Jacob Aagaard Interview

Jacob was recently interviewed for the Spanish blog Un Andaluz y el Adjedrez. Here is the English version of the interview:

GM Jacob Aagaard
GM Jacob Aagaard

1) Can any person, and I mean ANY, get better at chess studying and competing, in your opinion? Do you think there is a limit, and not everybody is born to be a FM, for instance?

I am sure that there is a limit for some people. There is such a thing as talent for sure, but how important it is, is not really clear. Some minor tests have been done, but the research looking at people over a decade or more has not been done in a way that it can be statistically significant for chess. Not to my knowledge at least.

It has been done in music and the suggestion there was that the early talents did not do that well. The main reason probably being that it was too easy for them in the beginning and they never got into the habit of working hard…

I believe that there is no reason to set barriers to yourself. In principle everyone can learn everything. The question is how long it will take! Is it worth it. And so on.

2) With the new digital tech era, chess has changed a lot compared to those classical times when it was kind of compulsory to read Nimzowitsch, Reti, Capablanca…when I started playing it was obligatory to read The Great Masters of Chess by Reti and My System by Nimzowitsch, and was considered more important to learn endgames than openings. Does this still make sense nowadays, to use this training method? With such advanced computer and information era would not it be more important to proceed to shaping more the opening part than other parts of the chess game?

The pieces move in the same way and you are not allowed to bring the computer with you to the game, so to write off some of the smartest people in chess history, just because a computer can point out a few mistakes in their analysis does not make sense to me.

If you look at the top players today. Many of them had their chess education without computers. Even Carlsen, Caruana and Aronian were more or less GM level before they worked with computers at all and Carlsen still does not really use engines. It underlines that it is more important to learn to think for yourself.

The true computer generation players, Nakamura and Karjakin, are of course great players, but to say that they are better than the others make little sense to me.

I do think that the books my John Nunn, Mark Dvoretsky, Karsten Mueller, Mihail Marin, Artur Yusupov, Garry Kasparov and myself are of a higher level than the old books, just as the books by Botvinnik, Kotov, Keres, Bronstein, Tal and Polugaevsky were.

Of the old books, I like those by Alekhine best.

3) What advice or recommendations would you give to an average club player of, say, 2000 elo Fide, who aims to progress at chess, as a self-taught? is there any special planning like, this amount of tactics, that amount of openings, begin with this, go on with that, etc?

It is all very individual. It matters a lot what you find most interesting. The only clear rule is this: There are many ways to improve. Unless you are heading for the top 20, you should not worry too much about covering things you do not feel inspired to cover.

My main recommendation for anyone from the rating of 1200 to 2100 is to work on the Yusupov books. There are nine of them, a total of 225 chapters. They deal with all areas of chess and do so really well. It is not for nothing that it won the Boleslavsky Award the first time FIDE awarded it, in front of Dvoretsky and Kasparov.

For stronger players, Mueller’s books on the Endgame, Dvoretsky’s books and my own last 10 books (Excelling at Technical Chess, Excelling at Chess Calculation, Attacking Manual 1+2, Practical Chess Defence and Grandmaster Preparation 1-5) are probably the best material available. Especially I like my own Positional Play as a training system; but of course it is natural that we write the way we would like it to be read .

For lower levels tactics are certainly very important. I teach the idea of candidate moves to players of all levels. The idea of seeing ideas that do not come to you automatically. I have an article in the newest New in Chess magazine about this, which might inspire some.

Recently I had a 2650 player visiting for five days of training. It took a while to reach him – teaching really able people is always hard; they are used to knowing almost everything there is to know, so to teach them something new can be difficult. They are not ready for it! – After four days he had an epiphany: He cannot calculate. We continued the training and he really really got it. It was very rewarding for both of us. Sometimes training is like this and this is what I like about it.

4) Many amateurs understand that progress is basically reached vía studying, studying and more studying, although more advanced players pay especial attention to a number of other aspects in order to prepare or overcome a bad blow; what is your opinion about sticking on a special diet, psychology, meditation? Do you think it is an important part in a chessplayers building-up¿ Do you have such “secrets” yourself?

Some people need a beer after playing to calm down. As long as it is not something they do when they don’t play, I see no big problem with it. It is a trade-off.

Most people become fuzzy in the head and cannot think clearly if they eat/drink sugar before or during the game.

I am personally a believer in the virtue of a vegan diet, though I cannot say I fully practice it. If it matters for chess? Probably it is an advantage, but hardly as important as 10 minutes of extra study a week .

