My System

with The Blockade and other writings

Aron Nimzowitsch

Reviewer: John Watson
e+Chess Books

This column is a sort of continuation of my last (on Chess Praxis), in that it discusses another e+chess book, Robert Sherwood’s translation of Aron Nimzowitsch My System, The Blockade, and essay “On the History of the Chess Revolution 1911-1914.” For a description of e+books and its products, refer to my review of Chess Praxis. This e+books edition of My System and The Blockade is brand-new: please note that I’m working with a pre-publication version; the book is still listed as “forthcoming” on e+book’s website, but will be available very soon. The book features 159 numbered games and game excerpts, with additional examples to illustrate major concepts. It has 547 diagrams in the main text, with numerous others in The Blockade and the “Revolution” article. There are also some nice photographs of major and minor chess figures of the time.

The biggest advantage of using this electronic edition is the capability of playing through the moves as you read (see my Chess Praxis review). This can make the difference between browsing and true appreciation. I won’t argue with those who prefer to hold a physical book in their hands, since I share that inclination myself. But suffice it to say that ebooks and particularly book apps (which tend to be far more technically advanced) are expanding our options of how to learn from and enjoy such classics.

The Nimzowitsch Style

My System is of course one of the great masterpieces of chess literature, compulsory reading for generations of players. Although the author’s Foreword is dated 1925, the complete book as we know it now was written in a series of 5 installments ending in 1927 (not counting revisions). Nimzowitsch clearly intended for it to summarize what he considered a new theory of play, one which had not “come into being all of a sudden but has developed slowly and gradually.” In that respect, this is a very serious and ambitious book, but at the same time the author often opts for a lively and humorous tone, arguing that, “Real humor often contains more inner truth than the most earnest seriousness. For my part, I am a declared adherent of using parallels with comic effect; I am therefore ready to call upon the experiences of everyday life to make comparisons in order in such a way to reach a clear understanding of complex chess events.”

Sherwood notes that, “Nimzowitsch makes a conscious effort to be clear and helpful, and often exudes a human warmth toward the reader that the more technical and bloodless renderings of his work fail to convey. Nimzowitsch is an interesting guy. He is profound, emotionally sensitive to the point of an almost dangerous vulnerability, refuses to suffer fools gladly, despises provincialism and dogma, and feels it his mission to penetrate into the inner truth of chess out of a deeply felt respect for the authenticity of that truth.” Hence the difficulty of translating this work. I’m not going to open old wounds by renewing my complaints about the most recent previous translation, but I strongly prefer this one for its legibility, grammatical accuracy, and obvious intelligence. In addition, and importantly, Nimzowitsch’s earthiness, humour, and downright eccentricity have been retained from the original German. In contrast to others, Sherwood doesn’t constantly simplify or alter Nimzowitsch’s language, and thus avoids sterilizing the best passages.

A Conceptual Framework for the Ages

If you don’t read My System until after you’ve become an experienced player, you may initially feel disappointed that the material is elementary and almost self-evident. Yes, the center. Yes, open files, the seventh rank, how to treat the pawn chain, doubled pawns, isolated pawns, and so forth. We know all that. But this is itself revealing. If we feel that his ideas are obvious and his suggested techniques routine, we are paying Nimzowitsch a great compliment, because many of these various concepts and techniques were unfamiliar to the chess public when Nimzowitsch first systematized his thought (as well as to experienced masters). Several core ideas didn’t even have names yet. More importantly, no one had outlined in detail when and how the relevant factors played out, for example, doubled pawns were a familiar problem, but Nimzowitsch analysed the consequences of many different types of doubled pawns with their advantages, disadvantages, and ideal treatments. Similarly, he demonstrated the techniques for exploiting the 6th, 7th, and 8th ranks; and did the same for hanging pawns. He famously constructed a theory of pawn chains, and showed both how to use them to advantage and how to undermine them. Nimzowitsch’s explication of these subjects is detailed and insightful. His lengthy explanation of passed pawns and their blockaders brought the complexities of this aspect of play to light for the first time. Furthermore, the very naming and conceptualization of prophylaxis and overprotection owes itself to Nimzowitsch. It seems remarkable now, but most of this was new at the time. Naturally, the world’s elite players employed and understood most of the techniques in My System, but they weren’t part of the everyday consciousness as were, for example, development, space, and the centre.

