A question of focus


I was quite fascinated with the annotations to the following position in New in Chess by two Dutchmen, Anish Giri and Willy Hendriks. But before we talk about it, we can make it an exercise for those who want it to be.

Black to play and win - Carlsen

Black to play and win

The thing that fascinated me about this position (which of course is Svidler – Carlsen, London Candidates 2013) was the way the two authors talked about the missed possibility. Hendriks writes that “you may expect it to be rather trivial (the idea that is, not the resulting variations)” while Giri writes that “…but the line is not for mortals.”

Had I not been in London that day I might have written the same thing in my article for Skakbladet. It is a normal respectful thing to say; the winning idea was nothing out of the ordinary, but making it work takes a bit of effort and since the best player in the world did not play it, the lines must be really difficult.

But as so often, reality is surprising. When Carlsen was asked at the press conference if he had looked at 25…Bxh3! he said no, clearly surprised. He had a look at the position, maybe 10 seconds, and then concluded that it was “decisive”. Those difficult lines were not so difficult for him to work out. After the press conference I took a few minutes to work out that 26.dxe4 Rg5 27.g3 Bg4 28.f3 Rb2! is indeed decisive, on account of 29.Qxb2 Bxf3 and the dual threat of …Bxd1 and …Qh3.

(Update: John pointed out that Csaba Balogh wrote in the Chess Evolution newsletter that Carlsen missed 28…Rb2. The delusion is total.)

In the same article Hendriks makes some comments about Positional Play, which he has told me he has not read yet, and that the comments should be seen as a general reaction to Monokroussos’s review. But it does allow me to underline the basic point of the three questions training method (always remember that it is not meant to be used on every move at the board, though as one of many tools in your kit, it is acceptable) is that it trains your focus.

Clearly had Carlsen, for a second, thought about winning the game in an attack, he would have done so. Even when you are onboard the 2900 rocket your focus is not perfect. This teaches us that we can always improve this, and working with books like those in the Grandmaster Preparation series can aid this.

Later in his article Hendriks says that the only training method that works is looking at good chess. This is a very extreme statement and in some way I think it has helped me a bit to understand how some authors with similar views look at those of us who include general principles in our writing: as opposing extremists. I am not saying that Hendriks does this, but others clearly do in the way they write about the opposing view. Basically, what they believe is that the people who talk about “rules in chess” must view the move Nf3-e1 as a move away from the centre (although, in the case I am thinking of, it should be seen as Nf3-e1-c2-e3-d5, taking the only viable route to the centre). The problem with seeing it in the intelligent way is that it is less extreme and does not work well as an enemy. Or they might want to think that concrete lines cannot co-exist in a belief system that includes general assumptions about chess. If this is you, please read Mark Dvoretsky’s books. They are very concrete and they have lots of general assumptions.

29 thoughts on “A question of focus”

  1. The position from the game Svidler – Carlsen, London Candidates 2013 is BEAUTIFUL! The example of playing Bxh3 is very simple to some of 1400-1800 players, but who would really (fully!) understand that after 28.f3 the “kamikadze” Rb2 is decisive? (I estimate just a group/bunch of players rated 2700+). This position is one of the most amazing and instructive examples of many factors (I would not like to reveal them as others might want to discover them by themselves). Understanding these elements (factors) is crucial when we want to play really deep and solid chess.

    I just want to add one experience – a small example of blindness from my own game. I have a decisive attack against my opponent. In a “normal” conditions (if I had known that the position is an easy win – no more than 3 moves ahead!) I would find critical move that gains decisive advantage – in no more than 2-3 minutes. However I missed it and even after the game I have looked at much deeper one variation that gains a decisive advantage. It was very hard to break down the “retained blockade” that I gave up. My friend told me the variation (just 2 moves ahead!!!) and I could not understand what is he talking about. After the next few seconds something strange happened. Suddenly the “retained blockade” crashed into pieces (I mean – dissapeared). Now I am sure that playing (thinking, evaluating, predicting, assuming, working, making decisions, etc.) at DEEP level might be one of the most sure ways of missing EASY (?!) shots like this one Carlsen (or me) missed. It was neither difficult nor deep (for both of us), but we did not see it. Why? I am sure there is an area to study this phenomena much deeper – to explain it and make some conclusions.

