Working with the Grandmaster Preparation books

There is a conversation I have once a week, sometimes once a fortnight. It is with a player or the parent of a talented youngster, who would like to have private tuition, either short term or continuously. At the moment this is not something I am ready to do for the payment people are willing to pay. There are just too many projects I need to bring to completion.

But this article is not supposed to be about whining, but a longer reply to the last person who asked me to help her daughter make decisions better and faster. It is, in short, a guide to using my books.

The first point I want to make is the most fundamental one, and thus also the one that is most far reaching and most difficult to implement.

In order to improve your chess abilities, you will have to think in a different way.

There are other ways to improve in chess: physical form (not greatly effective, but it does a lot for your health!), openings (they go out of date and you forget them, still a good position is easier to play), memorising theoretical endings (worthwhile doing, but this needs updating too), calculating faster (similar to sprint training for physical athletes, something you lose if you don’t maintain it) and others.

All of these are worth doing and if you are ambitious, you are probably doing some of them and aware that you should be doing the others as well!

But if you can improve the way you think chess, you will really get ahead.

What does this include? (This is me freestyling – please give your comments below on what I might have forgotten).

  • Being able to see patterns and qualities in the positions that you did not previously have a sensitivity for. It can be dynamics, the worst-placed piece, long-term aspects and so on.
  •  Being able to calculate – which in my terminology means that you are able to find things you do not see immediately.
  •  Improving your feeling for the needs of the position.
  •  Improving your evaluation of the position.
  •  Learning how to make a long term plan.
  •  Improving the coordination of your pieces. (“I like the books Positional Play and Strategic Play. After I studied them, my pieces started to co-ordinate better.” – GM David Navara

And so on (help me out guys!).

Before we go on, let me remind you of my model for different types of decisions from the introduction to Strategic Play:

  1. Automatic decision. Decisions you can make quickly.
  2.  Simple decisions. Moves where calculation does not really help and you need to improve your structure and/or pieces in a non-complicated way.
  3.  Critical Moments. Positions that can only be solved by calculation, where you need to see certain tactical points/variations to be able to repeatedly find the right moves. If you fail to do so, the difference will be +1/-1 for the computer generation and “big” for us old-timers.
  4.  Strategic decisions. This covers everything that is long term or a mix of calculation and position thinking. I like strategic decisions where they at first look anti-positional, but because of a variation they eventually gain something positionally. (They are therefore not anti-positional, but strategic).

What I try to force the people I do occasionally work with is to do the following:

  1. Have a plan for what it is you wish to improve. Let us say it is your positional intuition, your ability to make simple decisions. Then use the three questions (or any other method you like – this is the one I work with, and with considerable success) at the beginning of every exercise you solve. Write it down (quick and abridged, it is not a test). What I ask one student to do is to have a little index card that he should read aloud to himself before starting a training session – to remind himself what it is he is trying to do. It is incredible how easily it is to lose focus!
  2.  Have some sort of time limit to your solving that makes sense.
  3.  Remember that you are training to concentrate. You cannot get the adrenaline and intensity of an over-the-board game, but you can get to a reasonable level of concentration in training as well. If you are losing your concentration, take a break where you stand up and preferably get fresh air and/or water.
  4.  Write down your solution. Not all lines and not just one move. Write down the point of the exercise, the thing you would explain to someone that did not know the solution and had to understand the position quickly.
  5.  Finally, come back to your solutions later and do verification of your solution. Basically, you try to find a hole in your thinking/variation before checking the solution.
  6.  If you find a hole, you still continue to the next position, but you will return later to try to solve the position again.
  7.  Eventually you can check the solution – if you absolutely must! Ideally not right after you tried to solve the position…

Hope it helps. Please let me know your thoughts.

49 thoughts on “Working with the Grandmaster Preparation books”

  1. Hi Jacob,

    It’s the first time I hear about not checking the solutions right after solving.
    Can you please elaborate on why that is, and what the difference with checking them right away ?

    And regarding that first list, when working on chess, I try to pay attention to :
    1) technique (for me this means the actual way you are going to implement your plan)
    2) prophylactic thinking

  2. I like it. It makes sense and is a nice step by step process. I’m actually going to be starting your preparation series after I finish Tibor’s Karpov series.

    Thanks for your great work Jacob! Without you guys I’m not sure chess would be as enjoyable for me as it is.

  3. excellent advice!

    Another way of improving your thinking might be your ability to recognize candidates. If you don’t consider a good move as your candidate you *might* miss it. I don’t have any statistics to back up my claim but you gotta think it’s a somewhat logical conclusion. Also, the consequences of having a bad candidate selection is a big problem as you start calculating the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc plies.

