Nikolai Zubarev, "On Chess Strength" (1932)

Nikolai Zubarev, "On Chess Strength" (1932)

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Part of a larger book On Qualification, explaining in greater detail the system that was put in place by the 7th All-Union Chess Conference in 1931.

On Chess Strength

The process of chess improvement is linked with many hardships and trials. "The chess struggle is full of failures and disappointments. Victory can only be the result of hard work." This is how Nimzowitsch views the fate of every chess player who wants to climb the ladder of chess qualification. Such disappointments will be especially hard for those young players who, after their first successes, look at their chess future through rose-tinted glasses, without anxieties and trials and, what's more, without necessary self-improvement work. We'd surely hear a lot of complaints from them about unfairness of their fate, randomness of their losses, etc.

Speaking of chess "strength", we should first of all remind ourselves that the process of chess struggle doesn't happen "outside time and space": it's confined in a certain framework, and the achieved results are only important within that framework. From the point of view of practical environment of a chess game, it's not useful, for instance, if you're able to calculate a complicated, multi-move combination, but spend twice as much time on these calculations than it's feasible in a serious game. Or who cares if you're unable to play at your maximum in a noisy tournament hall, or you don't have enough strength to play for five hours, as the tournament rules require? It's not important for the final result if you masterfully got through the complicated middlegame, got a won endgame, and then were unable to convert a simple ending that was analyzed in all the details on the pages of a handbook that you never bothered to read? And how many wins have been missed, despite the seemingly foregone conclusion, because of absentminded moves, momentary losses of concentration that nullify all the previous hours of hard work?

A modern chess player should possess a whole array of traits, both intellectual and physical. Only the combination of all these traits ultimately determines their chess strength. Let's dwell for a bit on the most important of these traits and try to first analyze the purely chess traits.

1. The ability to understand and correctly evaluate a chess position. Tactical talent

Both these traits are the basic foundation that allow to develop a true chess "strength". The question of how much these traits can be developed in a person who lacks natural chess abilities, or just an "average" person, it still moot. We think that chess talent is an inborn trait, and it would be wrong to assume that it coincides with mathematical talent, philosophical mindset or other special traits of human intelligence. Of course, the ability to understand the position and play combination can be taken to a high level through studying chess games and long training. Lasker, for instance, thinks that any average person who studies chess by his (Lasker's) system, can become a first category-strength player after 200 hours of work. But even if it is so, you still can't get better than average in this way, and for above-average achievements, you need talent in addition to assiduity.

The ability to notice and evaluate all the resources of a given position is the main requirement for any highly-qualified chess player. This evaluation often cannot be described by calculable parameters. Also, during a practical game, there's often no time or strength left for such an evaluation. Here, the subconscious intuition takes the front stage - the same one that's characteristic for great chess players; this trait is either inherent or developed with previous experience. This intuition guides the chess player in all their efforts over the chess board: execution of strategic ideas, positional plans or creating favourable tactical conditions. In short, this ability allows the chess player to look at the unfolding events with an eye of a strategist, separate the wheat from the chaff and go towards the intended goal.

From this point of view, tactical talent takes a supporting role, because only a combination that caps the whole process of preparation struggle and finishes a deep strategic idea is a sign of true mastery. But it would be wrong to think that a combination (i.e. a series of non-obvious, but forced moves that leads to a certain positive outcome) is some kind of a luxury. No, we can't imagine a chess master without tactical skills, and it's often necessary in the most crucial moments of the game.

While the described skills largely depend on individual traits of a given chess player, the second group of traits is more or less just a simple stock of chess knowledge, which can be acquired with some effort - sometimes quite a great one.

2. Opening theory knowledge

With the current high chess playing technique, it's hard to imagine that chess mastery could be achieved without substantial opening knowledge. This does not mean that one should study opening theory in all its diversity, but this means that you should study the openings at least enough to avoid getting caught by complete surprise by your opponent's opening move or series of moves. You can limit your studies to just a few openings, but you must always be able to redirect the flow of your game towards known lines. Even the top-class masters use such specialization - for instance, you may remember the Petroff, constantly used by Marshall, or Colle, who always uses his eponymous system in the Queen's Pawn Opening.

