Nimzowitsch: Warm words and a system

by Conrad Schormann
1/17/2019 – Aron Nimzowitsch was an original chess thinker but he liked to share his ideas in a peculiar way. His most important book, "My System", is at times brilliant but CONRAD SCHORMANN thinks the book sometimes simply contains too many warm words. Still, there's much to learn: "We still use some of the terms he used, coined and made popular — but in a different way". As for his eccentricities, you be the judge.

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Nimzowitsch's extravagances

Anyone who explains things to other people should be interested in being understood. The intellectual and linguistic clarity of the teacher helps the student. A text full of technical terms and digressions misses the point.

Aron Nimzowitsch (ca 1916)
Photo: Unknown via 
Per Skjoldager (reproduced with permission)
Lund Chess Academy sells antiquarian chess books (including works on Nimzowitsch) 

Clarity was not the concern of Aron Nimzowitsch. If the master wrote about chess, a flood of newly coined technical terms poured over the reader. Moreover, the author's eccentricity always had to shine through, so that nobody would confuse him with Siegbert Tarrasch, God forbid. Here a flourish, there a pirouette; Nimzowitsch had no lack of ideas for intellectual excursions. But instead of getting to the point, he indulged in them.

Nimzowitsch, on the importance of the seventh rank, writes as follows:

Chapter 2.4 (The open file — Possible obstacles to operations down a file)

"We have seen how important the free access we have won to the 7th and 8th ranks can become. This being the case, it seems likely that nature herself, so to say, may have done something to protect this sensitive spot, just as good-hearted and wise old Mother Nature has put man's heart in a well protected spot behind his ribs. (This place is so well protected and the heart so deeply hidden that in the case of many people one might well think...[SIC] that they were born without one.) Just to reassure the more sensitive among my readers, let me point out straight away that heartlessness is not a serious disease, since it causes little pain to those affected."

Mother Nature? Heartlessness?

WTF, Aron?

Chesswise, My System is a milestone, but as a book, it does not fully succeed because Nimzowitsch was driven by the desire to write about his genius.

My system book cover

The debate about My System is still raging today which is a sign for its lasting influence but also indicates that it does not completely succeed as a chess book. Which is a pity, actually. Because the substance of the book — the concepts which Nimzowitsch was the first to formulate — was revolutionary in the middle of the 1920s and is in large parts still valid today.

For slightly advanced players, Nimzowitsch provides a foundation on which they can build an understanding of strategy and positional play. Those who progress further and maybe even take the road to chess mastery will read their Nimzowitsch again and will find a number of propositions and concepts, which they did not fully understand at the first reading. For example, the passage about doubled pawns which are often "statically strong" and "dynamically weak". Beginners do not comprehend this, strong players nod but are astonished because they have never heard this in this clarity before. Sometimes Nimzowitsch, after all, gets to the point.

Between these pearls, Nimzowitsch digresses, again and again, to let the reader not forget how clever the author is and what clueless patzers almost of all his contemporaries are who wrote about chess at the beginning of the 20th century. Some chess players still enjoy Nimzowitsch's eccentricities to this day, they enjoy the originality and the peculiarity of his digressions, but if you buy a book in 2018 because you want to learn about the basics of chess you will easily find authors that teach these basics much better and who write only about chess and not about themselves and their brilliance.

Chess understanding has advanced in the last 100 years and some of the concepts formulated by Nimzowitsch must be described differently today and from a new perspective. We still use some of the terms he used, coined and made popular — but in a different way.

"Centralisation" then and now

Take "centralisation" for example. When Magnus Carlsen develops his pieces and connects his rooks he will often put them on central files. Today, we usually call such manoeuvres "centralisation". And if, in pursuit of the project "winning against Mum", our little "James" plays his knight to the rim instead of establishing it in the centre, it becomes obvious that no one has ever talked about "centralisation" with him.

Nimzowitsch analyses "centralisation" only in the context of the endgame. The king, which we hide at the beginning of the game behind a wall of pawns at the edge of the board, suddenly plays an important role in this final phase of the game. After all, in view of the reduced material on the board, it is no longer threatened by mating attacks.

The arch enemies Tarrasch and Nimzowitsch masterfully centralised themselves on this picture, taken at the tournament St. Petersburg 1914. While everybody turns to the camera chess friend Nimzowitsch decided to do things in his own way and turns sideways. We don't know for certain but would bet that he did that on purpose.

