In last week’s post I talked a bit about the four types of decisions we need to make during the game. (Yes, I am aware that you can define it in other ways; this is just a way I find useful to do it when helping strong players navigate the complexities of the game). Please revisit if you have not read it yet.

Ashish kindly put up a link to a blog post by American Master and Mathematician Dana McKenzie. In this Dana talks about two types of players; those that approach chess with calculation and those that approach it with more general considerations, such as bad bishop, improving the worst piece and so on.

I know this is the reality for a lot of people playing chess; even very strong ones. One guy I worked with at some point (rated about 2625) was tactically exceptionally inclined, but like a computer, he could only make decisions with brute force. Unfortunately, unlike with computers, he was not able to calculate 2 million moves a second, so he had sort of hit a ceiling.

Although exceptionally intelligent, he had not worked out how to deal with the more positional aspects of the game. He had never had a trainer and although he had worked with some of the best players in the world as a second or as training partner, he was still missing basic skills.

Because this is what Dana McKenzie is talking about. Let us compare with football (soccer for our US friends). Obviously we have a natural way to kick the ball that we all do intuitively. If we play regularly we will pick up a few tricks and improve our skills, but we might still have a “lame left foot” and struggle to head the ball (closing your eyes while doing it as I used to do).

With this player we called calculation the hammer. This comes from the old saying, for the man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.

As this guy was much smarter than I, it was very quick and pain free to teach him to make simple moves based on positional considerations. I put him through the program I had in POSITIONAL PLAY and quickly he had it all covered.

Obviously he is still a great calculator; but now he calculates when there are things to calculate, not in all situations. He has more tools in his tool box.

65 thoughts on “Tools”

  1. Interesting to read that even at 2625 you can still have some gaps in basic skills – that gives hope for my own improvment :- ). Just out of curiosity: has his rating significantly increased since?

  2. I recall a number of renowned Russian trainers (inc Bareev & Khalifman) expressing very similar sentiments regarding Le Quang Liem after they had begun to work with him and I believe that was after he had already won the first of two Aeroflot Opens!

    You almost certainly can’t get to 2625 (or anywhere near) by having a deep feeling for positional chess combined with an inability to calculate………..

  3. grinding_tolya

    @Jacob Aagaard
    at a recent tournament, I had a discussion with a South-American GM (2600+) and a Russian GM (2550+) and the difference in style was obvious.
    While the South-American was telling me that it’s all about calculation (referring to your Calculation book as good material) , the Russian was arguing about focusing on raising my chess knowledge.

    End of the day, when calculating, you usually will still have to posses chess knowledge in order to asses the calculated positions.

  4. Matt :
    You almost certainly can’t get to 2625 (or anywhere near) by having a deep feeling for positional chess combined with an inability to calculate………..

    I got the GM title and over 2500, and “inability to calculate” sounds a fair description of me. I am not sure that counts as anywhere close to 2625 though. And my assessment of my ability to calculate is not any weird false modesty – give me a position where brute-force calculation is essential, and hilarity ensues.

    On a particularly arrogant day, I would claim my feel for what a good positional move looks like is quite good.

  5. @John Shaw That’s very encouraging. Would love to read a longer blog post about your approach and success. While I have no aspirations to GM-hood, the beauty of chess, and the entire reason I play, is the strategy, not at all the grinding analytics. But I sometimes get the feeling I’m in the small minority among chess players.

  6. Howard Goldowsky

    This whole calculation vs. strategic play maps elegantly onto the whole rules vs. no rules debate. The people who calculate for a living will also tell you that they don’t play by rules. Those who are able to grasp the more general characteristics of a position (perhaps using their left hemisphere), might also be able to verbalize a “rule.” The quotes around “rule” are intentional, because these players are not verbalizing a real rule, the kind without exceptions. Instead of “rule,” we should use “generalization,” which is the human brain’s way to collate the imbalances of a particular position into a higher-concept idea, something at which computers stink. Within this context of looking at the rules vs. no rules debate as a discussion about calculation vs. higher concepts, I don’t think there is a debate at all. Even the most ardent calculators still need to evaluate the position at the end of their calculations. Strong chess play can be done using a preponderance of calculation, but not the other way around. Deep Blue = exhibit A. That machine had a notoriously bad evaluation function, but it could calculate like a Mo#erf%er. Yet it still NEEDED some sort of basic evaluation function to discern between lines. In this sense, every chess palyer, man or machine, uses both “rules” and calculation to play. Hg

  7. Jacob Aagaard

    A guy I am working with at the moment got to 2650 with a great feeling for chess without the ability to calculate. I am teaching him what calculation is at the moment :-).

