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"Tournament Technique" by Aron Nimzowitsch

An article for the Soviet newspaper Shakhmaty, 1929.

Tournament technique

Tournament technique is, of course, tightly connected with the pure chess technique, but it also has its own special logic. I think that this logic needs to be described, so that we all could see which elements comprise this tournament technique, the intricate technique that sometimes allows a weaker player to overtake a stronger opponent.

Let's try and give a short analysis of the elements. Our discourse will be based on the experience of the recently ended Karlsbad tournament. In that tournament, according to A.A. Alekhine, I showed a high-class tournament technique. How did I play?

1. Saving strength

The ability to save your strength "for future feats" should show itself: a) in a given tournament game; b) at the various stages of the tournament as a whole, for instance, in the beginning or the middle of the tournament (but of course not at the finish, because you should give your all there).

a) You should never worry, because this worry costs you strength. You have to get used to the thought that it's all not that important, that the result of a chess tournament is not a matter of life and death. When it's your opponent's move, it's best to stand up and walk slowly around the tournament hall. It's also good to sit down in a comfortable chair, relaxing all your muscles and trying not to think of anything. In the game proper, many players make an important mistake: in a complicated position, they're looking for some kind of combination first, and only then, finding nothing, they "resort" to a positional continuation. You should not do that: in a position with a lot of almost equally valuable combinational continuations, you should immediately go for a positional move, because calculating a lot of complicated variants is wasteful, and so we should bravely and proudly (with disdain!) refrain from it. However, if there are only a few variants, or they are obviously not equally valuable, then you must, however grudgingly, work on them. Let's show an example. In the game against Tartakower I (White), after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. f3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Nc3 O-O 6. Be3 Nbd7 7. Nh3 e5 8. d5 a5 9. Nf2 b6 10. Qd2 Nc5 11. Bg5 Bd7 12. g4 Qc8 13. h4 Kh8 14. h5 gxh5, got the following position:

A combination springs to mind: 15. Bxf6 Bxf6 16. Qh6 Bg7 17. Qxh5 h6 18. g5 f5!, and now you have to choose between two roughly equal variants: I. 19. gxh6; II. 19. gxf6 and 20. Bh3, occupying light squares. It's all too complicated, so I, after thinking for 5 minutes (no more!), played 15. Bxf6 Bxf6 16. Rxh5 Bg7 17. Nh1. It's not a combination, just a positional continuation that saves a lot of time and effort. White are preparing to invade light squares (f5, h5 and b5). The game continued 17... f6 18. Qh2 h6 19. Ng3 Kh7 20. Be2 Rg8 21. Kf2 Rh8 22. Rh4 Qe8 23. Rg1 Bf8 24. Kg2 Nb7 25. Nh5, with a solid game and good attacking chances.

In the game against Saemisch from Round 15 (I had White) I, after getting an attack, didn't try to win an exchange but rather chose a positionally automatic win (henceforth, we'll refer to "positionally automatic win" as a win that is achieved by self-evident usage of strategic maneuvers that I described in My System: centralization, blockade, invasion of squares of particular colour etc.)

The game continued: 18. Ng5 h5 19. Nxe6 Qe7 20. Nxg7! Cheers to the tournament technique! White automatically win by implementing a simple "dark-squared" strategy with a small dash of centralization. 20... Qxg7 21. Rg3 Ng4 22. Qg5 Nxe5 23. Bxe5 Qh7 24. c4 Bf7 (after 24... dxc4 25. dxc4, the opponent was doomed by centralization: Ra1-d1-d6 etc.) 25. Qxf5 dxc4 26. bxc4 (now this is simpler than 26. dxc4) 26... Rfe8 27. Qe4 (Centralization again!) 27... Rad8 28. d4 cxd4 29. exd4 Kf8 30. Qxb7 (Notice the central fortress of d4, Be5, f4) 30... Re7 31. Qb4 (I consciously refused to play a "combination" 31. Bd6 Rxd6 32. Qxb8+). Saemisch resigned. This was a positionally automatic win that, of course, required some routine centralization and dark-coloured square playing.

b) In the beginning, and sometimes even in the middle of the tournament you should never strain yourself. My advice is to play a series of short games! You'll lose nothing because of that, and get to keep your stamina until the very finish. 70% of all long games arise after a mistake that is typical for inexperienced tournament players: in a slightly better position, they can't weigh their winning chances against the effort required to win and tell if it's really worth it. Your fatigue plays critical role in all subsequent games as well! The players who cannot offer a timely draw are often indecisive or small-minded. On the contrary, the ability to quickly weigh the position and immediately make the decision marks a great personality.

Very miserable impression is made by a player who in a game against a slightly weaker opponent makes some major mistake, but then, with great persistence, wins in an endgame that lasts for hours. Fatigue at the finish is a rightful punishment for such a manner of winning.

