Early Grandmasters

Modern chess theory grew to its present splendor from the seeds planted by early master theorists such as Ruy López de Segura and Francois-André Philidor. Their principles, proven by their sound play, spread quickly throughout the world of chess.  In time these seeds of thought would be nurtured to maturity by such great theorists and grandmasters as Wilhelm Steinitz, Siegbert Tarrasch, Emanuel Lasker, Aron Nimzovich, Max Euwe, José Raúl Capablanca, and Alexander Alekhine.  Later, other great players such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Robert (Bobby) Fischer and Anatoly Karpov, just to name a few, continued to build upon these thoughts as the mature, complex systems of modern chess continued to evolve. 

Their innovative play, based upon proven theory, brought chess to an entirely new level by masterfully blending the requisite precise logic with an equally requisite creative artistic brilliance.  But the potential to advance the game was not exhausted, even by these grandmasters.  So that current grandmasters continue to push the envelope.  They continue to break new ground; to find improved variations and lines of play; all while continuing to build upon established theory.

By early master theorists such as Ruy López and Philidor, I do not mean to imply that chess started with these individuals or even in their era.  Primitive forms of the game have been traced to Asia, circa 3000 B.C.  And the prototype from which our modern game is conceived has existed in India since the 6th century. The game as we know it today has been played since the late 15th century, when the Europeans made a few changes to the Indian game to provide the current popular format.  But it was not until 1749, when Philidor published his book “Analyse du jeu des Échecs” that modern chess theory began to take root.  Philidor (considered the best player of his day and generally deemed unbeatable) analyzed nine types of game openings.  It was he who introduced the strategic concept of strong center pawns: “pawns,” he said, “are the soul of chess.” 

A century after Philidor, Wilhelm Steinitz made his mark.  With perhaps the exception of Aron Nimzovich, no individual has had such a far-reaching and profound affect on chess theory.  Steinitz’ peers immediately understood the importance of his ideas.  His theories of position play, space advantage, and controlling the center with pawns brought a dramatic and universal change to the game. 

Virtually on his heels three other theorists—his younger contemporaries each of which holding him in great esteem—made significant contributions of their own: Siegbert Tarrasch, Emanuel Lasker and Aron Nimzovich.  From Steinitz’s ideas, Tarrasch formulated a rigid system that emphasized the advantage of mobility and the inherent weakness of cramped positions, which he argued “had the germ of defeat.”  He especially emphasized the importance of the bishop pair. 

Meanwhile, Lasker introduced his psychological method of play in which he would resort to mind games with his opponent, often playing the inferior move if he thought it would make his opponent uncomfortable.  But just as the Steinitz/Tarrasch system was settling in as the standard, Nimzovich introduced an advanced system that boldly deviated from certain aspects of what had been set forth by Steinitz, refined by Tarrasch, and widely accepted as convention.

Nimzovich spoke of such concepts as overprotecting key points and playing prophylactic positional moves that prevented the opponent’s anticipated moves.  He demonstrated the ability to control the center from long-range with pieces versus pawns—a practice that has become the mainstay of hypermodern chess theory.  At first, many chess journalists and enthusiasts scoffed at his ideas, arguing that Nimzovich simply did not understand correct theory and made up for it by inventing his own.  However, his fellow tournament players were not so quick to dismiss the ideas of this competitor whom they themselves had such trouble beating.  Almost overnight Nimzovich had a substantial following and, before he died at the young age of 49, had become the undisputed master chess theorist of his time; arguably even rivaling Steinitz as the most influential theorists of modern chess.  He wrote several works on chess theory and to this day his book “My System” is still a must read for every chess enthusiast.

Paul Morphy, chess genius before grandmaster title created
Wilhelm Steinitz, first to officially crowned World Chess Champion.
Siegbert Tarrasch
    Emanuel Lasker
    Aron Nimzovich
      Max Euwe
Jose Raul Capablanca
Alexander Alekhine