La Superiorite Aux Echecs: The first chess book of endgame theory by van Zuylen van Nyevelt
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La Superiorite Aux Echecs: The first chess book of endgame theory by van Zuylen van Nyevelt

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Back in 1792 in Kampen Netherlands a unique anonymous chess book was published. The first print was in French under the title: "La Superiorite aux Echecs: Mise a la portee de tout le monde, et particulierement des Dames qui aiment cet amusement", with a subtitle "du bon sens!". The same book was translated in Dutch and released the same year with the title "Het Schaakspel". It was accompanied with 8 plates of totally 300 chess diagrams. As author was considered the Dutch general Philippus Julius Baron van Zuylen van Nyevelt.

The book was reprinted several times. A nice incident was that even after many years (1851) there were people searching for a copy, while seem that the plates were difficult to find (check De Navorscher, 1851, p. 250 & 340).

Here's a gif with some images by the book, for a first clue.

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The book was regarded highly enough the next years by the rest chess authors. First Johann F. W. Koch included it in his Codex der Schachspielkunst (Magdeburg 1813-15) as the first chapter before Stein, Philidor and Greco. George Walker said in his New Treatise on Chess (3rd ed. 1841) that "... is the best ever published as to the elements of the game", while Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa in his Bilguer's Handbuch des Schachspiels (1843) had written that it was really useful but not for the experienced chess player. Finally Wlliam Lewis based his Elements of Chess (1822) almost exclusively on this book.

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The book explains for the first time the basics of chess.

Opening theory

It has no opening theory, as, according to the author, it is annoying and sometimes is giving advantage to inferior players. Instead the author proposes, possibly for the first time, the idea of shuffle chess arranged by lottery.

Specifically, in the preface, he proposes to mark a number (from 1 to 8) at the bottom of each pawn and set up the chessboard at the initial position. Each number corresponds to a specific square obviously (1 to queen's rook etc). Each player pick up an opponent's pawn and the number at its bottom indicates a switch, eg. you pick up the king's knight's pawn (that corresponds to position 7) and indicates number 3 (that corresponds to queen's bishop), so you switch the knight with the bishop. If the number is the same (eg. you pick up king's knight's pawn and has n. 7), you can remove them out of play. These switches happen to both sides of the chessboard at the same time. With the same way you can arrange pawns positions too (1-2 steps, doubled etc). There were no castling rules and no limitations for bishops' color and kings between rooks, as in 960 chess.

Around 1840s & 1850s Baron van der Hoeven (author's nephew) tried to acquaint and spread this kind of chess in Netherlands and elsewhere. He played some games against Alexandre (Palamede 1842, v. II, p. 62) and und der Lasa (Schachzeitung 1851, p. 331). Und der Lasa had expressed the opinion that the theoretical background matters and that the stronger player will manage to connect the distant pieces (Schachzeitung 1851). But in his Bilguer's Handbuch des Schachspiels (1843, p. 365) had written that these positions may cause uninteresting games. Van der Hoeven also arranged in Amsterdam a tournament in 1852 (Sissa 1853 and 1854), in which participated 8 players and van 't Kruis won.

Here are two games of this kind [chess "a la van der Hoeven"].

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From Sissa 1854, p. 263. Position of the above game after 19th move

Chess tools

At first the book describes the power of the pieces and some basic chess tools, like sacrificing, making space, discovering, x-ray attacks etc. Here're nine puzzles included in the book, most easy I think.

#1 White to win in 4

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#2 White to win in 4

When examining the next position it felt a little spooky, as I bumped into this chess.com tactic. Of course solved it at once...

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#3 White to win in 2

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#4 White to win in 2

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#5 White to win in 3

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#6 White to win in 2

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#7 White to win in 3

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#8 White to win in 2

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#9 White to win in 3

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Mini battles

Can't know if the author's personality had something to do with it, but the book's dealing with many mini battles, like endgames, even without the presence of the kings, like B vs P + N, etc. And especially pawn battles. K vs 2-3Ps, N vs 2Ps, B vs 2Ps, 2Ps vs 2Ps categorized in different set ups. Here're some conclusions in diagrams about pawns extracted from the book.

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I think that even a not so good chess player [like me] can figure out what's going on with these pawn battles and find the solution easily enough without studying them before, but this knowledge seems to be basic. And perhaps in really quick games, may be proved useful in order to decide quick exchanges and clearing the board.

Here's a relative puzzle from the book.

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This Morpy vs Bird game convinced me about the usefulness of all these.

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My contribution to these happy.png:

I've made some diagrams-puzzles with 3 vs 3 pawns and 4 vs 4 pawns. Try them.