3. Middlegame knowledge

At this stage, the inborn positional understanding and tactical skills play more role than the developed one. The middlegame theory had not been studied enough, and we doubt that this stage of the game would be ever studied as deeply as the endgame. However, you still can study and analyze typical ideas, both positional and tactical. The study of the famous masters' games, the knowledge of classical examples of attack and defence - this is the "baggage" that can and should be accumulated by any chess player wishing to reach the heights of the chess art.

4. Endgame technique

This area is the easiest to study and develop almost comprehensively. Of course, we don't speak here about various unique endgames where creative elements are as necessary as in the middlegame. We mean the elementary piece relationships that often come up in practice. The knowledge of such endgames is a duty of every high-qualified chess player, and failures in this area cannot be excused by anything.

5. Analysis skills

This ability has only limited use in practicap play, even though it's a very important factor. By analysis skills in chess, we mean not only the ability to evaluate a given chess position, but also the ability to corroborate the evaluation with concrete lines, concrete series of moves that lead to a certain result. Unlike combination, analysis is often unforced, and so analysis usually covers much more possibilities, establishing only the general direction in which the game should continue to reach a certain goal. Also, the concepts of "beauty" and "subtlety", which are so characteristic for combinations, don't play an important role in analysis. Analysis is most useful when the possibilities of a certain position are limited - either in material or in freedom of movement of that material. Otherwise, the possibilities are so rich, the number of lines and counterlines is so great that any efforts to find concrete ways will lead to nothing.

The above makes it clear that the art of analysis is most useful either in the opening, when the strength and diverse potential of pieces aren't fully realized yet, or in the endgame, where there are few pieces on the board, and so the possibilities of play and counterplay are limited.

While intuitive evaluation doesn't require much time (an experienced chess player often needs just one glance to evaluate the position), analysis needs time - more or less, depending on how complicated is the position. This work is made substantially easier by the ability to actually move pieces on the board, create a conductive environment - comfortable, silent, etc. (Let's also point out the special ability of some analysts who are able to think the positions through without looking at the board, with a certain kind of self-delving; during this process, they see the possible move combinations even more clearly than at the board.)

Because of this, as we have already said before, during an over-the-board game, when thinking time is limited, analysis skills take a peculiar form, which can be very different from analysis "in general". That's why relatively weaker players sometimes turn out to be great analysts who enrich chess theory with their valuable discoveries.

Can you develop analysis skills, and if you can, then how? We think that analysis skills can be developed, at least to the level necessary for practical playing, by most players. Assiduity, parience and the will to reach the stated target - these are the elements necessary for any practical player who wants to develop their analysis skills. As a possible means to develop this skill, we especially recommend to take part in the so-called correspondence tournaments, where moves are sent by mail, and there's usually a lot of time to think on moves. Based on our own experience, we recommend beginner players to take part in such tournaments - not only for the purpose of developing analysis skills, but to study the laws of the game in general as well.

6. Problem and study solving

Problems and studies are the best means to study the characteristic traits of every chess piece. In practical games, these traits, both in attack and defence, manifest only rarely in comparison to studies and problems. The interaction of piece combinations can also be studied most easily there, which ultimately helps develop the ability to quickly evaluate the position, which, as was already said before, is very important for over-the-board playing. And from there, only one step is needed to study first elementary, and then more complicated combinations; studies and problems show the multi-faceted nature of combinations as clearly as chemical experiments show the properties of individual chemical elements.

"Studies refine, deepen and enrich the endgame knowledge", says A. Gerbstman, one of our prominent chess composers.

That's why a practical player who wants to be armed to the teeth in the upcoming battle has to dedicate some time to studies and problems as well.

Up until now, we only discussed the purely chess-related traits, which are completely necessary for high chess qualification. But, in addition to those traits, an over-the-board chess player should also possess some general physical and psychic traits. These include:

7. A healthy and physically robust body

The conditions of tournament and match playing require great physical strength and stamina. Just consider the recent Alekhine - Capablanca match, which was 34 games long, or any big tournament with 6 hour-long rounds every day, compounded by endless analysis of adjourned games. If we also remember that the period of increased chess activity also often results in sleep troubles or even insomnia, which interfere with normal recovery, it's easy to see that only a physically robust and healthy person can withstand such a strain without harming themselves or the results.

