Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What do you want for Christmas?

I read the book of Jacob Aagaard "Excelling at positional chess". It is a good read. This is what I distilled out of his idea's for my own use. When looking at a position three questions suffice to know what to do.

Is there a weakness?
If it is not evident what to do in a position, you have to ask yourself first "is there a weakness?"
A weakness can theoretically be everything, but in practice it most of the time boils down to "are there weak pawns?" A pawn is weak when it cannot be protected practically by a buddy pawn AND it can be attacked. If there is a weakness you must fix it, and then attack it. The usual scenario isn't that you conquer a weak pawn before the endgame. But the weakness ties down the defending pieces. In general it is possible to defend one weakness. But two weaknesses often proof to be to much. The art is to alternate your attack between both weaknesses, so that the defending pieces can't follow you.

Can there a weakness be induced?
If there are no weaknesses your pieces can be 100% active, but they are going nowhere. They need weaknesses to work on. If there aren't any weaknesses, you must try to induce them. If you put your pieces in places where your opponent don't want them, you can force him to move his pawns, thus creating weaknesses.

What is your worst piece?
If there are no weaknesses to work on and they cannot be induced, you have to improve the activity of your pieces. First you have to identify your worst piece. That is the one you have to improve. In order to find a plan to improve a piece you ask yourself "What do you want to have for Christmass?" according to the formulation of Aagaard. In other words: "what would be the ideal square for this piece if there were no restrictions?" In practice this is not so easy.

The following diagram is one of 108 positional exercises from Aagaards book. The position stemms from Ehlvest - Anand.

Black to move

There are no weaknesses, and it is at the moment not clear how to induce one. Of course black can play Ng4 and wait till white plays h3, but it is hard to see how such weakness can be attacked. The positions suggests that white will seek his expansion on the kingside, while black looks at the queenside. For white it is clearer, if he posts a knight on f5, than g6 would be a seriousness weakening of blacks kingside.

So the question is, what is blacks worst piece? There is some exercise needed to see that, I guess, but the knight on c6 isn't doing very well. It stands in the way of the bishop and it is going nowhere at the moment. What does it want for Christmass? Where should it go?
This question isn't so simple either. Enfin, that's why I'm doing the 108 exercises of Aagaards book. Of course you can say, the black knight would be ideally placed on f3. From there it gives check, it is well centralized and it controls a significant part of enemy territory. Well, if you ask something excessive to Santa, you won't get it either. Aagaard (and Anand!) comes up with c5 as the best place for the knight. Play went on as follows:

13. ... Nb8 14.Ne3 dxe4 15.dxe4 Nbd7 16.Nd5 Nc5 (see diagram)

White to move

In order to know if the ideal square is feasible you have to know how to play your pawns. I have never thought about that before. dxe4 creates a weak pawn on e4, while the d-pawn can no longer attack the knight on c5. Nf3, Nc5 and indirectly Bb7 all attack the weakness on e4.

I want to learn how to use your pawns. So that is my focus when doing the exercises in the book. Of course 13. ...Nb8 isn't necessarily the best move in this position. There are other moves that are equally playable. But having a plan makes live easier.

I will try to not scare the kids:)


  1. Great post Tempo! It's kind of strange to see you discussing positional aspects of the game. Kind of like seeing Rambo on Martha Stewart, discussing flower arrangements. ;)

  2. SP,
    it's not so strange. When your opponents become stronger, a lot of the tactics seem to evaporate. It is an addition to my play, not a replacement. Even Rambo needs a survival technique when he's not in the jungle. (Which he hasn't.) Besides that, I have seen it weirder. Bodybuilders ratifying the death penalty and B-actors playing for president:)

  3. It's going to be interesting to see how this addition affects your play. I have found recently that I often try to force a position to become more tactical, usually at the cost of making some sort of positional concession. Sometimes it works and sometimes it has devestating consequenses. The ability to be able to use both tactics and positional knowledge would of course be ideal.

    Hopefully you'll become even deadlier OTB. I look forward to seeing more of these types of posts.

  4. It never would have occurred to me to open the d file because I would have been too worried about tactics involving the white rooks pressure on the black queen.

  5. Marty,
    your reaction shows that there is a part of the game we don't know how to play. That is the point I'm trying to make. Of course everything begins with a profound skill in tactics, otherwise you wouldn't know that the tactics in this position cause no harm. Tactics form only the rude top layer of chess. However adorable in itself. The fine art of pawnplay steers the direction of the game. While we (I) haven't the slightest idea.

  6. Very cool post. Even though I suck at positional chess, I am fascinated by it. Pawn structures & pawn play are areas that offer so much and yet I have barely scratched the surface.

    I've read the Christmas present idea in similar form in other books as a way of coming up with plans - imagining an ideal position with pieces where you'd like them, and then trying to figure out if you can achieve it.

    If you look anything like the guy in that picture, kids will be too scared to play you :)

  7. hey boss, i stole your listing of players to make my web page link in with everyone...



  8. Those are excellent questions. They go beyond the elementry questions we tell our students to ask themselves.

    Are we in danger? (being attacked)

    Can we take anything of our opponents? (pieces en prise)

    Can we attack something of our opponent's?

    Often there are no yes answers to those questions, so we have to go into deeper aspects of the position such as weaknesses.

  9. Polly,
    even after 10 years of chess I have never thought about weaknesses, just about tactics. Time to take it a step further!