Mikhail Tal. Foreword to Aron Nimzowitsch's "My System", 1972

Aug 2, 2013, 8:55 AM |

Some words about Nimzowitsch and this book.

This old book, published countless times in many forms and languages, is as though saturated with the eternal chess youth elixir. The chess players' generations come and go, discussions sparkle and fade, masterpieces are created and dethroned, champions win and lose their titles, but this book doesn't grow old - it becomes even more actual than in the year it was first published. And that was almost fifty years ago! This happens when the author is able to tell timeless values apart from the transient ones, when he's able to generalize.

Nimzowitsch was greatly adept in that. My System is a book of generalizations. The author doesn't 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 real theory creation. (And the "real" theory, I supposed, is not a bunch of opening variants - it's general patterns of the game.) Until a rule (or an exception; by the way, Nimzowitsch was quite interested in them as well) is formulated, each chess player should rediscover it on their own, wasting time and effort and using their "intuition". And the intuition - I know that for sure! - is an uncertain thing, it can fail you...

By formulating a rule or a strategic law, the chess theoretician brings us from the world of intuition and conjenctures, the world that is beautiful, but also unstable and uncertain, to the world of certain knowledge - perhaps less beautiful (in my opinion), but much more stable. I think that's the main secret of the constant success of Nimzowitsch's book.

Right now, after leafing through the book once more, I've regretted that I'd read it too late, already being the Candidate Master. Perhaps due to that, I've often had to rediscover some well-known "Americas" on my own. Though this flaw in my chess knowledge suddenly became advantageous for me once, but I'll tell you a bit later about that.

Blockade is one of Nimzowitsch's favourite subjects. He was the first to formulate its meaning, he was the first to show how much stronger a piece becomes when it gets to a blockading square, how this piece can compensate the material loss. You'll see this position in the book:

