Computers can’t blunder…right?

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 11, 2015 in Chess

The TCEC superfinal between Komodo and Stockfish is currently taking place. I have the games (a 100-game match I believe!) running in the background while I work, kind of like test-match cricket. It’s somehow soothing, a silicon version of Enya if you will. I bet noone’s ever used that analogy before.

Yesterday, in game 22, something amazing happened. Stockfish blundered. Stockfish, currently two games behind, was completely winning and gave its evaluation of the position as +26. Then, in two moves, it was 0.00. Really! And these guys (girls? its?) are supposed to be 3200+. If that’s not what you call throwing away a win, I don’t know what is.

You can see the game here. 64.Bc2 wins, although it’s a long, complicated variation (and obviously not one that I found myself!). After 64.Kg4 both computers immediately recognised the draw.

(Hat tip to Mark Watkins for the link.)



REVIEW: Understanding the Queen’s Gambit Accepted

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 7, 2015 in Chess

The Queen’s Gambit Accepted: A Black Repertoire
by A.Delchev and S. Semkov

I recently got my hands on a couple of new opening books by Chess Stars, the Bulgarian publishing house perhaps best known for the Openings For White According to Anand series. After the subsequent Openings For White According to Kramnik range, the guys decided to branch out with their coverage, and now we’re seeing plenty of interesting and diverse opening titles. With author names such as Dreev, Beliavsky and Delchev as well as their ‘poster child’ Khalifman, there’s reason to take the new selection seriously.

For this review, I want to focus on the new title by Delchev and Semkov: Understanding the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. The QGA feels like it’s been around forever, but of late I’ve noticed more and more top GMs adding it to their repertoires, so much so that I’ve even added it to mine. So, being familiar with the latest trends in this opening, I was extremely curious to see how the authors managed to squeeze not just one, but two entire QGA repertoires into such a tiny book! With a mere 240 pages of A5, it’s about a third of the size of my own new release, which is on a far less theoretical opening. However, despite my initial scepticism, I have to admit that the guys have done a remarkable job, and that the book indeed offers complete coverage.

Delchev seems to be the main engine behind the repertoire, and so there are many valuable insights from a top GM’s own repertoire and practice. That’s one of the nice things about this book: It offers a practical repertoire that the authors themselves employ, so they offer first-hand practical advice for your own games. This is enabled by what I found to be a pleasant and intuitive structure. Each chapter is broken up into three parts: a wordy section on the key theme and ideas, a systematic (but not overly heavy) theory section, and finally some annotated games. This allows the club player to use the book either with or without a chessboard; the sections on ideas and games are ideal for light café reading, while the theory requires a little more concentration.

Furthermore, the book offers a repertoire based both on the Classical System (…Nf6/…e6 against 3.e3 or 3.Nf3) as well as Delchev’s preferred repertoire based on 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4 coupled with 3.e3 e5. The authors also offer some interesting, though less rigorous, analysis on the topical 3.Nf3 a6!? 4.e3 b5, as well as a brief discussion of the dubious 3.e4 b5?! (in addition to their preferred 3…Nc6). And again, yes, all in less than 250 pages! This gives the reader a lot of options as to how he or she uses the material to construct one’s preferred repertoire. For the slightly stronger reader, I can attest that one can digest an entire repertoire from scratch and feel prepared to play 2…dxc4 over the board after, say, only four hours with this book. Now that’s a serious achievement.

However, to cram everything in to this mini-masterpiece, the authors had to cut a few corners here and there. While I find this book incredibly practical in terms of what the reader could reasonably remember for one’s games, not all of the natural options for White are always covered. If you’re the sort of player who when learning a new opening often asks “But what if my opponent plays THAT?”, you might find this a little frustrating. Fortunately, the variations in Delchev’s main repertoire (3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4, and 3.e4 Nc6) are reasonably plan-based and less reliant on concrete lines than other options.

I particularly like how the authors often employ explanations of general strategic themes in between detailing complex lines. Somehow, this breaks up the workload for the student and helps one to keep a broader sense of the positions. The following excerpt is a typical example.



“Let’s compare this position with the standard set-up with Nc3.

Both sides are deprived of their most common plans. White can not [sic] play Nfd2, nor can he jump to c4 since the e4-pawn is hanging.

