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Book Reviews

Revealed at Last!
Why you aren't a master (and the secret
that will turn you into one)
Derek Grimmell

Excelling at Chess Calculation by Jacob Aagaard, 2004 Everyman Chess,

Figurine Algebraic Notation, Softcover, 192pp., $24.95

Long ago I put a trumpet up for sale. It was a

good one, a King Silver Flair, and after several
calls I took it to a prospective buyer’s house. He
ushered me downstairs into his gold-carpeted
basement studio, complaining all the while that
he had a lot of trouble finding just the right
mouthpiece to make him a great trumpeter. He
drew my precious horn from its case and then
pulled out, I kid you not, an entire peach box
filled with different trumpet mouthpieces. He
scrabbled through them like a hen scratching for
food, pulling out a brass one here, a steel one
there, shoving each into the beloved Silver Flair
and blowing a few thin, wavering notes. Then
with a grimace he would return to the peach box, looking for that one special
mouthpiece that would make him not stink.

I kept the trumpet. I thought that I’d rather smack it with a hammer than sell
it to such a dweeb. Because the problem wasn’t his mouthpiece; it was his
mouth. He never developed it. Everyone who’s learned a musical instrument
knows that, past a certain point, further improvement will only come if you
buckle down and do lots and lots of work. Arpeggios, triplets, thirds,
octaves, overtones, until, as my band director said, you can play high Z’s all
day. Unless you do these things, for year after weary year, you will never
develop the lip strength to play with both power and precision, and you’ll
remain an amateur for life.

It’s that way with chess, too. Sure, when we were all beginners we needed to
learn some general principles. Develop your pieces, castle early, control the
center, avoid pawn weaknesses, and dozens more. But after a few years,
learning more rules and principles won’t help. You have to train
yourself to think. And that takes work.
Jacob Aagard’s most recent book, Excelling at Chess Calculation, is part of a
series that aims at teaching players how to think. While it can be used alone,
properly it belongs with Excelling at Positional Chess and Excelling at

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Book Reviews

Combinational Play as a trilogy devoted to teaching players how to play

chess like Doc Severinsen plays trumpet – that is, with both power and

To illustrate what I mean, think about how you play. If you use the Sicilan,
you know that the King’s Bishop will eventually go either to e7 or g7; and if
you reach an endgame, you probably know all about Rooks going behind
passed pawns. But somewhere between 8. … Be7 and 52. … Rb8, there
comes a long stretch of moves where such general knowledge is of no use.
Even your regular plans, like the c3 exchange sac or the Queenside pawn
advance, don’t seem to work. You’ve lost sight of shore and reached the
deep blue sea; England lies in your wake, North America is nowhere in sight,
and you have to steer the ship through the vast Atlantic of the middlegame
all by yourself.

At these times even a strong amateur will often settle for plausible moves,
moves that look good on general principle and at least don’t lose in any
obvious way. Post a Knight on the hole at d5 and how far wrong can you go?
Pushing the queenside pawns usually works, may as well start now! Just
keep playing reasonable moves and wait for the opponent to blunder, and if
he doesn’t, well, a draw isn’t so bad either.

But a really strong player almost never settles for a plausible move. What
makes them strong is the consistency with which they find the very best
move every time they move. Most of us would like to do the same, and we
often get stuck looking for the thinking method, the trick, by which we can
find the best move reliably. If possible, effortlessly. Unfortunately, such an
approach can never succeed. The only thing that keeps chess interesting after
decades of master games is its refusal to be reduced to general principles.
Every position is unique, and that means you have to think for yourself.

In this series of books I think Aagaard is taking a fresh approach to this

problem, and so each book has become more interesting as his approach has
become clearer. Rather than looking at types of positions, or at types of
weaknesses, or at types of imbalances, Aagaard focuses on types of decisions
that chess players have to make, and the most effective ways to make each
kind. Masters are masters precisely because their decision-making approach
is more accurate than yours or mine. If we want to become masters, all we
have to do is learn to make decisions just like they do. Easy! (Heh, heh.)

The first kind of decision chess players have to make is whether to play a
combination. This depends, first, on spotting the combinational idea and,
second, calculating whether or not the tactics work. This is the subject of
Excelling at Combinational Play, and Aagaard rightly regards pattern
recognition as the most important skill here and sheer repetition as the most
important training method.

The second kind of decision occurs when the position is dynamically

balanced, and you have to select a move from among several apparently
equal alternatives. This depends on identifying your own plans, discerning
the opponent’s possible plans, and then finding a way to pursue your own
while hindering your opponent’s. This is the subject of Excelling at
Positional Chess, and Aagaard rightly introduces a number of strategic
decision-making principles and offers a number of well-chosen positions for
practicing them.

