Archive for December 13th, 2004

Palace in a Pup Tent

I was already twenty or twenty-one when I began learning chess, which was far too late for me to get really good at it, but old enough to approach the game with a more well-rounded intelligence than I would have had if I’d taken it up at the age of five or six. I passed through the common stages of first learning how the pieces move and what the object of the game was, and then there was the difficult part when I was afraid to touch a piece. I knew that each move I could make would have countless negative repercussions, but I wasn’t good enough to know what I ought to play. It was the only time when I would sit and stare at the board, overcome with a paralysis of doubt and fear.

It was also the point at which the game became fascinating. It was as if I had crawled into a pup tent and found a palace inside.

I played like this for about a year. My opponents were a few friends and an uncle of mine, and although I hardly ever won, the game lost none of its fascination for me. And then one day, before I had fully realised what had happened, I was better at the game. I started winning most of the time.

For about three or four years, I was addicted to buying chess books. At one point, I my library numbered about 200 books, with both instructional books and collections of games. My knowledge of theory was quite good, although this did not clearly translate into better playing.

The books that have always interested me most were ones which traced the development of man’s understanding of the game. Two classics of this genre are Richard Reti’s Masters of the Chess Board, which I’ve heard is out of print, and Max Euwe’s Development of Chess Style. Both treat the development over the centuries of our understanding of the game as a mirror of the development an individual undergoes as he learns the game, and both books attempted to use this historical approach as an educational tool.

As I worked my way through them, especially Reti’s book, I began to understand why I had felt as if I were entering something which kept expanding, and why the game held such a fascination for me.

It’s generally believed that chess was invented about 1,500 years ago. For centuries it was a slower game than what we have now, because the pawns could only move one square on their first move, while the earlier form of the queen could only move one square diagonally. By the 16th century, the pawns could jump two squares on their initial move, the en passant rule had been established, the queen had been given the free reign she now enjoys, and castling had been developed. This sped things up considerably, and the game as we know it was born.

The earliest players of the modern game were interested mainly in tactics. Their games are strange to look over now. They neglected the proper development of their pieces and made premature attacks. Despite improvements in ability, this basic approach continued until the 19th century, and is often called the Romantic Age. It was believed that a strong, successful attack was a reflection of the player’s genius.

The first dramatic advance in our understanding of theory came in the 18th century, with L’Analyse des Echecs by Francois Andre Danican-Philidor (1726-1795), although his work was neglected for over a century. Philidor is famous among chess fans for having declared that “The pawn is the soul of the game.” He demonstrated that the direction a game took was largely determined, not by a player’s genius, but the structure of the pawns on the board. Pawns are the only pieces that cannot move back, so a player must be sure of what he’s doing before he advances them. Most weaknesses in a position stem from the pawn structure.


Philidor first pointed out that control of the centre of the board was of primary importance, and that an attack made without the support of one’s pawns was very dangerous.

The Romantic Age is epitomised by the games of Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879). The basic ideas of Philidor had been assimilated, but still mainly with a view to supporting violent attacks and counter-attacks. Here we find the most brilliant combinations — series of moves which seem justified by the position, and which seem to force the defender’s responses. Playing over the games now, we marvel at how far ahead players of this calibre could see, and at how beautiful the combinations were.


No player has ever towered over all his contemporaries as much as the young American Paul Morphy (1837-1884). What is most amazing about him is that he somehow discovered those basic principles of the game which still escaped other players, entirely on his own. His understanding was natural and intuitive. His games show that he knew you must first develop your pieces before you attack. Your development must facilitate the free mobility of your pieces. Playing the same piece twice in the early stages wastes time, since your opponent can move a new piece and then outnumber your pieces.


Morphy’s opponents would oblige him by not developing properly, and his attacks were as dazzling as any of Anderssen’s, but much sounder.

Morphy did not expound his ideas, and gave up the game quite early in his life. It took quite some time for players to understand the general principles on which his victories were based. This was done by Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900).


Steinitz is the most important theoretician of the game, even if he is rarely acknowledged as such. He pointed out in his writings that in order to win, you must have a plan, and that your plan must be a response to what is actually on the board. You must attack your opponent’s weaknesses, which means you must wait for these weaknesses to present themselves to you. With Steinitz the early stages of chess become a sort of waiting game, each player developing his pieces, strengthening his position and waiting for his opponent to make even the smallest error in judgement. Then that weakness is attacked until it gets bigger and bigger. Modern games are often decided over the loss of a single pawn.

If the development of chess style mirrors the individual’s development, with Steinitz we have the birth of the modern Grandmaster. Advancements from now on are slower and smaller, and much more difficult for mortals like us to understand.

This is a very crude outline of the development of theory. I haven’t endeavoured to give any real insight into the principles discovered over the centuries. What I wanted to suggest was this: that human beings invented something which, for some 1,400 years, transcended their own understanding of it.

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