Aron Nimzowitsch: "How I became a Grandmaster", part 3

Jul 29, 2013, 6:15 AM |

Read part 1 here and part 2 here.


Barmen debacle in August 1905 as the last and decisive stimulus: I finally get down to work! (1906)

In the beginning of 1905, I took part in a Vienna tournament (1st - Schlechter, 2nd - H. Wolf; I finished 6th out of 10, ahead of Albin, Neumann and others). My playing there was impressive (see games 4 and 5 in the appendix). The same thing happened in my match against Spielmann (+4-4=5), and I've been seriously thinking about winning a master's title very soon. However, I didn't take into consideration the fact that my nerves have become shattered during my time abroad. Constant travelling between chess cafes, irregular lifestyle and the total absence of a job - all this together had a detrimental influence on my nervous system, and I've started to play impulsively (in the quick attacking style of my early youth) and very badly.

In August 1905, I played in the Barmen B-tournament and... failed miserably (+3-8=6). Back then, I thought of this debacle as a horrible disaster, but now I'm sure that this misfortune saved me from an "almost completely hopeless situation". Without this "saving move" made by my destiny, I would have soon faced a catastrophe.

Angered by mocking attitude of the critics in the Barmen tournament game book, I decided to quit my chess cafe life, heal my nerves, and then work seriously on my playing.

I started my work in the first half of 1906 in Zurich, after I enrolled into the university (together with my Realschule certificate, which alone was not enough, I've managed to get a commendation from one of my school teachers, where he said that I allegedly had some kind of exceptional mathematic skills). After 2-3 months of hard work, I've achieved great progress. Let's study: 1) the psychological factors of this progress; 2) the plan of my studies.

I think that the factors that made my work easier, besides my combinational skills, were my anger over the Barmen fiasco, my strong dislike or Tarrasch and the "elemental anguish" deep inside my soul, which was described in the previous chapter.

A cursory analysis of my games in Barmen already showed me that my main weakness was bad opening repertoire (I didn't know how to defend against 1. d4). A deeper analysis convinced me that I also knew nothing of the art of consolidating my position. This was obvious, for instance, in my game against Forgacs (#7), where my attack at the flanks was completely anti-positional.

At this time, the Nuremberg 1906 tournament game book with annotations by Tarrasch was published. I bought one and gave it to the binder, asking him to bind blank sheets between each two pages of the text. Then I started to analyze some games, mostly by Salwe, Duras and Forgacs, and also M.I. Chigorin's games with Black pieces. Any findings were immediately written down on the blank sheets. I've always "played" for one partner - either White or Black; first, I've been trying to find the best move myself, and only then looked at the actual move played in game. So, I've been spending at least 6 hours on one game. That's how I studied consolidation: in one of Salwe's games, he had a position very characteristic for the isolated Queen pawn system: White Nf3, pawn d4; Black Nd7, pawn e6 (both partners also had a lot of other pieces). It occurred to me that White don't have to hurry with their Knight invasion on e5; several moves later, the Black Knight moved away, trying to get to d5, and so White got the e5 square without any efforts on their part. This was immediately written down on a blank page, mainly not for purely chess merits of this maneuver, but mostly for its psychological value: "The squares often free up on their own!", "Never hurry" etc. And still, with some anxious curiosity I was watching the open files, 7th ranks and passed pawns. It was then that I discovered the concept of "open file outpost" (see My System, part 1). But I had most joy in proving Tarrasch's commentaries wrong and seeing their overall shallowness. I've learned much by that.

Curiously, I've never studied the games of masters of attacking style, such as Spielmann, Marshall or Leonhardt. Tarrasch's games also seemed useless for my improvement.

My hard work gave the following results: 1) I have thoroughly analysed a defensive plan against 1. d4: 1... Nf6 and 2... d6 (following Chigorin's steps). 2) I've developed a slow, cautious playing style. I was dumbfounded - how could I make sacrifices without a precise calculation (alas, that's how I often play in Barmen!) 3) Another important achievement: the analysis of some games made me understand the strategy of closed games, particularly the principles of pawn chains and centralization.

Now let's forget that we're speaking about me, and let's put any combinator with an undeveloped style into my place. Can we recommend the method I used in 1906 to him for his improvement?

To answer this clearly, you need to be aware of one thing. In 1906, it was much harder to study chess than now, in the heyday of chess pedagogics. Then, in 1906, I had to discover the positional principles all by myself, but now, I daresay largely because of my research (in my works My System and Chess Praxis), the principles are already there. When someone studies chess, he clearly sees both the "elements" and such concepts as centralization, blockade, prophylaxis etc.

