Reply to GM Seirawan's Challenge to Me re Nimzo's Folly 2.d3 3.d4
art by Betty Ollier-Perez, Les Penseurs ©

Reply to GM Seirawan's Challenge to Me re Nimzo's Folly 2.d3 3.d4

Mar 24, 2018, 4:06 PM |

Part 3 of GM Seirawan vs GM Nimzo Battle over Ideas


Dear GM Seirawan,


You have elucidated the three ideas from My System, centralization, blockade, and prophylaxis. After the initial denial, you have corrected your position and now find them all "part and parcel of natural, good play; nothing profound about them at all."

And that is exactly how things stand with all ideas, they are so simple it is trivial, but they do steer effective action at the board instinctively and naturally (remember firefighters and how they follow their two ideas?). So nothing to add here, except one thing that I have already mentioned in Part 2.

I have found genuine pleasure in reading your elaboration on prophylaxis, #3 in particular. That one is a really big idea. In fact, you combined a few prominent ideas (prevention, waiting strategy, freedom of action, (lack of) space, counter play) into a monster (grand)masterly chess idea.

Every time we increase the number of options for our men to enjoy more freedom of action, our position sees improvement. Now, the waiting strategy, using an unpretentious prophylactic move (like you explained with prophylaxis #3), used sometimes by the greatest chess artists, is worse than any direct, all-out attack for the opponent in a cramped position without any counter play, and exposed to all kind of threats.  In a situation where the active side has several ways of improving position, the defender must spend much more time on calculation - in a psychologically unpleasant state - to be able to clearly foresee where real danger is lurking and from where it may strike. This creates much greater room for mistakes and many a time this is where the position simply breaks down.

Similarly, every time we reduce the number of options to the opponent, restricting their (men's) freedom of action, our position sees enhancement again. Ideally, this limiting options comes down to one (=a forced move for the opponent), or, in the extreme, to no option at all (=zugzwang).

Keeping options open (or shut for the opponent) always strengthens position, and that is pretty much what we do in chess all the time up to the point where the position is ripe for some sort of cashing in.

I see you can be a great theoretician, if/when you want to.


Betty MissBoll, Les Penseurs, The Thinkers

Betty Ollier-Perez aka MissBoll, Les Penseurs (The Thinkers)


On chess ideas' originality
You say that we should be careful not to credit Nimzovich for inventing all ideas that appear in My System, as it is "simply his introduction of the term(s) in chess." That is perfectly true, but look what Tal says about it below.

For the same reason, we could equally blame Einstein for not thinking up all ideas contained in the Theory of Relativity by himself.

Here is Mikhail Tal again,

"My System is a book of generalizations. The author does not discover something completely new in all of his statements, sometimes he formulates something that was already discovered. But the value of this stage in the process of learning chess is enormous. To put it simply, this is the true theory creation."--Foreword to the Russian edition of My System, Moscow, 1974


Your inclination to Praxis

You say, "For myself, I find Nimzovich, when he isn’t annotating a game, to be mainly unreadable." (highlights are mine)

This shows that your natural inclination is toward the practical side of chess. Of course, all ideas (but overprotection maybe) are, obviousuly, part of your mental tool-box, you are breathing them out, and breathing them in. Otherwise, you would have never reached the highest level in chess. That is why your thinking is highly superior compared to an amateur's, like mine.

Again, I understand your disposition toward the practical side, in other words, mere implementation of ideas. And that is okay. But there is one important point here, impacting hundreds of millions of people, all those who are learning chess.

Our teaching methods, you would agree, are responsible for how quickly and how well students learn, and how far they will go. Right now, our teaching is inadequate (and, unfortunately, I must say broken), failing 99 percent, or so, of all chess entrants who never learn the basics and quit chess too early too soon, before being able to feel all the beauty and charm of our game.

We have seen in Part 2 why this is being the case, it is the failure of mediating ideas and concepts in the very beginning, and focusing on the trivial instead on the general ideas (the mechanics of moves, instead the meaning of moves, etc.).

Now, to be able to redesign and improve our teaching methods to keep more people in the game, we need to figure out how you and your fellow chess Masters think, what ideas you use, what kind of mental representations you develop to become what you are.

