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Is Your New Trainer Boris Gelfand? Print E-mail
By David Kerans   
August 13, 2015
To the regret of the chess public, not all elite grandmasters are elite communicators. Chess lovers who are eager to deepen their understanding and enjoyment of the game can find superb instructional materials from lesser-ranked masters, of course. But the demand for first-rate training materials coming from the top echelon of chess stars is unmet, long-standing, and intense.

 Aspiring players should therefore be overjoyed to hear that Boris Gelfand is jumping into the ring with a series of books, beginning with Positional Decision Making in Chess, just released via Quality Chess. We can confirm that this series breaks new ground, thanks in part to Gelfand's distinctive training and perception, and in part to a fresh style of collaboration with GM Jacob Aagard.

At the invitation of Long Island Chess Mates, which runs the Summer Chess Academy for Talented Youth and other intensive chess preparation classes, Gelfand gave a master class in New York on Sunday, August 9th, where he illustrated some of the instructional approaches of the first volume in his series. Further, in the video interview we adduce below, Boris kindly elaborated on his early training experiences beyond what readers can find in published discussions of his development (among the most valuable: a recent interview with Russian-Israeli site eTVnet.com is wide-ranging and informative; a discussion with Peter Doggers on the heels of the 2012 World Championship match vs. Anand has many insights; and the documentary film about the Anand match and more, "Album 61," which we recommend highly). 

Gelfand's master class presentation accentuated characteristics of his positional sense which are simultaneously deeper than that of most other strong grandmasters and also - take note - more accessible to mortals aspiring to improve their understanding and play. A glaring example came at move 12 of the 7th match game vs. Anand in 2012.

His seconds (Tomashevsky, Eljanov, and Rodshtein) had labored all night to prepare an ingenious, intricate line that the computers also favored. But Gelfand overruled them and played a much less tactical line that the computers evaluated as completely equal, because he spotted enduring positional issues black could not easily solve. Similarly, at move 16 of the same game, he refrained from an exchange that would damage the pawn wall in front of Anand's king, in favor of a different exchange that would saddle black with subtle but unresolvable positional weaknesses on the other side of the board. He acknowledged that "a Topalov or a Shirov would have immediately chosen the other path" (adding, with a laugh, "and they would have mated their opponent in 10 moves"). Gelfand admitted that he could have played that way himself, "But I didn't try hard to justify (that route). I was comfortable with the other way, it suited me." 

What Gelfand brings to the board - and what he hopes to cultivate in his readers - is an eagle eye for positional features and a readiness to rely on those features to guide his play more than the great majority of his peers in the top echelon of chess. As noted chess author Emmanuel Neiman summarized his own reaction to the new book:

"Gelfand always looks for one idea and try to realize it as soon as possible....Boris is able to stick to (positional) principles at the highest level, while so many top 20 players seem to play mainly according to calculation."

Both the number and the quality of chess books devoted to developing positional understanding in aspiring players have risen sharply in the last 10-20 years. Gelfand's stature as a practitioner guarantees Positional Decision Making in Chess marquee billing, of course. But an initial inspection reveals several other features that bring the work to a higher standard. 

Thus, Gelfand's analyses are voluminous, just what the overwhelming majority of students have always wanted. They are rich in self-awareness and candor; he is generous with reflections about the chess world of today and yesteryear. And, last but not least, we learn that he encouraged grandmaster Aagard to draw him out on all manner of topics in the book. Aagard is a well-established author of high-level chess training manuals; he is co-founder and Creative Director of Quality Chess publishing to boot. He peppered Gelfand with questions throughout the manuscript, ensuring that we get the most out of Boris. In his foreword to the book, for example, Aagard presents a diagram and continues:

"Boris quickly and confidently made his next few moves, and would not have spent any time explaining them had I not asked him why he played as he played. The explanation was short, clean and crisp. It was also incredibly illuminating."

I will not attempt a proper review of the book here, before I have studied it all. Let's just say I encourage you to have a look yourself. You'll see an awful lot of Rubinstein and Gelfand games, by the way.

In closing, let me relay a few of the pieces of advice and reflections Gelfand offered throughout the master class:

He admitted that "I enjoyed chess more before the computer era. But you must accommodate to reality. I use the computer less than others do. Mostly I use it when studying sharp opening lines, where you have to check with a computer." He said (with some satisfaction, no doubt) that as computers are getting better, they are often validating the positional decisions of great masters. 

He commended Carlsen for maintaining a high level of concentration more consistently than anyone else, which he feels is one explanation for his superiority. 

He said he didn't play blitz games to practice the new opening repertoire he prepared for the 2012 match. "I played a lot of rapid games, 15 minutes + 10 seconds." He advises playing games no shorter than 10 minutes a side, if you want to learn anything, and to focus your attention on the phase just after the opening. When he does play in blitz competitions, he says he is markedly stronger at 4 + 2 than at 3 + 2, at least nowadays, as he has gotten a bit older.

Watch the full video clip on YouTube and join our channel at US Chess Federation.