#1. 3 vs 3 pawns

In this setup second to play wins. White has just played 1. f4...

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#2. 4 vs 4 pawns

In these setups first to play wins.

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The King

Maybe it was the first time that the king's activity and especially the king opposition was explained in theory for over 30 pages.

Very interesting is also a motto found in the book:

"Comme le roi est une trés forte piece, il ne faut pas le tenir oisif, pour peu que l' occasion s' offre de l' employer utilement & sans suites dangereuses. Sur la fin des parties les rois jouent un si grand róle, qu' il importe infiniment de favoir au juste le parti qu'on en peut tirer & c'est dequoi vous devez tacher d' être instruit parfaitement." (p. 32).

Even if it's written that the king is a strong piece generally (200 years before Fine), it's obvious, from the rest of the motto and the general approach of the book, that is referring mainly to endgames. Probably after Ponziani who was possibly the first to write in theory something like that few years earlier (1769).

"Ma quanto è pericoloso l' avere il Re esposio fra molti pezzi, altrettanto lo è il dimenticarselo a casa in fine di giuoco, dove la battaglia sia ridotta fra le Pedone." (Domenico Canonico Ponziani, Il giuoco incomparabile degli scacchi, Modena 1769, p. 40).

Must be said that Elias Stein 3 years earlier had also underlined in theory the utility of K in endgames, especially for supporting the pawn promotion.

"Le succès d' une partie, où il n'y a plus ou gueres de pieces sur jeu, dépend ordinairement de la manœuvre des Rois; parcequ' en tel cas, c'est la piece la plus propre à soutenir les pions qu'on voudra pousser à Dame." (Elias Stein, Nouvel essai sur le jeu des echecs, Haye (Hague) 1789, p.204).

About the author

As already said, the book was published anonymously. First was in the Neue allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (Berlin 1803, v. 76, p. 515-516) that the name of general Phillipus Julius baron van Zuylen van Nyevelt was indicated as the author of the book ("...wie Rec. aus zuverlässiger quelle weiß"). This was repeated by Koch in his Codex and all other chess writers after.

Although wasn't officially confirmed by the general, wasn't also declined. And taking in account that the general was a well known educated man, lived in the French Napoleonic empire (Germany was a kind of part too), lived in Kampen in 1792, was a chess player and died over 20 years later, there's no reason to doubt about it.

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Photo from painting (1815), found in arves

Philip Julius Baron van Zuylen of Nyevelt (5th January 1743 - Utrecht, 20th of February 1826), studied in Leyden (possibly maths) from 1762 to 1767. In 1767 he joined dragoons as a cornet. At about 1787 he retired the army and rejoined in 1795, probably due to political reasons. These years were intense in Netherlands with the defeat in the 4th Anglo-Dutch war of 1780-1784 and the patriot period (1780- 1787). During the next Anglo-Russian invasion in 1799, he took part at the very first battle of Callantsoog (27/8/1799 - just right after Anglo-Russians had landed) as magor general, where he was injured. After these he took active part in the politics, in the parliament of the batavian republic, then near king Louis (of France), earning many titles and distinctions. Greater of them was his selection as a Dutch senator (1 of 6) in the First French empire, by which he earned the title of the Count. Finally, after the recovery of the Dutch independence in 1813, he rested. In 1819 he published a book (with his name this time) under the title "L' Attraction détruite par le Mouvement Primordial". He died on 20th of February 1826 in Utrecht, just a year after his elder son (Pieter Hendrik) died near him.

[main sources for these: an article in Algemeen Handelsblad of 01-12-1851 by the president of a chess club under his name in Zwolle  -  Maison de Zuylen by J. Gailliard, 1863  -  Nederland's Adelsboek 1910, p. 566  -  Geschiedenis der landing... by Volk, v.I  -  Geschiedenis van het Regiment Nederlandsche Rijdende Artillerie by van Sypesteyn, 1852]

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By Dirk Langendijk (1799), The landing of British troops at Callantsoog.

His grandson Julius van Zuylen van Nijevelt, [conservative Dutch politician and prime minister of Netherlands during 1866-1868] writes about him [in Nederlandse historische bronnen 2, p. 219] that was "a little man with powdered hair and piercing black eyes, very pleasant and cheerful". He also mentions his grandfather's patriotic beliefs.

Quite a man!

Some strange things about this book

There are some differences between the first french and dutch editions of the book. But not on chess...

1. Firstly the title. In the dutch edition there's no reference about women that love chess!

2. Then, in the end of the preface of the french, right after the description of shuffle chess there's a request to the readers for helping perfecting this work.