    That ties in directly with your first item mentioned but it bears stating explicitly.

  4. I second Kirsch’s sentiment: Thank you Mr. Aagaard. Another difficulty is recognizing what type of decision the position presents. Spassky has stated that his strongest quality as a chess player was identifying the critical moment(s) during a game.

  5. Sorry for being slow in replying. I wanted to do so in an intelligent way, rather than just coming with whatever I was thinking at the time.

    Before anything else, I should say that this is not THE method, but simply one method, that I think will work really well with a lot of people. At the end everyone has to find something they like to do and a way they like to do it in. If something is not pleasant to do, I worry that the level of concentration will be low and the effect of the training will be low too…

    The idea about not checking the solutions is for players that are not good at falsifying their ideas, aka. to check if they are refuted (mentally sitting on the other side of the board, if you like). This is a majority. I think it makes sense to train doing this and then at some point move onto actually doing it when you solve and of course, play!

    Regarding what to focus on. This is entirely individual of course. Focus on what you want to improve. I suggest concentration should be one of the features in most cases!

    Candidates can be a think to focus on. But remember you cannot focus on everything at once. I would say that candidates is something that should be trained often, but not as the main focus in all training (though applying it is very useful of course!).

    @John Hartmann
    Yes, absolutely. Some of the exercises in the…

  6. @John Hartmann
    Yes, absolutely. Some of the exercises in the Attacking Manual have a P next to them, because they are suitable for playing. I often use playing out exercises with students and use a lot of positions from the Grandmaster Preparation series in that process.

    Sadly I am busy, or I would watch the video :-). I have seen other great videos by Anand in the past.

    Yes. I deal with this in the introduction to Strategic Play and will talk more about it in Thinking Inside the Box, which I promise to start writing soon!

  7. Mr. Aagaard, I have a lot of your books, and I appreciate really much you content and also the your writing style.

    But in which order you suggest to read your books?

    On Quality Chess we have:

    – Calculation;
    – Attacking manual 1&2;
    – Positional Play;
    – Strategic Play;
    – Attack and Defense;
    – Endgame Play (I don’t have the last two in my bookshelf);
    – in future also “Thinking inside the box”.

    In Chapter 1 of “Calculation” you refer also to your jobs with Everyman, particularly to “Excelling at Chess Calculation” .
    So, if we consider also your Everyman publications about improvement, we have also:

    – Excelling at Chess;
    – Excelling at Chess Calculation;
    – Excelling at Combinational Play;
    – Excelling at Positional Chess;
    – Excelling at Technical Chess;

    Finally, I discover that there is also a dvd (downloadable video, now) from yourself with ChessBase:
    – Basic Positional Ideas.

    So, please what kind of reading order of your publications you suggest for a player wishing to improve?

    I don’t want to create to you difficulties with other publishers, but:
    can we consider an evolution from previous publications until now, and we can ignore them, or do we have to consider also the previous learning materials?

    (I excuse me for involuntary grammar mistakes, but I’m not an English native speaker).

    Thank you very much for your help.

  8. I have asked myself the question of Saintex above as well. Does the author still consider all of the “Excelling ..” books to be worthwhile training material or did they become somewhat outdated now and should be replaced by something else?
    And I would like to add all of the other Quality Chess “Improvement”- books to Saintex’ first question. Yusupov’s books have been mentioned but there many are others (Chess Lessons, Learn from the Legends, Gelfand’s, Polgar’s, etc …).
    I very much appreciate the huge selection of quality books, but it does not make the decision where to start any easier (and then there are some books from NewInChess, Gambit and even Everyman which dont look to bad either).

  9. @saintex
    Excelling at Chess Calculation covers a lot of the ground in Calculation. It can be read, but is not essential.

    Attacking Manual 1 lays the ground for Attack & Defence, but is again not essential.

    Positional Play comes before Strategic Play, but is again not essential.

    Excelling at Technical Chess from the Everyman books is also worth working with. Otherwise I would stick with the Quality Chess stuff.

  10. @Jacob Aagaard

    I’m currently working my way through Attack and Defence.
    Enjoying the tough challenges.

    I solve a page/day out of the book. And directly after, check the solutions on a board.
    You mention in your post to not check the solutions immediately after solving.
    Can you please elaborate on the reasons for not checking the solutions immediately ?

