Aron Nimzowitsch

On the Road to Chess Mastery 1886-1924

Jorn Erik Nielsen, Per Skjoldager

Reviewer: Donald K. McKim
456 pages, 88 photos, 10 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, indexes

The importance and influence of Aron Nimzowitsch (1886-1935) on modern chess is indisputable. Often known as the father of hypermodern chess, Nimzowitsch was world famous for his books and games. He was one of the world’s strongest players from the mid-1920’s to the early 1930’s.

The authors here have provided a splendid, meticulously researched volume on the first part of Nimzowitsch’s life. It serves as a critical biography as well as a repository of nearly four-hundred fifty of the Master’s games, most often annotated by Nimzowitsch himself. The result is a substantial reference volume which traces Nimzowitsch’s life chronologically, while also providing a treasury of charts, drawings and photographs to bring this intriguing chess master into contemporary understanding. No detail which can be established has been overlooked by Skjoldager and Nielsen who have scoured and found tax records, apartment records, newspaper accounts, archives, and letters, making this an authoritative work which provides a much needed narrative for which chess historians will be deeply appreciative.

The young Nimzowitsch was born into a family of Jews in Riga, Latvia. His father was a successful wood merchant who was also a strong chess player. Aron learned chess from his father when he was eight years old and when he was ten, his first game appeared in print. After achieving a certificate from the University of Gönningen in 1903, Nimzowitsch entered his first tournament in Coburg in 1904 where he finished in sixth place.

Buoyed, Nimzowitsch traveled to Nürnberg where he sought out Siegbert Tarrasch, then at the height of his powers as the arch-apostle for “positional play” along classical lines. Nimzowitsch was intrigued by “combinations” which led him into inevitable conflict with the opinionated Tarrasch, whom he called his “enemy.” Nimzowitsch wrote that they had a “profound antagonism in the ideological area” and that “if it had not been for a feeling of hostility towards Tarrasch, I would never have learned to play chess properly” (23). Conflicts continued through the years, highlighting their very real differences.

Nimzowitsch’s rise as a tournament player, making his living here and there as a chess journalist, lecturer, and player of simultaneous exhibitions is chronicled through the following years. He did well at Karlsbad (1907; fourth), San Sabastian (1911; seventh) and Karlsbad (1911; sixth) followed by a second, behind Rubinstein, at the Second International tournament at San Sebastian in winter 1912.

The development of Nimzowitsch’s distinctive ideas was progressing. In 1913, he reviewed Tarrasch’s book, The Modern Chess Game. As a counter, Nimzowitsch was developing “The New System,” a lecture on which is included here (210ff.). Nimzowitsch (along with Réti, Tartakower, and Breyer) in reaction to the classic emphasis on obtaining control of the center (Tarrasch), developed the “hypermodern” approach, which according to Nimzowitsch had three fundamental theses: “(a) The flexible [dynamic] center; (b) The non-danger of an opponent’s advancing pawn chain; (c) The weakness of a complex of squares with the same color” (218-219).

Gradually, a number of important openings emerged, based on these theses, including the Nimzo-Indian Defense, Réti’s Opening, Catalan Opening, Nimzowitsch Defense and others. Today, according to the authors, “it appears that Hypermodernism” is “largely equivalent to the main discovery of the century: that the center can be controlled with distant pieces. This makes Nimzowitsch the father of the Hypermodern School and in this light we should like to repeat the famous dictum oft ascribed to Teichmann: ‘In the first place there is no Hypermodern School, and in the second place Nimzowitsch is its founder’” (219).

Nimzowitsch tied with Alekhine in the All-Russian Tournament of Masters in St. Petersburg in January 1913 and finished eighth in the Grandmaster Tournament, the last major event before the beginning of The Great War.

The German army overran Lithuania and large portions of Latvia in 1915. The Nimzowitsch family business came to a halt. After briefly serving in the Russian army (1916-1917), Nomzowitsch returned to the family home, endured German rule in 1918 (while also, it seems, serving in some capacity in the Landeswehr, the Baltic Germans military unit [262]), and began as editor for twenty four chess columns in the newspaper, Baltische Zeitung while also giving simultaneous chess exhibitions. The Bolsheviks entered Riga in December 1918. But the city was eventually liberated by anti-Bolshevik forces on May 22, 1919.

By summer 1920, Nimzowitsch was branching out. He headed for Sweden where he participated in the Göteborg tournament, the first major tournament after the war which featured significant players. He had a bad tournament and finished twelfth, not having had tournament practice during the last six years. He followed this with a three month Swedish tour from January-March 1921, games in Norway, and a second Swedish tour in January-March 1922. Nimzowitsch would typically travel by train, give an evening lecture on his chess system at the local chess club using a his demonstration chess board, to be followed by playing twenty-five simultaneous games against assembled players. The next day he would give private instructions to those who wished to learn. Then he was off to his next stop. Thanks to the authors, we have a chart listing the lecture topics and the results of Nimzowitsch’s chess matches for these periods (306, 330-331).

Nimzowitsch came to settle in Denmark, having toured there from April to June 1922 and amassing a record of losing only twenty-six games in the over 580 he played. In the next years he continued to tour with his lectures and exhibitions while also submitting articles to various newspapers. This volume ends with Nimzowitsch organizing a tour to Norway for January 1925. The peculiarities of character that marked this unique figure occur throughout this volume. These include Nimzowitsch’s belief that a certain waiter was trying to poison him; his long-standing conviction that with any dinner party in a restaurant, his food portion was inevitably the smallest; and his vehemence against smoking being done while he engaged in playing. But Skjoldager and Nielsen have uncovered a sketch of Nimzowitsch made during a tournament in Copenhagen (1923), which shows the chess player with a cigarette in his mouth. They also found a 1935 letter from Nimzowitsch’s younger brother, Benno, which asserts Aron was a diligent smoker “when he was young,” but that he had given up smoking due to health problems. The authors’ conclusion is that “like many other ex-smokers, Nimzowitsch then developed a strong dislike for tobacco smoke” (369).

This attractively produced volume is the most comprehensive treatment available of Nimzowitsch’s life and work up to 1924. A second volume is promised. This one unravels a number of historical questions about Nimzowitsch’s biography and uncovers numerous sources that provide as full as possible a picture of this chess genius. This book will take an esteemed place in chess literature and is gratefully received.