Review: Positional Decision Making in Chess, by Boris Gelfand

By Davide Nastasio

I’d like to foreword my review stating clearly that this book is really rich in games, positions, ideas, comparisons between games of the past, and modern games. So whatever I write (I realized this in the middle of writing this review) will not give justice to the book itself, and the collaboration between Gelfand and Aagaard. So please keep in mind that this book, for the variety of topics it treats (obviously it is not written for true beginners; I believe it addresses a player rated at least 1800) it is difficult to review, without being superficial.

I was waiting for this book eagerly for a long time. The European market gets served before US, so I bought it using an android app. The paperback edition should be released in 2016. At the moment some sellers have the hardcover edition.

In the first page is written “with invaluable help from Jacob Aagaard,” whom I’m convinced is the real author of the book, or as he defines himself, “the ghost writer.”

In general, I’m really interested in chess biographies because they tell us a lot about history and the life of these champions. Especially when they are minor players, or candidates to the world championship, like in this case.
A few days ago I was asked the never-ending question: “Who is your favorite player of all time?” When I didn’t answer, I was asked if I preferred Fischer or Kasparov. Honestly, while I know a lot about the lives of these two champions, I didn’t watch many of their games, and I should, because they are both truly great. But when I was asked insistently, I said that my favorite player–at the moment–is Nicholas Pert, who I came to know through one Chessbase DVD. His enthusiasm is contagious, and I began to play the French opening because of his words and efforts. I even made a database of his “French” games, and they were consistent with his character: extremely violent games where the draw was reached by exhausting all the options, and not just a classical 15 moves draw between GMs (that today would be 30 moves long, because thanks to computers, and memory, nowadays GMs play openings that long!).

In any case, I happened to follow some of Pert’s last games in the British championship, and he is clearly one of my favorite players of all time.

To study a “minor” player like Gelfand, who is NOT minor at all, since he has been in the chess business for 30 plus years, is interesting as much as studying Pert’s games. The book begins telling us who taught Gelfand to play chess, in this case his father, in the former Soviet Union. Then comes a very interesting fact, which is the title of the first chess book Gelfand read over and over, now luckily translated in English!




The point is that “Journey to the chess kingdom” by Averbakh and Beilin, was read also by many other champions of Gelfand’s generation: Khalifman, Grischuk, Ivanchuk, only a few of the names that come to mind. This shows the importance of reading biographies, because we can find common learning patterns between different champions which can help guide us to the right path for learning chess.

Books give us a lot of material for thought, and in this case Gelfand’s book is a gold mine. For example, Gelfand’s father discovered that his son did not have an interest in chess, and this is important because from other biographies, like the one on Carlsen, we discover that to keep a child’s interest high is all we need to make him/her learn chess. Gelfand’s father discovered why his son was not showing interest, and eventually led him to love the game. That is one of the reasons we buy books like this, for their human material, the true stories that teach us about other human beings on this journey we call chess. But of course especially entertaining are the stories about the socialist state, and how the former Soviet Union was clearly highly dysfunctional. Such stories warn us how important is to remember the past, to avoid repeating it, especially when someone running for public office asks us to replicate such a failing economic system.

In all my digression, I have not informed you why Gelfand wasn’t showing interest:  he didn’t have material to study! Since the few books he had, he had read over and over, memorized them so they no longer held his interest. In our present historical period, I believe we are lost in a totally opposite direction from Gelfand’s times.

I have at least 100 chess books on the bookshelves, and that equivalent in PDF, PGN, or CBV between the different tablets (android, Win 8.1 or Apple), and of course on the main computer.

Now, I’d like to present some games from this book which I find interesting for different reasons.

This is the first game Gelfand presents in the book, played in a never finished match against his father. What is interesting is the fact that Gelfand showed this game to Kramnik, and both agreed that many elements of his present style appear in the game of the nine-year-old Gelfand. On this game Gelfand warns us to pay special attention to two moves: move #17 because he should have played Pg4 which is a preparing move to help create a strong attack; and move #24, because the knight exchange on e5 creates unbearable pressure on the weak Pd6.

Another book which was important for him was Rubinstein, by Razuvaev and Murakhveri.




This is, I believe, one of the nice influences chess can give a person, a love for languages. In this case the book mentioned by Gelfand is difficult to find in Russian and has not been translated in English, but I have it in Italian! This is what happened in the past, since today we can have most materials in electronic form. In the past a chess player, such as Fischer, had to learn different languages to be able to access books which didn’t exist in his own language. I believe Fischer read Russian, German, and learned other languages while traveling. Of course we don’t need this book on our path to 2500! But what Gelfand is conveying is much more important. He is saying: “you need a chess hero to learn chess, and Rubinstein was mine!”  In fact, the first chapter of the book is devoted to the influence Rubinstein had over Gelfand.

Digressing a little more, there are two beautiful volumes written by two great chess authors, GM Donaldson and IM Minev, covering all of Rubinstein’s games.