Between 11th and 18th rounds, I played 5 short games: against Gruenfeld, I got a slightly better endgame but refused to continue, preferring to force a draw: the chances were small, and the effort was going to be very great. Besides, I wasn't satisfied with my play in the opening and so I thought I was not worthy to win the game (ethical principles in the tournament!) But the main thing is that I didn't fear that I was going to scold myself for a missed win, because a firm decision precludes any future self-reproaches (the principle of imperious decision)!

From the aforementioned series of games, I'll give you my game against Colle. I had White, and so I hoped to play for a win.

This draw allowed me to take a walk after the dinner, and restore some strength for the final stage.

2. Psychology of the struggle

The "psychological playing", as it's usually called, was already known in Anderssen and Morphy's times. Anderssen, during his match against Morphy, deliberately tried to goad his opponent into attacks that weren't fully sound. Of the contemporary masters, Vidmar likes to employ the same trick. The psychological playing was lately enriched with many new nuances, and I'll try to list the most important of them.

1) Try to give your partner some pawn positions he doesn't quite know! For instance, I think Bogoljubov evaluates the positions with a pawn "skeleton" of c3, c4, d4 wrongly, and so I, after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Nf3 immediately exchanged the c3 Knight. After that, there was 5. bxc3 b6 6. g3 Bb7 7. Bg2 O-O 8. O-O Re8! (Prophylactic move against the only plan White could logically have. What is this plan? To move the pawn to e4; after that, the dysharmonic mass c3, c4, d4 immediately gains value as an unmovable wall that will be hard for Black to disrupt). 9. Re1 (9. Nd2 Bxg2 10. Kxg2 e5!, and White can't play 11. e4 due to 11... exd4 12. cxd4 Nxe4) 9... d6 10. Qc2? (The psychological playing was justified! Someone who knows this pawn structure well would have played 10. Nd2, for instance, 10... Bxg2 11. Kxg2 e5 12. e4 Nc6 13. Bb2!; the Bishop is seemingly out of play, but the pawn wall c3, c4, d4, e4 is good for White, because Black cannot force the weakening d4-d5 move) 10... Be4 11. Qb3 Nc6 12. Bf1 (preparing 13. Nd2 Bg6 14. e4) 12... e5! 13. dxe5 Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Rxe5 15. Bf4 Re8 16. f3 Bb7 17. Rad1 Nd7 18. e4 Qf6, and the game became a slippery slope for White: Black lined up their artillery at the e-file and broke through with 26... f7-f5.

2) You should use the stylistic mistakes that result from your partner's personality.

Spielmann can't maneuver; this is a feature of his psyche, which is too straightforward. He also abhors the massive defensive moves (for instance, protecting a mere pawn with a Rook!) So, to defeat him, you should simplify the position (to take away any attacking motives) and then create a game with mutual maneuvering. Such positions are quite commonplace, any positions with "hazy" (non-obvious) mutual weaknesses require maneuvering.

Having that in mind, I chose my opening against Spielmann: 1. e3! e5 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nf3 e4 (An old positional rat would have played 3... d6, for instance, 4. d4 Nbd7 with good position at both flanks) 4. Nd4 Nc6 5. Nb5 d5(better was 5... a6 6. N5c3 Bc5 7. d4 exd3 8. Bxd3 d6 with a prophylactic Bishop at c5, which will gloatingly wait for White to play e3-e4) 6. cxd5 Nxd5 7. N1c3 Nf6 8. Qa4 Bf5 9. Nd4 Bd7 10. Nxc6 Bxc6 11. Bb5 Qd7 12. Bxc6 Qxc6 13. Qxc6 bxc6. After that, everything was according to our psychological plan: 14. b3 O-O-O 15. Bb2 Bb4 16. a3 Bxc3 17. Bxc3.

In this position, there are weaknesses at e4, c6, g7, and also b3 and d2. Also, both players threaten with centralization: Nd5 for Black, Bd4 for White. The primitive 17... Rd3 followed (Black should have played 17... Rhg8 - a massive defensive move! After 18. O-O Nd5 19. f3, Black can simply play exf3 and Nxc3). 18. O-O Rhd8 (again, better was 18... Rhg8!, for instance: 19. f3 Nd5 20. fxe4 Nxc3 21. dxc3 Rf8! - the second massive move! - and Black's position is quite good) 19. f3 Nd5 20. Bxg7 Rxd2 21. Bd4 f5 22. fxe4 fxe4 23. Bxa7 Rd4 24. b4 Nxe3 25. Bxe3 Rxe3 26. Rfe1 Rb3 27. Rxe4, and White won the Rook endgame.

3) Most players, including some masters, have very little creative ability.

