Aron Nimzowitsch

On the Road to Chess Mastery, 1886 - 1924


Per Skjoldager and Jørn Erik Nielsen

One can get various images of Aron Nimzowitsch from what has been written of him by many authors. and probably the most prevailing view is that he was a rather idiosyncratic player and writer who earned this reputation from the many anecdotal comments made about him.   One of the most popular stories is that when required to resign against a much inferior player, he picked up his king, stood on the board and threw the piece into the corner of the room with the declaration "Why must I lose to this idiot."  This is a story that has very little truth in it but there are some reports that indicate he was a very unique figure, well known for one of the most instructive and innovative chess books ever written - "My System".  

This image is put firmly to rest in the most recent biography by Per Skjoldager and Jørn Erik Nielsen, the second of the books that I have recently purchased and I table as a new experience in chess books.  Again, this in is a McFarland and Company publication, in hardback containing 457 B4 pages and is the first of a two volume biography.  In a very scholarly work they present him as a clear minded, unambiguous character of fixed views who fought a long battle against dogmatism in chess and was a leading light in the so-called "Modern School of Chess". 

Dr Tarrasch was the focal point of his life-time battle against dogmatism and this was fought out in the various articles they both wrote on each others games.  One game in point is Nimzowitsch - Salwe played in the Karlsbad tournament of 1911.  The authors of the book "Aron Nimzowitsch" have repeated the game with the notes of both contesting parties attached.   The whole game and notes are far too long to quote here, but I will illustrate the fervour of the dispute in the notes following 20.Bd4 which retreats the bishop from e5.

"Tarrasch.  This is not good.  The e5 square had to remain occupied by a White piece, so the backward king's pawn could never advance.  For the same purpose f2-f4 could also be played, which was not necessary here, however.  White has a completely superior position with the two excellently stationed bishops, and the pressure they exercise on the c5- and e6 squares, ought to produce nothing less than an attack on the king.  This could be introduced with Qe2-e3-h3, which would have provoked a continuous further weakening of the opponent's kingside.

Nimzowitsch.  A fine retreat!  Proof: Dr. Tarrasch misses the motive!  White must force the Be8 to declare itself.  The bishop has a choice between d7 and g6.  On this particular issue, modern style sees it as an objective to maintain one's own choice and always try to force the opponent to declare himself.  White actually wins a pawn by force as a consequence and likewise wins by force the resulting endgame.  Dr Tarrasch simply admits that (!), but nevertheless prefers Qe3 "which would have caused a continuous further weakening of the opponent's kingside."

There is little sign here of the meeting of minds!

The dispute was originated by an incident that occurred following the San Sebastian tournament of 1911,when Tarrasch annotated the game Nimzowitsch - Capablanca and his annoyance with Nimzowitsch's playing style became clear and outspoken.  This comments were included in the tournament book and were followed by the above notes on the Salwe game.

Tarrasch was at the time, one of the leading players in the world and as such expected his comments to have some authority.  On the other hand, Nimzowitsch had a totally different concept of the theory of the game and it is possible that in order to get a hearing, he rather overstated his case.  Whatever the reasons, the dispute was well and truly aired.

This book is a complete biography which sets about describing Nimzowitch's family and cultural background but naturally his chess activities form the major part of the work.   This first volume  includes many of the games played by him during this period including some examples from simultaneous displays.

There is no doubt that the role of a chess player was an arduous and  precarious occupation in those days.  Simultaneous displays were a great source of income and Nimzowitsch very carefully planned his itinerary when making such tours. The route had to be designed to provide economic travel and accommodation. Apart from this source of income he earned a living by giving lectures and coaching to supplement any winnings or appearance money he gained from playing in tournaments.  He was also a prolific author of articles for newspapers and magazines and it was through this medium that his theories that brought about the publication of "My System" were generated and expounded. 

Like many other chess players, the 1914-18 war brought about a severe interruption in the progress of his career.   Just prior to the outbreak of war he had commendable results in the San Sebastian Tournaments of 1911 and 1912.  The All Russian Tournament of Masters played at St Petersburg, saw him draw for first place with Alekhine in a field of 18 players.  The draw was resolved  by a match of four games.  However, after Alekhine won the first game and Nimzowitsch the second, whereupon Nimzowitsch proposed the the match be declared a draw, which proposal met with the agreement of the committee.     During this match Nimzowitsch revealed his idiosyncratic nature which Dus-Chotimirski descibed as follows:

"The second game of the match was conducted by Nimzowitsch in a very unusual way.  In order to play against Alekhine, he stipulated that he should be entitled to play, using only his pocket chess set, and he justified this claim by his reluctance to look at the unsympathetic face that Alekhine apparently offered to him.  The requirement was met.  Alekhine sat at the board against an invisible opponent while Nimzowitisch went around the room among the audience with his pocket set in his hands, offering smart remarks and announcing his moves through his second .  Nimzowitch's psychological attack achieved  its goal.  Nimzowitsch won the second game and equalised the match score."

Shades of Tal's basilistic stare that prompted Benko to wear sun glasses when he played him.

However, this result gained both players admission to the great 1941 International tournament in St. Petersburg where Alekhine had a better result than Nimzowitsch. 

Then the war intervened and no chess of note was played.  In fact, Nimzowitsch was conscripted into the Russian army, much to his disgust. 

Following the Armistice of 1918, Nimzowitsch reverted to his simultaneous and lecture tours and once again picked up his journalistic role.  His first major tournament was at Goteborg in 1920.  This proved to be disastrous and he finished in twelve place out of fourteen scoring a mere 4½ points. This was followed by a short match with Bogoljubow which he lost 3 - 1.  However, at Stockholm a few months later, his best form returned and he came second to Bogolubow in scoring 12 points from 14 games which included 11 wins.

All the time "My System" was germinating and being placed on paper, culminating in its publication in 1924  This was to be Nimzovitsch's legacy rather than his tournament results, earning him a title of "Father of Hypermodern Chess." Subsequently many great masters were to pay homage to this masterpiece as being the most important influence on their career.

Skjoldager and Nielsen are diligent in their researches to produce this book, and skilfully weave their researches into an extremely interesting and readable dialogue.  In so doing they present many of Nimzowitch's games mostly annotated by him in his own inimitable style which harkens to his positional theories and writings.  His argument with Tarrasch was put on the back-burner in the interests of promotion of his hypermodern theories.  Compared to his other journalistic efforts the criticism of Tarrasch  in "My System" is mild.

The 456 pages of the book are B5 size, mostly double column, with many tournament tables, photographs and sketches.  There are 14 chapters each covering a year or period from the year 1886 to 1924.  The final 21 pages provide 7 appendices including studies and puzzles, index to games, opponents, openings and a bibliography.  The hard cover is coloured in a dull mid blue with gold lettering.  In all the the book is a pleasure to handle.  

As with most McFarland publications the book is rather pricey at approx £40 but it was voted Book of the Year by Chess Café and is well worth the price.

A selection of games played and annotated by Nimzowitsch can be seen HERE.


Bill Frost

May 2013.





game in point