Aron Nimzowitsch: "How I became a Grandmaster", part 1


This Soviet-published autobiographical book seems to be very rare (only 8500 copies were printed by the Shakhmatniy Listok publishing house). As far as I understand it, it has since fallen into public domain (publishing date is 1929, and Nimzowitsch died in 1935), so I have decided to translate it for

The book doesn't cover only purely chess matters. For instance, Nimzowitsch voices his views on child education in general. Aron Nimzowitsch surely was a passionate man, and this manifests in his writing. Some thing may seem very outdated, but, well, 84 years have passed since the publication.

Aron Nimzowitsch. How I became a Grandmaster

I dedicate my work to the

chess book's friend - S.O. Vainstein


Which point of view is this book written from?

Any chess writer taking his work seriously should each time he starts a new book (or rather when he devises a plan for one) ask himself one question: "Can the book I'm going to write be of value to anyone studying it, and if it can, how exactly will it be valuable?" If the answer is negative or "almost negative", then the writer must either abandon the topic altogether or at least change his plan radically.

Something similar happened to me. My initial plan was to tell a story of evolution of a certain chess master (in this case - of myself). And I thought that it was important to observe this evolution from a "psychological" point of view, because psychological factors play a major role in any personal development, and if you deliberately ignore them, it inevitably leads to bland, artificial narration. I also thought that the thorough analysis of question such as "What subjective experience made me disillusioned with magical powers of powerful attacks?" or "Which psychological moment gave the first impetus to my thoughts about the possibility of a system?", can be of some didactic value too.

However, I had my doubts and hesitations, and they ultimately led me to skepticism. You can't wear someone else's clothes without fitting and some reshaping; the same thing can be said of someone else's experience. The process of fascination and disillusionment is also individual and depends on one's personality.

Considering all this, I've decided to use the biographical data of "our" hero for utilitarian reasons, as an outside source of practical advice. Thus, the only goal of this book is to search for objectively useful conclusions.


First steps. Not a deviation from the theme, but a practically important reasoning as to which age is best to start to learn the basics of chess

I was 8 years old when I started to learn chess. But, despite the fact that I've immediately started to progress, and this progress seemingly (!?) continued afterwards, now I can confidently say that my chess development would have been more harmonious and painless if I learned to play in my teenage years, not during childhood. The reader will soon see that my development up until 1906 (I was born in 1886) was very one-sided: strong combinations at the expense of positional play. This could have been avoided if I was taught to play at a more mature age.

Now, I would like to discuss a question that might be of interest both in general and in specific chess-learning sense. I would like to know, what view is the basis of that allegedly reasonable demand that the child shouldn't waste even a minute of their time, constantly learning new things? If this demand is based only on parents' concerns, why then, in the Western schools, there are still, say, Latin lessons, or why in the bourgeois Europe almost the entire curriculum (even in the celebrated law schools!) consists of utterly useless ballast, which is immediately thrown away right after the exams? And why - let's come back from law students to primary school kids - why boring and routine tasks, such as studying of various "basics" and "elements", are considered very suitable for a child, while any adult would surely get angry if they were forced to do such uninteresting things?

Allow me to tell you about a very characteristic feature that perhaps will shed some light on the subject. In the small bourgeois circles of Central Europe, the dominating view is that women should never sit on their hands, and that's why they're always sewing or embroidering something, even when on visit. It's very clear: this view manifests the lingering attitude towards women as slaves. In the Middle Ages, women were no better than slaves. Doesn't our attitude towards children harbour similar feelings? At the very least, I think that we should get rid of the view that a child should be always working, and various boring and tedious occupations is what befits them best!

If the process of studying of "basics" is boring, you should never impose them (particularly the basics of chess or music) upon a child: wait until he grows up a bit. But if you do impose them upon your child, at least try to make them interesting, lively and attractive! The feeling of dull boredom should remain unknown for children!

Later on, we will elaborate on the plan of teaching of basics, completely revolutionizing this part of chess education, and for now we'll stop with this conclusion: the process of basic learning is based on fantasy, but still needs logic; so the ideal age for beginning of chess studies should be teenage, not childhood!