Against such players, there's a golden rule: play something new in the opening! Against Johner, I (Black) played 1. d4 f5 2. e4 fxe4 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 b6 5. f3 (Strictly by the book! Though I haven't expected anything better from Johner. He should have played 5. Bc4 e6 6. d5! I saw this continuation, but I was right in my assumption that Johner won't find it) 5... e3 6. Bxe3 (better was 6. Qc1!) 6... e6! 7. Qd2 d5 8. O-O-O c5 9. Bb5+ Bd7 10. Bd7+, and my partner's efforts to exploit the weakness of the backward pawn e6 were in vain: I ruined his castling position and checkmated him at the move 34. (Actually, Johner just resigned in a hopeless position).

The lack of space doesn't allow us to go into great details about psychological playing, so there are some general advices: I'm trying to understand the character, playing style and weaknesses of all my partners (for instance, Bogoljubov is weak at centralizing, likes to keep his Bishop pair, doesn't understand Paulsen but still likes him, can maneuver - in the positions known to him - but doesn't respect slow-flowing strategies, etc.) Then I consider the partner's intentions in the tournament, for instance: "Judging by his tournament position, he has to play for a win", or "He's nervous now". And then I devise my strategy, considering all those things.
Now let's discuss two factors that have a great importance: opening strategy and the clock.
3. Openings.

You should choose your openings wisely. The following dilemma usually arises: a) the opponent will surely try and play something unexpected (every opponent dreams of that!); b) the opponent still follows the fashions, and so if I play, as Black, 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6, they will most probably reply with the fashionable 3. f3, like in the Alekhine - Bogoljubov match. And so, while answering the question "What would my partner play tomorrow", I must consider these two mutually exclusive possibilities!

There are some players with very scant repertoire; it's easy to play them. For instance, Vera Menchik always meets 1. e4 with 1... e6. So I prepared 2. d4 d5 3. e5 and won easily. But Maroczy plays both 1... e6 and 1... c6 - it's harder to prepare for that. It's even harder with Alekhine, because he also likes 1... c5, and sometimes tries his 1... Nf6 etc. It is too late to prepare against such a partner during the tournament! You should prepare beforehand.

Though a psychological approach is possible at any time. For instance, I play Tartakower with White. And so I think, "After 1. d4, he probably won't risk to play the Budapest; he did try Dutch a couple of times, and successfully enough, but his love for diversity will compel him to try something new this time. And so, he'll probably either play the Orthodox defence or 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6. And the next day, it came out that I was right: Tartakower indeed played 2... g6.

4. About the clock

The majority of players' behaviour is very unreasonable. You should not get into time trouble, because it's harmful, unaesthetic and has lasting influence on your later games. You have to develop the ability to make quick decisions. 90% of time troubles arise not because of the player being busy with calculation of difficult branching variants, but just because of miserable indecisiveness. Leonhardt is a typical example of this: he doesn't calculate, but rather finds himself in a position of Buridan's ass.

The tournament clocks are evil, but it's a necessary evil. And while this evil exists, everyone has the right to play to get their opponent into time trouble. I think it's acceptable to force your opponent into time trouble, and I even take pride when I have my partner thinking for a long time. I also don't consider it unethical to crush the time-troubled partner with the full weight of a long combination. But still, it's a pity that we cannot do away with the clocks.

So, remember this: you should not get into time trouble! Make your decisions quick! It's unwise to spend a lot of time on the opening! If you have several combinational variants at once, find a positional move (see part 1).

This ends our cursory review.


  • 8 months ago


    Alex, another great post.

    I must say, we all are greatly appreciative of your bringing us precious gems from Russian chess books and magazines of the past that are generally not known to the Western public.  

    Yes, Nimzowitsch was a difficult character (like most of exceptional people by the way). In a post on my blog you can find an example of how he behaved during games, taken from Duz-Hotimirsky's Selected Games, Moscow, Fiskultura and Sport, 1954.


  • 9 months ago


    great,,,Aron wrote this while standing on his head..Sealed

  • 9 months ago


    Thanks once again.

  • 9 months ago


    one of famous writer........

  • 9 months ago



  • 9 months ago


    Nimzowitsch was a very nervous and difficult man (and, in all possibility, very bitter because both Capablanca and Alekhine refused him a World Championship match because he couldn't gather enough money). It's very plausible that he exaggerated.

    But he indeed win that Karlsbad tournament, ahead of Capablanca and many other very strong players (the lineup included Spielmann, Rubinstein, Vidmar, Euwe, Bogoljubov, Gruenfeld, Tartakower, Maroczy and Marshall, among others).

  • 9 months ago


    great article from Nimzowitsch!

    excellent post :)

  • 9 months ago


    Nice article. One wonders, though, whether Nimzowitsch exaggerated his own strategic foresight. Some of his sentences are scarcely more believable than this: "Oh yes, it was my plan all along to get this position on move 19. You see, my opponent is pyschologically weak at making combinatorial decisions on prime-numbered moves."

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