Culture and Civilisations

Freudian feud: Tarrasch versus Nimzowitsch

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 100%
  • Interesting points: 100%
  • Agree with arguments: 97%
60 ratings - view all
Freudian feud: Tarrasch versus Nimzowitsch

Mikhail Thigorin and Siegbert Tarrasch, 1893.(Getty Images)

The history of chess has been marked by numerous epic confrontations. These include Staunton vs St Amant, a microcosmic struggle from 1843 which acquired particular relevance from memories of the traditional macrocosmic Anglo-French rivalry, culminating at the Battle of Waterloo. Then there was the Spassky vs Fischer clash from 1972, which reflected the extreme tensions of the USSR vs USA Cold War battle for global hegemony, coming, as it did, just a decade after the Cuban missile crisis. Thereafter, the colossal five-part Karpov vs Kasparov series from 1984 to 1990, witnessed the switch of focus to internal Soviet hostilities, between the reforming forces of glasnost and perestroika, pitted against the old school sons of Lenin, who were fighting a reactionary rear-guard action to revive the principles of deathbed Communism.

Among the most notorious of such hostile conjunctions was the opposition between the great German Grandmaster, writer and chess theoretician, Dr Siegbert Tarrasch (1862–1934), and his ideological rival, the Latvian/Danish genius, Aron Nimzowitsch (1886-1935). In this case, though, with both protagonists emerging from the richly intellectual Central European Jewish culture, the antagonism was neither nationalistic nor political, but based on personal antipathy and seemingly opposing, indeed irreconcilable, views on the nature of chess strategy.

Siegbert Tarrasch was one of the most successful tournament players of all time. He shot to fame when he won five consecutive elite tournaments: Nuremberg 1888, Breslau 1889, Manchester 1890, Dresden 1892, Leipzig 1894.

The most spectacular success of Tarrasch’s long and distinguished career came with his first prize in the Emperor Franz Josef Jubilee tournament at Vienna 1898, a colossal double-round event of 20 masters, in which he tied with the new American star, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, in the tournament proper and went on to defeat him in the play-off. Thereafter, Tarrasch scored two more significant tournament successes: at Monte Carlo 1903 and in the Champions Tournament at Ostend 1907 (which was organised in order to establish a “tournament world champion“). In individual games Tarrasch defeated no fewer than five World Champions: Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine and Euwe.

At the perihelion of his early triumphs Tarrasch was offered a World Title match against Steinitz in Havana, but declined. Later he backed out from a virtually agreed Title match against Lasker in 1904. His pretext was that he was too preoccupied with his medical practice, but that did not prevent him from playing extended matches against such opponents as Mikhail Tchigorin, the leading Russian contender, and Frank Marshall, the US champion. The genuine reasons for repeatedly holding back must have been deeper and darker than mere professional obligations, but whatever they were, we shall never know. When Tarrasch did finally agree to challenge Lasker, he was in his 47th year and well past his best. In terms of active play, Tarrasch was great, but could have been greater. When destiny called, he twice hung up the phone.

Tarrasch’s immortal fame, however, rests on his writing rather than sporting achievements. With his superbly written books Dreihundert Schachpartien (Three Hundred Games of Chess) of 1895 and Die Moderne Schachpartie (The Modern Game of Chess) in 1912, as well as his innumerable chess columns and articles, he acquired a reputation as the Praeceptor Germaniae: chess teacher of Germany and, by extension, the world. Tarrasch valued the concept of mobility above all. A Freudian explanation for this has been suggested by the German/Jewish/Irish writer Wolfgang Heidenfeld: that Tarrasch attached exaggerated importance to mobility on the chessboard, because in life his own mobility was gravely restricted by a club foot. As the result of this approach he was the supreme advocate of “freeing” moves, especially in the opening, of which the defence to the Queen‘s Gambit which bears his name is a typical example (The Tarrarsch Defence: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5).

The apodictic dogmatism of his opinions may be somewhat off-putting to a modern audience. For example, Tarrasch wrote that, after the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 the response 3…c5! literally“refutes” White’s third move, since Black can thereby force the acquisition of an isolated queen’s pawn. It was a particular Tarrasch fetish that possession of an isolated queen’s pawn automatically conferred an advantage, a view not entirely endorsed by theory and practice today. Tarrasch was dogmatic, but not alone in his dogmatism. Any reading of the works of Tarrasch’s contemporary, Sigmund Freud, will rapidly reveal a similar self-assurance, which brooks no countervailing alternative opinion.  Tarrasch, indeed, was a kind of Freud of the chessboard.

According to Heidenfeld, it was exactly this dogmatism which made Tarrasch’s teaching so effective. His was a time when amateurs still had to learn that a game of chess should not be a haphazard conglomeration of unrelated ideas, but a logical whole.

