On the Origin of Good Moves

A Skeptic's Guide to Getting Better at Chess

Willy Hendriks

Reviewer: John Donaldson
New In Chess
432 pages

On the Origin of Good Moves by Willy Hendriks is a fascinating book that explains how chess has developed, not repeating the numerous myths passed from generation to generation as gospel truth. To this required taking a fresh look at the great players of the past from Greco to Steinitz. 

Chess historians, with a few exceptions, are not strong enough players to do this sort of work. The only attempt by a FIDE titled player prior to Hendricks may be Jeremy Silman’s pioneering effort back in 2016. The Dutch IM has carefully examined the works of the pioneers from the good, to the bad and the ugly – not making sweeping generalizations from a small sample of cherry-picked examples.

To give but one example, Adolf Anderssen has traditionally been considered a swashbuckling attacker of the romantic era. Paul Morphy, on the other hand, is often called one of the fathers of modern positional chess. The only problem, as Hendriks discovered, is that in games between the two, Anderssen often outplaying Morphy positionally only to lose to a tactic. There is no question Morphy was considerably stronger than Anderssen, but positional chess is not where he dominated. 

Like Lakdawala in the previous review, and first pointed out by John Nunn in his Chess Puzzle Book (where he compares Carlsbad 1911 and Biel 1993), Hendriks is a firm believer that chess players today are much stronger tactically than their predecessors. The examples he shows from the last half of the 19th century, Morphy excepted, make it hard to argue with this assessment.

One old timer who gets his due in On the Origin of Good Moves is Louis Paulsen. The German master, who lived for a number of years in the United States, has of a line in the Sicilian named after him (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6), but his contributions to the royal game go way beyond this. As Hendriks points out he, may have been the first player to appreciate the two-bishop advantage in the endgame, as Hannah-Paulsen, London 1962, was played eleven years before the often-cited Rosenthal-Steinitz example. 

Paulsen was on the wrong side of the game with Morphy (New York 1857) where the latter anticipated the Hedgehog idea …Kh8, …Rg8, …g5, first pointed out in the early 1970s by Andy Soltis in his book on Morphy co-authored with Fred Reinfeld. Paulsen had the excuse this was one of four games he was playing blindfold simultaneously. Morphy was also playing blindfold when he discovered this great plan. This must have been a rather odd event!

The only other paean to Paulsen’s contributions that I’m aware of is Imre Konig’s series of hard to find articles in The Chess Correspondent and California Chess Reporter titled Louis Paulsen: The Father of Hypermodern Chess. He shows the German master’s contributions to the Sicilian were not confined to the variation that bears his name. The Boleslavsky (Tarrasch-Paulsen, Breslau 1889) and Scheveningen (Gossip-Paulsen, Breslau 1889) were also in his practice as Black and he played the Closed Sicilian as White against Anderssen (London 1862). Paulsen was not the sharpest tactician, but he was way ahead of his time as a thinker and strategist.

Hendriks talks about how inflated historical ratings are compared to today, but Elo never intended his rating system to be used this way. It ranks players in order of strength at a set point in time and is not meant to compare players separated by several decades not to mention centuries.

On the Origin of Good Moves is highly recommended to anyone who is curious how chess has developed.