Black, for his part, lacks the option of …Nf4 [with the plan of …Kh8, …Rg8 and …g5] due to the fork on e5 after Bxf4 and e4-e5 (White’s knights are connected so …Bxf3 does not help!). On the other hand, his “plan B”, which is based on undermining the centre with …c6, gains in strength because of the passive stand of the d2-knight. That transpires from variations like 12.Ne1 Bd7 13.Nd3 c6 14.dxc6 Bxc6 15.f3 Bb5…”

You’ll notice I cheekily highlighted a tiny grammatical mistake in this extract. [EDIT: It was pointed out to me that this is in fact not technically a mistake – my apologies!] I’m not trying to be pedantic, but simply want to mention that for those who are, there are a couple of funny little English slips in the text. Given that the book is written and edited by non-native speakers of English (in fact, I’m not sure there’s a native speaker on the Chess Stars team), this is to be expected, and the errors, like the one above, are hardly glaring. The language is simple, and the authors have chosen to replace verbosity for instruction. It’s not a book that will have you rolling in the aisles, but you’ll get every point the authors make. Moreover, in terms of typos (my personal bugbear when reading chess books), I couldn’t find any!

The book’s theory is really quite up-to-date (games up until mid-2015 are included), and the analysis has made use of engines as well as correspondence games. This really should be mandatory for all opening books but, alas, really isn’t, and so I commend the authors for this. However, readers should remember that the theory on these lines has been accelerating in recent years and so one should probably keep an eye on upcoming developments. For some of the variations (e.g. 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4) this is less important, but for, say, the current ‘drawing line’, 3.Nf3 a6!?, I’m sure we’re going to see plenty of theoretical action in the near future. After all, this line is either a forced draw or a forced win for White!

Another variation that certainly will soon have a definitive evaluation is the crazy 3.e4 b5?!. I’ve played this move myself, and I really enjoy these lines. How often does Black get to boldly sacrifice an exchange after only six moves?! So of course, this was the chapter to which I first jumped in, and I agree with Delchev’s assessment that the variation is ultimately unsound. However, it’s here that I’m for the first time going to criticise this book, as I feel the authors are too dismissive of Black’s chances, both practically and objectively. The refutations given rely on White playing incredibly accurately and remembering a string of only-moves deep into the middlegame, while deviation from the correct path is often fatal. Moreover, engines are also too sceptical of Black’s long-term counterplay after the sacrifice, which can lead to many analysts to settle for superficial rebuttals. For example, one of the key resources often underestimated by many from the white side (but, to be fair, mentioned by Delchev) is that a commonly reached endgame sees White with an extra exchange but Black with ‘four versus three’ on the kingside. These endings are rather trivially drawn, but are often the source of a computer giving an evaluation around +1.00 or so. But enough vagueness; let’s get into specifics!



But seeing how crazy these lines are, it’s no wonder that the authors chose to focus on more intuitive repertoire variations in their handy little guidebook. And despite my maniacal love of the positions after 3.e4 b5, I must say that I really like the analysis presented after the relatively rare 3.e4 Nc6, a Delchev speciality. And it’s certainly easier to learn.

There is one final point I want to highlight about this book. In addition to learning sections, theory, annotated games and multiple options for building a repertoire, the authors even managed to squeeze in a couple of final pages about how to handle alternatives to 2.c4. This is actually really important in my opinion, because one of the things that might put players off learning the QGA is the extra work required in learning extra variations to handle 2.Nf3, 2.Bg5, 2.Bf4 etc. I really appreciated Delchev’s simple yet logical solutions to these problems. I would have also appreciated something on the Torre (2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bg5) in addition to the Colle, Tromp and London systems, and I really would have liked to know Delchev’s consistent recommendations against 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 – but I guess I’m just way too greedy! Hopefully Delchev and Semkov might consider producing a complementary title in the future to handle flank openings that works in with a QGA repertoire. [EDIT: In fact, the authors wrote to tell me that just such a book is in progress!] Given the excellent way they’ve handled the current material, I’d be one of the first in line.  Four stars.




