Open Letter Response To User Radovic's Letter To Me

Open Letter Response To User Radovic's Letter To Me

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Dear Momir Radovic,

Dear Fellow member, greetings and salutations from Hilversum, Holland!  Thank you for your cordial, generous, open letter.  I enjoyed reading it and welcome the opportunity to reply. 

I’ll use the spelling, Aaron Niemzowitsch, for my response which was the one preferred by Batsford in its 1986 reprint of “Chess Praxis” which was first published in 1936.  I’ve seen so many English spellings of his name, I really have no idea which one is the most accurate. “Chess Praxis” is a games collection which expanded on his, “My System” as well as, “Die Blockade.”

My dislike for Niemzowitsch’s writings seems to be a recurring theme in many of my broadcasts.  Jennifer Shahade is a big fan of Niemzowitsch as is Anna Rudolf.  In Day Four of the match, I expounded upon the reasons for my dislike.  Hopefully, you watched that broadcast as well.  (Smile.)  Before getting to the gist of my dislikes, let me first preface them by what I also said on Day Four: Niemzowitsch had a few marvelous turns of phrases that I really enjoy.  They were brilliant.  While the below quotes may not be strictly accurate, this is the way that I remember them best:


  • “The Passed Pawn is a criminal who should be kept under lock and key.”  (Cute.)
  • “The threat is stronger than the execution.”  (Certainly his best quote and for me his most memorable.)
  • “Restrain, blockade, destroy.”
  • In annotating a move played by an opponent, “This move carries the seeds of [my opponent’s] destruction.”
  • “The isolated queen pawn casts gloom over the entire board.”  (This one is much less well known but is an indication that at times Niemzowitsch goes completely off the rails.)


We all have our own favorite authors, writers who inspire us, like the flavors of food some taste great while others may cause allergic reactions.  A short list of some of my favorite authors include: Bent Larsen, David Bronstein, Michael Tal, John Nunn, Tony Miles, Larry Christiansen, Jeremy Silman, John Watson and Edward Winter.  I could read them all the whole of the day.  If an author inspires you, excellent.   If you like Niemzowitsch, wonderful.  No problem.  Have at it.  For myself, I find Niemzowitsch, when he isn’t annotating a game, to be mainly unreadable.

My biggest problem with Niemzowitsch starts from his extreme egotism.  It makes me cringe when an author goes well out of his way to repeatedly thump his own [profound] greatness.  In this, Niemzowitsch, is egregious.  Simply terrible.  But don’t take my word for it, in the foreword to Batsford’s reprint we have words from a contemporary, “An egocentric of purest water, he often blew his own trumpet when annotating his games. ‘One of my best games of recent years’ was a frequently recurring expression by which Nimzowitsch the annotator gave ample recognition to Nimzowitsch the grandmaster.” – Gideon Stahlberg  

One humorous moment occurred early for me.  A few years after I started playing, Washington State chess master, James Harley McCormick introduced Niemzowitsch to me, “Yasser, to truly understand Niemzowitsch you must fathom the following:  Niemzowitsch is Black:  1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5!, a concept that I introduced into practice, myself, attacking White in the center.  Black stands better.  Niemzowitsch is now White: 1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e5 c5 4.d4!, a concept that I introduced into practice, myself, attacking Black in the center.  White stands better.”  This one is easy, Niemzowitsch is all about himself.

Jim wasn’t the only one with a sense of humor regarding Niemzowitsch.  For certain hilarity, I’d encourage you to read:

After reading this parody, you will be fully versed and understand Niemzowitsch quite well.

I would also encourage you to go to Edward Winter’s, site and do a search of Niemzowitsch for articles and notes.  I’m sure you will find the research quite enlightening. 

Very well, setting ego aside, as well as the occasional brilliant turn of phrase, let me turn to specifics:  Centralization.  Your list did not include this one but it was Part 1, in Chess Praxis from pages 1-69.  Wonderful.  I’m all for it.  Niemzowitsch didn’t “invent” centralization.  Players were placing their pawns and pieces in the center for centuries.  Paul Morphy is one player who comes immediately to mind.  However, Niemzowitsch’s explanations of what centralization actually means reads for me like pure gobbledygook. Separating his introductory comments prior to the game (s) against his annotations is crucial.  His game annotations can be quite enjoyable even if on occasion he makes an oversight or an error in judgement of a position.  Readers who are inspired by his introductory comments and actually grasp them, what to say?  I tip my hat.

Blockade.  Wonderful.  I’m all for it.  Neither did Niemzowitsch invent “blockade” as a strategy.  World Champion Emmanuel Lasker, for one, used his pieces to brilliant blocking effect.  A main line in the Berlin that Lasker favored, for example, included: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 bxc6 7.dxe5 Nb7 8.Nc3 Be7 9.Re1 Nc5 (!), Black maneuvers his wayward Knight to the blocking e6-square, where it will be much better placed.

Personally, I find both “centralizing” as well as “blocking” moves to be part and parcel of natural good play.  Nothing profound about them at all.  It is due to the memorable, “restrain, blockade, destroy,” phrase as well as the title of his book, “Die Blockade,” which makes us associate blockade with Niemzowitsch. 

