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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Nimzovich's Crush of Levenfish

     Recently I have been playing through the games in Nimzovich's book, Chess Praxis. If you have never read it, the book consists of his games showing how he applied the ideas he wrote about in My System. In many respects it also serves as an advanced handbook on positional chess. 
     The book has been highly praised by some as essential for any serious student. It's also been said by a few that it has discouraged more chess players than any other book. To be honest, I have no opinion regarding the book's instructional value, but have just been enjoying playing over Nimzovich's games. 
     Nimzovich, born in part of the Russian Empire, came from a wealthy family where he learned chess from his merchant father. In 1904, he went to Berlin to study philosophy, but soon began a career as a professional chess player. The 1917 Russian Revolution found him in the Baltic war zone where he escaped being drafted into the army by faking madness by insisting that a fly was on his head. 
     It is also said that Akiba Rubinstein was also afflicted by an imaginary fly that he kept trying to swat away. Mieses told of the time he met Rubinstein on a train and Rubinstein said he was going to see a professor in Munich about a fly that was always settling on his head and disturbing him during his games just when he needed to think hard. This is interesting because people seeing imaginary flies have been reported to be not necessarily insane, but suffering from anxiety disorders. 
     One writer put forth an opinion that in Rubinstein's case it may not have have been a fly at all; he may have been suffering from eye floaters. I suppose this is possible. Our peripheral vision can pick up movement that you can't see if you look directly where the movement came from; it has something to do with different parts of the retina having different types of receptors. 
     To continue...after avoiding the army, Nimzovich escaped to Berlin, and gave his first name as Arnold, probably to avoid anti-Semitic persecution and in 1925 he moved to Copenhagen where he lived for the rest of his life in a small rented room. He obtained Danish citizenship and lived there until his death in 1935. 
     Although he had long suffered from heart trouble, his early death was unexpected; taken ill suddenly at the end of 1934, he lay bedridden for three months before dying of pneumonia. He is buried in Bispebjerg Cemetery in Copenhagen.  
     When Nimzovich first put forth his theories, they sounded like blasphemy because they flew in the face of theory of the time, especially the dogmatic teaching of Tarrasch. Raymond Keene wrote that Nimzovich was a great and profound chess thinker second only to Steinitz. Robert Byrne called him perhaps the most brilliant theoretician and teacher in the history of the game. J.H. Donner called him a man who was too much of an artist to be able to prove he was right and who was regarded as something of a madman in his time. He would be understood only long after his death. 
     As for the book, Nimzovich's games and notes are both entertaining and instructive.  One game I enjoyed was his game against Levenfish played at Carlsbad in 1911. 
Levenfish's Selected Games and Memoirs (1967)
     Levenfish's play in Carlsbad won him recognition as one who played in the style of the revered Soviet master, Chigorin. The Soviet School of Chess by Kotov and Yudovich stated that his style in the middlegame was universal with an excellent command of positional maneuvering and a good grasp of strategy, but his chief strength was tactics. They described him as a resourceful tactician who devised complex plans and disguised combinations, foresaw tactical attacks long ahead of time, set ingenious traps and executed sledge hammer tactical blows that seemed impossible. Very colorful. Levenfish was probably the strongest Soviet player before the rise of Botvinnik in the mid-1930s and it's unfortunate that a book of his games was never published in English.
     These days the handling of just about any semi-open game probably includes Nimzovich's theories. Before him, the only correct way to play an opening was to occupy the center with Pawns. In the old books, openings like the Modern or Pirc were considered incorrect and were usually labeled "Irregular." But, Nimzovich proved that it is possible to give up the P-center if you replace them with pieces as he does in this game. 
     The contrast in styles makes the following game very interesting. With two Bs for two Ns and a central P-majority, Levenfish probably felt confident in the outcome of this game. But Nimzovich's idea was to prove that black's center was a liability because the squares in front of the Pawns were weak and blockading them with Ns gave him a substantial advantage. The Bs, locked behind Ps, never got a chance to prove their worth, or least they shouldn't have. Nimzovich inadvertently allowed the Bs to escape, but managed to dominate them with his Ns on the open board. 
     I ended up checking this game out from a variety of sources and with the help of engines (Stockfish and Komodo) and discovered that Nimzovich's win was hardly the one-sided beating to the hapless Levenfish that he and most subsequent annotators would lead us to believe. The game was a lot more complicated than that! 
     The trouble with the classic instructional books is that back when average players were starved for chess knowledge, authors had the difficult task of trying to explain their play and had to break things down into rules and principles. And, in their examples, in order to avoid confusing their readers, they often glossed over or avoided lines that complicated the issue. As time went by subsequent authors just repeated their analysis. 

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