Smerdon’s self-promotion

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 21, 2015 in Chess

*** EDIT:  The ’50 Moves’ guys have kindly decided to make the webinar FREE!! So register here.


Well, the attention my Nakamura/Mcshane post received was overwhelming, with my website getting over ten times the normal number of comments for an article – some constructive, some hilarious, and a couple of ‘bizarros’. The post got picked up by most major chess news sites as well. And all that from some back-of-an-envelope scribbles! 

Of course, Naka had to go and win the thing and thus ‘disprove’ my arguments, as I feared! And he deserves a lot of praise for his guts and determination, particularly in the tie-break. His play in the final itself was outstanding. Still, just like someone who gets lucky on roulette, it doesn’t mean the decision was correct ‘ex-ante’, as we say. Some of the discussions were so fruitful that I went back and created a full mathematical model, although I’ve been too busy to type it all up. Also, it will be quite a boring read to most people, so I might just drop it in as an attachment in the near future.

One of the reasons I don’t have time is that, for readers who don’t already know, I have a ‘normal’ job. I work at the University of Amsterdam and am finally on the home straight towards finishing a PhD in economics. That doesn’t leave time for much chess, whether it be writing, playing or teaching.

However, I’m making an exception this Sunday, and – *warning* – this is where the self-promotion kicks in. The Aussie guys behind the 50 Moves Magazine approached me about doing a live ‘webinar’ for them on the topic of the Scandinavian, and particularly my 3…Bg4 repertoire. So that’s happening this Sunday from 7.30pm-8.30pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT). AEDT’s a bit confusing, but it’s just the current time in Sydney (+11 UTC) and you can check out how it works with your location here.

The time’s not very convenient for North/South Americans, I must admit, so I don’t want you to feel left out. You can see a free, low-quality version of a lecture on the Scandinavian I did quite a while ago below: 

I won’t just talk about the Scandinavian, but will use it as a case study for how to choose a practical opening repertoire for part-time chess players, and other opening tips. The cost is AUD $15  FREE!!, and you can sign up here

See you on Sunday!


Nakamura and McShane’s big mistake

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 12, 2015 in Chess, Economics

I love following this Millionaire Chess tournament. It’s really quite a spectacle: untitled players can pick up tens of thousands of dollars, one top player gets to go home with $100,000, and there’s even the bizarre “Win a million” lottery to keep us interested. And with so many ‘novelties’, it’s not surprising that there’s always the potential for controversy.

The biggest of these happened yesterday in the final round of qualification for Millionaire Monday. The main organiser GM Maurice Ashley was visibly irate when discussing the nine-move draw between the top seed Hikaru Nakamura and English GM Luke McShane. (You can see all the interviews of the draw controvery here.) He called short draws “a stain on our game”. Poor Hikaru and Luke suffered a fair bit of backlash in the chat channels and on Twitter for their performance, although they handled their interviews extremely well (particularly Luke, one of the real gentlemen of chess).

Hikaru also spoke well, aside from two notable exceptions. In the interview you’ll hear these two sentences: “the risk wasn’t worth the reward, frankly”, followed later by “I don’t think I did anything wrong”. At this point, the economist in me was highly dubious, although I have no doubt that both Hikaru and Luke actually believed this to be true.

I don’t know Hikaru personally, but in recent years I’ve been impressed by his interviews, and particularly how gracious and appreciative he is about being able to play chess for a living. And in games where the result is clearly not prearranged and either player would have to make a concession to avoid the repetition, I have no moral problems with a draw – so in this, the players are right. But in my opinion, one of the greatest innovations of Millionaire Chess is that its unique prize structure should naturally prevent boring draws. This is because the risk really is worth the reward in most cases.

So at this point, I did what any math/chess geek would do: I wrote down the problem :) And without going into too many details, it turns out that the short draw was almost certainly the wrong decision for the players to make for themselves. Even under some very tolerant assumptions, the expected payoff from playing on, for either player, was greater than the expected payoff from accepting the repetition.