The king has to be effectively placed to have an impact. In the centre of the board pieces have the biggest impact and in the endgame, the king usually heads towards the middle of the board.

With the queens it's similar. In the beginning, they better hold back to avoid being harassed — or even caught — by the minor pieces of the opponent. But when they can go to a safe and central post they should be centralised. After all, the queen is the strongest piece. In the centre she controls the whole board and that is an important, sometimes even decisive factor.

Let's again quote from My System.

The elements of endgame strategy, 1) Centralisation, point C

Unfortunately, Nimzowitsch here writes wistfully about princesses and not about chess.

"White decides to see a bit of the world, and heads off happily like the hero from a fairy tale. And finally he reaches a splendid castle in which he finds the young beautiful princess, as one does in all good fairy tales. The same happens to our [king on f3], with the difference that there are two castles which attract him: the ideal positions on b6 and g6. After many a weary mile, he finally reaches one of these squares and safety...“

The white queen is well centralised, controls a lot of squares and defends all white pawns. And the queen protects the white king when he sets out to reach the squares b6 or g6 to attack the black pawns.

Everything else is just warm words.

The original German version of this article first appeared in Conrad Schormann's blog "Perlen vom Bodensee". Republished with kind permission.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer


Conrad Schormann, skilled newspaper editor, runs an agency for editing and communication in Überlingen, at Lake Constance. But he lacks time to play chess which is partly due to the fact that he very much likes to write about it, for Chessbase, in the Reddit chess forum, or for his chess teaching blog Perlen vom Bodensee...


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chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 1/22/2019 04:07
“It's unbelievable, what a fuzz over an abreviation.”
You need to run a spell check and get your words right.
The abbreviation is a cover-up for an abusive word. Is it too much to expect authors not to use the language of smut and be civilized instead?
This is a public platform and anyone who posts anything here should do so with a sense of responsibility. “We swear at any one we want. Put up and shut up. Otherwise get out” is the language of trolls. Trust, you are not one.
By way of reminder, here are ChessBase Rules for comment:
“We place a great deal of importance on comments being objective, as well as on the tolerance and respect of the opinions of others. Well-informed argumentation is always welcome (please don't write in single sentences). We would ask you to check your spelling, sentence structure and punctuation too.”
jaitinga jaitinga 1/20/2019 04:54
“WTF” : From the author’s four-letter word ChessBase has made it to three. Our vocabulary is enriched. Keep up the “good” work. What about Nimzowitsch? Who cares? Not you. Not the author.
jaitinga jaitinga 1/20/2019 04:51
> Mother Nature? Heartlessness?
> WTF, Aron?

What is WTF? Can somebody please shed light?
Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 1/19/2019 04:09
Another luminary of yore who garners more comments than a contemporary player :-). The mystique and allure of vintage Chess never fails to appeal and this nice and amusing article on Nimzo is one good example.
BKnight2003 BKnight2003 1/19/2019 02:08
On the St. Petersburg picture: Capablanca is looking sideways too.
BKnight2003 BKnight2003 1/19/2019 02:03
It's unbelievable, what a fuzz over an abreviation.

Here's a suggestion for those offended by the author's language: get out of the internet, and don't talk to anyone in the streets. Ridiculous puritans.

Seriously: if you don't like what you read, go somewhere else. Don't try to reshape the others just to please you.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 1/19/2019 12:01
The author claims that Nimzowitsch analyses "centralisation" only in the context of the endgame. Has he read the whole book? Chapter 10 of “My system” (New in Chess Edition) deals precisely with the question of centralization in the middlegame. Here Nimzowitsch examines his games against Alekhine, Rubinstein, Yates and Levenfish among others.In his second book, “Chess Praxis” Part I itself is called Centralization and there are as many as 23 deeply annotated games on the subject. It should be pointed out that games of Petrosian, Karpov and Carlsen are closer in spirit to Nimzowitsch’s ideas of prophylaxis and centralisation in the middlegame.
I shall refrain from saying anything on the language of the author. It’s beneath comment.
Masquer Masquer 1/18/2019 11:31
badibadibadi 1/18/2019 10:27
What's the point of this article ?