Very telling, isn't it? White are down an exchange and pawn in the endgame, but their position is better because of the blocking Knights.
In 1953, when a Candidates' Tournament took place in Switzerland, I was preparing to become a Candidate Master, but still haven't read Nimzowitsch's book yet and didn't know that position. And then I saw the game Reshevsky - Petrosian.
Petrosian's exchange sacrifice 25... Re6! impressed me mightily. A purely positional sacrifice, with a quiet move, without any checks or obvious threats! Just for the Knight's position on d5! Perhaps I wouldn't be impressed so thoroughly if I knew Nimzowitsch's book well?
By this example alone it's clear that Petrosian studied My System thoroughly. But this example is, sadly, not the only one in his creative works. Why "sadly", the reader might ask? Well, now you'll see.
Several years have passed since the Swiss tournament, and, being an incumbent USSR Champion, I meet Petrosian over the board. I did read My System by that time, but my partner seemed to have read it better. One way or another, but I was fully convinced in the effectiveness of Nimzowitsch's recommendations.
Petrosian played quite passively in the opening, I got some advantage and thought that I had a won position. White have already prepared a kingside attack, and Black has no counterplay at the queenside, only weaknesses.
I was in a good mood until Tigran Vartanovich played 31... Rf4! And I have immediately remembered Nimzowitsch and his blockade theory...
Perhaps this move wasn't that strong if I didn't accept the exchange sacrifice and just took a pawn, retaining the "anti-blockading" dark-squared Bishop: 32. Rxf4 exf4 33. Bxf4, though it wouldn't be easy to win. But I was still young then, and I thought that I should always accept the exchange sacrifices. I've accepted that one and managed to draw the game only with my partner's help: 32. Bxf4 exf4 33. Nd2 Ne5 34. Qxf4 Nxc4 35. e5 Nxe5 36. Ne4 h6 37. Rae1 Bb8 38. Rd1 c4 39. d6 Nd3 40. Qg4 Ba7+ 41. Kh1. The game was adjourned there, with Black having some advantage (though I did manage to draw the game in play-off). An obvious demonstration of the continuity of ideas and benefits of knowledge...
In the beginning, I said that My System is a book of generalizations. It really is, but... I said it too boringly. This characterization shouldn't deter the reader: Nimzowitsch's definitions aren't just precise and laconic, they're also aphoristic. And the chapter titles are nothing short of "shooting": "It's forbidden to float!", "Forward, with consolidated force!", "Forcibly opening lines" etc.
The book is written in a lush, easy, brilliant language. And in such books, the role of the literature language is very great: it helps to understand and memorize, and even feel very complex things. I just can't refrain from reproaching the authors of many modern books, the language of which leaves much to be desired (especially in the opening monographies that are as similar as Rooks from one chess set). The luminaries of the past - Lasker, Capablanca, Reti, Spielmann, Tarrasch, Nimzowitsch, Tartakower - seemed to take much greater care of that. Nimzowitsch even writes about the language of his book in the preface, justifying his departure from the accepted norms.
Because of easy writing and easy reading, the book seems to simplify the chess material. There is very much of it, but a qualified reader should be able to read the book without a chessboard. Though don't take it as an advice, you shouldn't do that in any case (Nimzowitsch's own advice was to use two chessboards for analysis!)
Methodically, the book is built very strictly, it's thought out from the first line to the last. Each chapter is a complete "chess novel", ending with examples, mostly from the author's own games. The examples are picked very well and easily intertwine with the text. They do seem a bit one-sided (many games were played against obviously weaker partners), but this only emphasizes the main idea.
Speaking shortly, the book is written with love towards chess, and it's seen in its every line.
"And towards oneself too?", I foresee the question of an attentive reader.
Yes, towards oneself too. Before discussing this delicate theme, I must make a small digression. Nimzowitsch's book is reissued almost fifty years after its creation, and not as a literary artifact, but rather as an "actual" learning book. I've already tried to explain above why this book doesn't grow old. And still, no matter how good it is, you shouldn't forget how many years have passed while reading. Any book always mirrors the conditions it was written in. Many things have changed since then, and many things are perceived differently now. There is a touch of some immodesty and self-advertisement. But I can find a partial excuse for that.
In those faraway times, the rights of candidates for the chess world championship were determined not by a strict, unbiased qualification system, but by the very unstable public opinion and sponsors' mood swings. To convince them to take their side, the candidates sometimes had to attract excessive attention to their achievements. For instance, Capablanca, who was, by all accounts, very mild and affable man, wrote quite an immodest My Chess Career while he was trying to organize his match against Lasker.
Nimzowitsch wrote My System in 1925. He was 39 years old and at his playing peak. Several years later, in one of his books, he stated openly that he was waiting for the chess world to recognize his achievements. Perhaps he formulated his chess credo in part to make this easier for the chess world to do?
But that's not everything, and even not the main thing. Don't forget that My System is a dispute book, a dialogue book. Nimzowitsch was a staunch opponent of the orthodoxal approach, spearheaded by Dr. Tarrasch. Both Nimzowitsch and Tarrasch sometimes were very categorical in their opinions. Sometimes they were led to that by the logic of the discussion and heat of the moment, sometimes by other reasons, but still, this small flaw of the book is surely redeemed by its merits. The dispute between two leading chess players of the time, representing two conflicting chess trends, was constructive. Ancient people said that in such disputes, the truth is born. (At least until the next dispute, I'll dare to add.)
Considering the excessive rigidity, categoricity of some statements - there were reasons for those, too. I think that both Grandmasters who, though in different times, stood very close to the chess throne, understood perfectly the dangers of categorical statements in chess. But they were also aware of other thing: their didactic power!
For the sake of shortness or precision of a rule or advice it's possible and even necessary to sacrifice the boring details or nagging reservations like "this doesn't always happen, only in vast majority of cases". "A reasonable one will understand", the wise Romans said, and I think that's why Tarrasch and Nimzowitsch made their advices so categorical. They were most likely well aware that a Knight isn't always bad at b3 or it's not always necessary to capture a central pawn. But their advices are much easier to memorize! The rigidness of their advices is born not from their narrow-mindedness, but from purely pedagogical necessities.