Now we get into two topics, expounded by Niemzowitsch, that most certainly do belong to him: Prophylaxis and Overprotection.  English, is at times a difficult and strange language. I’ve found that it can be spoken badly, yet the speaker can still be well understood.  The English language has nearly 300,000 words while an average person’s vocabulary is likely to be around 10,000 words.  The English language is rich in words that very few, including myself, are familiar with.  One of them is Prophylaxis.  All credit to Niemzowitsch for introducing this word into the chess vernacular.  The word, as commonly used, is defined thusly:  “A prophylaxis is a measure taken to maintain health and prevent the spread of disease.”  In the case of Niemzowitsch, he used prophylaxis to describe several chess concepts at once.  A very useful term to be sure.  I think of the word, in a chess sense, to mean three possible motivations:


  • A move aimed at preventing the opponent from doing something they may want;
  • A “quiet move” that has a specific aim at improving one’s position;
  • A move that is none-committal that keeps one’s options open which also supports those options;


Let us consider these in turn.  In the first case, think of the moves: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 O-O 9.h3, the start of a main-line position from the Ruy Lopez.  White wants to expand in the center by: d2-d4, but does not want to allow Black the reply: …Bc8-g4, so White makes the “preventive move,” : 9.h3, first.  White’s ninth move can be called a prophylaxis one.

In the second case, again we must recognize that while English is a strange language, the English nomenclature used in chess is, arguably, more so.   We have all kinds of “chess terms” that have evolved over the centuries which can be contradictory and therefore confusing.  For example, consider the term, “quiet move.”  Seriously?  What does that mean?  If a chess move can be “quiet” why don’t we also allow for a “loud” one?  Nonetheless, we use the term “quiet move” and expect that we all know what it is and what it means.  By a quiet move we infer that it is one that “builds up” or “improves” one’s position for a specific reason.  In this second case, we can imagine a position where White is all set up and ready to execute the move: e4-e5, busting open the center for his better developed pieces.  Excellent!  However, before making his break, White first plays the move: Kg1-g2, a quiet move that first improves his position.  White anticipates that when the game is opened, his opponent will not have a resource of a check on the back (first) rank.  The quiet move, Kg1-g2, can be considered a prophylaxis one.

In the third case, we can consider a blocked central position from say, a King’s Indian Defense.  White has maneuvered a Knight to the d3-square and fianchettoed his King’s Bishop as well.  White has two tempting choices:  To play: c4-c5, with an aim of opening the c-file; or he can play: f2-f4, directly attacking the e5-pawn with a view to launching a Kingside attack.  Very nice!  White chooses neither option.  Instead, he plays: Rc1-c2, keeping both his options open while being supportive of both of them as well.  The Rook may swing over to the f2-square, in case of, f2-f4, and a Kingside attack.  Or in the case that White continues: c4-c5, a Rook that is on f1, may swing over to the vacated c1-square, thereby doubling up on the soon to be open c-file.  The supportive move, Rc1-c2, can be considered a prophylaxis one.

In chess, a prophylaxis move, in my view, is a term that can describe three different types of operations at once: A preventive move; an improving move; a supportive move to one’s own plans that retains two or more options.  Perhaps it is this third case that is most supportive of the spirit of a prophylaxis move?

All credit to Niemzowitsch for the introduction of the word in a chess setting.   But let us be careful.  We should not credit him for the ideas behind the move itself.  Simply his introduction of the term.  In the first case, players were making preventive moves long before Niemzowitsch, as well as improving and supporting moves as well.  Niemzowitsch put all three concepts under a single construct.  If my view is correct, we must applaud Niemzowitsch for introducing a term that is often used today. 

Lastly, over-protection.  Simply garbage.  I can think of no recent master game that was won by “over-protection.”  Not one.

Here I should stop, but by happenstance there was a closing party after the Oslo match.  I sat a table with many revelers including Magnus Carlsen.  Niemzowitsch became a topic of discussion – thank you Anna – so I bluntly asked Magnus what he thought of Niemzowitsch?  Magnus began by being very respectful.  He liked Niemzowitsch!  (Gasp.)  He spoke for a little while, in this manner and I asked him about “over protection?”  Then he broke down, “Okay.  Yeah.  Half of Niemzowitsch is rubbish.”  That got hearty laughs all around and allowed me a modicum of dignity.  So there you have it, different strokes for different folks.

To conclude, allow me a challenge:  What do you think of the position after: 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Bf4, a London system for White.  Is it any good?  A number of elite grandmasters, including Alexander Grischuk as well as Hikaru Nakamura, have played this line for White.  Does White have much of an advantage?

In a few of his games as White from Chess Praxis, Niemzowitsch opened up: 1.Nf3 d5 2.d3 Nc6, I admire White’s flexibility even if it doesn’t necessarily bring him an advantage.  He can play: 3.Nbd2, aiming for: e2-e4, a reverse Philidor Defense with an extra tempo, or: 3.g3, a reverse Pirc Defense, also with an extra tempo.  Niemzowitsch, twice played: 3.d4, losing a tempo within three moves of the Opening.  His claim being that because the c6-Knight stands in front of the c7-pawn White is better.  In my view, after: 3…Bf5, transposing to the London system mentioned above, White stands slightly worse. 

How can an author teach centralization, which strives for rapid development on the one hand, while championing the loss of a tempo for precisely nothing on the other?  Should we hail Niemzowitsch’s: 2.d3, and only then 3.d4, as genius or eccentric?  Perhaps we should just call it plain wrong. 


With kind regards,


Yasser Editor's Note:

Read the initial open letter to GM Seirawan here: