Review: Modern Ideas in Chess

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Review: The Caro-KannSometimes the big new titles from the big publishers get all the attention. It's true these are often great buys, but there's also the risk of overlooking little gems by smaller publishers. Or, as the great Italian philosopher Calimero used to say, "Life's so unfair when you're small".

Even though it's only 130 pages and looks decidedly modest in size, Modern Ideas in Chess by Richard Réti (1889-1929) is a real classic in chess literature. First published in 1923, Russell Enterprises recently published a "21st century" edition in English with figurine algebraic notation and a foreword by Andrew Soltis. I hadn't read the book before. I wish I had.

Modern Ideas in Chess is a compilation of 45 essays on the evolution of chess understanding from the mid-1850s until the 1920s. After almost ninety years, it is still as fresh and insightful as it was to contemporaries of the great Slowakian player. In fact, one of the reasons why the book still looks so modern is probably because of its compact size. Réti's style of analysing is also very sober and his prose quite imaginative. Most importantly, he had an incredibly sharp eye when observing the chess style of his great predecessors.

The book starts with some lucid chapters in praise of Paul Morphy, whom Réti saw as "the first positional player". For instance, he points out that in the following position after 5.Ng5, a move "Morphy would certainly never have made", players before Morphy often used to play 5...Ne5, because it looked attractive to protect the pawn at f7 and attack the bishop on c4 at the same time.

However, after 5...Ne5? 6.Bxf7+ Nxf7 7.Nxf7 Kxf7 8.Qh5+ g6 9.Qxc5 White has a clear advantage. Morphy, on the other hand, simply played 5...Nh6! and if White proceeds in similar fashion by taking on f7 and then picking up the bishop at c5,

The pawn at d4 is protected, as Morphy (in consequence of his developing move 5...Nh6) exchanged the otherwise undeveloped piece and not the already developed knight at c6. White has a bad game and the premature attack by 5.Ng5 is refuted.

Actually this example served as a good wake-up call to myself, since it made me realize chess is not about making nice moves, but about making good moves. (It's the rule I tend to forget most in chess.) It is a point Réti makes time and again in his essays. Here's another great example from his analysis of Morphy's fourth match game against Anderssen in 1858, which is also a good illustration of Réti's often original way of describing chess moves.

Anderssen - Morphy Paris (4) 1858

13.Nc3 Does Anderssen intend to make a developing move here? Certainly not. That it happens to be one is merely chance. It is essentially an attacking move which threatens 14.Nxd5, 15.Qd3, while 14.Qd3 can at once be parried by Black with 14...Nf6.

One of the things that make Réti's book such an entertaining read, even today, is his constant comparison between great players. This is something that isn't often seen those days. Kasparov, in his monumental My Great Predecessors series, explicitly says comparing players from the past is pointless because each great player contributed something valuable to the development of chess. This is in fact the same point of view Réti expresses in his book, but Réti doesn't shy away from comparing the great players with concrete examples, which is something Kasparov never does.

Steinitz-Chigorin Havana (4) 1892

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3

One sees here at once the difference between Morphy and Steinitz. The former was always anxious to press on at the earliest possible moment with d2-d4. Steinitz on the other hand does not want to break through the center, but is more concerned with buidling up for himself a strong position, to enable him subsequently to prepare an attack on the kingside.

Réti constantly comes back to the points he previously made, maintaining a clear line throughout the book. One of the highlights is the chapter on Capablanca. Probably my favourite fragment is where he describes a consultation game he once played together with the great Cuban. It proved to be a turning point in Réti's own development as a chess player.

Fähndrich & Kaufmann - Capablanca & Réti Vienna 1914

A position was arrived at here in which the opportunity presented itself to develop a hitherto undeveloped piece and indeed with an attack. The move 14...Re8 would have had that effect and was in accordance with the principles prevailing when I grew up and which correspond almost entirely with Morphy's principles (for he would without considering have chosen that move).

To my great astonishment Capablanca would not even consider the move at all. Finally he discovered the following maneuver by means of which he forced a deterioration of White's pawn position and thereby later on his defeat:

14...Bd4 15.Qd3 Bxc3 16.Qxc3 Ne4! 17.Qd4 g5 18.Ne5 Bf5

With this game began a revolution in my conviction as to the wisdom of the old principle, according to which in the opening every move should develop another piece. I studied Capablanca's games and recognized that contrary to all the masters of that period he had for some time ceased to adhere to that principle.

Réti goes on to explain that Capablanca, of course, also had to develop his pieces in order to carry out any plan at all, but that the difference lies in "those particular and unusual moves" which made Capablanca so vastly superior. Again, he doesn't shy away from comparing Capablanca's new technique with that of the older masters. The following position is from a well-known line in the Four Knights game.

Réti first shows how in a game Tarrasch-Lasker from 1908, White developed normally by means of 11.Bg5, which develops a piece and looks in accordance with everything we know about chess. But then he points out that

The essential element of the position is due to the center pawn formation at e4 and d6. By means of it White can get the knight on to the fifth rank and it would be well protected. In order to avail himself of that possibility Capablanca in same position [Capablanca-Fonaroff, New York 1918] played 11.Qc3 so as to land the knight on b5 via d4 on the favourable square f5.

(Interestingly, it seems that the move 11.Bg5 has prevailed after all, since it is by far the most popular choice in my database. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that last year, the strong Brazilian grandmaster Vescovi did play Capablanca's 11.Qc3. In the end, of course, Réti's point is not about the objective value of Qc3 over Bg5, but about Capa's creative - and revolutionary - vision.)

Réti's description of chess evolution brings him, naturally, to the Hypermodernists. Interestingly, here not all attention goes out to Alekhine automatically. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that Alekhine hadn't become World Champion yet at the time of Reti's writing. In fact, Réti attributes a lot of Alkehine's development of strength to Capablanca:

When Alekhine divided with Nimzowitsch the first prize at the all-Russian tournament of 1914, everybody said that he had been lucky. Alekhine's friendship with Capablanca, who went to Russia in 1914, marked a turning point in his chess career. During his intercourse with Capablanca, he learnt the latter's new technique, the lively dynamics of which suited Alekhine's disposition, and added a methodical groundwork to his originality, whereupon he was able to build still further.

But besides Alekhine, Réti also pays tribute to now lesser-known players such as Gyula Breyer, and the book contains very interesting and nuanced portraits of Akiba Rubinstein and Efim Bogolyubov. (More nuanced than Kasparov's, I'd say.) Réti's open-mindedness and constant self-reflection also shows in the following fragment on the youngest generation (which included young Max Euwe):

He who with inward struggles and frequent doubtings has co-operated in elaborating a new school of chess [i.e. Hypermodernism - AWM], experiences a remarkable feeling when he realizes how the younger masters, without trouble, and almost as a mattter of course, accept and make use of recent technical acquisitions as if such acquisitions had been merely presented or handed down to them.

Richard Réti

Tellingly, one of the very few fragments in the book from Réti's own games is a crushing loss against Bogolyubov (Berlin 1919). It's a pity that his own games and the impression he made on others are strangely absent from Modern Ideas in Chess. We have to be content with such marvellous quotes as:

The layman thinks that the superiority of the chess master lies in his ability to think out 3 or 4, or even 10 or 20, moves ahead. Those chess lovers who ask me how many moves I calculate in advance, when making a combination, are always astonished when I reply, quite truthfully, "as a rule not a single one."

It's only fair that history has given Richard Réti, who died at the age of 40, a firm place in Caissa's eternal Hall of Fame. His grand idea of chess as an ever developing science is still the foundation of every chess improvement book that appears on the market. But before buying those, you should read Modern Ideas in Chess.

Small in size though it may be, in importance it is enormous.


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