In his authoritative book, Chess and Chessmasters, magisterially translated by Harry Golombek from the original Swedish, Grandmaster Gideon Stahlberg concurs that at the beginning of the 20th century, Tarrasch occupied a unique place in the chess pantheon. His great tournament successes had granted him a richly deserved reputation as a player, while his widespread literary activities energetically publicised his theories, so that it was not long before he had built up a significant school of followers. “Thus he became the great teacher, whose every word was listened to with hushed attention. To Tarrasch, chess was above all a science. The game followed strict laws and woe to him who broke one of them!

Suddenly, though, there arose a tempest of contradicting opinion, particularly from one of the younger, less experienced masters: Aron Nimzowitsch. The Balt rapidly made his mark by original, apparently irrational, play, and fought his way into the leading group of the world‘s Masters. After achieving this entry into the “Magic Circle”, he astonished the chess world by a vehement attack against the ancien régime — that is, against the precepts of Tarrasch. At the same time, Nimzowitsch embarked on a fierce campaign on behalf of his own theories.

Nimzowitsch accused Tarrasch of routine dogmatism, and, as we have seen with the case of 3…c5! to a 21st century observer, such an accusation does indeed seem justified. Nimzowitsch also opposed Tarrasch’s conception of the openings, and in substitution propounded a theory of development which welcomed constricted yet resilient positions that were rich in potentialities, just such positions as Tarrasch normally condemned on principle. In my own games, I have frequently followed the Nimzowitschian precepts, heading for seemingly cramped structures which were, however, packed with possibilities for decisive breakouts.

Aron Nimzowitsch (pictured below), like Tarrasch himself, holds an honoured position amongst those outstanding personalities of chess history who have narrowly failed in their ambition to become world champion. Nimzowitsch was perhaps the most colourful, making his impressive mark not only with his successful play but also with his profound writings and his eccentric behaviour away from the chessboard.

Born in Riga into the Jewish family of Niemzowitsch, he learnt the moves at an early age from his father (an accomplished master in his own right) but it was not until 1904, while in Germany (ostensibly to study mathematics) that Nimzowitsch began to concentrate on chess. Unlike Tarrasch, Nimzowitsch was never seduced by the temptations of an alternative professional career, away from the chessboard.

At first Nimzowitsch’s talent seemed to lie in the purely tactical and combinational field, but several failures led him to undertake a complete revision of his chess ideas, placing greater emphasis on positional play, blockading strategy and consolidation. With his changed outlook, Nimzowitsch achieved significant successes, including equal second, behind Rubinstein, at San Sebastian 1912 and equal first with Alekhine at the All-Russian Championship in St Petersburg 1913.

The Great War, combined with the Russian Revolution, brought an abrupt halt to Nimzowitsch’s activities. In 1920 he left Latvia for Scandinavia, changing his name in the process from Niemzowitsch to Nimzowitsch. At first he took refuge in Sweden but eventually settled in Denmark. Nimzowitsch’s return to tournament competition in the early 1920s was disastrous but gradually he played himself into form, securing a number of notable successes in the mid-1920s, including equal first with Rubinstein at Marienbad 1925, first at Dresden 1926 (scoring 8½ out of nine, ahead of Alekhine and Rubinstein) and first at Hannover 1926. He also garnered two first prizes in strong tournaments in London during 1927. It was during this rich period that Nimzowitsch’s most influential work appeared: Mein System (My System). Published in 1925, it underwent several revisions until 1928 and is still a bestseller in many translations over the entire chess-playing world.

Nevertheless, the World Title still eluded him. Nimzowitsch took third place in the prestigious New York tournament of 1927, behind Capablanca and Alekhine; his brilliant first prize at Carlsbad 1929 was achieved ahead of Capablanca, Spielmann, Rubinstein, Euwe, Vidmar and Bogoljubow, yet Alekhine was not competing. His performance at Carlsbad possibly justified Nimzowitsch in adopting the title “Crown Prince of the chess world“ which he then assumed — somewhat pompously, given that he never managed to beat Capablanca. Yet Alexander Alekhine, the reigning monarch, refused to give way and the crown prince never managed to secure the funds for a world championship match. Nimzowitsch’s best results in major tournaments from 1929 onwards (2nd at San Remo 1930, 3rd at Bled 1931) were achieved in the shadow of the mighty Alekhine, against whom he won three games, lost nine and drew nine. Ill-health caused Nimzowitsch’s sudden decline in the mid-1930s and he died, just 48 years old, at the Hareskov Sanatorium, Copenhagen, in 1935.

In his playing style Nimzowitsch belonged to the so-called Hypermodern School, which held (inter alia) that control of the centre did not necessarily imply occupation by pawns. Adherence to these views, combined with a decided mutual incompatibility, brought him into frequent opposition with the great exponent of the classical school, Tarrasch. Neither master was averse to self-adulation and the bitterness emanating from their first meeting in 1904 was never entirely eradicated. In fact, hostility towards Tarrasch and his works was a recurring theme of Nimzowitsch’s literary endeavours.