I don't want my words to seem unsubstantiated, so I'll allow Nimzowitsch himself to help me. In his deliberately exaggerated justification of the necessity of blockade, he writes:
"The pawn sacrifice shown here is very typical, but, of course, it's not necessary for three pieces to come alive at once after that. Often, only one piece comes into play after that, but it's still enough. Why then we show three pieces? By the same right that Ibsen used in the very last scene of his play Ghosts when he condensed the slow development of a disease into one small dramatic episode. And, similarly to how the critics attacked the poor Ibsen for distorting the actual disease symptoms (!!), the chess critics will most probably accuse us in great exaggeration."
Prophetic lines!
...Many years have passed, the passionate dispute between Nimzowitsch and Tarrasch has faded, but My System didn't become obsolete (as well as Tarrasch's books, I daresay). So, it was either popular not only because it was actual, or it is still actual now. And while the discussions between advocates of various creative trends in the press have become somewhat inappropriate (because everyone has the right to play as they desire), the disputes on the chessboard continue. A dispute away from the board might look anachronistic now, but over the board, the disputes are still heated, and perhaps that's why the best old books and old games never grow old.
When you say that some old book is still actual, you should always demonstrate the facts of its influence on the contemporary chess views. In almost every interview, the Grandmasters are asked to tell whom do they consider as their creative predecessors. Petrosian and Larsen always acknowledge Nimzowitsch in this case. Critics also noted Nimzowitsch's influence in their playing. Sometimes they are very obvious. Here's an example.
The reader will find this position with an isolated pawn in the center below (from the game Lee - Nimzowitsch, Ostend 1907).
Nimzowitsch brilliantly, deeply and precisely annotates his move 22... Ne7: "After the work is finished (and the Knight had worked a lot) it's useful to change the whereabouts. The Knight is heading to f5."
And in the first game of my 1969 match against Larsen, the following position arose:
Strategically, both positions are similar (with colours reversed, of course). Larsen held his Knight at d4 for a long time, but the siege of the isolated pawn has ultimately failed. And after the game, he said that he should have captured that pawn rather than blocking it (?!).
Later on, Nimzowitsch formulates a technique that's often used by Petrosian.
This position arose after move 21 in the game Nimzowitsch - Tarrasch. Nimzowitsch played 22. a4! and annotated it:
"Along with 22. a4, the energetic 22. b4 was also worthy of considering. But this would have been less beneficial due to 22... b5! But now, after a2-a4, b2-b4 threatens to smother the Black's position even more."
That's how accurately and thoroughly Nimzowitsch prepared his pawn movement. After the moves 22... e5 23. fxe5 fxe5 24. Nf3 Ke6 25. b4 b6 26. R1c2 Nimzowitsch writes: "One of those plain moves that's worse than any direct attack for a stifled opponent who's exposed to all sort of threats. It's a defending, waiting move."
And that's what Petrosian thinks on the subject.
In this position (Petrosian - Gufeld, 28th USSR Championship, 1961) White played 14. g3. Petrosian writes:
"White's position is so good that they can vary their plans. The long move of the g-pawn is substituted with a modest g2-g3, but now Black have to take the possible f3-f4 into consideration. In the situations where one partner has no resources to organize any active counterplay, and the other partner, possessing an advantage in space, has several ways of improving their position, such a manner of play can sometimes be much more unpleasant and dangerous than any direct threats. It's hard for the defending partner to foresee where will the danger come from."
Two more moves were made, and the situation repeated on the other flank. 14... Rb8 15. Kh1 Qc7 16. b3.
"Continuing the same slow-moving strategy. Before playing b4, White prepare the Rook doubling on the b-file that will be eventually opened. This move also accomplished another thing: it's no longer necessary to watch for the possible b7-b5."
We can, of course, find other examples of Nimzowitsch's influence on the contemporary players, perhaps even more convincing ones. But notice this, dear reader: we classify Larsen and Petrosian as Nimzowitsch's followers, despite their playing styles being polar opposites. How's that? It's akin to naming Schlechter or even Tarrasch himself as the hypermodern players, along with Reti.
Well, that's what we do. And if we think about it, there's nothing terrible or even paradoxical in it. The ideas that once seemed extravagant have been recognized and become common. Perhaps that's the role of any bright individual? Once, such concepts as centralization, prophylaxis, overprotection, blockade etc. were just recipes of the eccentric Nimzowitsch. But now they are commonplace, we may even call them platitudes. Back then, those recipes were just peculiarities of Nimzowitsch's chess individuality, but now, they are taught to youngsters. And there's nothing unusual in that, everything is simple. Revelations, dawn-ups, inspirations, discoveries available only to the brightest and most gifted individuals are valuable precisely because they become common and increase the average level. And the next genius begins from this level.
...The last Russian-language edition of My System was published in 1930. Back then, it was prefaced by an introductory chapter that explained the basic rules of the game, written by the book's translator I.L. Maizelis. It seems that it was necessary at the time for the book to find its readers. Right now, the situation is different, and it's not needed... Almost everyone can play chess, and I state this with much delight.
I was glad to write this foreword. The foreword to a book of an interesting and original chess player, who's also my compatriot. (I'm glad even despite the fact that Nimzowitsch begins his book with a phrase, "To be honest, I don't like forewords.") Nimzowitsch as a chess player developed in the chess atmosphere of Riga; the very different playing style of yours truly also developed there.
They say that my compatriot was a very short-tempered, nervous, difficult, very impractical and unsettled man outside of chess. He didn't have a good grasp on people, on life, on evaluating the historical events and perspectives.
Nimzowitsch knew much more about chess than about the great social upheavals he witnessed.
But on the chess board and in chess literature, Nimzowitsch created outstanding, unforgettable works, and this is what defines his place in history for the Soviet players.
One of those works is before you.