Title: Positional Decision Making in Chess.
Author: Boris Gelfand.
Publisher: Quality Chess.
Price: 29.99€ (hardback).
This review has been a hard one to make. I have had this book for half a year now, and I have not been able to finish it. I am at page 255, though! The reason is that I do not like the book, at least not when I try to work hard on it. I will explain it more in what follows, but first, let me state some obvious fact: The immense majority of the chess community (and I may be the lone exception) loves this book.
For example, John Hartmann, the English Chess Federation which voted it the best book of 2015, Emil Sutovsky or Peter Svidler, to name just a few. If you go to its publisher's page, you will find a long list of praising reviews.
What is wrong with me then? Well, I will try to explain myself as well as I can. I have done an auxiliary post on what I like in books, which will help put my reasoning into context, but I will try to make this review as self contained as possible.
The book is written by Gelfand and Aagaard. Gelfand has put the chess knowledge, and Aagaard the how to write knowledge. It has been done through conversations from the authors, Aagaard asking questions trying to get as much knowledge as possible out of Gelfand. The book consists of annotated games from Rubinstein and Gelfand.
It is part of a series of books (as of this moment it is unknown how many more it will be), and this one concentrates, as the name suggests, on how to take positional decisions at the board.
The book is divided into five chapters plus an interview from 2012. Each chapter deals with a topic: Rubinstein, The squeeze, Space advantage, Transformation of pawn structures and Transformation of advantages.
While reading the book I never got the impression that an overall idea in the book, or in each chapter, existed. For me it transpired too much that the book was a product of conversations rather than someone's grand design. Gelfand will not try to make a systematic review of the topic at hand, but will show you some examples that he finds interesting, and in its games he will try to explain his thought process.
The edition of the book, at least its hard cover, is excellent. I do not know why I even continue to comment on that in Quality Chess products, because it is always like this. The length is quite okay at nearly 300 pages, but it feels a thin book nevertheless, or at least that was the impression I've got when I unpacked the book. It may be the hard cover that is so thick that make the rest of the book, by contrast, look thin, but nevertheless you cannot argue with the raw facts: the book is in the medium range, it is not short, nor is it long.
The prose of the book is uneven. I have think long and hard how best to describe it, and that is the word I came up with.
The first chapters find the language somewhat redundant, with some odd choices here and there. Those passages make you feel that you are truly in a conversation with Gelfand. Aagaard stated that the language was chosen carefully, so my only conclusion is that this was the purpose of the book. I, however, do not like it too much. Other chapters, the later ones, are more normal, which I liked best.
But the feeling that the book jumps from one place to another as if it were a real conversation is there all the way through, and it gives you the feeling of a not too well thought work.
On the other hand, the prose is really generous! You do not normally find books with so much literature in it, and specially in the middle of the game. There are 34 games in 260 pages (not counting the interview), so you get 7 pages of commentary for each game! That is quite a lot and I think it is a really great decision.
The analysis in the book is uneven too. Rubinstein's games are normally annotated lightly, but Rubinstein - Alekhine, Karlsbad 1911 got 9 pages. I have found this game annotated in two previous works, Shereshevsky's Endgame Strategy and Marin's Learn from the legends. I do not think that Gelfand has done a better job than Marin, and I felt that he was not building up, but doing the work from the ground.
On the other hand, Gelfand's games have generally detailed analysis, and more importantly, big
So, let's wrap it up:
The key factor of this book is that offers you great insight on the thinking process of a great player. The prose is great, and although I do not like some redundancies here and there, the general feeling is that the book is really well written.
I can see how Svidler and Sutovsky liked the book: They do not expect to learn anything from normal books, so this at least gives them some interesting insight into other super GM mind.
And I can see how normal people like me cherish this book greatly. The book is, after all, a masterpiece, so what is not to like about it?
Well, first of all, for me it is a bit odd that the book is called 'Positional decision making in chess'. A name like 'My best games by Genfald' would suit it far better. As the book tries in no way to explain a theme but only shows you examples, it is better to see it as just a collection of games selected by diffuse criteria.
We have to assume, too, that there are games sparsely annotated. I liked those quite less, but that is a personal opinion. On the other hand, the ones heavily annotated for me were difficult to study. Something in them was amiss, or maybe it is me, I do not know.
But my main concern with the book is not these things. The main problem for me is that while giving you great insight of the mind of a great player, it will not improve your overall chess. Yes, you will enjoy reading the book immensely, you will come to realize of quite a number of interesting things, but at the end of the day, when Gelfand says that in certain positions he is interested in improving the position more than in the objective evaluation of the position, that will not improve your chess one bit. The amount of advice directly applicable to your games is slim. Of course, if you study the games in detail, it will improve your chess, but do the people making the good reviews have done so? I know I have not been able to...
It saddened me when the English Chess Federation chose this book over Mauricio Flores' Chess Structures. I think Flores' work to be so much better in almost every way, except in giving this great insight that is not useful in a real game. Flores has written a masterpiece, one that future generations ought to remember as high as My System by Nimzowitch, while Gelfand has written a very entertaining book to read, accessible to every level of play, but ultimately of limited use to improve your chess.
So now comes the stupid thing of this review: I do not recommend this book, there are a lot of books out there that will help you with your chess a lot more. I have reviewed some here, and I will continue to do so. But I surely not regret one bit having bought it, and I will for sure buy the next one. It is true that the book will not improve your chess, but it is a great book, entertaining and insightful, and it does have some small nuggets of true wisdom, so all in all, there is no need to have always perfect books to study, you may as well indulge yourself in some lighter reading once in a while!
Jacob Aagaard took the time to respond to this review. I will paste it unedited, but you can click here and read it in the original page.
Now to move on to your review and answering some of the questions it raises. If you want, you are very welcome to add this to your review on your site. If you don’t want to, don’t. Our blog is an open forum; your website is promoting your views.
There are some claims that are not true in my opinion, and as I structured the book, I feel my opinion counts.
A big claim is that there is no overall structure to the book and that this is just loose conversations collected in some haphazard way.
We spent quite a bit of time structuring the book at the beginning and to give a coherent look into Boris’ way of thinking and approach. We did not want this to be a manual in the sense that it had to cover all elements or in some way give a complete picture of the topic of positional chess. There are other books trying to do this, in different ways and they are more or less all valuable. What I wanted to do with this book was to explain how Boris, one of the greatest strategists of his generation if not of all time. I wanted to explain the basis of his decisions, which (besides calculation, which we will debate in the next book) are mainly surrounded around the five topics we discuss in the book.
The overall idea for the book: Positional Decision Making in Chess. It is about decision making, looking into the brain of a top player. What is interesting is not only what he uses as a basis for his decisions, but also what he ignores. Looking through the book now, it seems perfectly nicely structured to me, as does the chapters. Each chapter brings in a topic of special relevance, shows the influence from Rubinstein (and others) and then moving into more and more complicated games from Boris.
I am happy the book feels chatty. I wanted it to. It took a lot of work squeezing it out of Boris!
Uneven analysis of the games you say. I assume you mean uneven in length. Yes, some things were more interesting than others. However, the way you have written it, it seems you are criticism the level of the analysis, which I do not think was your intention. In the same way you use the word “junks” instead of “chunks”, which is a bit unfortunate.
Redundancies as a stylistic tool: Yes, we are consciously using this, with the intention of creating lasting improvement. Telling people something once and then moving one does not have that effect.
Comparison with Marin. Which edition did you compare with? The new edition of Legends was heavily influenced by my deep analysis, which was done first and only then compared with Marin’s. Actually it took some effort to explain Marin where he was wrong in the first book .
Yes, the explanations are different; the purpose of our annotations is to show what Boris took from it. I can understand why this is not a viewpoint that will interest everyone, but I certainly found it the most fascinating. I am interested in how strong players think and showing that. And this is what we did.
Size of the book. There are a few elements that can make you feel the way you do: Our paper is of higher quality than for example the paper from all other publishers as far as I can tell. A 400 page book by QC will be slimmer than a 224 page book from a number of other publishers. In general books from Quality Chess are longer than those of most other publishers (MacFarland and Chess Informant are exceptions, but not direct comparisons). This is not by choice, but because we often employ authors who have a lot to say, rather than wanting to have the highest hourly rate. And yes, this is certainly by choice. (Obviously Boris had a lot to say and did say a lot, but there are less chess moves in the book, as you pointed out, and as such, also less diagrams).
The final reason for you not liking the book is where we come down to opinion and disagreement the most. You say that the book does not lead to improvement. There are a number of areas where we can improve. Exercise books, opening books, encyclopedias like Chess Structures offer different ways. But famous trainers like Dvoretsky have always suggested that you should play through game collections with the annotations from strong players, to see how they think and see if it in any way can improve your own thinking. This book was meant to emphasize the thinking part of this, rather than the best games aspect. And the feedback we have had is that it indeed leads to improvement, as I expected it to.
Having argued against all these points, there is one I definitely do not want to argue against. You clearly did not like the book. Of course I am sad that you were disappointed. But I have not yet seen a book that everyone liked, so I can live with it.