Putting together and describing all this took a massive amount of concentrated work, and rendering it readable (even entertaining) is all the more impressive. Nimzowitsch himself indicates the extent of the challenge when he describes how difficult it was, in spite of a lifetime of chess experience, to describe these phenomena (including ones he had considered elementary before digging into their complexities):

“In many places I have provided a schema so as to make the mental edifice clear in a visible way. I took this step for pedagogical reasons as well as on the grounds of personal safety, for otherwise the mediocre critics—there are such people—would be able or willing to see only the individual details but not the wider ramifications of the conceptual framework that forms the real content of my book. The individual items, especially in the first installment, are seemingly very simple—but that is precisely what is meritorious about them. Having to reduce the chaos to a certain number of rules involving inter-connected causal relations, that is just what I think I may be proud of. How simple the five special cases in the play on the seventh and eighth ranks sound, but how difficult they were to educe from the chaos! Or the open files and even the pawn chain! Naturally each new installment was more difficult to think through as the book progressed. But this increasing difficulty I did not hold before me as, say, an armor to protect myself against attacks from light-caliber critics.”

This preoccupation with criticism appears in much of Nimzowitsch’s writing, reflecting both his justifiable frustration with it and his personal isolation.

There’s much more to say about the contents My System, of course. Not everything in it has stood the test of time, but even that is a reason to read this masterpiece. Put simply, it throws the fundamental issues of chess play into relief. Not only in the years leading up to it, but right up to the present time, very few books have even attempted to enter this complex territory, and certainly not on such a grand scale. To give Nimzowitsch the final word: “My book will have its defects—I was unable to illuminate all the corners of chess strategy—but I am persuaded that I have written the first true textbook of chess and not merely of the openings.”

The Blockade

Appendix Two in the e+ book app is the boolet/extended essay The Blockade. This was Nimzowitsch’s first effort to put into writing a detailed description of a basic element of chess. It deals with what happens when a piece blockades a pawn, whatever the situation, and includes an extremely detailed description of the process by which passed pawns are created and their handling by both sides. This goes beyond the process of directly blockading pieces to the nature of pawn majorities in general. I believe the word “candidate” was first coined by Nimzowitsch in this essay. That is the particular pawn in a pawn majority which is the most likely prospective passed pawn (Nimzowitsch whimsically gives this pawn the academic title ‘Herr Kandidat’). He first explains the significance of the pawn majority and the candidate, famously discussing the passed pawn’s “lust to expand”. The greater part of his essay, however, is devoted the idea of restraint and blockade as ways of defending against the pawn majority and passed pawn. Incidentally, almost exactly one hundred years later, I’m fairly sure that nobody since has ever significantly advanced the theory of the blockade, at least not explicitly in an article or book. That’s quite a tribute to Nimzowitsch’s effort, which is not to say that modern players haven’t developed a deeper understanding of when and how a blockade is effective (or when it is not even worth aiming for).

As is the case with Chess Praxis and My System, the most instructive parts of The Blockade consist of examples, in particular whole games whose themes range well beyond restraint and blockade. Apart from thorough discussions of opening and middlegame strategy, they very often show (again as in Praxis) how to systematically exploit and convert advantages in the late middlegame and ending. In his “Addendum,” Nimzowitsch analyses 9 of these games in great detail. Thus this has general training value in addition to education about a specific subject.

Chess Revolution

Appendix One of the book app is Nimzowitsch’s lengthy essay entitled “On the History of the Chess Revolution 1911-1914.” This consists of a brief introduction and then a reproduction of his famous article entitled: “Is Dr. Tarrasch’s Modern Chess Really a Modern Conception of the Game?” previously published in the Austrian periodical Wiener Schachzeitung. Following that, Nimzowitsch expands upon that with what he calls “the revolutionary practice” of his “revolutionary theory,” treating us in two sections to a broad selection of his games ending in a discussion of the “post-revolutionary” years 1914-1926.