I'm beginning to play combinations, but lose my grasp on the chess reality, i.e. the demands of positional play, more and more. - On how to study the basics

My first acquaintance with chess basics happened in solemn circumstances. My family treated chess with much respect, because our father, a chess amateur, told us many times about incredible beauty of the game. I've often asked him to show me what's the deal with chess, but my father would always delay the answer, saying that "it's too early for such a little kid to think about chess". And then, on my 8th birthday, he'd finally agreed. However, I remember my disappointment, because Rook, Bishop, Knight moves etc. looked devoid of any combinational interest. I must note that even before my chess studies, I was very interested in combinations, because all efforts of my mentors, and above all my father, were dedicated to developing the gift of combinations and the love towards the world of scholastic conclusions and rhetorical stratagems that is well-known to anyone who'd ever studied the Talmud.

My disappointment, however, was soon replaced by a feeling of sharp curiosity: some three weeks after the first lesson, my father showed me several combinations, including the smothered mate (White: Kh1, Qc4, Ne5; Black: Kh8, Qb2, Ra8, pawns g7 and h7). 1. Ne5-f7+ Kh8-g8 2. Nf7-h6+ Kg8-h8 3. Qc4-g8+ Ra8:g8 4. Nh6-f7#; three months after that, my father, as a reward for my school achievements, showed me Anderssen's Immortal game, which I understood and immediately fell in love passionately with.

I'd often played with my father and quickly entered the combinational rut, but my strategic knowledge remained very scarce for a long time. To characterize my father's teaching methods, I will point to one interesting detail. My father often told me that when I have a pair of pawns in the center (for instance, at d4 and e4), I should be very wary with moving them further, to the 5th rank. And I'm completely sure that my father, being a master-level player, knew of a purely positional danger of hasty advancement: such advancement often allows for a long-term blockade of these pawns (for instance, White pawn are at e4 and d5, and a Black Knight on e5 blocks them). But despite the usefulness of this purely positional argument, my father's motivation was more abstract: the pawns' position at e4 and d4 gives richer possibilities, because you can play both e4-e5 and d4-d5.

And so I was losing my grasp on the harsh chess reality and got my head up in the clouds; it seemed to me that, well, I should have not thought about having a good position, if there are possibilities for sudden combinations both in worse and better positions! I ultimately reached this very wrong conclusion...

Before criticizing the teaching method that I described above, I'll show you some facts of my earlier chess career.

1. I played my first published game when I was eight and a half years old. It was printed in Rigaer Tageblatt and showed my good combinational skills.

2. Between 1894 and 1902, I nevertheless played quite rarely, usually against the first-category players; of course, I was always given the odds. (On the pedagogical value of giving odds, see chapter 8).

3. Despite my horrible anti-positional style, I have eventually reached the level when my father only had to give me a Knight odds. This happened in 1902. In that same year, I have gone abroad. A new period of my chess career began.

Before further narrative, let's have a brief summary. The reader, of course, has already understood one thing: there clearly were some pedagogical mistakes during the early stages of my evolution - or else my playing style in 1902 wouldn't have been so unstable. What were the mistakes?

Let's start from the beginning - from the very first lesson. "Moves were shown" to me - was that the right thing to do? Well, of course, my dear reader would say, it's impossible to play chess without it. But the thing is, the reader makes a mistake: this method is utterly wrong. You shouldn't take a boy who knows nothing about chess and immediately stun him with directions, like, the Rook moves like this, and the Bishop like that, and the pawn just crawls forward at the pace of a snail, and the Knight jumps wildly in all directions, and the Queen moves everywhere it wants, that the Rook moves straight and chops straight, and the pawn moves straight but chops askew, etc. All those directions will only seem boring: the data received by the pupil is very formal, without any vividness, and the sheer volume of the information makes it only more boring... No, you should teach the basics differently. Less "formal" ballast, more substance - that's the main principle! Now we'll show how we think must the first 2-3 lessons go.

Lesson one. Familiarizing with the board. Border between White and Black. The center of the board.

Rook. The concepts of rank and file. Exercises and problems: White Rook (the pupil should always play White) is at e1, Black pawn is at e6; in this position, the Rook attacks the pawn. Then you place the Rook at h1, the pawn remains at e6, and tell your pupil to attack it. Then attack it from the flank. From the rear. Install some barricades: White Kf1, Rh1, pawns g2, h4, Black pawn d6. White attack the pawn by playing Rh1-h3-d3. Then Black Rook enters the play, defending the pawn.

