Grandmaster Q&A Part 1

In the autumn of 2013 I gave ten hours of training to a GM who has been struggling for years, unable to improve his play and slowly bleeding rating points. I felt he had certain problems in concrete positions, but in general he needed to work more on improving his play.

After the sessions he sent me a long list of additional questions that I agreed to answer, if I was allowed to share them with the readers of the blog. As long as I kept his name confidential, he saw no problem with this.

As we are talking about quite a lot of material, I have decided to cut up the Q&A session into five posts that will come over the summer.

1a) In case I am working alone what should be the most effective training method?

Obviously I can only give an opinion, not a definite answer to this question. I think an important point is to refer to a previous blog post, where I clearly state my belief that there are many ways to do just about everything.

But this does not mean that there are not a few ways of training that you can do on your own that have a proven track record.

a) Analyse your own games (and those of others)

Not all grandmasters use this method, but quite a lot do and owe a considerable amount of their success to doing this. Here it is important to understand the difference between turning on the engines and looking at their recommendations, and then going through the game thoroughly, questioning everything and trying to understand the difference between the moves played and the alternatives, as well as to determine the accuracy of what you were thinking during the game and the reason behind the mistakes you made.

b) Solve exercises

At the board you are trying to think. If you do not train your thinking at home, you will be like someone who never runs and enters a 10k race, only to find that it is tough going. He might complete it, but he will certainly walk a lot of the way…

c) Improve your openings

This works to some extent. It is easier playing good positions than to defend. And if you have good openings, you will get to play good positions most of the time. It is intentionally only third on the list, as the two other methods not only lead to better results in my estimation, they also have longevity that opening preparation does not have. Still, if you are already doing the other things, this does help.

d) Study the endgame

With a World Champion such as Magnus Carlsen there is no reason to put this after opening preparation on the list; and this is also not a question of priority. But understanding the endgame and remembering some of the main theoretical positions will definitely improve your game. If you want to combine this with b) I know a good source: Grandmaster Preparation โ€“ Endgame Play by yours truly.

1b) Also during a tournament if I have some time to prepare for next game

Many times it happens that I have chosen a wrong opening for a certain player. Probably proper guidance from an experienced coach might have made a big difference in that crucial situation of the tournament. My question is in such cases how a player should make his decision.

I think this (both the above) is a problem for many other players who donโ€™t have a permanent coach or sparring partners for all the time and also during tournament. Although I have been playing for a long time still unsure about the right attitude / training method during practise session. Please advise.

There are various ways to approach the opening battle. For some time it was quite popular to focus on getting an advantage and discovering novelties. In the 2007 World Championship in Mexico, Anand won a wonderful game against Aronian with Black, introducing a novelty (17โ€ฆc5!!) found by Peter Heine Nielsen. Something similar happened in Wijk aan Zee 2013 and the Candidates 2014 with the same players. But this is as far as this has any influence on top chess at the moment. Carlsen won the World Championship match without any serious opening preparation. With Black he was okay to be worse; with White he did not care about an advantage.

This does not mean that he did not have an opening philosophy. What he wanted was a certain type of technical positions that he excels in. He managed to do so in most of the games and won the match. If Game 9 had been Game 2, I think the match would have looked less one-sided. I really do not understand why Anand wanted to bang his head against the Berlin all the time…

I know that what happens on the top level is not relevant to more than a few players in the World. Usually, that is. But this time is an exception.

If we look at the recent Candidates tournament we will see that a lot of the players have stopped trying to do anything special in the opening. Karjakin and Mamedyarov especially had nothing interesting to offer and Andreikin has never even pretended to have an opening repertoire.

In other words, chess is changing. People are less and less caring about opening preparation; which is what chess was all about for Kasparov, Leko, Topalov and to some extent still, Aronian, Anand and Kramnik.

Successful opening play these days is more often about the element of surprise. We saw this in the Bonn match in 2008, in the final game of the 2010 match and as a big feature in the 2012 match in Moscow. There were novelties, but the real impact in the opening was the element of surprise. Once this was gone (in the rapid match, game 7 and so on), we were back to novelties being really important.

What this means for us is that our opening preparation needs to be a battle for two things:

a) To get the type of positions we prefer. This is often easier if we are technically inclined.

b) To surprise the opponents when we can. We have a bigger chance of doing so when we have some core openings as well.

This leads to my recommendation.

1) You need to seriously understand in which positions you play best. Divide the game up into 4-6 different types of play and do statistics (I should write a blog post about how to do this and get some people to join in as an experiment!), as the result might surprise you.

2) Develop some opening lines that you know well. Have something you can always play against anyone and where you know the details well.

3) About 2-3 weeks before an important tournament (most tournaments are important, but we do not always have 2-3 weeks of extra time before them) decide on some surprise variations you want to prepare. We all know that you cannot prepare them to the same level as your main system, but you can do a lot better than an opponent can do with 30 minutes for the opening phase of the game. And also a lot better than you will do if you scramble for 2 hours before the game, as many do. Obviously you can always save the material you have been working on and use it another time. Updating it a year down the line will not be hard…

2) I have got stuck at some level for quite some time. What do you think after studying my games and what would you recommend to make a breakthrough?

(Again I feel this question refers to many other players who are sort of stuck after reaching at a certain level)

About this I cannot make a general comment on the blog.

I felt that you could not calculate properly. This is a major obstacle. In order to reap what you sow during a game, you need to be able to calculate difficult positions. A lot of work on calculation would be a good idea and it would help you a lot, I think.

58 thoughts on “Grandmaster Q&A Part 1”

  1. Well. Nothing to disagree if I were 2200+ probably. But I’m 19xx and so I’m weak in every area of the game.

    What I do: Analyse my own games with a trainer. Play tournaments to get stronger opposition. Train tactics. Learn Endgames.

    What I really don’t know: Which kind of positions I do prefer? Two years ago this seemed totally clear. Doing the Khmelnitzky – Chess Exam tactics was my weakest spot. Then I was a low 18xx player. Following the books advice and my trainer I have worked on it. Now I’m in a phase of desorientation. My trainer asks me to train endings, what I have started. But in the games I really don’t know what I prefer to play.

    It’s somewhat funny. I like everything but I feel I don’t act well an every area of the game.

  2. I agree that this is good if you have the time available.
    What is your advice if there is very little time for chess study?

    I am a reasonably strong player who is trying to preserve my
    strength by playing around 2-10 serious games per year.

    I’m planning to make a comeback (to play more) in a couple of years
    and to play in IM- and GM-tournaments.

    I analyze my own (few) games, study openings and the associated middle games, play blitz on the internet (with the aim to test my opening repertoire and to train tactics) and study the endgame a bit.

    I dont have the time to solve difficult exercises, so I guess my play is rather shallow right now.

    What is your suggestion?

  3. “Divide the game up into 4-6 different types of play ”
    It would be very interesting indeed if you could do a blogpost on this. I always used to think that there were really only two types of position: tactical/attacking and positional/technical, where I was more of an attacking player. But since I took up the KID about a year ago, I realized that there is a also a more maneouvring kind of attacking chess that I understand very little about. I think merely listing these 4-6 types of positions would already show me which areas I could stand the most improvement. Maybe the same would go for others.

  4. @Jacob I’m interested in which openings you would define as good? Against 1.e4 do you think 1…e5 and the Sicilian are the best choices? Or would you include the French and Caro-Kann in the “good” category as well? Against 1.d4 I would also be interested in your opinion on the King’s Indians’s viability. IM Greg Shahade wrote an article on what he considered the best openings a couple years ago that I found interesting: I would be interested to know whether you agree with his assumptions or where you differ from him. I think Kasparov said in an interview during his 1990 WCh match with Karpov that all “normal” openings are sound. However he didn’t go into specifics, if I remember correctly his answer was to the following question by interviewer: “you once said the Gruenfeld is completely sound so why did you play the King’s Indian?”