In figuring out the particular way students should learn a chess skill, we need to examine how the experts do it. This is why we need to focus more on ideas and mental models of thinking of experts in order to (finally) formulate the best possible chess theory conducive for teaching and learning.

This Herculean, yet so important task is still waiting for chess thinkers, all patriarchs and patrons of the game, to do, if we are to believe Professor of cognitive science, FM Pertti Saariluoma who claims that chess players are not familiar with their thought process as it works at the subconscious level (see Part 2 of my reply).


Your challenge to me

At the end of your letter you mount a challenge to me with a concrete, practical question, (where I can by no means be on a par).

You give 1.Sf3 d5 2.d3 Nc6 3.d4?! from a Nimzovich's game, that simply loses a tempo. You continue,

"Should we hail Nimzovich’s 2.d3, and only then 3.d4, as genius or eccentric? Perhaps we should just call it plain wrong." (highlights mine)

First of all, why should we strive for an objectively "best move" all the time? That is what idealess metal dummies are doing; they are preprogrammed and thus not creative, and lacking imagination and psychological depth of humans. Unlike them, we do follies for creative originality and lasting charm. Nimzovich is unable to defend himself, and we do not know how his (not-so-preprogrammed) thinking was going at the time. So, if you permit, I will take, as only a chess semi-patzer, a role of the public defender in this GM Seirawan vs GM Nimzo case on the validity of Nimzovich's ideas before the International Court of Chess Justice, as no one from the elite grandmaster ranks has dared protect Nimzo from attacks by you, GM Kevin Spraggett and others.

So here is how I feel about Nimzo's eccentricity, or "plain-wrongness" as you say.

Perhaps Nimzo was familiar with the style of play of his opponent and simply wanted to "play Black" giving a tempo in the process, seeking chances in counterattack? Who knows what went through his head during the game? (just a question here, is playing Black an eccentricity for you? btw, I prefer playing as Black)

Here is another "why should we." Why should we judge Nimzovich's legacy by this one, or many other follies for that matter? Here I am going to ask for view, from other defense witnesses in the court, about eccentricity of Nimzo.

Anatole France (1844-1924), considered the ideal French man of letters in his day, put it this way, "I would sometimes prefer the folly of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom."

Another Frenchman says, "No one can be profoundly original who does not avoid eccentricity," Andre Maurois, French writer (1885-1967).

Actually, it is all about freedom. "I find only freedom in the realms of eccentricity," David Bowie.

An English adds more about it in his philosophical work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873),

“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” (also read what Mikhail Tal has to say about Nimzo's peculiarities below)

So, following Mill and others, I tend to see 2.d3 and 3.d4 as a sign of a genius, which does not fit in your plain wrong verdict. But again, who knows, perhaps both of us may be right - at the same time!

Or maybe Nimzo simply wanted to say "Chess folks, Don't be dogmatic!" The one who prescribes strategic laws shows us that we can, from time to time, stay free from the chains of doctrine (as Tarrasch has a reputation for) and be a little eccentric for good causes. Anything wrong with that?

I call another witness to support Nimzo in this court case, the Former World #1, Mikhail Tal, to the stand,

The ideas that once seemed extravagant win recognition and become commonplace. Perhaps that is how every bright human individuality shows itself? Once, concepts such as centralization, prophylaxis, overprotection, blockade etc. were just recipes of the eccentric Nimzovich. But now they are commonplace, and they may even seem trivial. Back then, these ideas were just peculiarities of Nimzovich's chess individuality, but now, they are taught to students of chess. 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.

Yes, eccentricity is an idea, something much bigger than a singular chess move played on the chessboard.


I am writing these lines on March 24, so Happy Birthday to you, Na Mnogaya Leta, GM Seirawan!


Yours faithfully in Caissa,

Momir Radovic
Atlanta, Georgia
@chesscontact on Twitter



Further reading:

Momir Radovic's open letter to GM Seirawan

Reply by GM Seirawan to the open letter

Ideas vs Praxis, Momir Radovic's reply to GM Seirawan's open reply, Part 1

Ideas reign supreme, Praxis is secondary, Momir Radovic's reply to GM Seirawan's open reply, Part 2