    So, you are wrong. There is a black swan.

  8. Jacob Aagaard

    @Howard Goldowsky
    I prefer to call it STRATEGIC CONCEPTS these days. It has a different emotional impact. Basically it is a serious option in “this” kind of position and we shall consider it. It is abstract pattern recognition. This brings the two sides of the debate within reach of each other and although it is not possible to have a serious debate with some people, at least it means that you can reach just about everyone else.

  9. NOT a very good player

    Never posted here before, and as my name suggests i am definately not a very good chess player, However I would just like to add my two cents to the rules/calculation debate. I think, personally, that Liptniksky’s book, chapter 7(published by a certain chess publisher), has the best description on what is going on on a chessboard appertaining to rules etc.
    By the way thanks for the great chess books you folks do. The new Tal book is fantastic!

  10. Jacob Aagaard

    @NOT a very good player
    When I had a debate with an American author (not very civil and no reason to return to) Mark Dvoretsky told me that we Westerners were stupid. It had all been explained in 1956 by a certain Ukrainian author. I tried to get my then publisher Everyman Chess to publish the Lipnitsky book, but they declined, thinking it was uncommercial. This was one of the 4-5 reasons I decided to start Quality Chess. I think the decision was correct. It is one of the 10 most important chess books of the 20th century.

    (2. They would not publish a book on the Berlin, which we eventually did.
    3. I felt their editing of some of my books were below what I wanted and did not want them to mess up the Attacking Manual. I then did it myself. Luckily the 2nd edition of AM1 is brilliantly edited by John and AM2 equally well edited by Andrew.
    4. I had realised I was a professional chess writer and needed to think long term. I could not continue to write 8-10 books a year.
    5. I just wanted to add to the culture and improve things.)

  11. Maybe slightly off-topic, but hey, who cares: I noticed that the level of writers for Everyman seem to drop year after year. E.g. their opening books are rarely written by GMs (unlike Quality Chess and also Chess-stars, where this is the norm), and the writer of the recently published ‘Play the accelerated Dragon’ is not even an IM. Maybe it has to do with their business model (they pay less to their authors), but I definitely prefer books by high-lever writers!

  12. I notice I find it harder to calculate in more quiet positions. When the possible moves are capturing stuff, giving checks or fork’s, my mind starts working immediately, even insane sacs at h7,f7,g7 pop up naturally, but in other cases the general modus takes over and I really need to force myself to calculate as well. That is one of the reasons I often miss the strong quiet move of the opponent.

    This is especially manifest in time-trouble situations when only the moves are considered that automatically pop up in the candidate list. I must try to improve the automatic candidate list producer in my head…

  13. Ray :
    I’m working on ‘CM Reportoire: winning with the Grob’.

    Oh, great. Can I pre-order that one?
    In return I send you a signed copy of my collection ‘My 20 best wins by forfeit’.

  14. Jacob Aagaard

    Not funny. I would have made more money doing just about everything else over the last decade than this. If my wife did not have a good job, Quality Chess would not have worked. John and I started to take a salary in 2011 or 2012. And we started in 2004…

  15. Jacob Aagaard

    I hate the sound of the Stonewall book. I liked my voice better. Of course some of the books were good, the Excelling series basically, but the books were not improved in editing. Almost the opposite. We try to improve all books – a lot. At times people say that it does not matter which publisher publishes a book… I think you can look at the final products and see that this is not the case. We are not lucky; we work hard. I wanted to be which such a publisher and it did not exist.

  16. Jacob Aagaard

    @Indra Polak
    You will hate the advice: Don’t get into time trouble! But seriously, don’t. Find out where you are squandering your time and learn to make decisions, rather than watching the clock tick out.

  17. Allright. I will start writing down times I spent, see if I can figure out where I spent too much time (or too little)

  18. The only books I buy are Chess Stars and Quality Chess. And I buy some of those I don’t really need just because they look like interesting and very good books.

  19. As we’re talking interesting very good books now: which QC book would people recommend for pure enjoyment? I’m often just dead tired in the evening nowadays and I need a new book to just slowly play through for fun, being entertained without having to think too much (and yes, I still want it to be chess :-)). So fun chess and anecdotes, no hard exercises or reams of analysis.

    Polgar, perhaps?

  20. @Remco G
    Polgar, for sure. There is plenty of analysis but 1) you can always gloss over what you want and 2) it has that Marin quality of all the analysis being interesting. Also a lot of the games are fragments so the most interesting parts of the games have been preselected for you.

