Aron Nimzowitsch: "How I became a Grandmaster", part 2

Jul 28, 2013, 10:57 PM |

You can read Part 1 here


Of joys and sorrows of combination

The main mistake of my education was not, of course, that the first lessons weren't exactly up to the highest standards we've come to expect from modern chess education. I had big reserves of vivid fantasy, so the "formalistic" approach of the the first lessons couldn't kill my love towards chess. Significantly worse was that my father didn't pay all the necessary attention to the fact that I suffered from hypertrophied combinational play. Such a hypertrophy should be taken seriously, and countermeasures should be implemented. Naturally, those countermeasures should be ofpositional nature. But how can such positional influence be exercised? If you feed a novice with various positional ideas, you'll get this result: the novice's fragile system will not be able to assimilate this wisdom. He may remember some individual rules, but his positional feeling won't get any better - and only the presence of this feeling is the main symptom of the "hypercombinator's" curing.

We can solve this problem in the following manner: remember that some mineral salts that are quite hard for the human organism to assimilate can be easily assimilated if they are chemically tied to some other (organic) substances. We should do the same: find a way to "chemically" connect the dry positional wisdom with the vivid and comprehensible teaching of "elements". I have dedicated a whole book to these elements: the entire first part of My System (and a good chunk of the second part) is dedicated to them (the third part is dedicated to the chemically clean positional game). I'm not intending to promote my work here, but I think that I do have the right to recommend it: the chess tragedies I got through in my youth give me this right. I would like to show a combinator the ways to positional healing, and I think that nobody would reproach me for that. Ah, those tragedies! Those unending combinational impulses that were invariably broken by the dry positional play of a pragmatic and very often much less gifted player!..

But let's get back to the "elements". We assign this name to lines, 7th rank, passed pawn, discovered check, pinned piece, pawn chain etc. In the first part of My System, I analyze them thoroughly and formulate a series of laws for their systematic use. I see the gist of this pedagogic method in the very fact that these laws, unbeknownst to the pupil, contain a fair amount of positional wisdom. Let's look at an example.

The positional rule that, in essence, the entire game can be reduced to the struggle of two principles: the tendency of pawn advancement (expansiveness) and the tendency of blocking these pawns, isn't comprehensible for a beginner. On the other hand, if we present this rule under the guise of some fascinating feature of one of the elements (the passed pawn), the effect will be very different. In this form, our rule will be very simple, and its assimilation will help to develop the beginner's "blockade feeling" and, therefore, his positional feeling (later on, this rule should, of course, be expanded). Our simple law of blocking passed pawns says, "You need to block the opponent's passed pawn". That's why the studying of elements from My System may be beneficial for combinators.

But if the beginner is not of combinational type, he should learn to do combinations as quickly as possible. To these beginners, we recommend P. Romanovsky's book Middlegame.


The period between 1902 and 1906. - The anguish for the "elements". - I discover... no, not America yet, but my "mortal enemy". - The first serious encounter with him, and what he said during it

During my first year abroad, I've been playing chess extensively, to my father's clear annoyance; he demanded that I pass an additional exam and enroll into university. In the beginning of 1903, I moved from Koenigsberg to Berlin, where I got acquainted with, and later befriended, O.S. Bernstein and B.M. Blumenfeld. I've played a lot of games against Blumenfeld, also against Master von Scheve and D.G. Baird, an American. They were much stronger players than me, but often got bad positions, because I sometimes would find a combination nobody else would have thought about. Still, I've lost an overwhelming majority of these games, because without a combinational opportunity, I was completely in the dark. I had no positional directives - for instance, it never occurred to me to weaken the dark (or light) squares of my partner's position (with subsequent invasion), or prevent an opponent's breakthrough altogether, etc. I've been attacking a lot, advanced my pawns and set combinational traps. I saw such traps with exceptional quickness and played them very confidently, calculating 5-6 and even more moves ahead. I remember how in a game between Bardeleben and the student Nimzowitsch, it took me just half a minute to calculate this spectacular combination:

(Note from translator: this article seems to be the first ever publication of the game in PGN form. At least I couldn't unearth any Bardeleben/Nimzowitsch games with Google and searches).