  5. My first comment in your blog.
    I am IM (2400) 39 years old. Not improving, but just mantaining strenght is difficult at this age.
    As others said, one big problem is the little time (with job, family, etc.)
    Other thing is I have problems using computer (database, Houdini, etc.). I need advice on how to use the computer.
    Thank you

  6. Jacob Aagaard

    It sounds like you are doing a lot of good things. Don’t worry that chess still holds mysteries for you – it should! Keep going and you will get the rewards long term.

  7. Jacob Aagaard

    Whatever you do, do it with attention and concentration. Obviously, with limited time and limited practice, progress is difficult. People always want short cuts in chess, but accept that they are not to be found in playing the piano, studying law or whatever else they have done that is difficult in life. I know this is not you, but I have wanted to make this comparison for a while and it fitted in here.

  8. Jacob Aagaard

    In this case I was not talking about general terms. It is about working out what you struggle with and put more focus on it for a few weeks in the training.

    We could divide chess into a few basic areas. This is a rough list done on the spot.

    * Opening theory
    * Opening decisions (development)
    * Opening decisions (planning for the middlegame)
    * Tactics
    * Positional decisions
    * Strategy
    * Defence
    * Attack
    * Strategic endgames
    * Technical Endgames
    * Theoretical Endgames

    Not necessarily complete, but more useful than tactics/positional…

  9. Jacob Aagaard

    Not surprisingly I agree with Kasparov. All openings where you do not do something weird are sound. Let us say against 1.d4. The QGA, QGD, Slav, Nimzo, Grunfeld, KID. All of these (and more that I forgot?) are based on fluent development and fighting for the centre.

    On the outskirts of this we have the Dutch and Modern Benoni, where the fight for the centre is less pronounced. There is a risk White ends up with an advantage.

    Some openings give White a space advantage and is a bit dodgy, but might be ok. Czech Benoni and variations of such closed passive openings.

    There are some openings that are somewhat dubious and where I fear Black cannot equalise even with accurate play (before more 40, say). With Gelfand’s book we looked at 1…d6 and 2…Bg4, where Black has to play very accurately not to be a lot worse. Also, recently the Modern Benoni has come under a lot of pressure. These openings do not have fluent development and a clear fight for the centre. Modern Benoni is risky – because it loses a pawn! Maybe it could work and maybe not. At the moment the pendulum has swung towards not; something that has not happened to the Nimzo for the last 75 years or so (early rumours of its demise were indeed inaccurate…).

    So against 1.e4 the Alekhine, Modern, Scandinavian, Nimzowitsch Opening, 1…b6 and so on, do not entirely meet the criteria for smooth development and a fight for the centre; but French, Caro-Kann, 1…e5, Sicilian all do.

    This is all speculation, but I find it useful to work within a theoretical framework at times; still concrete play is what matters. Chess is a game.

  10. Jacob Aagaard :@Bebbe Whatever you do, do it with attention and concentration. Obviously, with limited time and limited practice, progress is difficult. People always want short cuts in chess, but accept that they are not to be found in playing the piano, studying law or whatever else they have done that is difficult in life. I know this is not you, but I have wanted to make this comparison for a while and it fitted in here.

    This is 100% true. May i add that attention and concentration combined with the “little and often” principle works wonders in any area.

  11. Thanks Jacob.
    There was a certain salvation in thinking that there were only two types of positions: I only sucked at half of them. With this list I suck at almost everything…

  12. @Ramiro
    I see that Russell Enterprises is publishing a book this summer by Jon Edwards called “ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age” that might be a useful resource for using the computer database functions.