    Also wanted to add that for me personally this books is a great companion to “advanced chess tactics”. Both teach on grandmaster level, and require a lot of effort. From Psakhis I absorb the strategic and mental framework to attack. And with your book I incorporate the technique and skills to execute that very same attack. I can keep praising both books, but have to get back to working on them 🙂

  11. @chessmayhem
    It is really a question of what your strengths and weaknesses are. The training will obviously aim at what you want to improve.

    I see very often that people do not check if their lines/solutions have a simple refutation before settling for them. To implement the falsification of your own ideas into your frame of thinking, you can delay looking at the solutions and only do it after trying to refute them (if refuted, then go back to solving). For many this will be a strong process. Not all will want to do it this way. It all depends on what you want to improve and on how it will affect your training in way of actually get to do it!

  12. I really got a lot out of the Aagaard books. I spent a summber with Calculation and Positional Play and saw a strong rating point jump in the tournaments that followed. It was all due to the thinking process that he refers too. And taking the perspective that each position is a “lecture”. I also think his point about concentration during study is critical. And not something I am good at. I think a critical gap is to create an opening repertoire that can be handled (i.e. memorization and size of all the lines) for those of us that are over 50 !!! Would appreciate any comments here. Just getting out of the opening to a playable and interesting middlegame without having to work forever at the opening would be a major step forward !

  13. Hello Jacob.

    I have a tricky question: When we study GM Preparation books, do we need to memorize the solutions?

    I ask because I read Positional Play less than a year ago, getting around 50% of the exercises right. Now I’ve returned to it, and in the first chapter (24 exercises) I’ve got 50% right another time. I am a bit frustrated because of that, to tell you the truth, I was expecting more of 75% right, being that I already have worked with the book.

    So the natural answer is that I am doing badly because I do not remember the positions, and if I expect to cultivate my positional understanding I need to fix those positional patterns, hence I need to learn the positions by heart, so my brain can work correctly in similar positions.

    But I don’t feel comfortable in that thread of thinking, and maybe I am missing something. Another reason I do not want to learn them by heart is that the book then will be useless to me, while if I forgot the positions, I can reread it as I’m doing now.

  14. @Jacob Aagaard
    Thanks for the explanation Jacob, it makes a lot of sense, and I hope that by working this way, it becomes part of my intuition during my calculation process.

    I really need to incorporate checking my lines for refutations before playing my move.
    This morning I solved page 59 of Attack and Defence, and in all 3 positions I overlooked something down the line.

    Not sure this is useful for anyone, but for the slight chance of Jacob responding, hereby my solutions of this morning 🙂
    26) 12.Bxc6 bxc6 13.Qxc6+ Nfd7 14.Nxf7 Bxf7 15.Nxf7 kxf7 16.Qxe6# overlooking that black can play 13. Nbd7 instead of Nfd7 and then black can escape with his king to g6
    27) Nxe4 Nxe4 Nb4 Qb1 Nd3 with pressure down the e-file and on f2. I missed Qg6 for white. I also agree that I didn’t calculate until I’m 100% sure and I concluded with a vague answer. A bad habit of mine.
    28) I did find Nc3-d5-f6, but I was totally ignorant to Bxd2 Rxd2 Qa4! and played Rxd2 out of principle to double my rooks

    How would you guys on this forum rate the above kind of results ? I gave myself 1/3 ( 2x 1/2 point). Not very reassuring, but I found part of the answers and Jacob gave advise on the cure, so a good feeling after all. 🙂

  15. @Gollum

    My humble first reaction: Did you study chess consistently in the past few weeks ?
    If not you’re probably a little rusty, not so sharp and out of form. Therefore still struggling. So I wouldn’t take these results to serious for the time being.

    Regarding your question of incorporating patterns, I found Axel Smith’s take (in Pump up your Rating) very informative and helpful. In the Woodpecker Chapter he discusses an extreme case of repeating the same exercises with the goal of incorporating these patterns.
    I do follow him, that it’s fruitful to repeat exercises. But I still didn’t find the right way that works/pleases me. So I haven’t yet consistently repeated exercises.

    p.s. I like your bookreviews

  16. @Gollum
    For what it’s worth, for the last few years, I have been memorizing the answers to problem books whose exercises I think are worth retaining (mainly Yusupov and Hellsten). I think that this has been largely responsible for my increase in strength the last few years (only from 1800 to 2000, but following a long plateau where I didn’t improve at all).

  17. @Gollum
    I see no point in remembering the solutions by heart. If you want to learn anything by heart, focus on openings and critical endgame positions.

    You never can say exactly why you score as you do. Some players are great in training, but struggle to use it at the board, others struggle in training, but are very effective at the board. The main point is that training makes you better at the board, hopefully, and not just better at solving exercises!

