23 November 2008

Chigorin and His Contemporaries

Kotov & Yudovich's Soviet School of Chess devoted the entire second chapter to Chigorin ('Founder of the Russian School'). Part factual and part propaganda, the authors' opinion of Chigorin's contribution to the Russian/Soviet School is in the following paragraphs.

Chigorin greatly influenced the development of chess in Russia. He was, first and foremost, a master of striking originality and creative force, and it was this that determined his role in the formation of the Russian and Soviet school. Chigorin's chess talent came to the fore in the period when the views formulated by Steinitz, the first world champion, and developed by the prominent grandmaster, Dr. Tarrasch, held sway throughout the chess world. Notwithstanding his high opinion of Steinitz' skill and numerous contributions to theory, Chigorin carried on a dispute with him over matters of principle for a number of years.

The 'modern school', as Steinitz and Tarrasch called it, strove above all to establish immutable laws applicable in every situation in chess. The creative process during play, as this school saw it, consisted in bringing the position on the board and the planned move into conformity with laws and rules that had been established once and for all.

Chigorin rebelled against the restriction of creative thinking by dogmatic laws, and he stood up for his views both in theory and in practice. It was necessary, Chigorin said, to take into account all the concrete features of the position, and to make a dynamic appraisal of each position and its combinational possibilities. He clearly saw that the development of chess thought and technique would eventually overthrow many old conceptions.

Tarrasch and the masters and critics who supported him claimed that they had formed a 'modern school', while Chigorin represented out-dated views, i.e. the old school. Steinitz and Tarrasch failed to understand the essence of creative thinking in chess, which they tried to subordinate to abstract and unreasonable principles. It is clear today that their views were erroneous and narrowed down the rich content of chess.

Chigorin would not reconcile himself to the efforts of the 'modern school' to emasculate creative thought in chess by fitting the entire substance of the art into the framework of rules they had invented. Laying bare the vulnerable aspects of the Steinitz and Tarrasch theories, he came forward with a number of new principles relating to strategy and tactics in all stages of the game: in a word, he presented a new understanding of chess.

The Russian champion's creative imagination, his critical attitude towards the pronouncements of recognized authorities, his quest of the new, and, finally, his deep faith in the limitless creative possibilities of chess made his investigations a major contribution to theory. (p.17)

Nowhere is it mentioned that Chigorin lost two title matches to Steinitz and only drew his match with Tarrasch after being down +5-8=4 with 10 games needed to win. This observation is not to detract from Chigorin's world class performances, but to point out that Kotov & Yudovich were not always as objective in their writing as Chigorin was in his play. See Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin (1850-1908) for Chigorin's record.

Obscuring the historical record might be one reason why two-thirds of the chapter on Chigorin is spent on a discussion of his contribution to opening theory. It's also worth noting that half of chapter three, on Alekhine ('Russia's Greatest Player'), is spent on the fourth World Champion's contributions to opening theory. In the 1950s, when the book was written, was it safer to write about chess openings than about facts that were contrary to the Soviet world view?

In the tournament book for Hastings 1895, both Steinitz and Tarrasch, as well as Lasker, Pillsbury, and Schiffers, each annotated several games that Chigorin played in the event. Perhaps we can glean from these notes an objective summary of how Chigorin's contemporaries viewed his contributions.

No comments: