By Ian Rogers
In a decision which will generate few complaints, Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making in Chess has won the English Chess Federation Book of the Year award.
Gelfand is perhaps the lowest profile world class player, despite being a world title contender for a quarter of a century.
For much of that period, following the great split of 1993 and the introduction of knock-out World Championships, Gelfand admitted that he had virtually abandoned his world title aspirations but the reunification of the chess world plus the return of accessible world title matches rekindled Gelfand’s motivation to do more than just perform well in top tournaments.
Finally in 2012, at an age when many players would be winding up their professional chess career, Gelfand earned the right to challenge for the world title but was beaten by Viswanathan Anand by the narrowest of margins.
The story of that match was recorded in the wonderful documentary Album 61, which includes a striking scene where Gelfand, having just lost the world title after rapid playoffs, describes the match as the greatest weeks of his life. Instead of regretting missed opportunities, Gelfand just regrets that he cannot do it all again; the game is the important thing, not the winner or loser.
Gelfand has survived at the top because he understands something about chess that others do not. Positional Decision Making in Chess goes some way to revealing why this is so, in large part because co-author Jacob Aagaard is around to ask ‘Why?’ when the Belorussian-born Israeli might assume that everyone would find the right move.
Even so, sometimes the reader can be left confused. A chapter on converting a superior pawn structure features a game, the seventh game from his match against Anand, where most players would regard Gelfand as overcoming an inferior structure with more pawn islands, not converting a better one.
Nonetheless, as many found from reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, it is possible to learn a lot from a book while not understanding everything. In Positional Decision Making in Chess Gelfand’s pays frequent tribute to the games of Akiba Rubinstein and those games, against less tenacious opposition, are often better vehicles for comprehending the principles being expounded by Gelfand.
Note that Gelfand’s apparent indifference to winning and losing does not prevent him from offering practical advice as to how to maximise chances to win a game which might objectively be defensible.
While rarely mentioned explicitly, Gelfand’s book clarifies the need for patience; forcing lines usually begin only when everything else is ready. (Curiously, Max Illingworth, after securing his Grandmaster title at the recent Australian Masters, explained his form improvement in similar terms, saying, “I changed my decision making process for the better. Basically I was a lot more patient, not trying to force the position but going for more indirect play. My opponent would play forcing moves a lot of the time while I would just steadily improve my position and that’s how I would get them.”)
When I approached Gelfand recently to congratulate him on the book, he seemed stunned when I said I had learned plenty from Positional Decision Making in Chess. After I explained “We think about chess differently,” he looked doubtful but seemed to understand.
In my opinion everyone thinks about chess differently to Gelfand, which is why Album 61 and Positional Decision Making in Chess are so remarkable; through them you glimpse into a superior chess mind.
(For David Smerdon’s detailed August review of Positional Decision Making in Chess, see http://www.davidsmerdon.com/?p=1712.)