    In a short summary: we should focus as much as possible, but there is a risk that we might miss quite easy solutions, when we are in a “too deep mode of working”. I bet most of stronger players (and you Jacob as a player and trainer) had to experience this phenomena many, many times. It is one of the best (chess?) mystery to me – how is it possible to miss very simple solutions like that? However I am convinced that it might be something like two ways: you might deep your focusing, but with the price of being unable to recognize amazingly simple solutions (especially when you do not expect them nor know they exist at specific position or time!).

    Thank you very much for such a interesting thread! It gives me a powerful boost to discover many hidden things! Yes, it motivates me to search and dig much, much more deeper and broader than usual! 🙂

  2. Gilchrist is a Legend

    This seems to be me to be one of those examples that emphasies the barrier between grandmasters and IMs/FMs, and sometimes those 2200+ at least. That …Rb2 idea shows the difference in depth, to which every ambitious player attempts to emulate. It is a sometimes translucent barrier, since as the post above might have meant, an IM or FM or 2250 may see most of it, but not the …Rb2 idea. The latter accentuates the level at which one must maintain to play at that level. It is similar to why Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea, and Liverpool usually are in the top places of the EPL table, whilst Stoke, Southampton, and Newcastle Utd (unfortunately) usually do not maintain standings at the level of the former.

  3. Frankfurter Bub

    @ Thomasz: Thanks a lot for your comment. Your summary paragraph describes perfectly a problem that occured to me so and so often. I am really currious about Jacob’s answer. Maybe it is a good topic for another weekly training tip?

  4. I think a similiar game is Carlsen-Aronian (I think from last year), where Aronian missed a basically a (for his level of play) relativly easy combination (it was a Marshall, I donot remeber exactly the tournament) forcing mate.
    It hapens to the ver best, only much rarer

  5. Jacob Aagaard

    I think somehow people have misread the article, though I think it is relatively clear. But let me make it even more explicit:

    FOCUS: When I talk about focus I am not talking about it in its metaphorical form, which we often use. It does not mean concentration. What it means is “the direction in which you are looking”. Clearly Carlsen and Svidler were not looking for combinations or at …Bxh3. So, for example the view that we see these things because we have seen the theme or something similar before struggles with this example. How come the best chess player in the world misses the most generic combination? Clearly the explanation needs to be a bit wider.

    Rxb2: This is not a hard move to see for me. It was almost instant for Carlsen once he was looking at it (at the press conference). To ascribe difficulty to this move for a GM is incorrect. I appreciate that it can be a hard move for other people. But it is not a stumbling block for Carlsen.

    This also explains the mystery of “how can I make simple mistakes when I am going very deep?” The reason is this: you are going deep in one direction. You have not taken the time to look for other directions. Chapter One of Excelling at Chess Calculation is called “Before you can learn to think, you need to learn how to see!” We are all guilty of this error from time to time, but the less you commit it, the stronger you will be.

  6. Concerning the training activity, maybe without any relation with the post but important for me.

    I have been translating (to spanish) and using some parts of the first Yusupov book (Build up your chess – The Fundamentals) to work with kids in a small village in my country (also to train myself). I develop this work in an altruistic way and mentioning that my work is the translation of an important text.

    There is a problem concerning the copyright? If I post the translated games (in Spanish) in my blog there is a copyright problem?

    I will love to know your comments.

  7. Jacob Aagaard

    Yes, what you are doing is not only disrespectful to the author, it is also illegal. I understand that this was not done in a mean spirited way, but I would ask you to stop doing this, please.

  8. Alberto, the games are not copyrighted, the comments are. Anyway a small part of those comments may be cited as a fair use (I can say about a move that Yusupov says “bla bla bla”…of course not for all moves of a game).

    Anyway it’s better if you teach the kids to read english so that they can read whatever they want without translation…the english in the chess books it’s not that difficult to understand.

  9. @Jacob Aagaard
    Ok. No problem, I’ll stop.

    But I don’t understand way it is disrespectful considering that in the book Introduction it is say:
    “I further believe that many chess lovers, who show great commitment ot working with young players in chess clubs, will gain with this series of books … ” and later ” training material for their chess lessons”

    so, what that means?

