used to be a poor loser myself. Not a poor loser like Korchnoi, who fantasizes throughout the game about insulting the opponent after it (despite the result), but the introvert unhappy loser to whom a loss is a sort of autoimmune disease.

But at some point along the way I realised what could be called the problem with failure: It had no beneficiary effect on me.

Actually I never looked at it like this before, I just reacted to the chemical reaction of emotions in my body, believing that it was real and that it was as important as it felt. It was only later, when I got seriously fed up with feeling awful about a game I love, that I started thinking about function.

But before we go there, we need to ask ourselves: what is failure actually. Is it a result below expectations? And if so, then who’s? Is it the feeling we get when we lose? And if so, then why do we get this feeling?

At first I did not have a clear answer to any of these questions. I just knew I had to rethink my reaction to “failure”. I also had no idea what the benefits of failure were supposed to be. Now I would probably talk about a wiring in the brain left over from the caveman, which has little to do with chess. But the cables are still there and we have not yet learned to produce new ones.

So, at some point I decided to change the rules. I wanted them to work in a way that made sense to me.

I decided that I would only be unhappy with my play if my effort at the board was not up to scratch. I would no longer be a victim to whether or not the opponent had a good day. I would not kick myself for not having done work that I had not done after last time I struggled with the same issue, because feeling bad about it the last time had not worked, in the sense that I had not done the work subsequently.

As a result, I did not mind when I missed winning two pawns in a blitz play-off for the Danish Championship 2006 (against Steffen Pedersen), even though losing this game left me 6th rather than 1st in the bizarre (but entertaining) gladiator system. Actually some guys were really shocked with the indifference I took the loss, but to me it was far from indifference. I was actually a happy loser!

Obviously I was not happy to lose and I had fought hard against it all the way. Actually I had recovered from a 0/3 start to play for the championship in the last round. There was no indication that approaching chess from a positive standpoint was damaging to my results. Actually, the following year was my best year in chess: I beat some great players, won a few nice events and surpassed 2500, the final need for the GM-title.

Later on when I worked with Sabino Brunello, we talked a lot about this. Sabino used to be devastated by defeats. Actually it was so bad that if he failed to solve an easy exercise, he would feel worthless.

I did not believe that it was working for him. Because the only possible function with feeling like this would be if it improved his game. It really did not.

Over the six years we worked together he transformed entirely as a person. Obviously he matured just by growing up, but I think our discussions about mental approach helped a lot too. These days he seems happy when he loses and even happier when he wins!

Is it working? Check out the C-group of Wijk Aan Zee this year and judge for yourself.


If you beat yourself up when the results do not go in your direction and it does not motivate you to work harder, probably you will find what I had found: What you can do with anger and pain, you might be able to do at least as well with joy and harmony.

Personally I have the rule that if I feel I let myself down; then I am allowed to be angry. But after I started trusting myself to do my best, I often did. There have of course been times when I played below my level. But trusting that I am on my own side, I am no longer angry with myself or have other negative emotions. I just try to find out why I made the mistakes. Even when I lost in 12 moves (!) with White a few weeks ago I did not feel especially bad. I simply realised that I was not ready to play such a morning round and that I should not put any value to this game. Besides, I am retired 😎 .

Categories: Jacob Aagaard's training tips Tags: