Excelling at Chess


Jacob Aagaard is a Danish-born Scottish Grandmaster who won the 2007 British Chess Championship.He is also the author of many books, including Excelling at Chess, Excelling at Positional Chess, Excelling at Combination Play, Excelling at Technical Chess, and Inside the Chess Mind.His books contain some interesting ideas about chess and different approaches to learning the game.†† He explained that he wrote the books as a kind of personal test, that he wanted to make sense of various ideas in chess during a period when he was trying to improve his playing strength.He said he wanted to write about understanding in chess as an antidote to the way many players use chess computers.Aagaard went to the University of Aarhus, where he studied Cognitive Semitotics.


The first premise is that most tournament games are not won by superior calculation or imaginary power, but rather due to superior understanding of the basics of the game.He claims that Grandmasters calculate less than amateurs because they know what to calculate.Chess is a matter of intuition, preparation and calculation, all blended together.Aagaard says that it is a myth that top players have enormous abilities of calculation.


Another factor in winning (or losing) chess games is the accelerated nervousness that some players get in the final money round.Aagaard calls it an agmygdala attack, which is basically a survival mechnanism.It works like this.Normally any consciousness event happens in roughly three seconds (known as Poebel time).Every 30 milliseconds we acquire knowledge and every 3 seconds we act on it.In order to react any faster, it needs to be automatic.In case of danger approaching, your central nerve system will alarm the brain.There, the agmygdala will take over in the case immediate action is needed, an you will react on instinct only.Some chess players may not be able to take the pressure of winning the last round for some high stakes, and the play collapses.


For Aagaard, this phenomenon of agmygdala and losing final round money games was so devastating that he sincerely thought about giving up chess.Emotionally, he thought he was probably winning, but soon his hands began to shake, started feeling strange and felt rather hot.His game would then fall apart.He started doubting himself and did not have the courage to play what he thought was the correct move.


Aagaard, in his book, also wanted to disprove what Viktor Korchnoi once said, ďChess you donít learn, chess you understand.ĒAagaard says that the majority of people have to work to achieve any ability, and that they can learn from chess.A small majority, however, will never learn chess, no matter how hard they try.Some of these people will enjoy chess, but they will never grasp positional basics.


Aagaard says that most games are decided on a superiority in the understanding of positional play.Real chess players (someone who knows where the pieces belong) would never put a piece on awkward squares; only lesser players do.He says that when the top players in the world calculate, they do not consider a lot of moves.Instead, they penetrate deeper into a few minor differences in the possibilities, since these can prove important.They are also guided much more in their calculation by this positional understanding.If the pieces start going to the wrong squares, then that line is unfavorable and should be abandoned.


Opening preparation is an important asset in modern high-level competition, but superior preparation offers only so much.When it is not backed up by a strong understanding of the opening, very little can be achieved.


Aagaard insists that you need to find your own understanding of chess.No trainer or book alone can take you all the way to the top of your game.You have to find your own understanding of the game and your own style.It cannot be done without extensive analysis.If you want to understand chess and acquire a deep feeling for the game, there is no avoiding the expenditure of time and effort solving exercises and analyzing all kinds of positions.†† So the answer to the matter of seeing more over the board lies in more accurately seeing the variations (calculating better), not in calculating more.


Aagaard sees chess not as one game only, but as a multitude of games decided by pawn structure.Positions are not lonely pieces on a large board, rather they are a collection of elements and concepts which can be grasped and understood by everyone.


The idea of elements is easier to grasp than that of concepts since they are the actual interactions between pieces.Concepts are the possible interactions, and thus more abstract.When you sit at a chess board, searching for ideas, you limit yourself to looking at the elements.This is called calculation and people lose their way because, since they have not decided what they want to do with their position, they look at every possible variation.


Aagaard is convinced that true calculation cannot take place before you have decided what you are looking for.If you are not aiming at a result, but randomly checking variations, then you are not a Real chess player, according to Aagaard.


Aagaard recommends studying your own games as a way for chess improvement.By finding your own weaknesses, you will know in which area the greatest need for improvement is required.He also recommends working with a trainer who can see your blind spots.The idea is to find the pattern in your own mistakes and describe them in more generic terms.However, he warnsthat when you fix these mistakes by improving your understanding of these weaker points, you will find new weaknesses, only this time at a higher level.The process never stops, however, your tournament results will improve.


Aagard also recommends that when you play your tournament games, first analyze and annotated them yourself before checking them with a chess computer or engine.Try to understand the positional and logical reasons why you miss something at the board.When you do study your games, do it slowly. Do not play out moves as if they were forced.Look carefully at each move to wee whether there are other options you did not consider.


Aagaard had an interesting way of studying and learning endgames.He type all the main lines from Averbakhís two volumes on rook endgames into ChessBase, then played them trough over and over.The idea is that unconscious pattern recognition should help you when you face endgames over the board.However, he found it far more important to understand how the properties of pieces alter in the endgame than knowing thousands of limited piece positions.There is a limited number of theoretical positions you should know, and then there are some endgame principles you need to understand.


Aagaard has observed that people seem to play faster when the number of pieces decreases.This happens despite the fact that intuitive decisions are now less important.For endgames, you need to reason logically what to do and calculate variations to the end, or at least far enough to gain some insight into the resultant position.You have to understand what is going on in an endgame instead of getting frustrated with endless variations that you are not sure about trying to remember.In the endgame, understanding is crucial.Occasionally, you will find yourself in theoretical positions, but not often.Endgames should be understood as a collection of ideas rather than variations.If you want to excel in chess, you should have solid endgame technique.You donít need a deep knowledge of theoretical positions, but rather a good feeling for simple positional elements.And the best way to study the endgame is to solve exercises, preferably with a friend.Find endgame exercises, then act as each otherís trainer.Take an endgame exercise, give yourself 15 minutes and then solve it as if you were playing a game.


The other part of endgame training comes from playing through endgames, preferably annotated, of very strong technical players such as Alekhine, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian, Karpov, Korchnoi, Rubinstein, Larsen, Ulf Andersson, Salov, and others.


Finally, Aagaard touches on attitude at the chess board and believing in yourself.Many players want to do well at the chess board, but fail to consider how other influences affect their results.The most important thing is self-confidence.You should believe that you can do what you want.Together with a strong self-belief, you need the will to win.Bobby Fischer once said that Ďa very strong willí was the most important factor for success in chess.You need to want to win in order to do so.