In the introduction to his essay, Nimzowitsch voices with a complaint (probably exaggerated) about the reception of his ideas in the years up to and following this article: “There would be no point in recording all the scorn and derision directed at me during this period, or even in pointing it out. Suffice it to say that no one in the whole history of chess has been subject to such abuse. I was rewarded for my new ideas with invective and at best a systematically practiced silence.”

Some of the published exchanges in the 19th century chess press (by Steinitz and Staunton, for example) were arguably more vituperative (and even slanderous), but in any case Nimzowitsch never got over this rejection and retained a mistrust, not only of the chess media but of the professional chess community in general. He does make an attempt to stay above the fray in this case, beginning with the statement that he is not engaged in polemic. But since the Tarrasch article, polemical in the extreme, uses up about half of the essay, that’s a bit ingenuous.

I think that this article is a good example of how Nimzowitsch was often overenthusiastic or simply wrong about particular claims, specifically, about particular positions in the opening, even though he was right about the overall direction that chess theory would take. Here are a few examples from this essay, and there are numerous others in My System and The Blockade. Note that many of these overlap with his opposition to Tarrasch:

1. Nimzowitsch puts forth his novelty 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 as representing the correctness of his new theories, but it never caught on, and modern theory is pessimistic about Black’s chances.

2. In the Ruy Lopez, Tarrasch judgment that several of the lines with a combination of …d6 and …exd4 are inferior corresponds with modern theory. But Nimzowitsch is a great fan of the surrender of the centre defends takes umbrage at such “dogmatism” on the part of his arch-enemy.

3. He criticizes Tarrasch for “ignoring completely” the French Defence variation 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 (‘!’ – Nimzowitsch), criticizing Tarrasch’s “colorless continuation” 4…Bd7, when “the only correct move is of course 4…Nd7!” Not that far from the truth, perhaps, but 4…Bd7 (the ‘Fort Knox’) has certainly been played by many grandmasters. And Nimzowitsch’s claim that “3.Nc3 is faulty due to 3…dxe4!” obviously hasn’t held up. Nor that 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.exd5 exd5 (4…Nxd5 is also playable) 5.Bg5 is particularly strong.

4. Nimzowitsch’s repeated claims of advantage for the White side of the Advance Variation of the French Defense are not shared today, especially after the somewhat dubious 3.e5 c5 4.Qg4; whereas his 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Bd3 cxd4 7.cxd4 Bd7 8.Be2 is simply inferior for White, a tempo down on the already difficult main line. Again, this position was played in a Nimzowitsch-Tarrasch game which the author proudly cites, saying that “it is probably not all that difficult to maneuver well if one has a complete system to fall back on.”

5. In the Queen’s Gambit Declined, Nimzowitsch unsurprisingly condemns 3…c5 (the Tarrasch Variation), which he calls “insufficiently energetic” and questions whether anyone could possibly be tempted to play it (Spassky and Kasparov leap to mind), while 3…Nf6 is held to offer “a free and easy game in which one can achieve a safe development, a solid game, and a powerful initiative.” In the long run, 3…Nf6 has indeed dominated practice, but the characterizations about energy and initiative could be reversed.

6. Regarding the Scandinavian Defence (1.e4 d5), Nimzowitsch contends that the game Rubinstein-Bernstein, San Sebastian 1911 ‘demolished 1…d5 thoroughly and for all time!’ Ironically, Bent Larsen, for whom Nimzowitsch was somewhat of a hero, did a lot to revive it, and today Black plays several versions of this defense.

And so forth. It’s a common phenomenon that geniuses are wrong about particulars, sometimes absurdly so, but nevertheless make contributions of the greatest importance and originality. You could say this about any number of famous scientists as well as figures such as Freud and Marx. Nimzowitsch sometimes falls into this category. His fundamental insights into the game are part and parcel of our thinking today, whereas his opening experiments and various too-dogmatic generalizations are no longer relevant.

In conclusion, for those who haven’t read them, I recommend My System and the associated works in this book app as strongly as I do any other chess book. We no longer consider many classics to be essential to a chess education, not since the Internet; but if there’s an exception, Nimzowitch’s work is it. In my opinion, the e+chess format is perfect for this material, especially because you can play through the moves at the same time as you enjoy Nimzowitsch’s commentary. That additional feature might well tempt even those already familiar with My System, Chess Praxis, and The Blockade to read them again.