GM Seirawan - Radovic Debate on Nimzovich, Part 2
© GM Seirawan and chess com

GM Seirawan - Radovic Debate on Nimzovich, Part 2


Part 2, Supremacy of Ideas Over Action in Chess

A reply to GM Seirawan's Open Reply to my Open Letter



Dear GM Seirawan,

After examining the two contentious worlds, two conflicting images of chess in Part 1, one theoretical, the other "scientific," or mere implementation of ideas, we need to attend to one more thing. I would like to demonstrate the supremacy of ideas over carrying them out. As a practical player, you naturally seem to tend to shifting the focus on the latter.

This appears to be absolutely indispensable as it sets the ground for further discussion where Part 3 will see a response to your statements and the challenge you posed to me in your open reply.

Part 4 will take care of overprotection of which you and the World #1 expressed strong feelings of disapproval. It does not seem to me that the overprotection idea was understood in the right perspective, so I will give it special attention.

Again, I understand that this may be a bit too extensive a reply to post here in the 21st century, but I reassure our readers that it will be time well spent to go into a quite original subject that we are debating here, one that cannot be found anywhere else.


Betty Missboll, Echecs et Malte

Betty Ollier-Lopez aka Miss Boll, Check and Malta


Strategic laws vs strict knowledge

First, let us see how the legendary Mikhail Tal looks at Nimzovich's legacy. He actually shares the same point of view on the two worlds of chess, in the Forward to the Russian edition of My System, Moscow, 1974.

By formulating chess principles, that is strategic laws (the theoretical view as defined in Part 1), the chess-theoretician moves from the realm of guessing and intuition, from the world beautiful, yet unsteady and unreliable, into the realm of strict knowledge, perhaps less beautiful (in my view), but much more certain. To my mind, this is the main secret of everlasting success of Nimzovich's book.—Tal

Now, and this is the fundamental question that we should ask ourselves, which chess world view is superior to the other? We saw how the Amercian philosopher Wilfrid Sellars was very clear about it, "praxis grows out of and is methodologically posterior to theory." Tal just gave us the same answer, the theoretical world of ideas always comes first!

The American psychologist, university professor, and author of books on both chess and psychology, GM Reuben Fine, also asserts that ideas rule,

The ideas form the background and foundation, while moves themselves represent actual construction.

Ideas are central, while their practical application is only secondary. Ideas are always a point of departure; after them follow particulars, details, moves, rules, technicalities, instances, subtleties, trivialities, coincidences, nuances, peculiarities, episodes, nitty-gritties...


Two Strategic Laws

Here I would like to make an excursion, to show how ideas reign supreme across domains. For clarity and easy apprehension of prominence of ideas, let us talk Firefighting for a quick while (you will see how concept (b) below is actually a big chess idea too — will cover later on when we discuss overprotection).

Okay, what are the key ideas in firefighting?

There really are only two overarching concepts, firefighters must (a) search for victims, and (b) search for the source of fire. And that is it, their strategic tool kit, the foundation of all their business. The basic theory that never changes. Sort of mind map that gives orientation and direction (=strategy). Once acquired, firefighters never think of it. It is their second nature. Breathing it out, breathing in. An instinct.
The methods of how they are going to put out fire change from situation to situation, based on the type of building, material, location, etc.


Should we rediscover the wheel?

All this should equally apply to chess. Yet, while the firefighting "theory" is precise and complete, only two general concepts, this is far from being the case with chess. Nimzovich did a great job on the chess theory creation in My System...,

"My System is a book of generalizations... the value of these generalizations in the process of learning chess is enormous. To put it simply, this is the real theory creation... Until a general principle is formulated, each chess player should rediscover it on their own, wasting time and effort using their intuition. And intuition - I know what I am talking about! - is an uncertain thing, it can fail you...—Tal, ibid.

"Once, concepts such as centralization, prophylaxis, overprotection, blockade etc. were just recipes of the eccentric Nimzovich. But now they are commonplace, and may even seem trivial... but, importantly, they are now taught to students. And there is nothing unusual in that, everything looks so simple. Revelations, illuminations, inspirations, discoveries that are typical only to the brightest and most gifted individuals are invaluable precisely because they increase the average level by becoming common knowledge. So the next genius can start from this new level."—Tal, ibid.

... however, the job has not been complete. There are still ideas that light has not been shed on.

For example, there is an idea, the simplest that can be, that all chess actually revolves around it, yet still out of picture at Chess Square One and out of chess primers, the idea of attack! when a chessman, using its firing power gets into the line contact with an enemy piece, and threatening capture.

Astonishingly, if you check the First Year of Study manual published by FIDE, you find the term attack only on p. 68 (?!?).

If you check the Stepping Stones method, perhaps one of the best around, it introduces piece relationships on p. 46 (?!?).

At the other end of spectrum, there is a shadowy concept Scwerpunkt (I know you are a fan of funny expressions, here I use the German word that conveys an idea, or complex of ideas for "what matters most in a position"— will explain Schwerpunkt later on).

These two, as well as other concepts that have not been clearly articulated yet, are waiting to be added to chess theory.


In search of lost mental models

Though chess concepts are extremely simple and obvious, the mental tools that chess players use are still poorly understood. Here is FM Pertti Saariluoma, the Finnish Professor of cognitive science, rating 2350,

"[Mental models in chess] are very elementary... but people never mention them in [speak aloud] protocols, though they obviously follow them" [just like firefighters assess the situation and press ahead using their two basic concepts, M.R.]
"One cannot find them in chess books, and I have found that chess players are not familiar with them. The [mental models] seem to be very much like the grammatical rules. We follow them unconsciously and unintentionally to represent the [chess] environment in a sensful manner."

