Readers’ Games, Questions and Comments, Part 5
Unorthodox Chess Players
Einet890 asked a few questions, but I will only answer one here, and one other next time I do a Q&A article. Mr. Einet890, I’ll answer this question for everyone, though you’re welcome to use the answer in any way you see fit.
Question: Who are the most unorthodox chess players? Why? What do you think of them?
Answer: The question isn’t completely clear since you could mean mean lesser players who do unorthodox things or who knows what else. I’ll go with unorthodox individuals who changed the way we look at the game.
First off, what was considered unorthodox hundreds of years ago (for example, Philidor’s love of pawn structures) is now par for the course. A huge list could be made, so I’ll stick with players from the late 1800s to the present. We’ll look at seven big names that did things differently than the rest of the herd. (“Herd chess” in the 1800s was attack, attack, and more attack, while later the chess herd was grazing more and more on dynamics and opening preparation.)
He started out as a crazed attacker but morphed into the first true positional player. (He stressed defense a bit too much, and at times much too much!) These “subtle” skills put him way ahead of his contemporaries, who tended to be one-trick-ponies.
Here’s an example of Steinitz’s positional mastery, calm defensive mastery, and attacking skills. Note how he only attacks when his ship is in order and when the position calls for it.
He did everything at a high level. However, he was the first great endgame player, and instead of using his epic tactical skills solely for mating schemes, he used them for attack and, most important, for defense. In a way, he was the first universal player, which made him very odd indeed for those times.
These two giants (Steinitz and Lasker) demonstrated a completely different chess paradigm than the “attack, attack, attack” mentality before them, and positional players suddenly became common. (Tarrasch, Schlechter, and Rubinstein stand out.) But while Steinitz created a new school of chess thought, Lasker’s talents were far harder for the masses to grasp (hence there was no Lasker school).
Here’s game two of a match vs. Henry Bird. Lasker won 5-0.
Looking at our initial position, note the positional plusses that Lasker built up: Black’s ownership of the e5-square, his well-placed pieces, and the potential weakness of White’s e4-pawn assure him a good game. However, Black’s kingside pawns are doubled, and one would think that the bishops of opposite colors would allow White to hold the draw.
Everyone makes mistakes, though, and Lasker (thanks to his tactical genius) was always on the lookout for the smallest error.
Here’s a game between Steinitz and Lasker. In general, Lasker’s dynamic “can do everything at world-class level” skills were too much for the first world champion.
It’s games like this that show us how Lasker kept the title for 27 years!
Where Steinitz followed his rules, and Lasker swam in seas of overwhelming complexity, Capablanca used simplicity and flawless technique to conquer the world. It was Lasker and Capablanca that clarified one enormous truth that future generations took to heart: Technique is critically important. Grandmasters can’t succeed without it, and amateurs who learn endgames and various elements of technique will find their ratings shooting up to new heights. It’s interesting to note that players who create styles based on a particular, otherworldly talent never create schools of thought since they can’t be copied. You can only emulate them if you have (to some very high degree) that same talent. Eventually, other great players appeared who had aspects of Capa’s simplicity (Smyslov, Fischer, Carlsen), but there’s never been another world-beater who completely mirrored his style.
The three great schools of chess thought were Steinitz, Tarrasch (who elaborated on Steinitz’s teachings), and finally Nimzowitsch. But where Tarrasch was preaching to the choir (by the way, a deep study of Tarrasch’s games and concepts will make anyone a better player), Nimzowitsch spat on old conventions and dragged the chess world to places it never went before. Nowadays the teachings of all three men are known by newborn children, but during their lives they were the three horsemen of the chess apocalypse!
Nimzowitsch was perceived as a “strange” man who had “strange” ideas. Nowadays he’s still viewed as borderline bonkers, but that his madness was tinged with genius, and his strange ideas are no longer strange.
The following game demonstrates several Nimzowitsch concepts: centralization, blockade, restraint, and overprotection.
Like Lasker, Alekhine was a godlike tactician, but what made him unorthodox was his attraction to the “long” plan, his ability to work on all aspects of his game, and an original eye that led to the creation of some shocking moves and concepts. He took opening mastery to a whole new level, and it quickly became clear that, after he became world champion, all other grandmasters that aspired to greatness had to embrace his work ethic. In a nutshell, he dragged “old” chess into the modern world. A great man’s unorthodoxy (chess as science) became the norm.
In this position, Alekhine uncorked one of the most amazing moves I’ve ever seen:
11...Qd8!! (The two exclamation marks are for the move’s stunning originality!)
