Book review: Gelfand's "Positional Decision-Making"
“Positional Decision-Making in Chess” – Boris Gelfand (and Jacob Aagaard)
It’s rare that a chess book holds my attention well enough that I finish it in one sitting. It’s rarer still that I have the opportunity to review two such books in a row (see my last ‘Swamp’ review). This collaborative work between Boris Gelfand and Jacob Aagaard had perhaps an unfair advantage, though, as I started reading it on an eight-hour ferry ride from Athens to the Greek island of Ikaria. Still, I’d wager that I would have finished it even in the presence of tempting alternatives, because it’s truly a superb work.
At first, I must admit to being a little sceptical, as I usually am about ‘reflective’ books towards the twilight of a great player’s career. (It’s a little unfair to suggest that Gelfand’s career has peaked, actually, but forgive me – he is, after all, the oldest player in the top fifty. Still, I hope to be proved wrong when he wins the World Cup!) Occasionally, these books can just be an excuse to make a bit of easy money, in a same vein as so many autobiographies by sports stars. My fears weren’t exactly dissuaded in the first few pages, in which both Gelfand and Aagaard had already referenced their other books, and soon after made mention that this was just one book in a multi-volume series. I must also confess to having had some small concerns that an autobiographical work ghost-written by Aagaard would prove to be a little too much of a self-congratulatory memoir about an admittedly successful collaborative team, and less of an instructive work for the reader.
But these fears were quickly dispelled. This is an outstanding book, probably the best I’ve read this year. Gelfand and Aagaard have worked together often in private, and their experience in collaborating comes through in the text. There is an ‘official’ theme of using the games of Akiba Rubenstein, Gelfand’s favourite player and an often-neglected legend of chess history, in illustrating the positional lessons. However, with the exception of the first chapter (‘Playing in the style of Akiba Rubenstein’), the structure of the book focuses closely on what Gelfand believes are important positional themes from his own style of play, as reflected in the chapter titles: ‘The Squeeze’, ‘Space Advantage’, ‘Transformation of Pawn Structures’ and ‘Transformation of Advantages’.
Gelfand has an outstanding positional mind and a top-level ability to make sound, practical decisions over-the-board. But like many geniuses, it would most probably have been close to useless to have him try to describe this on his own – often, I would imagine, his inclination would have been to write things like “I just felt it was the right move.” This is where having Aagaard as co-author really makes its presence felt. Aagaard, so it seems, has the invaluable ability to tease out from the genius his detailed thought processes in coming to his positionally intuitive decisions, which Aagaard then describes to the reader in instructional fashion. Aagaard is the articulate professor, carefully and skilfully taking the theories of the great genius and transforming them into elucidative, didactic material. And we, the students, reap the benefits.
When discussing this book, a fellow reviewer had the comment that they didn’t much care for the ambivalence of some of Gelfand’s annotations, and indeed phrases such as “I’m not sure” and “I don’t know” crop up a lot more in the text than you might expect, and particularly of a Quality Chess publication. There is certainly some evasion when it comes to the evaluation of many lines, something that no doubt an engine and a couple of extra hours could have solved. But to be honest, I don’t mind this equivocation; in fact, it fits in perfectly with Gelfand’s general style of encouraging practical decision-making, rather than a search for the absolute truth à la Kotov. Quite often Gelfand’s message seems to be to strive for what he calls “best practice”, rather than the best move. And for anyone who has bungled a complicated win after brushing off a simple one, this rings loud and clear.
As in the ‘swamp-book’ I reviewed earlier, one gets a sense of being allowed into Gelfand’s analysis office, getting to hear the great player describe his thoughts almost in real-time. This, I feel, is the real value of the book: we begin to understand how he thinks, what processes he uses to make his practical decisions, and in turn, how we can better make decision at the board. Moreover, it’s clear that a lot of deep analysis has gone into the book, as is evidenced by some deep computer-assisted lines in the analyses. One particular comment in Gelfand’s game with Grischuk is a good example of the book’s overall philosophy in this regard:
“The following piece of analysis is quite fascinating, but I want to underline that it is unlikely that we would see such moves played in a game. Maybe the odds are 1% that a top player would find all of this! But as these are the best moves, it would be strange not to include them.”
However, typically we find that longer variations are included only when they serve some instructional purpose that fits into the rest of each chapter’s lessons.
I have to admit, from a personal perspective, that I found this book to be the most useful decision-making chess guide I have ever read. It’s jam-packed full of useful gems, little pieces of positional advice that probably just come naturally to Gelfand, but need to be dictated to and learned by the rest of us. For example, here’s one that makes perfect sense, but that I had never thought about before:
“When you have managed to squeeze your opponent into only two or three ranks, you want to exchange the rooks and queens, but not minor pieces.”
The emphasis on practical chess is a welcome change from many books these days, which typically focus on concrete computer evaluations. In fact, Gelfand eschews using evaluations like “0.00”, preferring to give more verbose, pragmatic assessments. A good example of this is the following comment after a strong move:
“White will continue to look for ways to improve his position…Will it be enough for a win? Again, this sort of speculation is of course interesting for people watching the games with a beer in their hand, but for the competitive player, it has no relevance during the game. Play the best moves and see where it leads.”
This is one of the key lessons from the book. Even if a position remains defensible, Gelfand is highly critical of moves that make one’s practical defensive task more difficult. Conversely, he strongly praises attempts to increase the chances of an opponent erring; indeed, it almost seems as if improving one’s position, and making that of the opponent’s more difficult, is Gelfand’s number one objective when making each move.
There are too many quotes, and too many great pieces of advice, to mention here in the review. But perhaps the highest praise I can heap on the book is that when I got off the ferry in Ikaria, I had decided to play the first games of the tournament in the practical, positional style of Boris Gelfand. For a coffeehouse maniac such as myself, this was a compliment of the highest order! I have to admit that I was surprised at how often little proverbs from the text popped into my head as I was sitting at the board mulling over each decision.
My only criticism of the book, if you can call it that, is that it seemed perhaps a little short for a ‘series’. 275 pages is still a lot, but compared to many of Quality Chess’s products (e.g. the Negi series, or John Shaw’s 680 page epic on the King’s Gambit), I felt that the second volume could have been squeezed in as well. But this is a business rather than chess decision (perhaps the best practical move?), and besides, at 30 euros, the book as it stands is definitely worth the money. I would not be surprised to see it highly decorated when the chess book award season begins. Five stars.