With this primitive basis, we build some very primitive combinations. For instance: White Ra1; Black Rh8, pawns c7, e5. How many moves the White Rook needs to attack both pawns at once? Let's play: 1. Ra1-a5 Rh8-e8 2. Ra5-c5 Re8-e7. Then we continue with the tendency to get to the 7th rank. Place a White Rook at g1, the Black King to h8, and tell that the King can capture one square askew. "Get to the 7th rank with your Rook". 1. Rg1-g7 Kh8xg7. Now give your pupil a pawn at h5. "Protect the invasion square on the 7th rank." Play 1. h5-h6 and then 2. Rg1-g7. In that manner, your pupil would easily sit with you for a couple of hours and quickly learn both necessary basics and primitive combinations. Notice that the first lesson only studies the Rook, while the moves of pawns and the King are mentioned in passing. Also notice that the game, i.e. vivid combination, immediately supplants, or rather overshadows, the formal stuff. Our Rook is going to attack the pupil's pawn; if the pupil successfully defends it, they "win".

I hope that the reader understands our main idea: from the very beginning, we are playing, struggling, fighting, but we should not tolerate the dominance of formal data. And we tend to give much importance to the pupil's first impression of their first lesson. They should be interested, they should feel that this is a game, in which the victory is possible and very satisfying!

Studying the Queen (Lesson 2), it'd be best to explain the concept of double attack, i.e. attacking two opposing pieces at once, even though we have mentioned this already in Lesson 1. And here, you should also give some vivid examples and combinations like this one: White Qh5; Black Kf8, Ra7. First we force the King to go to the same rank as the Rook: 1. Qh5-h8+, then 2. Qh8-h7+ and 3. Qh7xa7.
We vary these combinations, but the examples in this and all other cases should be very simple and illustrate some strategical truth, for instance, about the "uprooting" power of a rank check. (The Black King in the aforementioned example had to leave its rank.)

Lesson 3 is dedicated to the pawn. The pawn attacks opposing pieces. The pawn defends its own piece (several examples). The pawn defends (creates) a strong point.

Such a highly-strategical concept may seem inappropriate for many people. But practice has convinced us that the punctual (here: based on the concept of points) argumentation, which is completely indigestible for an old routiner chess player, is very easily understood by novices! The small problems such as this: "White Rd3, Nf2, pawn e4; Black Ra8, pawn e6. Create a strong point" (the solution: 1. e4-e5, creating a strong point at d6 which can then be occupied with Rd3-d6 or Nf2-e4-d6) were easily solved by some of my pupils even at the second lesson. The punctual thinking comes easiest when it's introduced to the pupil at the earliest stages of learning.

While the punctual thinking can be mastered relatively effortlessly, the problem of the Knight can be very hard for novices. And this is natural: instincts protest against the strange movements of this piece. Of course, carefully constructed examples can do much, and the Knight, this cunning creation of human fantasy, will soon seem close and comprehensible. But the teacher should avoid overly complex examples; various Rösselsprungs(German for "Knight moves") only exacerbate the "unfortunate" fact that the Knight is, in essence, an "artificial" piece that bears little resemblance to reality. Good are exercises like this: White Ng2, Black Bd6 (only White move): how the Knight can capture the Bishop? Or, White Ng2, Black Bd6, pawns b5, e6, f5 (the White Knight cannot capture pawns or be en prise); the solution: Ng2-h4-g6-h8-f7xd6. If the pupil's personality is balanced, the following exercise can be useful for them: White Na1; Black Rb7, Bb6, Bc6, pawns a5, d3, e3, e4; capture the c6 Bishop while adhering to the previous exercise's conditions; the solution: Na1-b3-c1-a2-c3-b1-a3-c4-e5xc6. However, if the pupil has their head in the clouds, it's better to aviod such exercises.

We aren't going to describe a whole chess teaching course on this pages, so let's restrict ourselves with these two advices:

1) After the first 2-4 lessons, it's imperative for the teacher to determine the nature of their pupil (combinational or non-combinational). Depending on that, the teaching methods should vary (we'll discuss it below).

2) You should pay much attention to the endgame from the very beginning. The ability to convert the material advantage in the ending should be developed.

You can read the second part here