And still, the method I used in 1906 can indeed be recommended. Let's imagine a young combinator who slowly, move by move, plays out a Capablanca game. He reaches some position and is anxious to know which one of the attacking continuations was ultimately preferred; then he looks at the next move and sees that Capa played a seemingly passive move. The combinator is stunned, perhaps even saddened, but during the deeper analysis, he sees the hidden power of this move. Similar sensation is caused by a purely maneuvering move instead of a direct attack.

I think that this "sensation", or "shock", has a tremendous pedagogic value. You may repeat about centralization ad nauseam, but the combinator will still attack the flanks; but this "method of sensations", as we will call it hereinafter, might as well have a decisive influence on his playing style. And so, along with studying My System, we offer this method of sensation as an antidote against the shallow combinational style.

But there's more to it: the art of consolidation is directly dependent on nerves and character balance. The best consolidator of all times is surely Capablanca (he elevated the art of prophylactic maneuvering to unbelievable heights). But Capa is a sportsman, a man without nerves, with completely balanced psychics. So, here's another advice to our combinator: engage in sports, take long walks, breathe deeply, try to stay quiet, try training by Mueller's system etc.

We are completely sure that the late Schlechter was right when he said that any combinator, with the right preparation, can became a first-degree master. It's even more true in our times (Schlechter said that back in 1905, when chess pedagogics were in their infancy), because now is the heyday of chess pedagogics. Combinational talent, plus good learning, plus psychological preparation (balanced psychics!) can't help but give you master's strength.

On the other hand, the people who use combinations rarely can develop their combinational skills. However, you can live without combinations. For instance, Johner, who didn't have much fantasy, still became a strong master.


The fruits of my progress: I become a master. - About my reconciliation with Tarrasch and what happened next (1907-1914).

My first performance, in Munich (November 1906), already resulted in a great success: in a double round-robin tournament with masters Spielmann, E. Cohn, Przepiorka (Elyashov and Kirschner also played) I took the 1st prize with 8.5/10, 2 points ahead of the 2nd place. My playing was both solid (see the game with Cohn, #11) and rich with ideas (#12). I remember the beginning of my game against Elyashov (I had Black):

I won rather quickly.

(Note from translator: the Elyashov-Nimzowitsch game is also absent from

In the beginning of 1907, I took part in the masters' tournament in Ostend. Tarrasch played in the main tournament. We met frequently in the cafe, but despite all my efforts, he refused to notice me, just ignoring my existence. And I continued my victorious streak: in the first two weeks, I scored 7.5/9. And suddenly, a miracle happened: Tarrasch saw the light! I beat W. Cohn that day; then I came to the cafe, and Tarrasch was already there. As soon as I came in, Tarrasch quickly ran up to me, smiling joyously and extending his hand: "At last, I met you! I'm so glad to see your success! Can you show me some of your games? Ah, I'm so glad to see your success!!" So opportunistic: he would fling mud onto the weak and act all complaisant before the strong! In this minute, I very clearly saw the mediocrity of Tarrasch's nature.

The search for new ways that already began in Barmen and Coburg has found a more solid base after I improved my playing technique. While the opening experiments I've tried in Barmen (like in the game Caro-Nimzowitsch below) ended with failures because of my lack of technique, in the subsequent years there were no such failures.

In 1907, I've started to play 1. Nf3 d5 2. d3 as White, and if 2... Nc6, then 3. d4, with a stupid position of the Black Knight that hinders c7-c5. In 1910, boldly challenging Tarrasch, I've started to favour closed systems, like Hanham variation etc.

The challenge was accepted, and since that time, Tarrasch started to mercilessly persecute me in the press. His favourite epithets towards me were "hässlich", "bizarr" (ugly, strange, bizarre playing methods!) etc. Now I just laugh at that, but back then, it annoyed me greatly!

In 1912, I've almost won the San Sebastian Grandmaster tournament (due to my nervousness, I've lost a decisive game to Rubinstein and had to share 2nd/3rd places with Spielmann). Tarrasch didn't miss a chance to gloat: "That would be scandalous if such an unaesthetic playing would win him the 1st prize!"

