Archive for October, 2013

A few thoughts on time management

October 28th, 2013 68 comments


We are in the final process of editing From GM to Top Ten, covering Judit Polgar’s progress in the 1990s, with the same emphasis on chess development as Volume 1. And one of the things we have paid special attention to is Judit’s habit of including time management in her annotations. In short, whenever the position is strategic, she seems to slow down, while when it gets sharp and tactical, she often plays her move in a minute or less. This has inspired us to come up with a few ideas about time management – or clock handling if you like. They are sort of random, but hopefully not entirely useless. As always, they are not absolutes, but ideas and strategies that might resonate with the recurring problems you face in your games.


• Chess is about making difficult decisions in insufficient time. Those looking for certainty early on will burn through their time. The only certainty they will be allotted is time trouble and poor results.

• Very rarely should you play your move immediately. A quick blunder check and/or candidate move sweep helps often enough to be worth it.

• On the other hand, hesitation is a sin. When you have made up your mind concerning what you want to play, you should execute your move. You will need the time later on.

• Sometimes big decisions appear early in the game. You should not be afraid to invest a lot of time early on. There is little joy in playing a lost position with a lot of time on the clock.

• The first move after leaving opening theory is often a big trap. We need to slow down. The same goes for move 41.

• Some kinds of decision need to be worked out, others you have to guess. In general I prefer to spend my time on the decisions that can be worked out and not guess there. At least this is in theory. If I also did this consistently in practice, I would have been a much stronger player.

• I learned to write down my time right from my first tournament. It was only when I decided a year or so back that I was not trying to improve anymore, that I stopped. Especially for those with time trouble tendencies, this can be very useful. It is hard to improve on something you have not measured.

• Do not rely on the opponent’s scoresheet. In the Copenhagen Open, Arthur Kogan looked across the board and saw that Viktor Korchnoi had written down a move 41 and relaxed. When the arbiter came and asked Arthur to fill in the missing moves, Korchnoi said: “Ah well, you know, I am an old man. Maybe we should check the moves? Maybe it is not 40?” Only then did Arthur notice that Korchnoi had written down his 40th move again. (This is of course also useful for those looking for dirty tricks.)

• Often when the opponent is in time trouble and we have a lot of time, we can get nervous and play too fast. A friend of mine had a winning position against a player with only seconds left on the clock, while he had lots of time. Missing mate in one however turned the tables…

• On the other hand, if the opponent has spent all his time, maybe we should do the same so that we can both be in time trouble. If things are not going your way, maybe inserting a bit of anarchy is a useful thing. I once played a game that went on to move 52(!) before a flag fell. Another time I played the following mad game:


Aagaard – Danielsen, Copenhagen 1997


1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nf3 Be7 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.Bc4 O-O 9.O-O b6 10.Re1 Bb7 11.Ne5 Nxc3 12.bxc3 Nd7 13.Nxf7 Rxf7 14.Bxe6 Nf8 15.Bxf7+ Kxf7 16.c4 Rc8 17.Qd3 Bf6 18.Ba3 Ng6 19.Qf5 Kg8 20.g3 Nf8 21.Rad1 Qd7 22.Qd3 Ng6 23.Qe2 h6 24.d5 Ba6 25.Rc1 Ne5 26.Bb2 Rxc4 27.Rcd1 Ra4 28.Qh5 g6 29.Qxh6 Bg5

[fen size=”small”]6k1/p2q4/bp4pQ/3Pn1b1/r7/6P1/PB3P1P/3RR1K1 w – – 0 30[/fen]

Around here, things looked bad, but Henrik only had a minute left. I allowed my clock to run down to five minutes left and organised a counter-attack. As Henrik must have expected me to resign, he seemed to have lost his concentration. It goes without saying that neither player performed expertly in what follows, but from being a queen down, I was quite pleased to get away with it…

30.Rxe5 Bxh6 31.Re6 Rxa2 32.Bc3 Be2 33.Rd4 Bf3 34.Rxg6+ Kh7 35.Rf6 Bxd5 36.Rh4 Be4 37.Rhxh6+ Kg8 38.Rh8+ Kxh8 39.Rd6+ Kg8 40.Rxd7 Rc2 41.Bd2 a5 42. f4 a4 43.Kf2 a3 44.Ke3 Bf5 45.Ra7 Ra2 46.Bb4 Rxh2 47.Bxa3 1/2-1/2


There is definitely more that could be said about clock handling, time trouble and so on, but let’s call this a post for now.

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Strategic Play – An interesting perspective

October 25th, 2013 12 comments

Nikos made me aware that there was a double training session from the St Luis chess club available on youtube, which would no doubt be of interest, as it presents Strategic Play in a nice way. For those at all interested in my book, I can warmly recommend it.