In my analysis, I had to make a bunch of assumptions, although I think they’re all pretty reasonable. I took into account that by playing on, the players would most likely have a very long game that would sap their energy somewhat (Luke had had a couple of really tiring previous games, while Hikaru said he had been feeling unwell). This would decrease their performance in the tie-breaks (if they occured) and the rest of the event. I also assumed that whoever chose to avoid the repetition would have to make a concession that would decrease their chances in the game from what they were at the outset. I assumed that, all else being equal, Hikaru’s chances in tie-breaks and the final-four were above that of an average competitor, while Luke’s were average (…after a short draw, while a bit lower if he played on). Finally, as it turned out, almost the maximum number of players on 4.5 points who could get to a tie-break with 5.5 points did so, while really made Hikaru’s and Luke’s decision look silly – but they couldn’t have known that when they took the draw. So I relaxed this assumption a bit so that a normal number (five out of eight potentials) reached the ‘tie-break score’ of 5.5. 

The analysis is a lot more complicated than this, but you can already get a rough idea of things by checking out the prize list. It’s incredibly top-heavy, and so under almost any realistic assumptions, a player in their shoes would want to maximise their chances of making the final four, above all else. If Luke played on, his chances of beating Hikaru were slim – but they were still much higher than making it through a tie-break with seven other players, including Hikaru. And for HIkaru himself, despite being one of the best rapid players out there, the odds still suggested the same decision.

(For those interested: my final numbers suggested that Luke’s expected payoff was roughly $4,000 higher from playing on, while for Nakamura, avoiding the repetition was worth about $8,000 in expectation.)

Of course, ‘in expectation’ is such an economist thing to say; probabilities are one thing, but only one outcome can actually occur in real life. For Nakamura, he made it through the tie-breaks (though not without some very bumpy moments!), and so it looks like things have paid off. But that’s not the right way to think about things. It’s like winning your first ever spin of roulette: just because you got paid doesn’t mean you made the right decision. I would definitely advise Hikaru in future to do these sorts of calculations (or better yet, get someone else to!) before crucial money clashes.

(Luke, on the other hand, is not a professional chess player and probably doesn’t care that much about the money. While he didn’t make it through the tie-breaks, he’s still had a good tournament and has good chances of picking up a big consolation prize in the rest of the open. But still, from a purely academic perspective, the decision-making was dubious!)

Of course, this was mainly just an academic exercise for a bit of fun (although professional players may want to take note – I’m open for consultation Laughing). But there is one policy implication, and here I’m specifically talking to Maurice and organisers like him. The lesson is: Don’t be discouraged! The Millionaire Chess team have done exactly the right thing in their structure to promote fighting chess. It’s hardly their fault if the players haven’t yet worked out how to act in their own best interests. But this will happen through experience (and maybe through posts like this…), so there’s no need to panic.

For the time being, I’m going to sit back, relax and watch the final fight – in which, typically, I expect Hikaru to defy the odds, win the tournament and thereby blow a big, fat raspberry at my analysis  Cool


Rapid fire

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 3, 2015 in Chess

I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of rapid tournaments recently, in a weak attempt to shake off the rust before the European league season starts. There was a nice ‘holiday’ rapid in Luxembourg, whose chess community is super fun and social, as well as the eighth edition of the Amstelveen Brainwave Rapid. Both tournaments were run by really friendly and genial people and it was nice to push a bit of wood around for a change.

Unfortunately, like the Tin Man before me, I could have done with some oiling; no placings in either event. There were only really two chess highlights from my perspective. The first was winning the bughouse tournament in Luxembourg with Vlad Hamitevici under the moniker of our mutual friend “Casper”. And in Amstelveen, I managed to beat Dutch GM Dennis De Vreugt with black in 14 moves using my Scandinavian. I confess that I only just managed to hide a smug smile when some kibitzers came up to my opponent after the game and said in Dutch, “Haven’t you read his book?!”


A couple of snapshots from the trip, including a small vid of the bughouse. Luxembourg rules are a bit weird: there’s no dropping for mate, and you can only promote to pieces in your current ‘stock’ of spares. But you quickly get used to it!


Bughouse in Luxembourg. Team Casper for the win!


The Amstelveen rapid tournament is always held in conjunction with the Dutch Rubik’s Cube championships. I was almost tempted to buy one of their clothing accessories, but I couldn’t quite think of an occasion where I’d wear it…

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Eventual tournament winner (and Luxembourg chess legend) Alberto David in a crucial round against recently redeemed French GM Sebastien Feller

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Those chess playing Luxembourgers really were a social lot…as was demonstrated in the post-tournament celebrations, which went on long after the prize giving. Bottles of home-made honey liqueur were produced, containing anything from between one and a dozen hot red chills. Want to see how that tastes?