8. The will to win

This is the most important trait in any chess player's personality - or even in any fighter's personality, no matter the area. That's why we value chess not only as a sensible means of recreations, but also as a means to train and improve our willpower. It often happens in practice that a chess player who managed to develop this trait achieves better success than his opponent, who might be more talented but easily hurt by difficulties. This willpower plays a great role both during games and the entire tournament length. One bad move in the opening or a lost game in the beginning of the tournament may send a player into depths of despair, but serve as inspiration to others - for such players, the real battle begins only when they feel all the seriousness of the situation. Here, we can remember Alekhine, whose resistance level always increases after each failure, and his playing strength increases accordingly. The 1927 New York tournament, which had utmost importance for Alekhine as a world championship candidate, was very characteristic for him in this regard. After losing two games in a row at the beginning of the tournament - to Capablanca and Nimzowitsch - Alekhine kept his cool, never lost a game again and managed to take the second place, which amounted to confirm his challenge for Capablanca. Rubinstein, on the other hand, is his complete opposite. This giant of chess thought is easily affected by tournament failures and quickly loses the will and ability to fight on. In the 1925 Moscow tournament, for instance, Rubinstein was completely demoralized by his undeserved loss to Yates, which had a decisive effect on Rubinstein's further failures in the tournaments.

This lack of willpower occasionally forces players to prematurely drop out of tournaments after losing several games at the start. This is completely unacceptable for any chess player who wants to be a true fighter, especially for a Soviet player. Naturally, such decisions would be harshly rebuked by our chess organizations and chess society in the future.

9. Calmness and composure

In practical chess games, it often happens that the player with "better nerves" wins. There are probably no player who can completely avoid getting excited in the decisive stages of the game. This excitement, intrinsic to every player, is completely understandable if we remember that these moments often coincide with time trouble, the so-called Zeitnot. And here, the ability to keep your composure in the face of the unfolding events, which cannot be analyzed fully due to the lack of time, often turns into the decisive factor. The excessive haste in executing your ideas and plans is also inappropriate. Young, unexperienced players often suffer from this: a possibility to play a beautiful combination or win some material makes them lose their cool, then they make a mistake because of some hurried, poorly thought-out moves, and... lose! Even the most obvious moves sometimes entail unexpected subtleties (that's the beauty of chess!) that can completely overturn the situation and make you regret your rash decision.

So, on one hand, the ability to keep calm in the sharpest situations even in time trouble, and on the other hand, the ability to quietly analyze the simplest positions and moves - here are two qualities that are very valuable for a practicing chess player.

Other traits that define and form a chess player's qualification include the ability to manage their strength and time, to notice the changed situation on the board, to notice and exploit the psychological peculiarities and traits of the opponent, and some others.

The combination of all those factors - purely chess, physical and psychological - ultimately defines the playing strength, or qualification, of a player. All these traits can only compensate for each other for that much; a truly harmoniously developed player has to possess all of them, strive to develop and perfect them, and only this can open the way for the greatest chess achievements for them.

As a P.S. - an excerpt from the next chapter of the book, explaining why a norm system was chosen to award the categories and titles.

To discuss the possible introduction of awarding method, we should first define the objective ranges for individual groups in accordance to their chess strength, fill these ranges with concrete content and create competent organs that could take responsibility for putting each player into a certain category. If this isn't done, then the awarding method will be inevitably distorted, the lack of adequate criteria will lead to subjectivism and disruption of the entire qualification system - especially on the mass level, in far-off regions that might lack the qualified cadre able to objectively award categories and titles.

In addition to these, purely practical considerations, the awarding method, in our view, has another very serious, principal flaw. If we turn towards the objective evaluation of this or that player's artistic level of creativity, we inavoidably get detached from the practical conditions of the chess-playing process. All the integral parts of this process - the lack of desire to play the game, tiredness, inattentiveness, bad external conditions, blunders etc. - in other words, the whole complex of factors we discussed in the previous chapter is pushed aside by the awarding method, and instead of an average figures of tournament or match results, we take an abstract evaluation of a player's creativity level. We think that the main purpose of qualification is comprehensive evaluation of a chess player, which shows not only their purely chess capabilities, but their traits as a practical chess fighter as well. Otherwise, we'll inevitably steer towards the "pure chess art", the art for art's sake, which directly contradicts the very essence of the Soviet chess movement.