In 1904, I took part in my first tournament (Haupt-tournament in Coburg) and won 6th prize. Inspired by this success, I went to Nuremberg to "play some games with Tarrasch".

Let me tell you about a small chess-psychological episode which played a tremendous role in the history of my development. In one of my games, I got a position with a pawn chain. The moves were along these lines: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e5 Nfd7 6. Bxe7 Qxe7.

In this (or similar) position I was painfully struck by the thought that "I can play 7. Nf3 or I can play 7. f4", and this poignant question can only be resolved if somebody discovers the laws or rules of pawn chain usage. In other words, it dawned on me that there were some strategical elements, and they are searching for their ideologist and "lawmaker".
It had never occurred to me that I could become such an ideologist; indeed, this episode hadn't seemed significant or important to me at the time. But in 1904, when the memories of this small and innocent story have already faded completely, another thing happened to me. When I analyzed my game against Hilse (Coburg 1904) with a master (I'll tell his name later), I had to admit that my Rook maneuvers from d-file to h-file and back weren't strategically necessary. I had a following position at my kingside: White Rh1, pawn g5; Black Rh8, pawn g6. "You should have played Rh1-h6", the master said weightily. "Why", I protested, "my move Rh1-d1 wasn't bad too". This humble statement was met with a cathegorical answer, "No, you should have played Rh6, because that's how you should play in such positions!" I remember clearly how after those words that impressed me enormously, I've suddenly remembered the aforementioned episode with a pawn chain, and I've made an irreversible decision: "There are laws and rules for both pawn chain and open line usage, and I should discover them at any cost!"
A curious detail: the master who unknowingly gave me the needed impetus towards my chess strategy revolution that dethroned the pseudoclassical style, was Tarrasch himself - the leader of the very movement that was antiquated by my research; in other words, Tarrasch, with his weighty assertion, dug a hole for himself!
While I did sense at the time that Tarrasch was my opponent, I haven't seen my "mortal enemy" in him. But our relationship soured shortly afterwards. A couple of months after the Rh6 episode, Tarrasch honoured me with a serious game (see Game 3 in the appendix). I've played the opening quite strangely, as usual, both because I, as mentioned before, was a very weak positional player then, and because I was consciously avoiding well-known variants and took the dominating chess doctrine with a pinch of salt. There was a lot of spectators (even though our game was casual), because, knowing of my rich combinational fantasy and ignorantly identifying it with real playing strength, the public expected, if not an even struggle (Tarrasch was at his peak then), but at least an interesting game.
After move 10, Tarrasch, his arms folded, suddenly uttered the phrase, "Never before in my life did I have such a won position at  move 10 as in this game!" I, nevertheless, managed to draw the game. But I couldn't forgive Tarrasch for this public "humiliation" for a long time.
Soon this game was published, to Tarrasch's obvious displeasure; he thought that I have almost commited a crime by publishing it. However, the game wasn't published by me, but rather by one von Parisch, against my will. But the fact was that we have become enemies until 1907. I'll tell of a curious (and very characteristic for Tarrasch) episode of our reconciliation later. Right now I'd like to say that if I didn't feel that enmity against Tarrasch, I wouldn't have really learned to play chess. To play stronger than Tarrasch - that was my desire during 1904-1906. And here's an advice for my readers: "If you wish to achieve results, choose a mortal enemy for yourself and try to dethrone him".
Though I think it's necessary to add: while my hostility towards Tarrasch was caused by personal motives, it wasn't fueled by them (we have never quarreled again since 1904), but rather by a deep igeological antagonism that I felt ever since we first met. I've always considered Tarrasch mediocre; yes, he was a very strong player, but all his views, sympathies and antipathies, and unability to create new thoughts - all that obviously proved the mediocrity of his personality. I've always loved genius, and I couldn't put up with the fact that the leader of a dominating school was a mediocre man! That fact exasperated me!
Continues in part 3.