The new Luxembourg university opened while we were in town. It has been built literally around an old, derelict steel refinery, which makes for an amazing architectural contrast.

The new Luxembourg university opened while we were in town. It has been built literally around an old, derelict steel refinery, which makes for an amazing architectural contrast.

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Old stuff can be beautiful, too. Get it?


Uptown Funk in 100 Movies

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 23, 2015 in Non-chess

The fact that I knew every single movie reference does suggest I should be spending more time on my studies…



Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 9, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess

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Pirate Week

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 27, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics

Three strange pirate-related things happened to me last week.

Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day. Admittedly, some of the links to buccaneering are a little tenuous, but it still makes for an unusual theme.

It started when I found out about some trouble one of my German friends had gotten into. Having just started university, he, like many freshers, soon discovered the shady world of movie downloading – or ‘online piracy’ as it’s more commonly known. He’d downloaded a grand total of 12 movies before he got sent a letter from a law firm representing a media corporations demanding almost a thousand euros for one particular movie. Another demand following on behalf of a different corporation, for a similarly jawdropping fee.  If he pays the fines, it’ll have cost him roughly 150 euros on average per movie he watched. And that’s assuming no more fines follow.

Now, I have lots of friends. And some of them illegally download media from controversial ‘activist’ sites like The Pirate Bay. Some of them have been doing it for years. My old college’s intranet literally had terabytes of material (…at which point the law gets a litle fuzzy. If a pirate buys you a drink with his stolen loot, are you also culpable?).

But in all these years and of all these people, I’ve never heard of anyone having to answer. At first I thought my friend was particularly unlucky, but then I googled anti-piracy laws in Germany. It turns out Germany is the Stockfish of online piracy: no mistake goes unpunished. Literally millions of letters are sent to perpetrators, and the law allows little leeway. (Not that I’m bagging out Germany’s techno laws in general, mind you; their mobile phone services are so impressive that it’s actually cheaper to call within the Netherlands on my girlfriend’s German phone than my Dutch one.)

A full post about online piracy will have to wait for another day, however, because it’s time to move on to pirate event number two. We’ve recently moved apartments to the north-east side of Amsterdam, and by coincidence we look out over the Ij (“Eye”) harbour where last week the Amsterdam Sail Festival took place. Held once every five years (or “quinquenially”, if you’re feeling fancy), it’s one of the largest maritime festivals in the world.

“Honey, what’s that outside our window?”

I’m not really a ‘boat’ person, but this festival was phenomenal. About two million tourists crammed into tiny Amsterdam to check out the ships, which were, I have to admit, stunning. They came from all over the world, these huge sail boats from various centuries, including a small Aussie one that had sailed all the way from Down Under with most of its crew barely out of high school. But it was the collection of older boats that really stood out in my opinion. Some of them were huge. Some, such as the Russian, French and South American vessels, were immaculate, with the crew dressed in exquisite, colourful garb. Other crews were literally dressed as pirates, for no good reason that I could discern. My favourite was the Nao Victoria, a replica of one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships from the early sixteenth century, and the first to circumnavigate the world.

Hanging out near the Aussie boat “The Young Endeavour”

On the final night of the festival, my girlfriend surprised me with tickets to a screening of Pirates of the Carribean ‘in concert’. But not just any screening; it was set up in a huge open-air marina, and you could either have grandstand tickets or ‘ship tickets’, whereby you just moor your boat next to the screen. Most importantly, however, there was a large Dutch orchestra playing all the music from the movie live – and if you know the Hans Zimmer soundtrack, you’ll know that’s quite a big deal. The movie/concert finished with a bang, literally, as we had front-row seats to the huge final fireworks show. By the end of the festival, I’d been transformed from a non-boaty person to someone who perhaps could finally understand the romantic appeal of a life at sea. After the movie, I kept coming back to the cheesy words of Johnny Depp’s pirate character, Captain Jack Sparrow:


“Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails; that’s what a ship needs, but what a ship is, what a ship really is, is freedom.”