The current book, Excelling at Chess Calculation, is aimed at positions that

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Book Reviews

are in between the first two. These are the tense positions, the sharp moments
that cause you to gnaw on a fingernail and wish the clock would stop ticking
so fast. No tactical bone-crusher exists, yet playing on general principles
alone will almost certainly lead to defeat. In these positions, the difference
between the best move and the nearly-best move is the difference between
road warrior and road-kill, and nothing but concrete calculation will tell us
which is which.

A good example occurs in a discussion of the “process of elimination” as a

way of selecting a move. The position is from Karpov – Kasparov, Skelleflea
World Cup 1989.

Typical of the King’s Indian, Black has

sacrificed a piece to launch an attack
against the White King. The immediate
threat to White’s h3 Rook only begins
White’s problems; 29. … hxg4 is
coming, when White’s King may catch
cold. But first things first. Where does
White put the Rook: h1, or h2?

This is the kind of position that club

players often misplay – and their
opponents just as often don’t punish them
for it, because neither side can calculate well enough. Either Rook move
looks plausible, yet one leads to disaster. If you want to get the flavor of
Aagaard’s book, stop reading right here, set up this position at home, and
study it until you see the difference. Feel free to move the pieces around; no
one will know.

Okay. In the diagram, White will either move the Rook to h1 or h2, so keep
in the back of your mind that the Rook could be on either square. The key
line runs 29…hxg4 30. fxg4 f3+ (if you didn’t see this check, this book may
be over your head) 31. Bxf3 Nxf3 (do you see why White can’t just play 32.
Kxf3 here?) 32 Qh6+ (a key resource, forcing Black to block his own attack
with his King) 32…Kf7 33. Kxf3 Rh8 (analysis diagram). This is the
position you have to reach in your calculation. Now, if White’s Rook is on
h1, it goes lost to the skewer through the Queen. But if the Rook is on h2,
White has 34. Qd2!, protecting the Rook along the second rank. So, in the
game, after Karpov’s 29. Rh2!, Kasparov played 29…hxg4 30. fxg4 Rh8,
rather than the immediate …f3+, and the game ended in a draw.

Simple, right? Far from it. You have to see f3+, and why White can’t
recapture with his King (both times), and White’s Qh6+ forcing Black to
move his King to where it interferes with the attack, and most importantly
you have to see the Rook skewer on h8. And if you get that far, you have to
see that White can save his Queen and cover his Rook at the same time, but
only if the Rook stands on h2.

What makes a great player great is this ability to look one move ahead, pause
there, find the candidate moves in that position, look ahead even further, and
repeat, all at the very start of the sequence. A really strong player,
confronted with positions like Karpov -- Kasparov, will rarely just decide
that the two moves are equal and pick one. A really strong player will insist
on looking ahead until a difference between the two emerges, and only then
make a choice.

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How can we all learn to do this? Part of the answer is to learn some thinking
methods, and this book contains a number of them. Ideas such as the
selection of candidate moves, calculating more slowly (an important idea),
identifying critical moments where calculation is vital, breaking out of your
mind-set, domination, comparison and elimination of alternatives, and
balancing calculation and intuition all appear in the first half of the book.
There’s nothing terribly new or earth-shaking here; if there were, we would
have to wonder what fills the thousands of other chess books on the market.
This is not an attempt to blaze new trails so much as a summary of the
thinking methods Aagaard believes to be the most valuable for calculation,
set in the context of training exercises that will make the value and the use of
each clear.

But Aagaard’s main point is that no one can develop this power and
precision without a lot of hard work. As he puts it, “There comes a time
when we meet some kind of resistance, where it requires an extra effort to
rise to the occasion. In these instances it is easy to resort to assumptions as
they use up little energy, but we need to force ourselves to concentrate and
be concrete in our thinking. Over time our ability to be concrete will
improve, just as our capability of producing oxygen increases when we take
ourselves to the edge of comfort in physical training. The result is that the
boundaries between our comfort and discomfort move, and we become able
to concentrate for longer periods and keep our focus when needed in a
tournament game.” (page 52).

One of the thinking techniques Aagaard emphasizes is choosing the right

time to calculate intensively. For example, he gives this recent game, which
certainly showed me one of the reasons I am not a master:

Aagaard – Ostergaard, Helsingor 2003.

1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Nf6 3. d4 Nxd5 4. Nf3 g6 5. Be2 Bg7 6. 0-0 0-0 7. c4 Nb6

8. Nc3 c6 9. h3 N8d7? 10. Bf4 Nf6

Aagaard describes Black’s ninth and

tenth moves as a waste of time. To his
mind the re-positioning of the c8-Knight
serves no real purpose, but merely looks
good – the kind of routine development
one often finds at club level. The Knights
are indeed a pretty sight with their
vertical symmetry, but they don’t help
Black achieve anything. So, with Black
having played passively, White must
think deeply about the position to come
up with the strongest continuation.
General principles will not suffice; only concrete calculation will serve.
Again, to get the flavor of the book, invest several minutes in looking into
this position on your own before going on.