    There are other books I’d recommend for enjoyment but they’re from other publishers; QC seems to focus (understandably!) more on actually improving people’s play.

  21. GM vs. Amateur is a very enjoyable, book, even funny in some of the chapters, AND it’s possible to gain good insights from it without much work. It may point you in directions that require hard work though…

    I also enjoy Karolyi’s books on Karpov and Attacking Manual 1 + 2 immensely, but that’s just personal taste.

    In many cases there’s really no conflict between enjoyment and improvement. The kinds of training we actually enjoy are the ones we will be able to keep up over time. So the key to lasting improvement must be to strike the optimal balance between fun and efficiency! (In addition to honest self-evaluations and “systems over goals”, of course).

  22. NOT a very good player

    @Jacob Aagaard
    Liptnitsky is the best chess book i have ever read without question.I am grateful that you took the plunge and started quality chess as i would be a worse player without your publications-aside from liptnitsky, My system was the big eye-opener for me, Marins books are amazing as are karoly’s karpov and tal books. Thanks again

  23. @Ray,

    “Play the Accelerated Dragon” may not be writen by a GM or IM, but it is very useful for the average club-player like I am. It is full of verbal explanations and all kinds of tips and plans (opening and general).
    A (very) good coach/trainer doesn’t have to be a (very) good player himself.


    The same goes for “The Benko Gambit: Move by Move”.

  24. Jacob Aagaard

    I do not see the great point of having to unlearn things. Therefore I prefer to have teachers that know what they are talking about. Obviously a 2200 player can know a lot about a topic, but he will not know a lot about a lot of topics; or he would be higher rated. Of course there are exceptions, but they are rare. Nikos is one exception. Nakamura’s friend and at times second is another. But there are not 100s of these guys around…

  25. @Jacob Aagaard
    Good point. I am missing the context of “unlearn things”, however.

    I didn’t say these books are as good as Quality’s, off course 😉 Unfortunately I do not have the money, otherwise I would by them all! I have about ten of them, which I all find very good.

  26. @TD
    Well, there’s also the point that there’s just plenty of errors (bad recommendations) in e.g. ‘Play the accelerated Dragon’. True, below a certain level this may not be noticed by your opponents, but it is my firm belief that stronger players can write better chess books (in general; there are always exceptions possible of course).

  27. @Ray
    That may be so, but maybe these books are the exceptions? I don’t judge a book beforehand, just because I don’t know the writer.
    And as you say, at my level (1900’s) I can benefit from even the slightest detail or tip etc. Also I like to have as much information about an opening as I can, just as a collector.

  28. @TD
    I have to admit I haven’t checked this particular book myself, but a friend of mine who plays the accelerated Dragon has checked it and found a number of dubious recommendations. But you are right of course that a book shouldn’t be judged beforehand. I’m just speaking of experience – I have bought too many opening books by rather weak authors with dubious recommendations since I’m a collector as well 🙂 E.g. Lakdawala recommends a line (main line with 6.e3) in the Slav – Move by Move which he admits himself is better for white, which is totally unnecessary because there are good alternatives for black available.

  29. @Ray
    Thanks for your response! B.t.w., now I have to look at that Slav-book too (again), to compare his recommendation with my own black repertoire… 😉

  30. I recorded time spent per move this weekend in a game. One conclusion: most time I spent was in a position were I finally chose a wrong move…the time spent was to make Ne4 (the best move) work but I thought black had a strong counter in that variation which I very hard tried to refute with an unsound sacrifice…I should not have looked at (unsound) sacrifices but at simpler solutions.

  31. Michael Bartlett

    Jacob Aagaard :
    A guy I am working with at the moment got to 2650 with a great feeling for chess without the ability to calculate. I am teaching him what calculation is at the moment :-).
    So, you are wrong. There is a black swan.

    That guy needs to write a best games collection with what his feelings on the position were. That is incredible.

    1. Jacob Aagaard

      I think there are quite a lot of these guys around. I have trained several. A lot of people are good at one thing only, if they have not received a rounded training.

  32. Ok.. I will pick it up from a friend of mine in the near days.. he still has some exercises to do. Strategic book was good but I would call it Complex Positions..

  33. Jacob Aagaard

    Indeed. This is where you need strategic thinking.

    I should probably say that when you come to things like thinking models, there is not a one size fits all. I have given my version; others have given theirs. For the individual the best thing will be to see which things work for them and steal from everything to make it fit their own needs.

  34. Jacob Aagaard

    Or, in other words: there is no right way, though there are definitely many wrong ways to do things…

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