And then, the next day, I was called a pirate.

Really. I mean, fair-dinkum, life-goal-achieved, called a pirate. Twice, and in print, no less, by the UK’s The Times.

So, as I recently mentioned, I’ve just finished writing my first book. This post wasn’t really meant to be a plug for it, but there you go. And GM Raymond Keene, a widely read chess journalist, has started publishing reviews of it. This is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, I have no idea how he got a hold of it, seeing as even I haven’t seen a copy of the book yet! But secondly, Keene’s gone for a pirate-themed approach to colouring the ‘swashbucklingly’ exciting style of the gambits I cover. Here I get called a pirate, and here, a buccaneer. Keene then branches out in his other column in The Spectator by going for a viking comparison, before reverting to more pirate-related descriptions the following week. This final column is so colourful that I can’t help but reprint my favourite snippet in full:


“In my mind’s eye, I visualise Smerdon as some swashbuckling buccaneer of the chessboard, complete with eyepatch, wooden leg, tricorn hat and probably a parrot.”

My parents must be so proud.


At least he was right about the parrot


Before Thirty…One.

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 14, 2015 in Chess

Two years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Before Thirty” in which I detailed plans to complete some of my life goals. One of them was to publish a book before my thirtieth birthday (by the way, I got to that handstand in the end). The book was to be a chess openings book, a guide to the Portuguese Gambit in the Scandinavian and a particular favourite of mine. Unfortunately, ‘life and stuff’ got in the way and it didn’t happen.

However, the project slowly but surely progressed and, as I was reminded last week, it’s going to come out while I’m still thirty. This doesn’t really count, but better late than never, huh?

I’ll write something more detailed once the book’s available, but here’s a sneak peak at the publisher’s page just to prove I’m not lying.

After all, thirty-one is the new thirty, right?


Book review: Gelfand’s “Positional Decision-Making”

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 7, 2015 in Chess

“Positional Decision-Making in Chess” – Boris Gelfand (and Jacob Aagaard)

Quality Chess 


It’s rare that a chess book holds my attention well enough that I finish it in one sitting. It’s rarer still that I have the opportunity to review two such books in a row (see my last ‘Swamp’ review). This collaborative work between Boris Gelfand and Jacob Aagaard had perhaps an unfair advantage, though, as I started reading it on an eight-hour ferry ride from Athens to the Greek island of Ikaria. Still, I’d wager that I would have finished it even in the presence of tempting alternatives, because it’s truly a superb work.

At first, I must admit to being a little sceptical, as I usually am about ‘reflective’ books towards the twilight of a great player’s career. (It’s a little unfair to suggest that Gelfand’s career has peaked, actually, but forgive me – he is, after all, the oldest player in the top fifty. Still, I hope to be proved wrong when he wins the World Cup!) Occasionally, these books can just be an excuse to make a bit of easy money, in a same vein as so many autobiographies by sports stars. My fears weren’t exactly dissuaded in the first few pages, in which both Gelfand and Aagaard had already referenced their other books, and soon after made mention that this was just one book in a multi-volume series. I must also confess to having had some small concerns that an autobiographical work ghost-written by Aagaard would prove to be a little too much of a self-congratulatory memoir about an admittedly successful collaborative team, and less of an instructive work for the reader.

But these fears were quickly dispelled. This is an outstanding book, probably the best I’ve read this year. Gelfand and Aagaard have worked together often in private, and their experience in collaborating comes through in the text. There is an ‘official’ theme of using the games of Akiba Rubenstein, Gelfand’s favourite player and an often-neglected legend of chess history, in illustrating the positional lessons. However, with the exception of the first chapter (‘Playing in the style of Akiba Rubenstein’), the structure of the book focuses closely on what Gelfand believes are important positional themes from his own style of play, as reflected in the chapter titles: ‘The Squeeze’, ‘Space Advantage’, ‘Transformation of Pawn Structures’ and ‘Transformation of Advantages’.

