Title: Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking inside the box.
Author: Jacob Aagaard.
Publisher: Quality Chess.
Price: 29.99€ (hardcover).
This book is the sixth and last one on the Grandmaster Preparation series from the acclaimed author Jacob Aagaard.
I have reviewed two previous instances of this series: Positional Play and Attack and Defense. I reviewed both highly if my memory serves me correctly. Both are workbooks with exercises to train your positional play and your attack and defense skills. The other ones in the series are also workbooks into calculation, endgame play and strategic play. This book I'm reviewing, on the other hand, it is not an exercise book.
If I understood it correctly, this is the first book you are supposed to read in the series and will lay down the foundations of the work with the other books. It is like a synopsis plus a book on self-improvement. Aagaard tries hard to explain his approach to how do you improve on chess: making better decisions at the board. He classifies the decisions you make into four categories and tries to give you some tips for each of this decisions. Moreover you will get acquainted with the material of the other books on the series before you can try to solve puzzles (except for endgame play which is totally ignored here).
To paint it with a very broad stroke each chapters deal with a subject (that may or may not be portrayed in the workbooks). The subject is explained using words (lots of them, I'm happy with that), and games mainly from the author. I advice you to read John Hartmann's review on this very same book to get another viewpoint on what the book is about.
Come on, I'll wait. He is a great reviewer and I always read his reviews eagerly.
So now that you more or less know what the book is about I want to highlight a nice thing in the structure of the book. Each chapter has a Test yourself section were you will find up to eight diagrams asking you to answer a question (generally which is the best move). Those positions will be found later in the chapter (unfortunately not always in diagram form, something I find is kind of a blunder). It is a great addition as you get the chance to think about the content of the chapter beforehand. Every book should have this!
The edition of the hardcover version of the book is great as it usually is with this publisher and the length is more than enough rivaling even opening books (which are usually thicker).
The book is quite interesting. You won't get bored reading it, that's for sure. Aagaard's style really shines in this format better than in the other ones in the series (as there he has no room to expand, being exercise books). It reminds me of his work for Everyman or his Attacking manual. If you've read any of those you know what you are getting here.
The analysis of the games is great. At least I do not think I find a mistake anywhere. I'm sure there will be, but very subtle and hidden ones. I feel the depth of the analysis is adequate (which for me is very deep analysis) and normally I would not get lost in it.
So all in all, it seems the book has a lot of great things going on for it. But you will know by now there will be a but. Two buts indeed.
The first problem with the book is its purpose. When first I learn about the book, judging by its tittle I though Aagaard was making a treatise of the current knowledge in chess (like good/bad bishops), open files, weakened king, etc) and provide examples for us to solve. But it is nothing like this. The purpose of the book is to explain us how to improve our chess.
This objective is really ambitious and Aagaard himself admitted (I'm not sure if it was in the introduction of the book itself or in his blog) that it would be normal if we would read the book and felt we have not learned anything from it as he was going to state the obvious to try to make us conscious about it.
In my case, he hit the nail. I finished the book thinking I have learned very very little. There is the occasional thing to pick up here and there, do not get me wrong, but mainly everything is obvious (as Aagaard himself intended).
Obviously the chapters that are developed further in the other books of the series are kind of redundant to me as the books already feature their own introduction to each theme, but maybe someone reading the material in the order intended by Aagaard will not share this view.
Let me instead get deep into one instance that I feel showcases the book at its worst and that luckily Hartmann has also focused on: the division of chess decisions into four categories, which seems to be the core of the book. According to Aagaard there are four types of decisions:
- Automatic decisions: Those where your choice is obvious, you recapture, avoid a check, etc. In this kind of decision the only reasonable thing to do is make sure the decision is indeed automatic and then make the move.
- Simple decisions: Those were you just improve your position following the steps presented in Positional Play. You should not spend more than a couple of minutes on this because this decisions are by no means game-changing. You need to save time for tough decisions.
- Critical decisions: Here you have to calculate all the way to a definite conclusion. This is what the book Calculation and Endgame Play are all about.
- Strategic decisions: Here you have to make a decision were you cannot reach a definite conclusion and you therefore should guess somewhat. This is what Strategic Play and Attack and defense are all about (and I'm not quite sure the second book qualifies to be here).
Nevertheless, I do not get the difference between critical and strategic decision.
The very concept of critical decisions has been debated over in the quality chess blog and Aagaard found many voices arguing against it. I do not want to enter that discussion as I might side with Aagaard here. I do think it is useful to know there are decisions that are critical and should be calculated accurately on a game, even if you miss them. Next time maybe you are aware of the concept and make a special effort to not miss such situations.
But when I start calculating I may be facing a critical or a strategic decision. The only difference from a practical point of view (as far as I can see it) is that in one you will have finished your calculations while in the other you will not because you lack the time and you will have to guess. Anyway you will have to move one way or the other.
So even in the most important point of the book I feel something is missing. Either my understanding of the classification is flawed (in which case the book is at fault as it did not get the job done) or the classification is flawed from a practical point of view, which defeats the purpose of having two different categories for the same basic decision: go deep and calculate.
Another example would be the classification of the players into four categories: intuitive vs logical, technical vs dynamic. I know I'm a technical player, but I have no idea if I'm logical or intuitive. The exposition of the chapter gave me no clue as this division was underdeveloped. Moreover this division seemed only accessory with no practical advice behind it.
Maybe I'm nitpicking, but the idea with which I finished the book is that there were many interesting ideas but nothing special. The book failed to get a better player out of me.
The second problem is that the games are chosen primarily from Aagaard practice. As he is mainly an attacking player, this is what you are getting, tons of attacking games. Games that would fare better in an Attacking Manual than in a book about improving your chess. After all, not everyone plays this kind of chess (I do not, for instance), and those feel a bit left aside.
So my conclusion is that you have to think about this book as a best game's book. The advice on improvement is interesting and the prose is great, so you are not losing on that front, it may not be useful, but think of it as an extra. The games are quite interesting and well analyzed. So forget it is a Grandmaster Preparation book. It is not. When you are in this state of mind you can judge the book fairly. My personal feeling is that is a good book worth having. I like it a lot more than Gelfand's books which everybody seems to love.
So I recommend this book with some reserves.
A final addition is that you may enjoy this book whatever your elo is, as a best games' book you will pick what you can.