Volume 1 is out of print, and can be difficult to find (the Amazon price is $169!) But volume 2 can be bought for a normal price, around $20. Luckily I own both! However, in the first chapter Gelfand and Aagaard make a wonderful comparison between Rubinstein’s games and the influence he had on his own games. Showing precisely how some of Rubinstein’s games and ideas were used in his own.

Always thanks to Gelfand, we come to know that also Botvinnik studied Rubinstein’s games, and learned from them.

I’d like to share with the reader of this review two Rubinstein’s games I find fascinating. The first one is important for learning positional themes, while the second shows Rubinstein’s mastery in rook endings.

This game is analyzed in detail in the second chapter of Gelfand’s book.



In the above game we should pay attention to what Razuzaev mentioned in his book:
1) The maneuver Ng6-Ne7-Ng8-Nf6 played to dislodge the Ne4.
2) The maneuver Qd7-Qd8-Qb8-Qa7-Qc5-Qb4 played to activate the Queen.

The following game shows Rubinstein’s endgame mastery, and is annotated by Lasker:



Akiba Rubenstein vs Emanuel Lasker, 1909


In the second chapter Gelfand reminds us of the many reasons why we should play both 1.e4 and 1.d4 and what we can learn from them. I’m also on the same path, because I believe in order to achieve master level, a player must get acquainted with many kinds of positions and pawn structures. I even believe that in this age there is no reason why we couldn’t learn at least three types of opening repertoires:

1. One for playing in long time control / quick time control tournament games.
2. One for playing in Blitz tournaments
3. And one for matches.

In this book we have also a lot of different games, not only the one played by Gelfand. Often Gelfand shows some games between Carlsen and Anand to illustrate some ideas on pawn structures. The book is also full of advice and ideas on how Gelfand improved. In the second chapter he mentions how he learned a lot from analyzing deeply the matches between Karpov and Kasparov, and then he reiterates how important it is to stop using computer engines for getting an evaluation of the position. Instead he prefers to work the post mortem analysis with other strong players. Because ideas during a chess game will outplay an opponent computer preparation.

This book also gives us some games which are classics, games one needs to know in order to better assess a position. In this case, the learning idea behind the following game is a powerful knight versus a bad bishop.

In chapter 3 Gelfand tells us how he learned space advantage from Rubinstein’s games. Throughout the chapter he uses different games, modern and classic, as well as fragments of positions, to explain what space advantage is or is not.

This is one of the games which better illustrates the space advantage, and is annotated by Nimzowitsch. In the book Gelfand annotates it deeply.



Akiba Rubenstein


Chapter 4 deals with the transformation of Pawn Structures. Again we find a number of classic games.  They are compared to Gelfand’s modern games, or games from modern champions like Karpov. Obviously, the hero of the classic games is–Rubinstein!

I’m including many games in this review because I believe we should use every moment for learning chess. In this case, it would be interesting if the reader of this review analyzes some of these games by himself, and then if he buys the book he can make a comparison with Gelfand’s analysis and ideas and come to appreciate these games even more.


Chapter 5 deals with the Transformation of Advantages. This chapter explains differences between Static and Dynamic advantages, and how to convert them. Once more the classical hero used as an example is Rubinstein!

The following game is not mentioned at all in Gelfand’s book, but it was mentioned in the book about Rubinstein, the book that Gelfand loved as a child. Here we notice the similar pawn structure. I doubt Gelfand forgot about this game, so this is the case why in the beginning Aagaard says he is the ghost writer for this book.

This chapter in itself is worth the price of the book, because first Gelfand shows a lot of Rubinstein’s games and how the transformation of the advantage happened (or didn’t), in case Rubinstein (a human, not a computer) didn’t find the right solution. Then he begins to show how it happens in his own games!

Part of the chapter is also dedicated to show how the bishop pair is a long-term dynamic advantage, and I believe that is also a topic quite interesting for a 1800-rated player.

The book ends with an appendix based on Jacob Aagaard’s interview with Gelfand in 2012.

In conclusion: this book, from what I understood, is also part of a larger project. I thought it would be a trilogy, but the publisher denied, saying they don’t know how many volumes there would be. If it becomes a trilogy, like the Polgar series, I’ll be looking for the next two, and I hope they will be published soon. In any case, I believe it is a book rich in material for players who already have a good grasp of many middlegame and endgame ideas. I believe also some material will need time to be digested (or at least will need to be read more than once). One thing that I miss is some help from the authors, such as putting some exercises at the end of the chapters, or some games one can watch by himself in order to really see if the ideas explained were understood. For example, a list of resources could be given at the publisher site, enticing the reader to have a more interactive experience.

Once the paperback version becomes available, I will buy it.  I must admit I prefer paper to the electronic version. The version I had on android is not like a PGN or CBV file that is readable in Chessbase 12, and the chessboard for watching the games is quite small compared to the size of a board on a computer.


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