  13. @Ramiro, over at ChessPub Forum, Jupp53 recommended a book by Robin Smith – Modern Chess Analysis, Gambit 2004. I think the ideas are sound but the chess engines have to be updated. Also, IDEA in Aquarium is supposedly the best analytical tool but requires a steep learning curve. There is another book published which also gives advice/explanation on engines analysis and using computer database to prepare an opening repertoire etc. Eg, how to set up a limited opening book for use with an engine to play practice games in the particular opening/variation. However, I cannot find that book on my shelf and I cannot remember the name. My memory fails and is failing and I was hoping chess might arrest the decline โ€ฆโ€ฆ sigh!

  14. Jacob (with others) also wrote a book on using the computer a long time ago, presumably now out of date.

    As Nigel Short wrote in a recent NIC “Magnus Carlsen is a fine player, but your laptop is stronger. Use it” (or something very similar). I’m a little surprised at the lack of books on the entire topic of making the most of your computer.

  15. The problem is that there’s such an abundance of chess software, and nobody knows all of it.
    IMHO a good starting point for a strong player would be:
    – a GUI with a new engine (-> Stockfish is free!) to analyze your games
    – a DB program for opening prep
    – Chess Position Trainer to learn your opening repertoire. Read Axel Smith’s book to find out how to create one.

  16. @Andre
    Maybe a little off topic, but does anyone know a good Chess Position Trainer for Apple? I have Hiarcs on my MacBook as an engine and database, but it is lacking a chess position trainer functionality.

  17. @Ramiro

    I’m in the almost exact situation as you. I am an IM, 40 years old with Elo around 2400, not improving with job and family. Of course chess has the third highest priority right now. I’m also eagerly awaiting Jacobs answer on your questions.

  18. Jacob Aagaard

    I will talk to Nikos. Together we will do a small series on using computers in the autumn. Maybe I can even talk 1-2 of our authors to contribute as well…

  19. @Ray
    You can run Windows Software on your Mac by using bootcamp to dual boot Windows or run a a virtual OS like VMware Fusion or Parallels on top of your Mac OS X.

  20. @Jacob Aagaard
    You probably mean fighting from the first moves; I meant fighting a little bit later. It’s probably just me, but I was wondering why you consider the KID to be fighting for the centre, and the Pirc not? Aren’t they rather similar in concept?

  21. @Jonathan Faydi
    ๐Ÿ™‚ Me too (well, it is one of my black openings anyway and many years ago it was my exclusive opening against 1.e4). But I still think it depends a bit on the specific variation. E.g. in the Classical variation with …Bg4, black plays …e5 with the aim of getting a stake in the centre. The same goes for a number of other variations with …e5 (called ‘ the Ruy Lopez Pirc’ in Pirc Alert). However, in the lines with …c5 indeed black is more fighting against the white centre. Anyway, that’s my opinion, but I could be completely wrong of course. My point was just that the same applies to the KID. You have lines (e.g. the Panno, the Samisch gambit, and the Four Pawns Attack) where black is fighting against the centre and lines (e.g. the Mar del Plata) where black is taking a stake in the centre.

  22. Any predicitions how those great duels in the french will end?

    Negi vs. Berg
    Shaw vs. A & N

    Very interesting matches!

  23. @Thomas
    My predictions:

    Negi – Berg: 1-0 (+/=)
    Shaw – A&N: 1-0 (+/=)

    After that there will be a newsletter in which Nikos will repair back to =

  24. PS: there is of course also the duel Shaw – Berg, which will probably have 0-1 (=) as result, assuming of course that Shaw’s book will be published before Berg’s last volume ๐Ÿ™‚


    # # # errata: Yusupov Artur – Chess Evolution 1: The Fundamentals # # #

    I found another misevaluationin Yusupov’s book.

    In chapter 21. Tactics – Mating nets in the endgame, diagram 21-3 on page 207, he claims that White is mated after 3.Kxg2??.