Ditto. A pointless article.
Chessbase, WTF? :-P
Aighearach Aighearach 1/18/2019 06:37
The comments regarding respect and language, I just wanted to point out that this is not a new discussion at chessbase, it is an on-going issue that causes people to complain, and also presumably to judge your products and the authors you promote as being of that same ilk. Meaning, those that keep saying offensive things even after they discover that people are offended!

This isn't a serious business website, this is the chessbase editor's living room. If that is the way things are supposed to be or not I guess is up to whoever actually owns or invests in chessbase. But it would seem to be a rather different type of practice than is believed to be most profitable, and it seems unlikely that it is not even a real business buy somebody's personal toy. In which case, regardless of your opinion on the language being debated, it is rather clear which answer a business should use in their operations and policies.

Plus, you know, showing respect for the greats of chess might even be a moral virtue to chess players? You never know, perhaps virtue is possible? Absurd, to many, I know. But again, don't most businesses agree that they benefit from the presumption that virtue exists, and that the business also supports it?
Priyesh Priyesh 1/18/2019 05:08
Hello kind Sir, it wouldn't be appropriate to use obvious abusive abbreviations to insult a Great Chess player who is no more. There is no conflict that his achievements as a Chess Player and towards the entire Chess community is anything less than extraordinary. I am sure everyone here would really appreciate if you would take back your indecent comment. Thank you.
macauley macauley 1/18/2019 03:43
@venhypa - A polite way of saying, "What the [word that rhymes with 'duck']?"
venhypa venhypa 1/18/2019 03:33
What is WTF?
badibadibadi badibadibadi 1/18/2019 10:27
What's the point of this article ?
Anthe Anthe 1/18/2019 08:58
reading "Mein System", Nimzo's ideas most often revolutionary and deeep. His language shows imho a man, who simply likes to be recognized, he likes to talk a lot, most often about himselef, excentric. The misunderstood genius as he saw it himself I suppose
fons3 fons3 1/18/2019 07:39
"I don't need my mind further fouled up (pun intended)" - jflores33

You made me think of a bad word. Please delete your comment.
jflores33 jflores33 1/18/2019 05:24
I know this is a reprint from a blog, where language is "loose," but please omit foul language and cursing (as well as obvious abbreviations that mean the same thing). I don't need my mind further fouled up (pun intended) by this kind of language. Other than that, an excellent article. Though I doubt every time Nimzowitsch writes "warm words" he is trying to show off: I am sure, in large part, this was just his personality. As the author suggests, he was indeed different. Thanks for the article.
WildKid WildKid 1/18/2019 04:15
A side note to Genem Re Wittgenstein: as a semi-professional philosopher, I wince whenever I hear more recent philosophers trying to 'explain' Wittgenstein - particularly his later philosophy in the 'Investigations' etc. The 'later Wittgenstein' didn't have a theory so much as some questions and methods, which tends to mean that any later theorizing, whether it's right or wrong, has very little to with the thinking of W. himself. If you want to understand him, look at the questions in the 'Investigations' and try to answer them. And if they leave you confused - congratulations, you have had the experience that Wittgenstein intended you to have!
WildKid WildKid 1/18/2019 04:09
To me it sounds as if Nimzovitsch was trying to make his ideas interesting and memorable by expressing them in poetic language. I see absolutely nothing wrong in that - in fact, I think it's a great aid to memory, particularly when a player is in a tough spot and needs to recall an idea.
genem genem 1/18/2019 02:36
A student of philosophy might do better to read about the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein as rewritten by later philosophers. As I peruse my copy of My System by Aron Nimzowitsch, at times I get a similar impression, that a rewrite of the book's ideas might be easier to digest. Chess author Cyrus Lakdawala probably disagrees with me.
hansj hansj 1/17/2019 09:07
Of course Nimzowitsch was not perfect. But reading his Mein System is a pleasure. And I for one learnt a lot from that excellent book.
Shahmat Shahmat 1/17/2019 05:51
It sounds his enthusiasm for chess was so much that he looked at chess and pieces as life and human being. He wrote by his heart and blood.Despite of the author's view in last part about princess , the original text was poetic and so lovely , even in a chess book . After all its not a good idea to look at our predecessors-not just in chess- in this way.
RayLopez RayLopez 1/17/2019 05:43
Excellent article, translated from German, and understandable. Indeed Nimzowitsch was ahead of his time, and like Hans Kmoch, he could afford to coin new words.