  18. @chessmayhem
    Yes, I have been studying consistently for some weeks now. I took this week off and finished Attacking manual I and decided to study Positional Play again. Definitely I’m not out of form.

    I knew the Woodpecker method before Smith made it famous. For me was the De la Maza method. And it never made much sense to me. I agree with some chess reviewer -at ChessVibes I think- who while reviewing a book about a new method of thinking about chess said that anything that makes you study chess will improve your chess, even if the method is not sound. I think that is what happens with the De la Maza method.

    Funny thing is that one and a half year ago I played in a tournament in my home town after a very long hiatus from playing individual tournaments, and I dropped 50 elo points. I promised myself that next year I would go back and show my true level. This year I played it again, and dropped again 50 elo points. In this time I have studied seriously some books, but something is amiss… my guess is that the pressure affects me, because in the team league I win the elo back.

    @Jacob Aagaard
    My point is that if I do not do better the second time I confront the problems, there is clearly something wrong. Fortunately it seems a fluke. In chapter 2 I got 75% right. In chapter 1 there are some truly difficult problems (Nakamura-Sasikiran, 1-15, is particularly…

  19. (Nakamura-Sasikiran, 1-15, is particularly mind-boggling for me) , and in some others I found an approximate solution (Minasian-Malakov, 1-23, where I chose 21…b5!? instead of 21…g5!).

  20. I’ve used Jacob’s “three questions” during games. They are very helpful. They are simple enough to remember (!) and the prompt you to step back and think about what you are trying to do in a position. They’ve helped counter some bad habits I had otherwise. Related to study…I have recently been reading Popov’s Chess Lessons while working through Attack and Defense (Aagaard). Popov is much simpler while I find Attack and Defense as more practical/stretching. I bring this up because I think this interplay of the simple a(to land concepts) and the challenging (more real world) might be useful while I struggle to separately settle on an set of openings that are easy and interesting !! Has anyone else used Popov’s book ?

  21. @Gollum

    I have to very much agree with Jacob. No use in memorizing the positions. What are the odds that you will ever have the exact same position as some GM game from years ago, or even from the London tournament that happened recently? Sure, you’ll have the same position after 10 moves, but I’m talking more like Move 42 of some random Carlson-Nakamura game? Next to zero!

    However, as Jacob indicates, it’s important to have critical endgame positions memorized. Ones that might actually come up multiple times in your games.

    Do you know how to draw K+R vs K+R+f-pawn+h-pawn (or the symmetrical case with a-pawn and c-pawn)?

    Do you know the 4 main scenarios in R+P vs R?

    Lucena’s Position – I actually had it come up in back-to-back games in a tournament in August, myself on the winning side both times. Do you know which pawns this works with? (Answer: Any except the Rook Pawn – I had a Knight pawn the first time, Bishop pawn the second)

    Philidor’s Draw – I’ve had this occur at least 30 times

    Short Side Defense – I recall a game in 2011 where I had to execute this. Do you know which pawns this can be used against? (Answer: Bishop pawns)

    Long Side Defense – Can’t recall a game where I’ve had this, but again, do you know which pawns this can be used against? (Answer: Central pawns)

    Stuff like that is a lot more important than memorizing some random position from a middlegame that you will never reach. The concepts are far more important…

  22. @Cashout
    I have used Popov’s book too. Actually I upgraded a month or so ago when Niggemann sold the hardcover for 10€. It’s a great book with training material you can find nowhere else. The difficulty level varies though. Some stuff is too hard for a 2000 player, other tasks a bit easy for an 1800 player.
    I definitely recommend Chess Lessons.

  23. Chess Lessons is great. It was nominated for the ECF book of the Year award. It is in our bargain pile, meaning that if you buy three books (in the EU), you can have it as a free extra with your ups shipment.

  24. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    @Jacob – Have you seen Anki? I stumbled upon it this weekend. I used to have a flashcard software for the Palm and it worked well (did not use it for chess though). There is a FEN plugin for Anki. It seems to be at the intersection of what to study and how to study.

  25. I recently bought Positional Decision Making in Chess by Gelfand (with Aagaard’s help !). What a terrific book !! Tremendous explanations with just the right amount of analysis.

  26. Jacob Aagaard :
    Chess Lessons is great. It was nominated for the ECF book of the Year award. It is in our bargain pile, meaning that if you buy three books (in the EU), you can have it as a free extra with your ups shipment.