The professor elaborates ten "functional constraints for mental space spanning" (1995).

Even so, and with all due respect to the Professor, the models of chess thought are right under our very nose, and are made up of only four basic piece contacts that GM Averbakh has defined as attack, restriction, protection, and cover (pin).

This reminds of À la recherche du temps perdu where Proust is reflecting on the loss of time and lack of meaning to the world.


Final verdict on ideas vs praxis

All things considered, we can now draw the following important, and far-reaching conclusions. They may change our idea of what chess is really all about; that chess education is not just opening lines and tips and tricks of practical play; or that strategy is not, after all, an advanced subject, but perhaps, true basics of chess.

1. First and foremost, the foundation of all chess, pardon me, of every field, is... mind set, the right frame of mind. Never technicalities, details, or moves.

2. The Chess Square One should start with the most general ideas, then we should apply them to particulars and concrete techniques of play.

3. Traditional method is failing the beginner exactly because it starts with the moves (who says that? you bet, Nimzovich, in the 'How I became a Grandmaster' article in Shakhmatny listok, 1929; my translation in The Chess Journalist of America, Vol XL, No 4, Fall 2011).

4. Young chess mind, at its birth, unformed and shapeless, begs for general concepts to fashion it, so it would be able to process "chessboard chaos" and assign meaning and purpose to it.

5. The end result of this lack of concepts when they are needed most, in the very beginning of learning process, is that 99%, or so, of all chess entrants quit chess, too early, too soon, never moving beyong the moves (sadly, our game may well be the domain with the greatest rate of dropouts).

6. Speaking of ideas, Socrates presents a phenomenal argument: nothing can be learned. We just need to make associations and connections to the knowledge we already possess (chess teachers' role at Square One is, therefore, just to help the student express and evoke previously acquired general ideas).

7. Now what general idea should Square One start with? Attack! It is a concept even a four-year old is familiar with from other games, play, or sports.

8. How should we promote the idea of attack to the beginner? By introducing attacking piece relationship that establishes, as we saw before, when a chessman, using its striking force gets into the line of contact with an enemy piece or square.

9. Thus, basic education should start with this simplest concept of attack (not the moves!), then proceed to three remaining relationships, restriction, protection, and cover (interposition, pin), as per Averbakh (the three are mere constructs of attack — no time to elaborate this further). Next may come double attack, discovered attack, concentration of force, etc. which may finally climax into most complex concepts, such as prophylaxis, and Scwerpunkt (Carl von Clausewitz' thorny concept of what matters most in warfare).

10. Chess Master's thought process during play also gets initiated with simplest concepts. Check, for example, Thought and Choice in Chess where Adrian de Groot collected speak-aloud protocols of some of greatest players of the time, such as Alekhine, Keres, Euwe, Fine. Here are their first instinctive reactions when presented with a new position:

Keres: Let's first have a look at what can be taken; are there any immediate attacks?

Alekhine: Is the pawn at b2 really attacked?

Euwe talks "hanging position of the Knight." "overburdening of the Bishop," "Bishop at R2 undefended," pieces being "tied down," "overloaded."

11. After this initial reaction, elementary ideas combine with more complex ones into intricate mental constructs (mostly subconsciously), leading finally to a playable move (where calculation only serves to make sure the original intuitive candidate move(s) is sound).

12. Interestingly, while early chess education is busted, advanced players have tons of excellent sources to study from (compare, the elementary education in the US that is considered broken, while higher education — Harvard, etc. — is the best in the world)

13. Chess primers, the weakest link of all chess literature, reflect faithfully the sorry state of early chess education (remember the FIDE teaching manual and how it treats attack, the most basic idea in chess?).

14. Since no general ideas are adequately presented at Square One and a significant period of time thereafter, we assume that majority of chess players learn concepts in practical play.

15. As Tal pointed out above, that comes at a price. Instead of using the accumulated chess knowledge (from My System and the like), the chess player is to rediscover it on their own, wasting time and effort (Malcolm Gladwell's misinterpreted 10,000 hours, the magic number to greatness, may indicate how much time and labor we spend unnecessarily, or simply in vain, in the absence of clearly postulated concepts, early in the learning process. "Our education, in all domains of endeavor, is frightfully wastful of time and values."—Lasker in The Manual; by the way, Dr. Lasker claims he needs (only!) 200 hours to get an average guy (with "no talent at all") to a high level. (with proper ideas instilled early, who knows?)

16. Strategy is currently considered as an advanced chess topic — from what we have seen so far, it turns out that we should pay attention to and start introducing chess concepts (or strategy laws, Tal) early, from the very Chess Day One.

* * *

Ideas are always a point of departure. And ideas are so easy, think about it. Once formed and having become second nature, we keep them in the primitive brain, never again being aware, or thinking of them. Key ideas (the French l'idée directrice is much more telling), give us orientation in the maze of (chess) life. And they have such a disproportionate effect on everything else we learn!

Of course, the application and execution of ideas is the hard part, very very hard. But once the basics are acquired, the rest is just employment of fundamentals, just a matter of time!

In all respects, it seems to me that Nimzovich's ideas are well and prospering, even more prominently in the era of idealess (metal) dummies than ever.

Without ideas there is no understanding, no meaning, no purpose, no direction, no effective action. In one word, chaos!


In the next post I will reply to your statements and the challenge you posed to me in your open reply.


Until then, Yours sincerely in Caissa,


Momir Radovic
Atlanta, Georgia
@chesscontact on Twitter


Further reading:

GM Seirawan vs GM Nimzovich Battle Over Ideas, Part 1