Meditation helps some; others get bored and frustrated.

With regards to psychology I do have a system. Focus on the next move and on playing well. The game will end and a result will come. Thinking about the result will not give you anything. Easy to say, taking years to master. But I have taught it and with great effect.

5) It is not an easy task to survive being a full time pro nowadays, there are less championships than before, worse prizes, more titled players, less conditions…and this situation puts many professional players in a situation where they have to become trainers as well. But: is a good player automatically a good teacher too? What should we take into account while choosing a coach in order to progress?

Clearly the answer is no.

First of all, you need someone you get along with, who has a chess philosophy you like and who enjoys training. A trainer that looks at the clock too often is not pleasant to work with.

There are often people who expect quick improvement in chess. It rarely happens. Do not blame the trainer for this, but accept that chess is difficult.

Some people want to see their trainer work rather than work themselves. The training is thus close to pointless, but I think people should pay double as it is totally frustrating for the trainer.

I have trained my proportion of pompous arseholes, but also a lot of really nice people. Try to be one of the second type if you want to get more out of your trainer!

6) In 2004 there is a before-after mark in your chess; not only you start writing more detailed and elaborated books, that are very well seen in the chess world, but also your competitive chess is becoming better, you won the British Championship (without any assistant coach as you claim), and a GM title in 2007. What is the reason of such improvement? Did you discover a panacea for chess progressing? 🙂 What titles have had a greater influence on you as a player?

In the summer of 2003 I decided to create Quality Chess. I was working to finish my contracts with Everyman at the same time. The final books were Excelling at Chess Calculation and Excelling at Technical Chess – my two best books for Everyman. Basically, I decided to do this for a living and thus care more.

In 2004 I moved to Scotland and we worked on the first QC books. In the cause of the year I made three GM-norms, but still lacked a good deal of rating. It was not until 2007 I made it, during the British Championship, which I won.

The work on the books in 2003/4 mattered a lot. Also the understanding that I was no longer a literature student, but a chess professional (making very little money) mattered.
But you got something wrong. In 2007 I had some training sessions with Artur Yusupov.

Maybe three. And during my events John Shaw helped me with ideas and I paid him 20% of my prizes. Ever since then I have worked with seconds; most often Nikolaos Ntirlis, known on the internet as Nikos.

7) And, last but not least, many thanks first of all , Jacob, for your time, and I couldn’t finish this interview without asking a question by a blog reader, chosen between a dozen of them, here it goes: how should one prepare before a very important tournament?

I can only suggest something that might work for some:
o Check your opening repertoire in advance so you remember it better during the event.
o Do some simple tactics to sharpen the saw…


43 thoughts on “Jacob Aagaard Interview”

  1. Extremely informative interiew! Thank you GM Aagaard. I have your books and they are very helpful. How to contact you regarding training together?

    1. I have an email, which you can find on this site. Or, come up for 4 days with Lars Schandorff at the end of October. It is certain to be great!

  2. Nice interview. Your answers lead to many further questions.

    “A 2650 player that can not calculate” At that level he is already better than 99% of all amateurs.
    Are you talking about calculation of variations or higher level thinking (visualization, strategy, …) ?
    How can further training change your way of thinking after it has become a habit after many years/games ?

    Could you elaborate a bit ? Thanks.

  3. I am MORE than delighted! I love such wonderful interviews! And with one of my favourite and very respectable chess author and trainer… what a great fun to read! :). I really enjoyed it and I am going to read it a few times! :). Thanks for you Jacob and your interviewer! 🙂

  4. @odo
    Indeed I will. The book will be called THINKING INSIDE THE BOX. But essentially, how do you change a behaviour? You try to repeat the new behaviour over and over again. This is the classical way of doing things.

  5. Michael Bartlett

    I would be happy to just be like the guy who doesn’t calculate and have a 2600+ ELO. I wish that guy would write a book on how plays so well without calculating.

  6. I think Jakob is speaking in relative terms. Or it could be the case that the GM in question has internalized so much patterns/good moves that calculation for him has become unnecessary 99% of the time…like when you learn to walk, well, you stumble, you fall and you fall some more and finally you learn to walk and (almost) never fall again, but what’s more important you are not thinking about walking the right way (first this leg…then the other) you just walk and it happens to work. So I guess the book would be rather disappointing as well: I do not need to calculate, I just play good moves.

  7. Michael Bartlett

    “Or it could be the case that the GM in question has internalized so much patterns/good moves that calculation for him has become unnecessary 99% of the time” this is what I figured. But would still like to hear if he has any thought process ideas.

  8. @Michael Bartlett
    It will be my pleasure. It will not be new and I cannot use examples from the gentleman’s games, as I do not have his permission, nor will I ask for it. But I can show a few things he was not seeing and what he found incredibly easy without betraying his trust – as his results were very average.

  9. @Jacob

    I am not sure how others think about You, but what I found the most IMPRESSIVE (and valuable): you have a great passion to share your (broad and long-term) experience, knowledge and amazing ideas. I want to thank you for that as I know HOW HARD is to get such fantastic opinions, views, conclusions and ideas… and you share it for free with US here! For a sign of my respect I will try to advertise your (and Your Publishing House) books as often as I can! My deep respect to you Jacob! Keep up great things as long as you can and agree to do so!

  10. I second what Tomasz has said above. Love the blog.

    I’m slugging my way through the GM Prep series. It is tough going but very rewarding. The work that has gone into this series is deeply, deeply appreciated. There have been many times when solving a set of exercises has ended in exultation – and, on the other side of the coin – there have been many more times when it has ended with a frustrating, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” usually spiced with a few “colorful” words.

    Can’t wait for Thinking Inside the Box, although I’ll be sad when the series is over.

  11. I’ll also add that the quality of the exercises are very, very good. There have just been a handful of times when I suspected there may be a second answer – but of the 250-300 puzzles I’ve attempted so far, I’ve found only one where I can rightfully claim a second answer.

  12. @Seth
    I would be really grateful if you – and anyone else – who think there are mistakes in the exercises (and there are for sure, though with Endgame Play Karsten Muller checked it and a better insurance does not exist) please write to me. I want to know. Every author is after all dreaming of a second edition!

    I am thinking about going on a book tour with Thinking Inside the Box. It would be very nice.

  13. Chuchelov (FAKE!)

    * We debated in the office if this was Vladimir Chuchelov or a hoax before I answered. We decided it sounded real. It might be another Chuchelov, but it is certainly not the polite pleasant man I met in Tromso, as has now been confirmed. I decided I would rather answer the questions than check out the authenticity. A mistake. I still find my answers valid and I think it creates clarity with what I think and as such I have decided to keep it up. Jacob *

    There were a number of factually incorrect comments in this article that I think would be useful for readers to be aware of. “If you look at the top players today. Many of them had their chess education without computers. Even Carlsen, Caruana and Aronian were more or less GM level before they worked with computers at all and Carlsen still does not really use engines. It underlines that it is more important to learn to think for yourself.” This is an incorrect statement with no evidence behind it, and which everyone who knows Carlsen will tell you is flatly untrue. “The true computer generation players, Nakamura and Karjakin, are of course great players, but to say that they are better than the others make little sense to me.” – This is a very unfair statement. Magnus is autistic. Everyone with even a vague understanding of autism knows that autistic people love to use computers by themselves. Heikki Kallio, David Navara, and Magnus Carlsen are perfect examples of this. Kallio is about 30 years old but he still owes almost his entire chess development to computers and being able to work on them 10 hours a day, even 12 years ago. Magnus was also working on the computer 8-10 hours a day even as a young kid. To say that Karjakin is a computer kid and Magnus is not seems to look entirely at the openings that they play and not the moves. I wouldn’t be surprised if Magnus analyzed his games on the computer much deeper than Karjakin did. Not to mention, it’s not even a fair dissection. There are gradations of “computer kid” and Carlsen and Karjakin are both very high on those scales. You will be hard-pressed to find a player in the top 100 who doesn’t use a computer many hours a day. I can say this freely from experience observing it. My guess is that Aagaard has never been to Magnus’s house and seen his desktop and also his laptop. I have and have discussed the hardware aspect with Magnus before. No one would make those statements if they knew about Carlsen’s computers.

    Clearly there are a lot of misconceptions here Jacob has about chess players and computers. I also didn’t really understand the vague comments about a vegan diet. Without any evidence, the claim is meaningless and rejected. Also very bizarre was the unprovoked brag: “I worked with this 2650 guy on calculation” … is there any reason why that would be worthwhile to keep a secret? The fact that he doesn’t mention who that guy is just makes it more and more likely that this event in fact didn’t even occur. You need to be quite out of touch with reality to think there is some worth in the unjustifiable paranoia of “hiding” training with a player that’s not even on openings. I would try to tone down the myths, the factual errors, the pseudoscience and the paranoia in this post.

  14. @Chuchelov

    Some interesting stuff about computers, which I will read more carefully later, but the point about the “2650 guy” maybe not being coached by Jacob? Yes, the 2650 really does exist, as he was kind enough to visit our office and have lunch with us.

  15. @Chuchelov
    I will be happy to take these one by one.

    I definitely think there is an approach issue with how much people work with computers in their earlier development. I have not been to Carlsen’s house, but I did play him and spoke with him when he was 13, I have been very close to Peter Heine Nielsen and discussed these issues with him over time.

    If I am wrong on Carlsen I have to confess that I have been slightly deceived also by Carlsen’s own statement of “not liking to work with computers very much and thus playing in a style where it is less useful”.

    Caruana. From what I know, his early chess education had a lot to do with training; learning to think chess, more than lots and lots of openings.

    I do find Nakamura and Karjakin have been more the other way around; with a lot of focus on openings at an already early age.

    “Carlsen is autistic” – presented without evidence. All I know on this issue is an interview where Henrik Carlsen said that they had thought of testing him, but had decided that it would be a bad idea as he got on well socially.

    Maybe something has changed?

  16. From the second bit about computers, I can see that my argument was apparently not clear.

    My thinking is that the reason why the older generation is hanging on so well (Gelfand 3/4 just like Caruana at this point in Baku) is that getting to a high level (GM or more) before you turn on the engines is a big advantage long term.

    Short term you can get faster improvement with computers, but we see people reach top 50 at an earlier age, but not quite making it in the same speed.

    I know this is a controversial way to look at this, but I do not feel that it is in any way refuted by the fact that Carlsen uses good engines now. On the other hand, it shows that I have not made myself clear on this occasion, which I regret.

  17. Regarding a vegan diet. There is a lot of evidence, but it is something that always open up for heated arguments with as low quality as politics or religion. I did not want that fight. I think from the reaction that I was wise to tone it down!?

  18. Finally, relating to confidentiality. There is actual reasons in this particular case, which I will not even elude to.

    Otherwise I do find that for me to have a great working relationship with someone, they need to know that I will not expose their limitations publicly. And as I have written some articles about this type of training, like in NIC 6, I feel that I protect people’s privacy by not name dropping in an interview.

    I am not saying that this is the only way to do things, it is just what feels natural to me. Most people do not care at all and for this reason the confidentiality goes one way only.

  19. Regarding the final remarks, which are a bit over the top. I think we should just attribute this to the way the Internet can carry us away. They were most likely written with an ironic smile, which is of course not how they read. But I have seen it happen so many times that I guess this is what happened.

  20. ChessInquisitor

    I forget the exact phrasing, Capablanca said that chess books should be used like glasses whereas some people thought they provide vision itself. I think the same is true of computers and engines today.
    For any player intending to improve, to not make use of these new resources would be foolish. I would be surprised if any of the elite GMs do not extensively use computers. But at the same time I am sure they are aware of the limitations and know better than amateurs how best to incorporate engines into their routine.
    I found the interview by Jacob interesting and thought provoking. I don’t see why he should be forced to name any of his pupils and I don’t care whether Carlsen is autistic or not- his chess moves are more important! As for a vegan diet, I’m a meat lover but everyone is welcome to eat as they wish. It is true that a vegetarian diet is closer to what our ancestors consumed millions of years ago.

    1. A text is a window through which we see the World. This has been accepted since the 1920s.

      The question regarding engines and/or traditional non-engine training, is to do with how the brain sees things. I think a lot of non-engine training first is a good thing. It is a theory that is up for debate, but hardly up for abuse :-).

  21. @John Hartmann
    It is of course a difficult position to be in: a) you ignore a strong challenge to your point of view. b) you are likely to be hoaxed. We had ideas about both being possible and decided to take it at faith, because the argument was fair game.

    Garryk is inconsistent, as he himself admits :-). But he is satirising brilliantly, not hoaxing.

  22. A troll, huh? Reminds me of a famous quote:

    “Never believe anything you read on the internet.” -Albert Einstein

  23. I feel more human, having been hoaxed. We started being slightly disbelieving, but then when I started answering, I forgot about that totally :-).

  24. @Jacob Aagaard
    There’s indeed plenty of evidence if you compare vegan diet with “normal” eating habits which suffer from way too much meat consumption. When comparing vegan diet with vegetarian diet and even with limited meat intake things are no longer clear. To make a long story short, everyone is well advised to reduce meat consumption but you don’t have to go all the way down to zero.

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