Reviews | February 14, 2009 23:00

Review: Questions of Modern Chess Theory

Questions of Modern Chess TheorySometimes the best books get the worst treatment. It took more than 25 years before an edition of Mikhail Bulgakov's great novel The Master and Margarita was first published. But this is nothing compared to the 52(!) years it took before Questions of Modern Chess Theory by Isaac Lipnitsky was translated into English. It is now published in a modern edition by Quality Chess. Without exaggeration it's fair to say that Western chess would have looked totally different, had this book been available earlier.

Isaac Lipnitsky was born in 1923 in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine. He was a strong Soviet player in the 1950s, but sadly died of leukemia in 1959. His Questions of Modern Chess Theory was published in the Soviet Union in 1956. Reading the book now, it's easy to understand why, according to legend, Bobby Fischer learned Russian just to be able to read this book. It is still modern.

In fact, the book constantly reminded me of John Watson's Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy - Advances since Nimzowitsch, a modern classic which was written in 1998 and won Watson several awards. The fact is, many 'modern' themes from Watson's book were already discussed 40 years before by Isaac Lipnitsky. Moreover, Lipnitsky provides examples from historical games which suggest that the word 'modern' in Watson's title may have to be reconsidered. In the chapter 'Conquering the centre from the flanks' Lipnitsky illustrates what Watson in 1998 called 'the new relationshipn of flank to centre'. Quoting Nimzowitsch, who said that 'pawn moves are only admissible in the development stage when they either help to occupy the centre, or stand in logical connection with its occupation', Watson notes that 'these principles have been considerably relaxed in modern times'.

It sounds reasonable enough, and we only have to recall Alex Shabalov's move 7.g2-g4!? in the Meran Slav to realize how things have changed. Or have they? In 1956, Lipnitsky wrote:

With a blow in the centre you easily succeed in thwarting your opponent's attack on the flank - this much is generally familiar. The mutual interdependence between the centre and flanks has, however, remained unilluminated up to now. And yet an early attack on the flank is not always or usually an operation of purely logical significance; it is rather a veiled form of attack against the centre of the enemy position.

Moscow 1935

15...g5! 16.Nxd4 Nxe5 17.Bc2 Qb6! 18.Ba4+ Ke7 19.Re1 Bg7!

Doesn't this all look extremely modern to you? As Lipnitsky puts it, 'a most intriguing position. White's king is sheltered on the flank, Black's is in the centre. White has five pieces in play, Black has four. Despite this, White's position is very difficult.' Lipnitsky concludes his chapter with the following prophetic words: 'There is no doubt that early flank attacks as a means of fighting for the centre have a great future.'

Thus, Lipnitsky was one of the first authors to acknowledge from a theoretical point of view some of the developments we now call 'modern'. (Nimzowitsch himself, by the way, was also much less strict with his theoretical dogmas - on which Watson mainly focuses - in his own practical games, as was shown by Raymond Keene in his 1974 book Aron Nimzowitsch: A Reappraisal.)

There are many more examples in the book which have this 'futuristic' quality. Many of Lipnitsky's examples can now be found in any serious book on chess strategy. In a chapter on making concrete decisions, Lipnitsky gives the following now-famous position:

Munich 1942

Indeed, this position is also included again in Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy, where it features in the chapter 'Royalty in our times' about the modern ideas on where to put your king. Black's move 11...Kd7!! was, as Lipnitsky mentions, already praised by Alekhine who 'observes that it deprives White's flank attack of any point.' (Apparently, Richter's creativity had not suffered from the circumstances in which this game must have been played.)

In his book, Lipnitsky pays much attention to opening developments. Sometimes, the ideas he mentioned are no longer topical, but even where this is the case, he often succeeds in saying something useful about the opening he's discussing. But it's striking how many of the openings he mentions are still highly popular, such as the Marshall Gambit in the Slav, which features in the most recent ChessVibes Openings, or the famous Botvinnik Variation of that same opening. And even though the specific variations mentioned are not that relevant anymore, Lipnitsky always makes some valuable comments about the position. Here's a good example:

Kiev 1955

If you look up this position in your database (it's a Ruy Lopez with 5.0-0 d6 6.Bxc6 bxc6 7.d4 exd4 8.Nxd4 c5) , you'll find that the most well-known game played with it was Smyslov-Botvinnik, 11th match game, Moscow 1954. Smyslov played 9.Nf3 and didn't gain any advantage. The author notes: 'Both 9.Ne2 and 9.Nf3 are examined in theoretical manuals. However, in either case Black basically experiences no opening problems. Is it really impossible for White to complicate Black's task? Instead of retreating the knight, what about executing the following active manoeuvre?'

