29 December 2014

To Know a Position

300 Positions

Rashid Ziyatdinov, in his provocative GM-RAM: Essential Grandmaster Knowledge (2000), builds on an idea that has been put forth by others: knowing well a set number of critical positions is essential to chess strength.*
In Russian chess folklore it is said there are 300 positions which comprise the most important knowledge which an aspiring player must acquire. (12)
Ziyatdinov continues with the recognition that several sets of 300 positions have been presented by other authors, that the collections vary, and that opinions "vary regarding which positions comprise the magical 300". He cites Lev Alburt, Chess Training Pocket Book: 300 Most Important Positions & Ideas (1997).** Alburt claims that his 300 positions will provide a foundation for becoming a "strong tournament player" (8). Ziyatdinov makes a more ambitious claim:
Assuming understanding of the strategy, openings, and of chess tactics, a student who knows every position in this book "by heart" ... will achieve Grandmaster status. (13)
I shall return in a moment to the important qualifications marked by the ellipses in this quote.

Both Alburt and Ziyatdinov employ computing metaphors in their work. Alburt refers to the 300 positions as "zipped files". Each contains "volumes of chess playing knowledge" that can be assessed via the "programs" of a player's "problem-solving skills" (9). Ziyatdinov, on the other hand, does not present the information as locked up and needing access by a special program. Rather, the essential positions are "tacit knowledge" akin to basic words in one's native language.
When using information in its RAM memory, a computer works more than 100 times faster than when using information from its hard drive. (7)
While Alburt presents positions that will be stored at the back of one's memory, Ziyatdinov asks that students know the position cold, "such that in a matter of seconds he or she understands everything important about the position" (13). Part of the knowledge of a position is memorization of the game from which it comes. Positions are "the fingerprint of the games" (77).

Anderssen -- Staunton 1851

Ziyatdinov's positions include 133 endgame positions and 120 middlegame positions (three positions are duplicated because Ziyatdinov discusses them). He leaves it to the reader to fill in the gap to bring the total to 300. The 120 middlegame positions stem from 59 games. Three positions are from the fifth match game between Adolf Anderssen and Howard Staunton at the First International Chess Tournament 1851. The diagram below is the first of these three.

GM-RAM, Position 140
What must I know about this position?

The moves leading up to it featured a queen sortie that netted Black the pawn on b2. Then the queen was driven back to her starting square. Black's dark-squared bishop also left its initial square, but then returned in an unsuccessful effort to keep the queen in play.

Staunton's annotations in the tournament book of the First International Chess Tournament explain his reasoning when he played 10...Bf8. I think that 10...Ne7 would have been better, although even then White already had a clear advantage.

I have been going through this game repeatedly over the past few days. After 14...Qd8, which led to the diagram position, I wrote:
Only one of Black's pieces is off its starting square. All of White's pieces have moved, except the queen. Although down a pawn, White's pieces are in action.
Black's lack of development is certainly one element that makes this position notable.

Over the course of the next few moves, Anderssen put pressure on the weak backwards pawn on d6. After 20...Nc5, Staunton wrote, "Child's play. Throwing away his most important Pawn for nothing!" The only way that I have found for him to retain this pawn leaves his position utterly hopeless, although he maintains a material advantage. White still gains the pawn, but sacrifices the exchange (rook for bishop) in order to do so.

Looking Toward 2015

I am ambivalent concerning any chess related New Year's Resolutions for 2015. My resolutions for 2013 were only partly successful and ended in disappointment. The year before, I met my rating goal but not my training goal. I did not bother in 2014.

Nonetheless, I am presently inclined to make an effort to work through one game per week from GM-RAM. How far into 2015 this current interest will carry me is unknown. I suspect that at some point other training interests or non-chess priorities will intervene and break me from this path. That is what always happens.

I cherish no illusions that I will attain Grandmaster strength. Even USCF Expert seems a long shot in the light of my current playing strength and tournament opportunities. I spend a lot of time on chess, but the bulk of this time is divided between the thrill--positive and negative--of online blitz, on the one hand, and nurturing the skills of children, on the other hand. I am privileged to coach several of the area's top elementary players. I am applying some of Ziyatdinov's training ideas in this coaching, using a batch of Paul Morphy's games (see "Morphy's Fingerprints"), followed by the eleven Anderssen games in GM-RAM.

Whether for my own progress, or for that of my students, the time that I invest studying Ziyatdinov's 59 games should prove beneficial.

I might also spend more time plowing through the 133 endgame positions in GM-RAM. The six positions in "Six Pawn Endings" are essentially identical to the first six in the book. These have been among the fundamental positions that I have been teaching youth players since even before I bought Ziyatdinov's book. In his 133 positions, however, are quite a few that I have yet to invest any serious time. Perhaps that will change in 2015.

*My initial review of this book is available at "GM-RAM: Essential Knowledge." Subsequent ruminations appear by clicking with the label "Ziyatdinov" below.

**Since the publication of GM-RAM, Alburt has brought out a second book with an additional 320 positions, Chess Training Pocket Book II: 320 Key Positions for Players at All Levels (2008).


  1. 15.f4! and if ..Bg7, 16.fxe5 Bxe5, 17.BxB dxB would appear to be quite the +/- here.

  2. Indeed. 15.f4! was played in the game and should be mentioned as part of the knowledge of the position.

    In some of the lines that I give in today's post, where I have annotated the game, it is clear that opening the f-file was essential to the assault on Black's backwards d-pawn.

  3. question - regarding your study of these positions. do you take the position and fully analyze out all the consequences, or are you more interested in completely describing the entire game- and the plan of each player?

    also is your drill more that you try to memorize the entire game- or seek to guess the move of the winning player??

    - I guess the issue, with some of these kinds of instruction is for me, ambiguity, what does it mean exactly- to know a position, cold?

    to play it out successfully against a computer, to completely explain how and why the winner won, to have exhuastively investigated all the possible branches in a mighty analysis??

    I'd be interested in what you thought as a strong player, was the exact best plan for Learning a "thematic" position in an instructive game.

    1. Jason,

      Can I say that it varies? And also that I am still trying to answeryour questions for myself?

      For some positions, it means that I understand the best moves thoroughly and see through to the end. In the Szen--Anderssen game, for example, Anderssen missed a chekmate in ten moves. When I look at that position today, I instantly know the correct move, the consequences in terms of pieces that Black must sacrifice, and the end result--checkmate. I also remember having played several variations against different computers and know that with a few minutes thought, I can either rediscover or recall the refutation to every defense mustered by White.

      For other positions, the meaning of knowing it "cold" is less clear.