Game Spotlight: Nine Decades of My System

The most influential of chess strategy books, Aron Nimzowitsch’s My System, was published in 1925.  By codifying his own theories arising from games he played as well as contemporary masters like Steinitz, Tarrasch, Lasker, Capablanca, and Alekhine, the book became the place to go for chess strategy.  This was the book that defined and explained ideas we still use today, such as outposts and blockades.  It’s so important that GM Svidler reports that he was told to go off and study it in order to become good.  I’d expect many Soviet masters from the 1940s onward had the same experience.

The real question, though, is if it’s still worth reading today.  In short, it’s complicated.  One of the best arguments in its favour is that it’s easily available, since it’s now public domain.  There’s a lot of great information in there, and usually ideas are seen clearest in their earliest form.  And yet.  My System is poorly organized, with a strange mix of opening, middlegame, endgame, and tactical lessons arranged in a questionable order.  Anyone writing such a book today would put the illustrative games in the text itself, instead of a long section at the back.  The writing comes off as pompous and self-congratulatory to the modern reader.  And frequently the most important ideas are the area of subheadings and liner notes, which makes them difficult to look up.

In the end, the real downside here is something Nimzowitsch can’t be blamed for at all — he did not have access to a time machine.  For example, one of the best examples of how to play an outpost happened in 1945, 20 years too late to be included.  Over time, Nimzowitsch’s ideas have been built on and refined.  Some of them (most notably overprotection) have fallen by the wayside.  So while it’s useful to see where modern chess strategy came from, it’s also important to consider how it’s changed.

If you’re still wondering whether to track the book down, Nimzowitsch devoted an entire chapter to the idea of pawn chains.  Let’s look at how he handled the topic:

This year’s Nairobi Chess Club Open Championship is coming up on August 23-25 at Goan Gymkhana.  Directions for signing up and the schedule can be found here.  In addition, we’re crowdfunding for the tournament this year.  So if you can help us with venue costs, renting tables, and all the other things needed to run a tournament, please head over to M-Changa.

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