Aron Nimzowitsch's 'My System' - Review
Is this the most well known chess book in the world? Possibly. If it isn’t, it’s in the top five. The version in my possession is the 1991 21st Century Edition, edited by Lou Hays and with a foreword by the big man himself, Yasser Seirawan. Including everything in algebraic notation (meaning I don’t have to take a moment to wire myself into 5. Kt – KB3 and all of that faffing around) with hundreds of diagrams, you couldn’t actually want more from a chess book, especially one initially published around 85 years ago!
Seirawan’s foreword will probably come back to haunt me, as he himself mentions having to look it over several times before truly understanding it. I, myself, have only read it the once, and come to this review fresh with initial thoughts and feelings only. I’m not a grandmaster; I have not even a title to my name. I am simply a fan, and therefore probably the least qualified person to tread into the matter of this particular bit of literature.
Sod it; let’s have a punt, shall we?
People seem to regard this book as the key to chess. They seem to think that by reading and studying My System, one will instantly unlock the secrets of the game. This, in my opinion, is entirely the wrong way to go about it. My System is a training exercise, something you look over every now and then to make sure you’re still remembering to check for hanging pawns in your games.
There are dozens of instructive games referenced, and for the newcomer there are a few classics to pick up (The Opera Game, for example) that utilize the points Nimzowitsch is discussing. There’s no doubt that it’s packed full of content, not all of which is simply analysing lines. That’s the beauty of this book; it’s not simply an analysis of games, but a discussion of technique, of the building blocks and their application to the game. As the quote by Nimzowitsch on the cover says, ‘A thorough knowledge of the elements takes us more than half the road to mastership.’
Is this book completely comprehensive? Of course not. The section on endgame play is a discussion of important elements in the endgame, and for a thorough endgame study one should go to Dvoretsky or Silman. As Seirawan likes to point out, the concept of overprotection discussed in the book, is almost never something consciously thought of in actual play. Having been published in 1932 originally, there are lots of sections of this book which seem like they are skimming the surface compared to what we know and understand now thanks to greater analysis and the help of computers.
However, for its time, it was a remarkable feat. To step back and take the sections of play thematically, bit by bit, and dissect them for exactly how they were constructed, is something to be praised. MY SYSTEM, therefore, should not be regarded as ‘THE BOOK.’ It should instead be considered a stepping stone, the first, monumental step towards understanding what exactly a chess position is. There were books and studies before it, and there have been many since, but none of them did was Nimzowitsch did.
My System should be regarded as a lecture on chess theory that you attend. There are always some interesting lessons to gleam from it, many of which may enhance your play, but it is not going to gain you 700 rating points on Chess.com overnight, just as reading Stephen King’s book ON WRITING: A MEMOIR TO THE CRAFT is not going to turn you from someone who scribbles poems on a napkin whilst bored at a family meal, into an international bestseller overnight. It is simply a stepping stone, inviting you to think about your positional play just as he has done.
Put simply, MY SYSTEM is not the greatest book on how to analyse a chess position, but it is an example of the ways in which YOU can begin to understand how a chess position is constructed. He gives you the tools and some exemplary games. From there it is up to you to begin to build your own understanding of yourself.
Kieran Judge - TheBookSmuggler