Gelfand has an outstanding positional mind and a top-level ability to make sound, practical decisions over-the-board. But like many geniuses, it would most probably have been close to useless to have him try to describe this on his own – often, I would imagine, his inclination would have been to write things like “I just felt it was the right move.” This is where having Aagaard as co-author really makes its presence felt. Aagaard, so it seems, has the invaluable ability to tease out from the genius his detailed thought processes in coming to his positionally intuitive decisions, which Aagaard then describes to the reader in instructional fashion. Aagaard is the articulate professor, carefully and skilfully taking the theories of the great genius and transforming them into elucidative, didactic material. And we, the students, reap the benefits.

When discussing this book, a fellow reviewer had the comment that they didn’t much care for the ambivalence of some of Gelfand’s annotations, and indeed phrases such as “I’m not sure” and “I don’t know” crop up a lot more in the text than you might expect, and particularly of a Quality Chess publication. There is certainly some evasion when it comes to the evaluation of many lines, something that no doubt an engine and a couple of extra hours could have solved. But to be honest, I don’t mind this equivocation; in fact, it fits in perfectly with Gelfand’s general style of encouraging practical decision-making, rather than a search for the absolute truth à la Kotov. Quite often Gelfand’s message seems to be to strive for what he calls “best practice”, rather than the best move. And for anyone who has bungled a complicated win after brushing off a simple one, this rings loud and clear.

As in the ‘swamp-book’ I reviewed earlier, one gets a sense of being allowed into Gelfand’s analysis office, getting to hear the great player describe his thoughts almost in real-time. This, I feel, is the real value of the book: we begin to understand how he thinks, what processes he uses to make his practical decisions, and in turn, how we can better make decision at the board. Moreover, it’s clear that a lot of deep analysis has gone into the book, as is evidenced by some deep computer-assisted lines in the analyses. One particular comment in Gelfand’s game with Grischuk is a good example of the book’s overall philosophy in this regard:

“The following piece of analysis is quite fascinating, but I want to underline that it is unlikely that we would see such moves played in a game. Maybe the odds are 1% that a top player would find all of this! But as these are the best moves, it would be strange not to include them.”

However, typically we find that longer variations are included only when they serve some instructional purpose that fits into the rest of each chapter’s lessons.

I have to admit, from a personal perspective, that I found this book to be the most useful decision-making chess guide I have ever read. It’s jam-packed full of useful gems, little pieces of positional advice that probably just come naturally to Gelfand, but need to be dictated to and learned by the rest of us. For example, here’s one that makes perfect sense, but that I had never thought about before:

“When you have managed to squeeze your opponent into only two or three ranks, you want to exchange the rooks and queens, but not minor pieces.”

The emphasis on practical chess is a welcome change from many books these days, which typically focus on concrete computer evaluations. In fact, Gelfand eschews using evaluations like “0.00”, preferring to give more verbose, pragmatic assessments.  A good example of this is the following comment after a strong move:

“White will continue to look for ways to improve his position…Will it be enough for a win? Again, this sort of speculation is of course interesting for people watching the games with a beer in their hand, but for the competitive player, it has no relevance during the game. Play the best moves and see where it leads.”

This is one of the key lessons from the book. Even if a position remains defensible, Gelfand is highly critical of moves that make one’s practical defensive task more difficult. Conversely, he strongly praises attempts to increase the chances of an opponent erring; indeed, it almost seems as if improving one’s position, and making that of the opponent’s more difficult, is Gelfand’s number one objective when making each move.

There are too many quotes, and too many great pieces of advice, to mention here in the review. But perhaps the highest praise I can heap on the book is that when I got off the ferry in Ikaria, I had decided to play the first games of the tournament in the practical, positional style of Boris Gelfand. For a coffeehouse maniac such as myself, this was a compliment of the highest order! I have to admit that I was surprised at how often little proverbs from the text popped into my head as I was sitting at the board mulling over each decision.

My only criticism of the book, if you can call it that, is that it seemed perhaps a little short for a ‘series’. 275 pages is still a lot, but compared to many of Quality Chess’s products (e.g. the Negi series, or John Shaw’s 680 page epic on the King’s Gambit), I felt that the second volume could have been squeezed in as well. But this is a business rather than chess decision (perhaps the best practical move?), and besides, at 30 euros, the book as it stands is definitely worth the money. I would not be surprised to see it highly decorated when the chess book award season begins. Five stars.

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