Specifically: "Je finis en priant messieurs les amateurs de m'aider par leurs lumieres a perfectionner mon travail. Je leur en fournirai le moyen, quand je n'aurai plus de raisons de garder l' anonyme." This doesn't exist in the dutch edition.

3. In the chapter about king's opposition is inserted an extended chapter (p. 107- 158), as a footnote, under the title "trois grands maux curables par trois grains de bon sens" [three great evils curable by three grains of common sense].

First is the evil of nerves. He proposes to the "sick", every morning, after waking up, to stay totally alone about 1 hour and calm down, for about 2-4 weeks. And he's asking, by those who would try it, to make the results public.happy.png

Then, it is war. After giving detailed information and advice about how to use guns etc, he wonders "Mais pourquoi la guerre?".

In the same subchapter there's the following phrase: "Unissons nous donc tous pour la plus grande & la plus juste entreprise qui fut jamais. Qu'on n'entende qu'un qu'un cri en Europe & daigne le répéter avec nous, ó toi, sexe charmant, a qui la guerre coute tant d'inquiétudes & de larmes. Paix universelle et perpetuelle, plus de guerre a jamais."happy.pnghappy.pnghappy.png

Finally it's theology, that must not be confused with religion. No comment.

All these are in the french but not in the dutch edition of the same year.

It's obvious that he's addressing to someone. Isn't it? Someone french speaking.

Maybe it was just a mistake, a confusion among manuscripts to print. Really less possible, as this term "bon sens" is repeated twice, on the front page as well as in the title of this unfamiliar chapter.

Is he addressing to a woman, cause of the title? But then wouldn't he address to "madames", too, along with "messieurs" in the end of the preface?!

Then these three evils. The second has really a political background [even through irony]. You can check the history of Netherlands at the time. If it was something like "people, be prepared for war" then why only in French and why the previous chapter of the nerves??

I don't know if I'm a fantasist but I think that he must had won some great chess player, and he was somehow bragging. And the rest of it was some kind of irony.

And then I remembered Elias Stein...

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An assumption

Stein, in 1789, published in French his "Nouvel essai sur le jeu des echecs, avec des reflexions militaires relatives a ce jeu", Haye (Hague) 1789, in which some van Zuylen van Nyevelt is a subscribrer!

Elias Stein was maybe one of the best chess players in Europe at the time. And he was the chess teacher of William V, Prince of Orange, and his sons, William I of the Netherlands and Prince Frederick of Orange-Nassau.

Additionally, although F. von Mauvillon, in his Anweisung zur Erlernung des Schachspiels (1827) considers Stein undefeated, there are sources that suggest the opposite concerning the general van Nyevelt [check the article in Algemeen Handelsblad of 01-12-1851 & in arves.org with info taken by Endgame study composing in the Netherlands and Flanders, 1992, by Jan van Reek and Henk van Donk).

And then Stein's book was printed only in French, had this subtitle about "reflexions militaires" and about opening theory suggested a new response to 1. d4, 1... f5, what we call Dutch Defense!!!

[These "reflexions militaires" was something like "Supposez le moment de ranger une armée en bataille..." etc. Maybe a relative excerpt is found on p. 206: "Si vous avez une supériorité, qui doive vous valoir le gain de la partie, il vous faut éviter de fournir occasion à votre adversaire de vous donner des échecs perpétuels , ou avoir soin de faire manœuvrer votre Roi pour le mettre à l' abri des échecs qu'il reçoit de l'adversaire, qui pourrait faire, par le sacrifice de sa Dame ou de sa tour, que son Roi se trouvât alors Pat."]

I don't know but everything fit. Maybe was about Stein or some prince student of his...

But in any case a useful book was published and it was fun for me searching and gathering all these.

Little appendix: Dutch Defense by Elias Stein

Here's how appeared the opening for the first time by Stein. Must be said that Tarrasch rejected the opening as unsound in his Game of Chess (1931, p. 348), proposing as reply Staunton Gambit combined with f3 [Lasker' s move - probably had Lasker vs Pillsbury 1900 1-0 in mind. But check Nimzowitsch variation too] or Steinitz's move, included in the pgn [Steinitz's move variation has mainly Stonewall elements for black]

[edit 2/7/2018: here they were following some pgns of great games played with dutch defense, not commented, just trying to show how the opening was working from first play and for a century. So there was no actual reason for their posting. For the record some of them were: Harrwitz vs Morphy 1858 0-1, Steinitz vs Chigorin 1892 1-0, Maroczy vs Chigorin 1896 0-1, Gruenfeld vs Tartakower 1922 1/2-1/2, Flohr vs Botvinnik 1933 0-1]

Forgive my opening theory concernshappy.png