Do New Ideas Stand Up in Practice? by GM Richard Reti


Do New Ideas Stand Up in Practice? by GM Richard Reti

(translated by R. Tekel and M. Shibut)

Translators' Note: In 1922 Richard Reti published one of the undisputed
classics of chess literature, New Ideas In Chess. In this book Reti
describes the historical development of chess ideas up through the
then-current hypermodern movement." He elaborated upon this theme in a
later book, Masters of the Chessboard which was published in 1932 (three
years after the author's death.) In the meantime however, the following
supplement to New Ideas appeared in a 1926 edition of Kalendar'
Waxmatista (Chessplayer's Calendar). The Calendar was a Soviet
periodical under the editorship of masters Veinstein and Levenfisch. The
October 1987 issue of Qaxmatnyj B]lleten% (Chess Bulletin) reprinted the
article with the observation, in these days when the study of openings
emphasizes concrete variations, Reti's general approach to the problems
of the opening and his reasoning are of special interest." As far as we
know, this is the first appearance of Reti's essay in English.
I will try to answer the question in the title, which was
posed to me by the editor of a recent book. I will also use this
opportunity to comment on the hypermodern school of chess, as my name is
associated with this idea in the eyes of the general public. My work is
often cited in this connection by critics and adherents alike.
Tartakower originated the term hypermodernism. In my opinion it is not
especially attractive, but in view of its widespread acceptance, I will
adopt it. To address the principle question of whether hypermodernism
has justified itself, we first must agree on what the word represents.
Confusion surrounds even this point. Many chess enthusiasts regard the
fianchetto and the holding back of center pawns as the essence of
hypermodernism. In fact, while these are striking features, they are
only manifestations of its underlying ideas, and are not the ideas
themselves. To others, hypermodernism is at least a bending of the laws
of strategy, if not a complete rejection of healthy positional tastes.
Still others see in hypermodernism a return to the ideals of Anderssen
and Morphy, at the expense of the principles laid out by Steinitz. This
notion portrays hypermodernism as a kind of neoromanticism. My first
task, by no means easy, is to overturn such false views of
hypermodernism. The disciples of the neoromantic interpretation tend to
be close adherents of my 1922 book New Ideas In Chess. Earlier than
others, they proclaimed me to be an innovator. They also regarded me as
a liberator from dull or boring positional play. (I'm expressing their
views - not my own!) Their euphoria became something of an embarrassment
for me inasmuch as I was received by them as a messiah to common chess
players. Nonsense! Hypermodernism really has nothing to do with such
neoromanticism. It strives not to destroy but to create; to continue the
development of chess theory founded on the work of the great masters of
the past. Now we may consider the true meaning of hypermodernism:
Principles of play in so-called open positions were well known to chess
masters in the era preceding Steinitz. That type of position occurs when
the pawns or both sides do not bypass each other during the initial
skirmish, but are exchanged or sacrificed, as in gambits. As a result
the board is cleared; free lines and diagonals appear. Masters of that
age correctly appreciated how the loss of a tempo was tantamount to loss
of the game; they knew that attacks undertaken with insufficient force
on hand were doomed to failure; etc. Then came Steinitz. He
established a whole new school of chess. He discovered principles
governing so-called closed positions. In this category of position,
pawns lock against one another, and exchanges are minimal. Both sides
try to limit the opponent's freedom of movement in the center. This new
school paid particular attention to questions of pawn structure; the use
of strong and weak points; etc. Up until then, only open and closed
positions were known. A third type of mixed positions - half open and
half closed - were hardly ever encountered in practice. For it was
assumed that each side had to use the pawns straightaway, to prevent the
opponent from occupying the center and to fight for space. Thus games
of that time began with the double-step movement of one or the other
center pawn; for example, the move 1. e4, which lays claim to space in
the center. The opponent usually answered l...e5, fighting for space
himself, and preventing White from forming a broad pawn center. Black
also tried l...c5 or l...e6 however, for any appearance they give of
neglecting the basic requirements is illusory. Experience demonstrated
that Black could not in any case advance both center pawns two squares,
e.g. after l...e5 Black's d-pawn had to remain at d6. So in playing
l...e6 Black had in mind the move 2...d5, whereby he would be no worse
off than usual in terms of his pawn center. The e- and d- pawns merely
exchanged roles, while the space occupied by the defense was
undiminished. The essential situation remained unchanged, although White
had to decide whether to open the game by exchanging pawns, or to close
the position by 3. e5. Similarly, l...c5 appeared, although not with the
purpose of playing a true Sicilian Defense. Black's intention was again
2...e6 with ...d5 soon to follow. The purpose of l...c5 was to hinder
the formation of a chain of White pawns at d4 / e5. An analogous idea
underlay Tchigorin's method of defending the queen pawn game (the Old
Indian Defense). Instead of l...d5, and satisfying himself with a single
step by the king pawn, Tchigorin began l...Nf6 to hinder e4 by White,
and next moved the d-pawn one square (2...d6) to prepare the double-step
advance of his e-pawn (assisted by ...Nbd7). Thus we get the same idea
as in the French Defense, but on the opposite flank. (Today, Tchigorin's
defense appears in an ultra-modern form where Black surrenders the
