Who Was The Greatest Chess Theorist?

Who Was The Greatest Chess Theorist?

IM Silman
Aug 4, 2016, 12:00 AM |
64 | Fun & Trivia

Axorcist wrote:

“My question is this: Who do you consider to be the greatest chess theorist of all time? I have never read a good review on who really had the most influence on the development of knowledge in our beautiful game. Was it Steinitz? Lasker? Or any of the more than a dozen I can come up with?”

Dear Axorcist:

An interesting question. I get the old, “Who is the greatest player of all time?” query over and over, but nobody has asked me who the greatest chess theorist was.

I don’t believe that you can point to any one person since chess knowledge grows from one chess thinker to another. That still won’t stop me from saying who my main pick is though! To start, I’ll list the men that pushed chess to new (theoretical) highs.

Giaochino Greco 

Playing chess for money against anyone who dared challenge him, Greco was clearly the strongest player of his time. He was far ahead of the players that came before him (Luis Ramírez de Lucena, Ruy López de Segura, and Giulio Cesare Polerio) and, in my opinion, he was stronger than Philidor, who started playing chess more than 100 years after Greco’s death.

However, I am placing Greco, a tactical genius, in this list not because he was extremely strong (though he was), but because he discovered various tactical concepts and traps. He sold all of them (for a hefty price) in small manuscripts. When he died in 1634, some of his manuscripts were found and, in 1656, they were published by Francis Beale in the book, The Royall Game of Chesse-Play. The book was filled with short games, and each demonstrated an important tactical pattern.

For example, in modern times when 1.e4 b6 became somewhat popular, the sequence 1.e4 b6 2.d4 Bb7 3.Bd3 f5 4.exf5 Bxg2 5.Qh5+ g6 6.fxg6 Nf6 7.gxh7+ Nxh5 8.Bg6 mate was mowing down a lot of low-rated players.

That same kind of pattern was also seen in master chess too. Few remembered that this exact sequence was created by Greco. He also was the first to make use of a smothered mate — a fan favorite today. Mixing mating patterns with odd ways to win material and even endgame traps — the book became a must-buy for fans of chess.

Mate to the queen!

Don’t blink; it might be mate!

Greco splats Damiano's Defense.

Demonstrating a key attacking pattern — a queen with a pawn on g6.

Makes sure your pieces are active!

A trap in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted.

An important endgame lesson.

There are many, many more important tactical patterns in Greco’s book, and his tactical creations are still the first “meals” you give to beginners.
His legacy: Teaching the building blocks of tactical patterns to the masses.

Francois Andre Danican Philidor

Philidor, who was also a great composer (His music is still played today.), is the guy that said, “Pawns are the soul of chess.”

He was the first to realize that pawn structures dictated where the pieces should go, and the plans which both players should use.

In Philidor’s own words: “…a new idea of which no one has conceived, or perhaps has been unable to practice; that is good play of the pawns; they are the soul of chess: It is they alone that determine the attack and defense, and the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement.”

He also discovered a very important theoretical rook endgame known as the Philidor Position. His book, l’Analyse du jeu des Echecspublished in 1749, was a huge hit. Amazon couldn’t keep enough in stock. Okay, okay! There was no Amazon at that time, but this gives you an inkling of the 1750-chess-player’s thirst to read this new fount of wisdom.

Watch carefully as Philidor marches his pawns down the board.

His legacy: Without his “Pawns are the soul of chess,” idea, positional chess wouldn’t have existed for a long, long time. His discovery of the Philidor Position was also a stunner; every serious player needs to know it.

Wilhelm Steinitz

The first official world chess champion, Steinitz started his career in the usual romantic attack-and-kill style. In fact, in his early days, he was known as the Austrian Morphy. However, after facing all the best tacticians in the world, he realized that there had to be more to chess than raw aggression.

Wilhelm Steinitz.

In 1873, his style performed an about-face and he went from being the kill or be killed “Austrian Morphy” to a positional player who was a defensive virtuoso. The “new” Steinitz valued the basics of positional chess: creating favorable pawn structures, annexing space, finding weak squares in the enemy camp (also known as outposts and holes) for his knights, the power of the two bishops, and the correct ways bishops and knights should battle each other.

Here’s how Emanuel Lasker described this new style: “In the beginning of the game, ignore the search for combinations, abstain from violent moves, aim for small advantages, accumulate them, and only after having attained these ends search for the combination – and then with all the power of will and intellect, because then the combination must exist, however deeply hidden.”

In the following game, Steinitz shows how to care for two bishops. He takes away all of the enemy knight’s advanced squares while making his bishops more and more active.

His legacy: His new ideas brought down the romantic style of chess and forced a new generation of chess fans and chess grandmasters to accept that positional play was just as important as tactical and attacking chess. In a nutshell, he single-handedly changed the way chess was played.

Aron Nimzwitsch

After Steinitz changed the game, and after Siegbert Tarrasch made Steinitz's ideas easier to understand (He didn’t like the cramped positions Steinitz often reveled in, and he was all for piece mobility.), it would seem that the soul of chess was clarified: Some positions demand an attack (often supporetd by a good positional base), and other positions could be mastered by various simple positional rules.

Siegbert Tarrasch.

Then Nimzowitsch decided to rock the boat.

Laughing at the dogmatic Tarrasch doctrines, Nimzowitsch (with help from his "hypermodern friends" — Richard Reti, SaviellyTartakower, Gyula Breyer, and Ernst Grunfeld) created new ways to think about the game. These were esoteric notions such as “overprotection” (of pieces and pawns), “blockade” (blocking enemy passed pawns), “prophylaxis” (ending a threat or concept before it even occurs), “restriction” (usually used against enemy pawns), and “centralization” (taking control of key central squares, and making sure your pieces have influence in the center).

Aron Nimzowitsch.

The following game sees Nimzowitsch create holes on d4 and e5. He overprotects both these squares until they are untouchable, and when his opponent is helpless, he turns his attention to the enemy king.

His legacy: His concepts, which were published for all to see in his books, My System, Chess Praxis, and Die Blockade, shocked the chess masses and helped endless chess hopefuls improve their understanding of the game.

Who was the best?

There is no “best” among these legendary chess theorists. In fact, each gentleman I mentioned offered the chess world a piece of the overall chess puzzle. Greco’s tactics and activity, Philidor's emphasis on pawns, Steinitz's defense and positional concepts, and Nimzowitsch's new positional credos were all vital to the development of chess. All were right, and if you wish to become a good player, you’ll need to make use of all of these men’s ideas.


I’m a huge fan of Tarrasch and fully respect the work he did to make Steinitz’s ideas clear and easy to understand. However, it was all based on someone else’s work (Steinitz), while the people I highlighted did something completely original.

As for stopping at Nimzowitsch, I view the combined work of the four I picked to have made chess what it is today. Yes, things continued to be honed and improved, but it was based on the four gentlemen I mentioned. 

I did consider talking about the scientific age of chess (which pretty much came into existence during and after the Alekhine vs. Euwe matches), but if you look at its core, it’s really nothing more than working extremely hard, analyzing anything and everything, and improving the things that came before them. This scientific age was taken to extremes with Bobby Fischer, and then Kasparov (with the help of his team and eventually with the help of computers and databases) went even further. The scientific age of chess is very interesting, but it doesn’t fit in with my theme. Instead, it’s something for another article.

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