There was one curious thing. At the end of the first video (find the second video in the side, or click here), where he gives this position from Chapter 2.

Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son – John Paul Gomez, Ho Chi Min City 2011

1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 Bg4 5. h3 Bxf3 6. Qxf3 e6 7. Nc3 Nbd7 8. Bd3 Bd6 9. O-O O-O 10. e4 dxc4 11. Bxc4 e5 12. d5 Nb6 13. Bb3 cxd5 14. exd5 h6 15.Be3 a6 16. Rac1 Nbd7 17. Bc2 Qe7 18. Rfd1 Rae8 19. Qg3 Nh5 20. Qf3 Nhf6 21. h4 b5 22. Qh3 Nc5

[fen size=”small”]4rrk1/4qpp1/p2b1n1p/1pnPp3/7P/2N1B2Q/PPB2PP1/2RR2K1 w – – 0 23[/fen]

At this point he only gives the option played in the game, which is not too hard to see and quite interesting. It is in the last few minutes of the video. I will leave the end of the game in the comments and provide the correct move on Monday (or you can find it in the book on page 133). There is nothing too complicated going on here, but it is by no means easy either!

Strategic Patterns, Rules and Straw Men

October 21st, 2013 81 comments

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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Axel Smith one step closer to becoming a Grandmaster

October 20th, 2013 9 comments

At the Nordic Championship IM Axel Smith was entirely fantastic and celebrated his new book Pump Up Your Rating with excellent play. Not only did he get a GM-norm, he only took the title of Nordic Champion as GM Peter Heine Nielsen lost his game in the last round.

For those wanting to check out Axel’s performance, go here.

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Stepping Stones

October 15th, 2013 23 comments


On holiday, so only had the chance to put up a post today.
One of the best ideas I ever came across in chess literature was Jonathan Tisdall’s idea of Stepping Stones presented in his only chess book, Improve Your Chess Now! Like most other great ideas in chess literature, it is a verbalisation of something strong players were already doing. But rather than being something that you can just come across while training/playing and start using some of the time randomly, putting it on the page makes it something simple and concrete that you can train.
The basic idea is that you find out which positions you need to pay extra attention to in your calculation, and fix the position in your head so that you can approach it in the same way you approach the initial position.
Last night I gave a pro bono lecture in Copenhagen with all income going to a local chess club. We discussed candidate moves a lot and the way that compounding of candidate moves is a great part of calculation.
Take for example the decisive moment in Kramnik – Aronian in the Candidates tournament in London. Kramnik thought for a long time before taking on d5 with the queen, trying to squeeze an advantage out of the endgame (unsuccessfully).

[fen size=”small”]r1rn2k1/4bppp/1p6/q2pPp2/1p1P4/1P2BQP1/6BP/2R2RK1 w – – 0 24[/fen]


It was quickly established with computers that Kramnik could have won with a strong punch on the light squares: 24.Rxc8 Rxc8 25.Qxf5 Rc7 26.e6! Black would have no way to deal with this other than 26…fxe6, when White plays 27.Qh5! with ideas such as 27…g6 28.Qe5! hitting the rook and preparing Bh6, winning. For example 28…Rd7 29.Bh6 Bd6 30.Qxd6! and Black is mated.
I am sure that Kramnik saw all of this rather quickly. But why then did he not play this and win the game? Was he afraid of risks? We know from looking at his other games, that this strange attempt of pocket psychology is nonsense. There might be some preference for technical advantages, but not so much that he does not calculate attacking lines.
It took me some time to work out what it was Kramnik had missed, and I had the chance to test it with a 2600 student, who knew the position, knew that White was winning, but could not refute one move, the move I suspected was difficult to refute, 27…Qb5!.
This is where the technique of stepping stones can be useful. If Kramnik had put this position in his mind and taken the time to do candidate moves in it, he would have won the game:
[fen size=”small”]3n2k1/2r1b1pp/1p2p3/1q1p3Q/1p1P4/1P2B1P1/6BP/5RK1 w – – 0 28[/fen]

When I put this position on the board at the lecture, it only took seconds before a few people found the winning move. Still, very strong players have failed to find this win – one of them even knowing that there was a win!

I will put the solution in the comments later. The main point has been made. Train stepping stones and increase your level of calculation greatly.

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Don’t worry – the game will end

October 7th, 2013 89 comments


After a long break, I’d like to return to discussing the mental stuff. Especially the following topic as I see it again and again being a problem with people I have worked with:

They think about how the game will end.