However, Nimzowitsch’s major contribution to chess literature consisted not in his ridicule of Tarrasch, nor yet in the discovery of a novel method of play, but in his elaboration of a new chess vocabulary which made intelligible the hitherto but vaguely articulated strategy of master-strength players. Nimzowitsch possessed an unrivalled facility for capturing the essence of an already known operation or structure with a memorable and meaningful word or phrase, which thereby increased speed of comprehension and assisted clarity of thought. Nimzowitsch introduced into chess terminology such phrases as “the passed pawn’s lust to expand”, “the mysterious rook move”, “prophylaxis”, “7th rank absolute” and “hanging pawns”. It is an established phenomenon that rapid advances in performance are often immediately preceded by advances in modes of expression, and we may indeed detect an upsurge in the general level of chess after the publication of My System. 

Nimzowitsch’s writings were penned with such enthusiastic and allusive wit, that only the most hardened could resist the appeal of his message. Consider the following passage on Tarrasch’s favourite hobby horse, the isolated queen’s pawn: “… we no longer consider it necessary to render the enemy isolani absolutely immobile; on the contrary, we like to give him the illusion of freedom, rather than shut him up in a cage (the principle of the large zoo applied to the small beast of prey).”

The rivalry between Tarrasch and Nimzowitsch is a common trope of chess literature, yet sometimes I wonder whether the gulf between their relative visions of chess strategy is quite so wide as is commonly supposed. Nimzowitsch was known as an early advocate of 3.e5 against the Caro Kann Defence, namely 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 and now 3.e5. Yet, where did this advance first crop up? It was played by Tarrasch himself against Nimzowitsch in their game at San Sebastian in 1912.

I have frequently maintained that chess as a game of war, mirrors battlefield strategy of the day. Thus chess originally reflected the chariots, foot soldiers, cavalry and war elephants of the ancient Indian army. During the Renaissance the chess queen acquired her rampant new powers, a metaphor for the new distance weapon, the cannon. Most strikingly, given that the prime modus operandi of warfare in 1914-1918 consisted of trench and blockade operations, both on land in Flanders and at sea, after the Naval Battle of Jutland, the blockade in chess came to the fore. Indeed, both Tarrasch and Nimzowitsch were expert blockaders (see the game  Tarrasch vs. Georg Marco). There is yet another point of chess board consanguinity between the two: it is normally held that Tarrasch preferred to occupy the centre with pawns, while Nimzowitsch preferred central domination by pieces. This was an argument made vehemently by that Pontifex Maximus of Hypermodernism, Richard Réti, in his classic Masters of the Chessboard, published posthumously in English in 1933. In that context, the win by Nimzowitsch against the strong Polish master Georg Salwe was considered revolutionary. However, now examine the Tarrasch win against Max Kuerschner, the president of Tarrasch’s own chess club in his home city of Nuremberg, played 31 years earlier. These two games are strikingly similar and it is hard to credit that the two victors maintained an exclusively diametric opposition of views on all chess strategic thinking. 

As a modest incursion into the realms of speculation, it almost seems that Freud is even more relevant than might at first sight appear. Freud’s Oedipus Complex requires the son to kill the father. Nimzowitsch’s attempt to slay Tarrasch, who was 24 years older, could in fact have been a reaction to their overt similarities. Was Nimzo trying to kill his chessboard father?

What, moreover, one might ask, can modern chess games tell us about contemporary warfare? I enter here the realms of further extreme speculation, but Bongcloud openings (1.e4 e5 2.Ke2) early queen sorties based on Qh5 and deliberate tempo loss (1.c3 followed swiftly by c4) all practised by the elite, including current World Champion Magnus Carlsen, indicate to me that the direction of conflict is towards asymmetric warfare, involving terrorism, surprise, psychological combat and guerilla tactics, rather than the stately orchestration of grand strategy, as might have appealed to a Capablanca, a Botvinnik, a Karpov or indeed, Tarrasch and Nimzowitsch themselves.

Meanwhile, within the confines of the chessboard, Nimzowitsch’s words still ring true: “Ridicule can do much, for example, it can embitter the existence of young talents; but one thing is not given to it, to put a stop permanently to the incursion of new and powerful ideas.”

One player, writer and thinker who has come in for more than his fair share of ridicule is the English International Master, Michael Basman. Now a new book U cannot be serious! Avant Garde strategy in Chess by Michael Basman and Gerrard Welling, (Thinkers Publishing) seeks to redress the balance of obloquy. Basman harbours ideas, whose time may have come, given my views on the correlation between chess strategy and warfare. Basman’s chessboard lucubrations and discoveries, which have notched the scalps of such illustrious victims as Grandmasters Nunn, Speelman and Tisdall, represent the drone bombardments, the urban rockets, the subversive terrorism and the asymmetric guerilla strikes of our ancient game.

See the games of Michael Basman against John Nunn in 1978, as Black against Speelman in 1980, and also as Black in the following year against Jonathan Tisdall.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from The Article, is now available from Amazon, and Blackwells.


A Message from TheArticle

We are the only publication that’s committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make, one that’s needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout the pandemic. So please, make a donation.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 100%
  • Interesting points: 100%
  • Agree with arguments: 97%
60 ratings - view all

You may also like