I've continued to dig under Tarrasch's "solid" (?) position: the variant 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nf6!, the effort to rejuvenate an old variant 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 - this slowly, but surely weakened the position of the Nuremberg champion. By returning the 3. e5 variant into practice, I wanted to carry the old concept of the center to the point of absurdity. In 1912, I've published my games against Salwe (1911) and Tarrasch (San Sebastian 1912), trying to prove that the old Tarrasch's understanding of the center was outdated.

Fighting alone against the whole chess world, I've created a new understanding of the game, a new school, a new game.

In 1913, I've discovered a game plan that since became popular: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 - without d7-d5; or 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 - also without d7-d5, and this completely destroyed Tarrasch's position as a universally recognized chess wisdom teacher.


About the triumph of my ideas and Grandmaster-level successes of 1923-1929. - Some parting advices

After the war, the correctness of my revolutionary chess views was recognized universally. The seemingly strange and bizarre variants have gradually earned their rightful place.

On the other hand, Tarrasch's theory (about arithmetic center, quick development etc.) now only brings smiles on people's faces.

Concurrently with that, I've achieved even more practical successes that brought me the Grandmaster's title. Though I think that my greatest success isn't among the 1st prizes in Marienbad 1925, London 1927 and Berlin 1928 (in two latter tournaments, I finished ahead of Bogoljubov): it's 1st place in Dresden 1926, when I scored 8.5/9 and finished 1.5 points ahead of Alekhine! And I think that I played my very best games in Dresden.

Almost anything is said, and now I could just go on to the games section, but I would like to say something more about the "elements" (i.e. about the time of their final development).

I felt the "anguish" for them as early as 1902 (see chapter V), but still couldn't overcome the tremendous difficulties I faced for a long time. Some parts, such as the thoughts about outpost and new understanding of the pawn chain, were created in 1911-1913.

But since any new system, besides intuition, also needs detailed development, I've completed my system during the years 1917-1923. The author of the proverb discendo discimus ("By teaching, we learn") is completely right. This happened to me: since 1917, I've started giving chess lessons, adhering strictly to the direction I've once chosen - the doctrine of elements. Thus I have amassed a lot of details about 7th rank, passed pawn etc. After all that, I have finally stated my case in the 1925 book, My System.

Curiously, the detailed study of the elements helped me to gain much understanding in analyzing the complex positional problems, because I found out that even the most complicated positional ideas are contained in the simplest elements, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Before parting, I'd like to give some more advices.

Take chess seriously. Understand that the solid study of one element is much better for improving your positional feeling than superficial study of all elements. The analysis of an element is full of "positional value".

About the handicap games: the one who gives handicap corrupts their playing style, but a chess player who often plays in tournaments can sometimes play with a handicap without much damage. It's bad for the receiver of a handicap to simplify the game at all costs. But playing defensively and using simplifications just as one of the many methods of defense, they will surely achieve success.

"Casual" games are detrimental to the playing style; however, if they are alternating with serious games, they are acceptable.

Try memorizing as few variants as possible! Your positional feeling should free you from the slavery of "variants". So try and develop this positional feeling in yourself! Play your games soundly, methodically.

Even more important is analysis! Analyze the opening that interests you with a fellow player (slightly stronger than you). But your analytical work shouldn't be limited by openings - analyze also various typical positions, for instance, the positions where one partner has a Knight for two pawns, or midgames where one partner has a flank attack, and the other has counterplay on the center lines. That's how Capablanca works. He constantly analyzes various typical positions. Capa knows a lot of such positions (mainly from Queen and Rook endgames).

But we don't recommend to study many "types" at once. Simultaneous analysis of completely different positions will only bring chaos to your thoughts, while thorough studying of one type will surely increase your level of positional knowledge.

If you, dear reader, would sit down and study - with maximum intensity possible for you - the positions, say, of the type "central line against flank attacks", then I won't be surprised if this would also lead you to a better understanding of endgames. The goal of studying one typical position is not only the better understanding of position of that type, but also the improvement of the positional feeling as a whole!

I believe in the radioactive power of this method: the entire chess organism wakes up and joyously waits for its rejuvenation. Not only the positional feeling improves - the best and most characteristic improvement is when you stop chasing ghosts (for instance, dreaming of daring mating attacks) and start to take the chess reality very seriously (as an illustration, see game #11).

So, we recommend: 1) to thoroughly play through a limited number of games; 2) to thoroughly study the elements in the My System book; 3) to thoroughly study a small number of typical positions with exhaustive analysis.

I conclude: you need to take it very seriously!

Concludes in part 4.