    Also, in some way it demonstrates my respect to the author because, being sincere, there are a lot of training books in the market and choosing this one only demonstrates that for me this is the best one.

    Finally, obviously I must translated it to spanish, because they (the kids) don’t speak english, and they must not. But, as I already said, I have no problem to stop.

  10. Because you’re taking copyrighted material created by someone and produced/packaged by others, both requiring time and monetary investment, and posting it free on the internet for all to view.


    ### Grandmaster Preparation – Endgame Play ###

    Jacob, what for will you use? Shall we learn some theoretical positions or something else? Please inform us more.

    Normally, I’m eager to buy it as soon as possible!

  12. @Jacob Aagaard
    In the US, this likely would fall under the Fair Use doctrine, particularly if only small portions are published for educational purposes, and particularly as he is not profiting personally from this. Further, as he is not impacting the market for the original product, as these kids are not going to be buying the English or German versions of the book, US courts have also taken this into consideration. There is also fair use in the UK, though I am less familiar with it. In any event, it is not a clear-cut case of copyright infringement, and would likely require a court case to sort out. Pretty sure that, if he doesn’t post them on the blog, but just translates and uses them for educational purposes, there would be no problem.

    If you want really stringent enforcement of copyright, you should be paying the “authors” of the chess games a fee to be including them in your books, just like Sveshnikov wants! US copyright law pertaining to music is already this stringent.

  13. @Alberto
    Posting the games themselves is not a copyright issue. Posting the commentary on the games by another author is the problem.

    By the way, I don’t consider what you are doing to be disrespectful, since there is no Spanish edition of the book, and since you are giving the original author credit where credit is due. We have an expression in English: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

  14. Jacob Aagaard

    Copyright on writings is always a difficult thing to understand emotionally. “But the author loses nothing…” is something I once in a while hears. But we all know this is not true.

    Regarding respecting the author: to produce versions of the work that is not under his control is certainly not respectful. I understand you meant no harm and I think my answer reflected this.

    The way forward might be to convince Artur for the need for a Spanish edition! Please e-mail me privately and we can talk further about it. I am not sure anything will come of it, but it is worth a chat at least.

  15. Jacob Aagaard

    @The Lurker
    Yes, it is very respectful to try to copy Leonardo da Vinci. Or not :-). Actually, the order and the thematic headlines are also a part of the copyright. Basically, reproduction is not allowed; for a simple reasons: it kills the industry and stops the publication of good books in the future. We are not living in mansions from our millions I can assure you.

  16. @Jacob Aagaard
    I agree, and it shows once again that you can’t be too careful with publishing e-books. ‘Free’ downloading is theft in my eyes, no matter if it’s legal or not.

  17. @Ray
    I don’t think ebook publishing will increase copyright infrangement, instead it will simplify the life of the honest clients.

  18. Jacob Aagaard

    I agree. Clearly the problem with Napster was that there were no easy alternatives for people. Today I bought a record on my phone. Easy and get it instantly without any transport of CDs or moving stuff around. And £4.99 is a fair price. Probably as much go to the artists as before.

  19. @Jacob Aagaard
    Jacob, I’d like to add a proposal. You see from the comments that Quality Chess clients probably buy most of your books (you could do a poll about it)…I find very difficult to find an excuse to not buy one of your books…so why don’t you think about a subscription model? The subscriber can have all of your books released during one year (with a minimum of titles guaranteed, just to avoid Nessie effects…)…so that one doesn’t have the temptation to find around the titles one hasn’t bought…no temptation means no more sharing around…think about it. I’m sure everybody once in a blue moon has downloaded a copyrighted book…even just to evaluate it before buying or to say that you have them all. If one can have all the books I dream about, nobody will be tempted to do it anymore.

    Just an idea…I’m not a publisher or an editor so probably I don’t know many things…


  20. Jacob Aagaard

    The problem is the necessary technology. We will be out on ipad (and later android) and hopefully already this summer with the first title. It will not be all books, at least not at first, but it will exist soon.


    ### Grandmaster Preparation – Endgame Play ###
    Jacob, what for will you use? Shall we learn some theoretical positions or something else? Please inform us more.
    Normally, I’m eager to buy it as soon as possible!

    No reply?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top