    But this is not the case, instead of 5.f3? he suffers heavy loses after 5.Ne5:

    FEN: 8/R2N2pp/P1p3n1/6k1/8/7P/5PK1/4r3 b – – 0 1

    Analysis by Stockfish DD 64 SSE4.2:

    1. -+ (-4.34): 3…Nh4+ 4.Kh2 Kf4 5.Ne5 Rxe5 6.Rxg7 h5 7.Rf7+ Nf5 8.Kg2 Ra5 9.a7 Ra1 10.Kh2 c5 11.Rc7 Nd4 12.Kg2 Ne6 13.Re7 Ke5 14.Kf3 Kd6 15.Rb7 Ng5+ 16.Kf4 Nxh3+ 17.Kg3 Ra3+ 18.f3 Ng5 19.Rb6+ Kd5 20.Rh6 Nf7 21.Rxh5+ Kd6 22.Rh1 c4 23.Rd1+ Kc6 24.Kf4 Rxa7

  26. Jacob Aagaard

    Two points:

    1) That you can give up all your pieces to avoid mate is what we in Danish call unseemly abuse of flies. You really need to think like a computer to think that this is a real issue. So, I do not accept that there are any mistakes in this exercise or in the wording. Mate (or wins) is the way it was always understood in chess literature and this tradition does not need to be shelved.

    2) Please send such suggestions/discoveries to us by email. It makes it much easier for us to use them constructively.

  27. Jacob Aagaard

    I think John’s treatment of the French will come later than Emanuel’s. But I doubt that 3.Nd2 will lead to a clear way to have an advantage against 3…c5; and I guess I am supposed to say so. At least I do not know how to prove one…

  28. Jacob Aagaard

    I do think the Pirc is a somewhat passive opening. Sure, there is a plan for counter-attack against the centre, but White has a freedom he does not have in the KID to set up aggressively, take space and keep his structure sound; basically because Nc3 is a more useful tempo than c2-c4.

    But I have to say that the KID is a slightly risky opening in my opinion, though I know of no way to prove an advantage against it.

  29. @Jacob Aagaard
    Thanks for your reaction – I understand your point; indeed Nc3 is a more useful tempo than c4, and I guess black also benefits from the weakening of the d4-square in the KID.

  30. Jacob Aagaard

    Yes, I am thinking the same way. An important tool is comparison. I think that the …c5 lines that Black rely on in the KID against f3 and f3 systems do not work equally well in the Pirc.

  31. @Jacob Aagaard
    It is interesting however that against the Modern Defence, the move c4 (Averbakh) is seen as a critical test, a.o. according to Tiger’s Modern. In that book it is recommended to switch to the KID if white plays c4. So I was wondering about the move order 1.d4 g6 (to avoid the Tromp) 2.e4 (2.c4 Nf6 gives black what he wants) 2…Bg7 3.Nc3 d6, and only play 4…Nf6 after 4.f4. This because against the Austrian Attack 5…c5 does seem to work well. And against other white setups, like 4.Bg5 or 4.f3, black may be better off without an early …Nf6. Just some thoughts, of course – I must confess I find this an intriguing subject…

  32. @Ray:
    This (1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6) is what I am also playing because I play a mix of Pirc and Modern. The big question is what you play when White plays 4.Be3 intending playing 5.f4 or not, e.g. Moskalenko gives 4…c6 but misses 5.f4 which is covered in the 2nd Vol of Kornevยดs 1.d4/2.c4-book. After 4โ€ฆNf6 you are in a bad Pirc-line, which I think it is not playable. After 5…a6 it is also possible to play 5.f4 or playing the flexible/ restrained dragon like Tiger mentioned in his first book. I analyzed the transpositions a lot in the last weeks/months, checking all the sources I could get (Tiger, Vigus, Moskalenko, Kornev, Greet) and it is not an easy issue when White knows how to handle the move orders.
    Overall “Tigerยดs Modern” is one of my favorite books ever, it was really inspiring and a huge eye opener for me. So, I am very eager to see “Modern Tiger” and I hope that the following issues are covered:
    1. Going more in detail about the move order issues after 4.Be3 and transposition to the Pirc
    2. Update of the Austrian Attack
    3. Update of the flexible/restrained dragon
    Thanks to QC for your excellent job you are doing!

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