Aaggard’s Attacking Manuel Wins BCF Book of the Year Award

I have been meaning to give a favorable review of this book for a while now, and so after the announcement of the BCF award I thought I would give a brief overview of why I think this book is worth owning.

The book begins with a brief discussion concerning the riff over John Watson’s notion of “rule independence,” a debate I am not about to rehash here. Simply put: Aagaard sides with the Europeans in their criticism of Watson’s concept. This brief introductory jaunt into the theoretical debate over rule independence is not entirely inapposite here, as Aagard sets out to articulate new rules in a post-dynamic era. The “rules” he gives are in bold, and appear throughout the book. One such example: When you have the momentum you must act with great speed or the momentum will perish. Another one which I quite liked: We only need to win on one square to deliver mate. Most of these “rules” are vague enough to be applicable in many circumstances, like an astrology reading, however, with each concept he articulates Aagaard follows with a concrete example, giving the reader a firm hook to hang his otherwise abstract hat upon.

There are 9 chapters featuring fantastic attacking games and game fragments as well as a “preview” section, which I rather liked, that gives the reader a glimpse of the critical positions to be discussed in the chapter ahead. Aagaard recommends spending a few minutes thinking over the complexities of these positions before moving on to the rest of the chapter, where they are dealt with in detail. As a practical training exercise, this can be incredibly fruitful if the reader is willing to do the work. I recommend looking over the positions and literally writing down the variations you consider for each position, so that later when the position arises you can compare your variations with those covered in the game.

My favorite chapter in the book is entitled 12 Great Attacking Games, and its content needs no explanation. The entire books is filled with breathtaking sacrifices and elegant attacks that seem to materialize from thin air. The following is one of the highlights of the book for me. It is a game that was played between Leko and Topalov in 2005, in which the following position occured with white to move:

Leko-Topalov, 2005 FIDE World Championship Tournament

Here, we can see that white has a massive lead in development while black’s king is stuck in the center. Aagard leads us to the conclusion that now is time to strike out, or black will consolidate and get away. While I’m sure Aagard is accurate in his analysis of the position and is no doubt creative in his extraction of a rule from it, I worry that if I were to apply this sense urgency to my own games I might end up playing unsound sacrifice after unsound sacrifice. Naturally, the underpinning of any continuation is not an academic rule but rather the grim reality of calculation, (i.e. my engine doesn’t know any rules and yet it finds fault with GM games quite often.) While rules are fantastic for training because they allow the trainer to tie up loose ends with tidy maxims, they are less helpful in the heat of battle, especially where they overlap, are riddled with exceptions, or contradict other rules. This leaves me with the feeling that rules are fantastic for the improving player to use as a guide, but should never replace calculation. I think it also goes without saying that at the top level, elite players seem to ignore the rules altogether, almost as if they were independent of them.

Returning to the above diagram, Leko missed a win. He played the natural move 20.Nf5, overlooking the spectacular 20.Nb6!! The point is that after 20…Qxb6 21.Nxe6 Qxe6 22.Qa7!! Giving us the following position:

The many mate threats to black’s king will cause his position to crumble under the weight of the pressure.

Below, find the complete game in which Leko missed an opportunity to put Topalov away with brio.