    I have all the yousupov’s book + Chess Lessons + The Soviet Chess Primer (and about 500 others books in the dust).
    Perhaps one day I shall begin to study one of these books.
    If I shall do this , which should I begin with ? (level was almost 1900, now 17xx)
    thank you

  27. @FredPhil
    I say this every time but I’ll say it again: work diligently through the Yusupov books. There is little need for anything else (except maybe tactics exercises and an opening repertoire) until you get through them. You are at a perfect level to start from the beginning.

  28. Hello!

    I am currently a player with ELO of about 2200 and might be interested in becoming IM och at least FM.

    – Could you give an estimate of how much work is required to reach IM from 2200? Or FM? How many games against equal or better opponents?

    – Is it a good idea to start with Yusupovs books or should I do the GM-prep series? I already have Calculation and do a page a day, with a successrate of … perhaps 60 %, i.e. of 6 problems I solve 2 or 3 correctly, fail 1-2 and might “half-solve” the rest.

    – Is there a general tip for me if I feel I struggle with dynamics? (Besides working on tactics and playing sharp attacking games, which I have only recently started doing.)

  29. Jacob having finally done the tests in your Calculation could you point the way to the place where we submit our results as promised in the book or did you never get round to it? If so is there some way of grading the results according to which aspect of calculation you are strong /weak at as an indication of where to target improvement. The difficult positions have this categorization included but the original tests don’t. Do the collated results from the readers have some indication of how others did ie is it a particularly hard position if you get it wrong (everyone else got it wrong) or a weakness in yourself (you got it wrong but most others solved it). Many thanks

  30. Apologies the categorisation of the combinations in the test are there… Forgot I had blacked them out as well as the players names etc. At 90 mins a test and my once a week schedule being severely banjaxed by Xmas it took me a long time. Confirmation that I’m definitely in the lower end of the rating chart with my score too. Haven’t had the confidence to try the difficult ones at all!

  31. I have been a big fan of your books in the past decade. After training with a coach 1.5 year ago suddenly I became stronger. I have now gained 120 elo in 12 months time and have not lost a rated game since march 2018, now sitting on a proud 2237. I won the Tata Steel group 2A with a score of 8 out of 9, 7 wins 2 draws. I am not sure how this is possible, but I am sure your improvement books have contributed a lot as well. Big thanks!

  32. What I have noticed that works for me in a game is:
    * piece placement: what piece needs improvement the most
    * opponent’s plan: what did this last move do (or why didn’t he react to my threat…) has helped me find lines/moves I did not consider earlier and especially practically eliminated one move blunders
    * calculation: do not stop until you have covered all possible opponent moves (your own moves are easier to find)
    * feel for initiative/tempo/dynamics has been improved by doing lots of exercises and studying great games of the past

    In the openings I have mostly deepened my existing repertoire and sometimes picked up new adventures (like the Morra after that great book you guys published; had some insane fun games with that opening, won first game on Tata in 12 moves with it).

    That opening also gave me a better feel for the initiative and piece placement. I think this has improved my conversion rate, being able to win the won positions more easily. I have saved lots of completely lost positions by A) not resign but keep resisting B) calculate lines better.

  33. Jacob, I find your 4 questions really useful as it’s a real world tool you can use over the board. Do you have an equivalent to help your calcation at the board? ” Don’t forget to have good combinational vision, don’t forget intermediate moves, prophylaxis etc” is a bit too vague to help. In your book you note a number of times when the player should have looked for longer but how do you know this without the benefit of hindsight? Are there some clues to stop you thinking longer unnecessarily when there isn’t a need but take time when it is? Thanks

  34. @JB
    That’s a good question. My two cents’ worth is that while it’s obviously a difficult thing to get right without the benefit of hindsight, it should be possible to develop your intuition in this area. By analysing your games and identifying and reflecting upon those moments when you thought for too little or too much time, you should hopefully be able to develop an instinct for recognising when it’s worth analysing more deeply. You can do the same thing with exercises you have solved.
    With that being said, I must stress that judging how much time to spend analysing a given position is one of the most difficult skills in chess, so none of us will get it right all of the time.

  35. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    @Andrew Greet – A very sensible answer. This reinforces my opinion that a player should go over their games without a computer at first, because “what should I have been thinking” is only one-half the equation; “what was I actually thinking” is the other half. Now, here is a tall order: We need a strong player who has carefully analyzed their games, and identified these positions where they thought too long or too short, to gather them up into a book. That way we would have a model for how to improve at “one of the most difficult skills in chess”. It should probably be a semi-retired player, otherwise there would be the issue of giving ammunition to the enemy. Fingers crossed such a book sees the light of someday.

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