9.Nc6! Qd7 10.Na5! 'From a5 the knight blocks the black queenside and keeps the bishop away from its intended square b7. The other bishop is also difficult to fianchetto: on 10...g6 White has 11.e5!'

Interestingly, the first game in my database with 9.Nc6 is from 1963. It seems that Lipnitsky again was way ahead of his time. Indeed, 9.Nc6 was recently played by the French Luxembourg GM Alberto David, proving that Lipnitsky's idea is still very much alive.

Lipnitsky's book is also a forerunner of the high-quality books on chess improvement by Mark Dvoretsky and Artur Yusupov. His chapter 'From critical positions to settled positions' is a great example of a way of looking at chess analysis that I had always thought was 'typically Dvoretsky'. Lipnitsky puts much emphasis on the value of a thorough analysis of games, and especially pays attention to so called 'critical positions'.

Stockholm 1952

This game is analysed in great detail by Lipnitsky. Although the current position (White's last move was 14.d5) is still highly unclear, the goal is to 'arrive at a position that is not critical, but settled in character'. First, Lipnitsky gives a general analysis of the position, mainly in words. The game continued 14...Nb4 15.Qb1 b5 16.Bb3 a5 17.0-0 a4 18.Bxb4 axb3 19.Bxd6 cxd6 20.f3 g5 21.axb3 and White had an extra pawn and good winning chances. Lipnitsky first wonders why Black didn't play 18...Bxb4 and shows that this was indeed the best move for Black. He now concludes that perhaps 17.0-0 was not White's best move after all. Instead, he suggests the move 17.a3! which he then analyses to a 'settled' position with advantage for White. This conclusion makes him return to the diagrammed position, wondering if perhaps Black's last move (13....Qf5) was a mistake already. You see how he keeps adjusting his evaluation and making new concusions about the position all the time. It's exactly the way modern chess analysts like Dvoretsky and John Nunn handle things. Finally, I noticed that when I fed the position after Black's 16th move to Rybka, it indeed suggested 17.a3! as a strong move - although to be fair, 17.0-0 seems not so bad after all with the help of computer analysis.

Questions of Modern Chess Theory is without doubt one of the best chess books of all time. In my opinion, it calls into question the whole Western concept of 'modern' chess developments, showing that many ideas already existed in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and before. The book is full of clear, easily understandable examples, written by someone who doesn't make a fuss of words and is able to explain chess in a crystal-clear style. If we disregard a few outdated opinions on particular opening variations, the book might as well have been written last year. Or somewhere in the future.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Rob Brown's picture

One wonders what that excellent reviewer of books on chess, John Watson, would say of the reissue. Perhaps the author of this review could forward him a copy along with his review.

Arne Moll's picture

You're right, zemiggel, David is indeed from Luxembourg. I guess I assumed he was French because he lives in Paris (at least he used to...). As for the book being the laughingstock of great players, these didn't include Botvinnik, Fischer and Karpov, who have all praised the book in the past even though they hated each other's guts...

Horst's picture

Great article ! Should be read by every clubplayer !


alfiler's picture

Congratulations. This book will knock down the remains of the iron curtain.

bernd's picture

Indeed Dvoretsky mentioned this book (the russian edition of course) in several places in his own books. So the similarity in analytical style is not at all a coincidence.

Jeans's picture

I also have this book and I was hoping you would write a review on it, and I was curious about your opinion.
Lipnitsky shows a great variety of examples and almost always adds more examples when the principle or idea he showed does in fact not work. He in this way stimulates the reader to keep an open mind.

I hope you will write a review about Jacob Aagaard's Attacking Manual.

zemiggel's picture

Isn't GM Alberto David from Luxembourg anymore?

zemiggel's picture

I read somewhere that in Russian times, this book was a collectors item. Why? Because it was a sport discovering all the huge mistakes in it by yourself. Among great players it was a laughingstock. Unfortunately I can't remember the source.

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