Okay. First, White has a natural plan of development: Qd2, Rfe1, Rad1, Bf1.
It looks good, but in the end leads only to a minimal advantage for White,
because Black also gets to make moves while White is striving for prettiness.
Black is a little underdeveloped right now. This will not endure. Surely
White can try for more. So we look for ways to hinder Black’s development.
Black’s Bishop will come either to e6 or f5, and Aagaard’s analysis revealed

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no clear way to prevent both. But, as he explains at greater length than we

can do here, either move leaves a weakness behind, namely the b7 pawn. So,
after calculating some of the options for highlighting this weakness, Aagaard

11. a4

Now 11…Bf5 meets with 12. a5 Nc8 (12…Nbd7? 13. g4 wins a piece) 13.
Ne5 and White’s position is better.

11…Be6 12. Qb3 Qc8

n just two moves White has put Black

into serious trouble. Now White can push
the a- and d-pawns to advantage, but
once again concrete analysis helps. A
little thought shows that Black has no
way to stop the pawns from advancing
and can only improve his position slowly,
so White first brings more pieces into the

13. Rfe1 h6 14. Bh2 Rd8 15. Rac1 g5

What I find interesting is the weight

Aagaard gave to the positions in the three
diagrams. This is the point where I would
be most tempted to calculate with care.
16. a5 is a very committal move, and I
might burn half an hour making sure that
its time had come. Yet Aagaard reports
that he thought relatively little on his next
two moves. White is now fully mobilized
and has a natural plan that forces Black
onto a narrow pathway to stay alive, so
deep calculation is not necessary. The
deep thought is needed at times like move 11, when nothing but a thorough
study shows the very best move and the ideas behind it. My habit is to play
routine developing moves at times like move 11, and save my thinking time
for more critical times. The result is that I rarely get strong positions like we
have now. The problem isn’t really that I know so little about chess; the
problem is that I apply my knowledge at the wrong time. A valuable insight,
but one that will take work to overcome.

16. a5 Nbd7 17. d5 Bf5 18. Nd4 Nc5

And now, as in Karpov – Kasparov
above, there are two moves: Qa3 and
Qb4. The difference is greater than
appears at first glance, and only
calculation will serve. Which would you
play, and why? Again, take some time to
think before reading on.

19. Qa3

Yes, this is indeed the weaker of the two.

Aagaard prefers 19. Qb4, even though the

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3-way fork on d3 looks awfully threatening. Concrete calculation reveals that

there is no way for Black to profit from this. Aagaard gives as his key line
19. … Nd3 20. Nxf5! Nxb4 21. Nxe7+ Kf8 22. Nxc8 Raxc8 23. d6 Nd7 24.
and White is a pawn ahead. If you found
all of that, and all of the sidelines as well,
then maybe you don’t need this book. I
missed this whole idea.

19…Nfe4 20. Nxe4 Nxe4 21. Qe3!

White has to find this move and its

follow-up in order to retain any

21…Bg6 22. Bf3! c5 23. Nb5 f5 24. g4

f4? 25. Qd3 a6
26. Nc3

Aagaard believes that Na3 was more

accurate. Notice how even a strong IM
has trouble finding the very best move
every single time. This is what makes the
game so hard, but also what makes it so
fun. If we wanted an easy game we’d all
play Tic-Tac-Toe.

26…Nxc3 27. Qxg6 Na4? 28. Rxe7 1-0

The book ends with 100 exercises of the five types Aagaard thinks are most
useful for improving calculating ability: candidate moves, combinations,
pawn endings, endgame studies, and complex middlegames. These exercises
are as well chosen as the rest of the book, but they are intended as a
beginning, not an ending. True mastery will require many, many more such
exercises; this book is where you jump off, not where you land. And if you
look at each position for a minute or two and then flip to the answer, you’ll
be wasting your time. There are no deep chess secrets hidden in the
solutions; the secret is learning to force yourself to stick with a position until
you crack it, until you build up that mental strength that will let you play
with power and precision.

As you might have gathered, this book is not for everyone. It’s meant for
those who have reached club strength and are now willing to invest some
serious effort in rising to the next level -- towards mastery and perhaps
beyond. I was initially going to review it poorly, because at first I didn’t
appreciate how much of a difference my level of effort would make in the
book’s impact on me. This book and its partners have to be approached just
as seriously as anything by Dvoretsky, although they seem not quite so
difficult and not quite so advanced. They are training manuals, not very
entertaining but quite meaty.

So, if you still lose a lot of games by blundering in level positions, forget this
book and buy some combination manuals. If you’re a club player and you are
happy with playing at that level, give this book a pass. A good game
collection will be more entertaining. But if you’re a club player and you
think you might be willing to invest some real time and effort in mastering

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the game, this book could be the kind of training manual you need. It will
take work; you’ve been warned – but you’re also invited. Aagaard is a
skillful teacher who puts in at least as much work as you, and if you
approach this book in that light I think you will gain a lot.

Order Excelling at Chess Calculation

by Jacob Aagaard

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