Now, to most of you this might seem like a very natural thing to do. And indeed we all do it. But it is quite the opposite of ensuring the most favourable outcome of the game.

Let me explain why:

The most favourable outcome of the game comes from making as many good moves as possible. I hope we agree this far. Making the best possible moves comes from focusing on the problem right in front of us. I hope we can agree that most of the problems we have to solve in a game are not of a decisive nature. Sure, we can blunder on every move, but to somehow think that this makes every move a critical moment is a misconception (surprisingly commonly made).

Only rarely are we in situations where the difference in value between one move (or two) and all the others is half a point or more. On most moves we have to decide between seemingly equal value moves and try to work out small differences.

And in neither situation will thinking about the result help us one iota with solving the problem we are facing.

What we should focus on is: understanding the problem we are facing on this move (easier said than done!) and solving it as fast as possible. The game will end. I am not personally playing a game started when I was 15 and neither are you. All games end. They end with a result. Thinking about what that result will be, should be, should have been or whatever, will not change it.

Now all of this might seem elementary. All good knowledge is. Worrying about the result is really a damaging thing to do. Your mind simply cannot deal well with your hopes and dreams at the same time as it is trying to work out if Bxh7+ works or not. Or more importantly; the calculation gets all messed up.

One problem I see a lot from students wondering too much about the result is that they play a different move from what they actually consider the best move. Because they are nervous, want to avoid risk or something.

There is no magic bullet I know that will solve this problem for you quickly. I think accepting the logic that you need to play one move at a time, and that this is more than difficult enough, is a good start. This will not make you indifferent to losing (though sometimes it will make you cope a whole lot better), but it can help you become a tougher player, a fighter if you like.

And don’t worry. The game will end and you will get the result you deserve, based on the quality of your moves…

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ECF Book of the year – How I Beat Fischer’s Record

October 7th, 2013 8 comments

It is very rare that the same book wins more than one Book of the Year prize in chess. John Nunn did it with his Move by Move book (by idea of Lars Larsen, Denmark, which I passed on to Graham Burgess back in the day), the Attacking Manuals picked up three awards, Watson picked up a few with his Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and maybe 1-2 others I have forgotten about has done the same.

This year Calculation won the ACP award only one vote ahead of what is arguably a better book, Judit Polgar’s How I Beat Fischer’s Record. As content editor on the book it is not impossible that I spent at least as much time on that book as I did on Calculation! The ACP award has the potential to be the most prestitiguous award long term, but at the moment this goes to the English Chess Federation’s award. Not the least because they chose the right winner 8-).

Here is what the judges said:

“The winning book this year combines three subjects (autobiography, lessons and best games) into one volume which together tell the story of the early years of the strongest woman player in chess history.
Judit Polgar ‘How I beat Fischer’s record’ is the main title, but the cover also features ‘Judit Polgar Teaches Chess 1′ and this reflects how the book is constructed. The period covered is from Judit’s first chess lessons to the age of 15 years,4 months and 28 days when she broke Fischer’s record of the youngest ever grandmaster. Using her training notes from the early days to the grandmaster, the first 12 chapters cover her learning curve (chapter 1, Tricks; chapter 12, Attacking without Queens). She then moves onto Decisive Games; Memorable Games; and finally Amsterdam 1989 OHRA Tournament Diary, where she more than holds her own in a strong grandmaster tournament.

The examples are well chosen and written from Polgar’s experiences over the board. Her tactical and attacking abilities were apparent at an early age as well as her confidence and determination. But what stands out is the enthusiasm, enjoyment and youthful exuberance of the young teenage girl, which makes the book a joy to read.

Polgar’s upbringing was of course unusual with exceptional focus on chess with 2 elder sisters who both became grandmasters. The amount of chess work that she and her sisters went through at an early age was immense; but it seems to have been a happy childhood, with none of the difficulties one often sees with prodigies.

Lastly, a tribute should be paid to the publishers, Quality Chess. The hardback book is well laid out and beautifully produced. Numerous photographs of the Polgar family, places visited, chess players and people met on the way flesh out the story. At £19.95 for 383 pages the book is also good value.

All in all, this is an exceptional insight into the early years of one of the most remarkable personalities in the chess world today. The next two volumes of the trilogy are eagerly awaited.

– Ray Edwards | Julian Farrand | David Friedgood | 4th October 2013″

Quality Chess has previously won this award with San Luis 2005 and Attacking Manual 1+2This year we also nominated the Yusupov-series, which has previously won the Boleslavsky medal, awarded by FIDE, but the judges did not think it made sense for their award. Different opinions!

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Video from the Polgar Chess Festival

October 6th, 2013 3 comments
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