When I first saw this move as a child (13 or 14 years old) I couldn’t believe my eyes. WHY? Why would anyone retreat like this for no reason? Fortunately, Alekhine explained himself in his notes: “This paradoxical move, the most difficult in the game, is very effective. The double idea is to prepare an eventual action in the middle, starting with ...exd4, followed by ...d6-d5 and, at the same time, to free the e-file for the rook.”
I honestly can’t imagine any other player in history who would have come up with this move. Here’s the rest of the game:
Here’s another mind boggling example of Alekhine’s fresh mind:
Here’s Alekhine’s comment: “An extraordinary position after the 13thmove of a Queen’s Gambit! During the first 13 moves, White has played his c-pawn thrice, his h-pawn thrice, and his dark-squared bishop four times, after which he has obtained a position in sight of a win, if not actually a winning one.
“It is especially with respect to the original opening of this game that people often speak of a ‘hypermodern technique,' a 'neo-romantic school,' etc. The question is, in reality, much simpler. Black has given himself over to several eccentricities in the opening (3...a6, 5...Nge7, 6...Ng6) that, without the reaction of his opponent (for example, 7.e3 instead of 7.Be3 or 9.g3 instead of 9.h4) would, in the end, give him a good game.
“It is, therefore, as a necessity, and not with a preconceived idea, that I decided upon the advance of the h-pawn, preventing Black from securing an advantage in the center.”
Here’s the rest of the game:
In many ways, Fischer was a chess chimera. He embraced Alekhine’s work ethic, and he took opening theory to unheard of heights (creating super-sharp innovations in modern openings and new ideas in very old openings). He handled complex situations with crystal (Capablanca-like) clarity, and his will to win and fight full bore to the very end reminds one of Lasker. Fischer's magnificent technique made him an unstoppable monster. Like the other unorthodox legends, he changed the face of the chess landscape.
The Old is New
Fischer regularly studied the games of the old masters, and this led to him reviving lines that had been viewed as inferior for many decades. Bobby uncorked a very old line of the Exchange Ruy Lopez (armed with his own improvements, of course) in the 1966 Havana Olympiad, winning three games with it at that event. Overnight, the line went from rarely seen to Exchange Variation mania!
Our next game shows Fischer bringing a very rare move in the Two Knights Defence back from the grave. 9.Nh3 was first played in 1878 (Anderssen-Riemann), and championed in the 1890s by Steinitz.
Bisguier, in Book Two of his best games (well worth buying!), gave the following account of this game:
“Paired against Bobby in the New York State Open that year, I noticed that he was taking a long time to move. Then I saw that he’d fallen sound asleep. In a few minutes the flag on his clock would fall, and he’d lose on time. That’s not the way I like to win games, tournaments or titles. So I made what some called my biggest blunder of the tournament. I awakened Fischer. Bobby yawned, made a move, punched his clock and proceeded to beat me. It ended up as Game 45 in his My 60 Memorable Games. Later I heard that Fischer had stayed up late the previous night playing speed chess for money.”
Make a series of forced moves (all worked out before the game by Fischer!).
This is the kind of modern, computer-generated preparation we regularly see today. Of course, Fischer didn’t have the help of a computer. It was Fischer’s many successes with this line that made it popular.
Fischer was the greatest opening theorist of his day, and by the time Kasparov took command of the chess firmament, any chess pro that wanted success needed to embrace chess dynamics and put countless hours into the study of openings. This doesn’t mean just knowing the openings, it means having novelties in all of them.
And so, professional chess became more and more dependent on sharp opening theory, and it was widely thought that, at the top levels, opening mastery and an enormous bag of theoretical tricks was the most important part of the game.
Then came Magnus. Yes, he knows the openings (every world-class player does), but he singlehandedly challenged the illusion that openings were king. The world champion uses the opening to reach an interesting position. He doesn’t necessarily strive for an opening advantage, and he goes out of his way to avoid his opponent’s massive preparation.
All he wants is a game where skill and perseverance outweigh memorization. By doing this, he walks a road that was long-since ignored, and showed everyone that positional understanding, tactical acumen, Fischer-like determination, and magnificent technique trump memorized theory every time.
I should add that Carlsen also has another rare skill: he can sense an opponent’s psychological ups and downs better than anyone since Lasker. He makes full use of this in the following game:
White appeared to have nothing in the opening, and suddenly Black’s position mysteriously disintegrated! A fantastic game by Magnus.
RELATED STUDY MATERIAL
- Read Silman's previous reader response articles: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4
- Watch GM Yermolinksy's video "What Would Magnus Do?"
- Learn endgames from Fischer's 1963 U.S. Championship in the Chess Mentor
- Play combinations like Alekhine in the Tactics Trainer
- Looking for articles with deeper analysis? Try our magazine: The Master's Bulletin