center.) In all these old openings, an early clash of center pawns
occurs, and this leads to either an exchange or a blockade. Thus former
theory recognized only two classes of position. Positions of the third
class were unknown. Nimzowitsch presses his claim - undisputed, however
- to be the first to consciously reject an automatic occupation of the
center by pawns. True, he only used such systems as the second player,
and not as the aggressor. The Alekhine Defense epitomizes the problems
arising in such openings. Alekhine plays 1. e4 Nf6. By this move he does
not rush to occupy the center with pawns, and he even presents White
with a chance to gain space by 2. e5 with gain of tempo. The practice
of recent years indicates that 2. e5 is double-edged, and leads to clear
disadvantage for White, since Black's counterattack by ...d6 begins
rapidly and finds a convenient target in White's pawns. Thus there is no
reason for Black to rush to occupy the center with pawns because White
hasn't the means to exploit Black's delay, nor to strengthen his central
grip in the long run. It became evident that the double step of White's
pawn, and its dominion in the center, does not amount to a real
advantage. To the contrary, Alekhine's Defense shows how the pawn in
question can easily become an object of attack. This notion is as valid
for White as for Black. And thus crumbled the old image of a pawn center
as representing the best method of play. However, when one or both
sides avoids forming a pawn center in the opening, we get that category
of positions that was unknown in the past. Here both sides' center pawns
are neither free nor blocked, but retain the possibility of transposing
to either of these categories. Prior to hypermodernism, no theory
existed for such unfixed positions. Just as Steinitz and his new school
discovered laws for closed positions, the hypermodern school seeks those
principles of play that apply to unfixed positions. By defining
hypermodernism in this light I all but answer the question contained in
the title. One can measure the practical successes of hypermoderns in
various ways; one can regard their experiments as deviations from
correct play; but one cannot a priori reject their approach to positions
of a sort previously uninvestigated. Theoretically, it is entirely
possible that hypermodernism is digging its own grave. Let us suppose
that the best method of play in non-fixed positions (including the
initial position, which has been investigated empirically but not
codified) is shown one day to consist of immediately transposing into
some position of the first two categories. This would indicate a
predominance or superiority of the old methods of play, and a necessity
of returning to them. Note, the results of hypermodern research thus far
gives no indication for such a conclusion. But even if such a conclusion
was possible, even then, by strengthening the general theory of openings
hypermodernism would have proven its worth. Wishing to include a bit
more meat in this discussion, I highlight what sort of tasks remain for
hypermodern investigation. So for example, one unsolved problem has wide
interest: we have already seen that an early advance of center pawns
creates points of attack for the opponent, and is probably not the
optimal line of play. On the other hand, if such moves are delayed, a
danger arises that they will be prevented altogether, resulting in a
cramped position for a long time. In early hypermodernism, this very
mistake was the cause of many defeats. But even now there are no general
rules for determining the proper moment for advancing into the center.
Merely by raising such questions, hypermodernism has already contributed
a great deal. Now I will propose a thesis, the proof of which the reader
and I can seek together. It is known that the significance of a single
tempo, and thus the significance of development, is greatest in open
positions. In closed positions it plays almost no role. Consequently, it
would seem to be in White's interest to open the game (without loss of
tempo, of course). How can this be achieved? Most likely by exposing and
attacking the opponent's strong points. One would expect Black's
strongest point in the center to be d5 since, unlike e5, it has natural
protection by the queen. Therefore, the ideal initial move is 1. c4,
immediately taking aim at d5. Should Black support d5 by l...Nf6, then
White reinforces the attack by 2. Nc3. Let's assume that Black answers
2...e5. This weakens d5 and reveals his intention of building his
position around e5 by such moves as ...Nc6 and ...d6. (Even with 2...e6
he could not control d5 in the long run.) Now White need not continue
attacking d5, which Black abandoned without a fight, by 3. g3 and 4.
Bg2. Rather, following the logic given above, White should strike the
new bastion e5 by 3. Nf3 and (in reply to 3...d6 or ...Nc6) 4. d4, and
he thereby achieves an advantage. Alternately, from Black's point of
view: Having started a tempo behind in development, Black is interested
in a closed game. It is futile for him to assail the opponent's strong
points since that will lead to a dissolution of the position. His plan
must be to establish a blockade on the weak squares in White's position.
The creation of a mutual blockade will obviously lend the game a closed
character. Therefore, if White begins, say, 1. d4 it is disadvantageous
to attack the strong point by l...c5, but preferable to pressure the
weakened e4 by l...Nf6 with the idea of ...b6 and ...Bb7. Such general
considerations do not comprise an exhaustive proof. But I hope this will
demonstrate to the reader the value of seeking general laws - in a word,
theory - for non-fixed positions. What will be hypermodernism's future?
Nowadays it has many opponents, especially among older masters. But even
they cannot ignore its achievements. The more conspicuous the practical
benefits of hypermodernism, the sooner it will be accepted by masters in
general. [Virginia Chess, Sept/Oct 1993][Jerry Lawson].

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