Lessons from John Nunn

John Nunn was a top ten player in his prime, but was and is a champion as a chess author. His first substantial book, Secrets of Grandmaster Play with Peter Griffiths, was an instant classic, and he has written many volumes aimed at the improving player. He has been particularly concerned to reflect the richness and complexity of modern chess in his books, and has striven to do so in uncluttered prose, leavened with a bit of dry wit. I think he has succeeded rather wonderfully, and I have borrowed from his writing wholemeal, as opposed to piecemeal, for coaching sessions over the years.


Some of that dry wit:

"If you want to lose a miniature, then here are three helpful tips. First of all, it is a big help if you are Black. losing in under 20 moves requires a special talent which few possess. Secondly, choose a provocative opening, for example an opening in which you try to realise strategic ambitions, but at the cost of backward development and delayed castling. Thirdly, if something goes slightly wrong, don't reconcile yourself to defending a bad position - seek a tactical solution instead! Don't worry about the fact that tactics are bound to favour the better developed side; just go ahead anyway. Follow this advice and at least you will get home early."
[Event "London"]
[Site "London"]
[Date "1986.??.??"]
[Round "8"]
[White "Nunn, John DM"]
[Black "Dlugy, Maxim"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "B12"]
[WhiteElo "2585"]
[BlackElo "2545"]
[PlyCount "39"]

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nc3 h5 5. Bd3 Bxd3 6. Qxd3 e6 7. Nf3 Nh6 8. O-O
Nf5 9. Ne2 Nd7 10. Ng3 Nh4 11. Nxh4 Qxh4 12. Be3 Qd8 13. Rfd1 Rc8 14. b3 c5 15.
c4 cxd4 16. cxd5 Nxe5 17. Qxd4 Qxd5 18. Qa4+ b5 19. Rxd5 bxa4 20. Rxe5 1-0

And more serious fare, about the position at move 11 below:

"But already this opening has certain puzzling aspects. Why should White consistently maintain his initiative, both in the variations we have looked at and in those to come? Why should Black's position be so awklard? The question really boils down to a more basic one: why is the Ruy Lopez (which this opening has virtually become) so difficult for Black to combat? Look at the present position: Black's pieces are sensibly developed; he has as much space as White; his pawns are strong. Yet he has problems.
"The answer seems to be that in this type of Ruy Lopez position Black can easily get cought in a situation where his game cannot unfold. Here for instance, White has his plans of Ng3-f5 and later d4, but it is less easy for Black to find something profitable to do without weakening himself or making some serious concession. His pieces may look reasonably placed, but they cannot readily achieve anything constructive or relevant. I should make it clear that this does not have to happen in a Lopez; it is far from being a bad opening for him. But in practice one error (6...Qe7) can leave him in misery. And so, if a player seems to have a respectable game (in a Ruy Lopez or any other opening for that matter), yet still loses, his misfortune may often be traced back to this lack of life in his position."
[Event "EU-chT 08th Group3"]
[Site "Middlesbrough"]
[Date "1982.07.11"]
[Round "2"]
[White "Nunn, John DM"]
[Black "Olafsson, Fridrik"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C54"]
[WhiteElo "2590"]
[PlyCount "73"]

1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. d3 Nc6 4. Nf3 Bc5 5. O-O d6 6. c3 Qe7 7. Nbd2 a6 8. Bb3
O-O 9. Re1 Be6 10. Nf1 Ba7 11. Bc2 Kh8 12. Ng3 Qd7 13. d4 Bg4 14. d5 Ne7 15. h3
Bxf3 16. Qxf3 Nfg8 17. Bd2 g6 18. c4 f5 19. exf5 Nxf5 20. Nxf5 gxf5 21. Bc3
Rae8 22. b4 Ne7 23. h4 Rg8 24. h5 Rg7 25. c5 Reg8 26. g3 h6 27. Rad1 Qe8 28.
Rxe5 dxe5 29. Bxe5 b6 30. d6 Nc6 31. Bf6 Qe6 32. Bxg7+ Rxg7 33. Qxc6 bxc5 34.
Qa8+ Rg8 35. Qxa7 Rxg3+ 36. Kh2 Qe5 37. Qxc5 1-0


It's hard to pick just a couple of annotations to represent the rich seam to be mined in Nunn's books, but I went with these two:

"If White wishes to play for a direct attack he can try 15. g4 [variation]. In olden times White would often attack by g4 and Ng3 in the Closed Spanish; once in a while White would break through with a Nf5 sacrifice, but now it is recognised that so long as all Black's pieces can reach the King's-side, a direct attack should not work. Thus, the emphasis has switched to diversionary Queen's-side play, with a King's-side attack being reserved for a favourable moment when Black's pieces have been lured away. Moreover, the King's-side attack is usually based on f4 rather than g4, since only f4 offers the chance of activating the light-squared Bishop on c2.
White's preliminary a4 gives him control of the a-file; this may not appear relevant to the conduct of a King's-side attack, but watch what happens later!"
[Event "Brussels"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "1986.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Nunn, John DM"]
[Black "Short, N.."]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C98"]
[Annotator "Lessons from John Nunn"]
[PlyCount "59"]
[EventDate "1986.??.??"]
[EventType "tourn"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3
O-O 9. h3 Na5 10. Bc2 c5 11. d4 Qc7 12. Nbd2 Nc6 13. d5 Nd8 14. Nf1 Ne8 15. a4
(15. g4 g6 16. Ng3 Ng7 17. Kh2 f6 18. Be3 Bd7 19. Qd2 Nf7 20. Rg1 Kh8 21. Raf1
Rg8 22. Ne1 Raf8 {[#] = Robatsch-Padevsky, Amsterdam 1972}) 15... Rb8 16. axb5
axb5 17. b4 c4 18. Ng3 g6 19. Nh2 Ng7 20. Rf1 Bd7 21. f4 Bh4 22. Qf3 f5 23.
fxe5 dxe5 24. exf5 Bxg3 25. Qxg3 Nxf5 26. Qf2 (26. Qe1 {î�+/-}) 26... Nb7 27.
Ng4 h5 28. Ra6 hxg4 29. Rxg6+ Ng7 30. Rxg7+ (30. Rxg7+ Kxg7 31. Bh6+ Kxh6 (
31... Kg8 32. Qxf8+ Rxf8 33. Rxf8#) (31... Kh8 32. Qxf8+ Rxf8 33. Rxf8#) 32.
Qh4+ Kg7 33. Qh7#) 1-0

And a little bit deeper: after move 10 by White

"The traditional way of assessing such positions is to say that Black has an inferior pawn structure, but in compensation he has the two Bishops (*). Looked at this way, Portisch's plan appears strange. However, a static evaluation takes no account of the potential activity of Black's pieces. His main problem is the future of the c8 Bishop; he doesn't want to play ...Bd7, because that would prevent the manoeuvre ...Nd7 and ...Bf6, which is his best chance of activating the other minor pieces. After ...Be6, the Bishop would be a target for a later Nf3-d4 or f2-f4-f5, and it would block the e-file, making it ipossible to develop pressure against the e4-pawn by ...Re8. The only real solution is to get rid of the Bishop by ...Bg4 followed by ...Bxf3. This plan has to be executed immediately or else White plays Qd3, preparing to meet ...Bg4 by Nd4. Perhaps there is even an argument for 10. Qd3!?, although this might tempt Black to develop his Bishop another way - by 10...a5 followed by ...Ba6. The exchange on f3 not only relieves Black's slightly cramped position, it also gives him a grip on e5."
[Event "Rejkyavic"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "1988.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Nunn, John DM"]
[Black "Portisch, Lajos"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C73"]
[WhiteElo "2620"]
[BlackElo "2630"]
[PlyCount "65"]
[EventDate "1988.??.??"]
[EventType "tourn"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 d6 5. Bxc6+ bxc6 6. d4 exd4 7. Qxd4 Nf6 8.
O-O Be7 9. Nc3 O-O 10. Re1 Bg4 11. Qd3 Bxf3 12. Qxf3 Nd7 13. b3 Bf6 14. Bb2 Re8
15. Rad1 Re6 16. Qh3 Qe8 17. f4 Rd8 18. Qe3 Nb6 19. e5 dxe5 20. f5 Rxd1 21.
Rxd1 Re7 22. Ne4 Rd7 23. Nxf6+ gxf6 24. Re1 Qd8 25. Qe4 Nd5 26. Qg4+ Kh8 27.
Bc1 Qf8 28. c4 Nb4 29. Qh4 Qd6 30. Qh6 Rd8 31. h3 c5 32. Re4 Rg8 33. Qxh7+ 1-0


Nunn's sharp style surely kept the number of endgames he had to play to a minimum, but I've picked out a couple from the books spanning his own career. As an author he was something of a connoisseur of this phase of play, and was a notable interpreter of exhaustive and exhausting computer-solved databases.

This first game is an endgame for most of its duration, but it 'feels' like a middlegame to me! Nunn's notes are rich.

A typical observation from his oeuvre:

"The following game is typical of tournament chess. Published games are often 'clean kills', in which the defender puts up little resistance, but in reality most games aren't like this. Annotations, particularly those by third parties, often promote the concept of the game in which the winner does everything right, while the loser does everything wrong. This is rare in practice, except when one player is much stronger than the other. This game is more representative; stretches of accurate play are interspersed with mistakes and the defender doesn't go down without a fight, but puts up a fierce and determined resistance right into the endgame."
I'm sure Nunn kept the notes to a minimum, but they are hard going! And yet, if you want to improve, you must immerse yourself in such detail.
[Event "Szirak Interzonal"]
[Site "Szirak"]
[Date "1987.??.??"]
[Round "3"]
[White "Nunn, John DM"]
[Black "De la Villa Garcia, Jesus Maria"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C63"]
[WhiteElo "2585"]
[BlackElo "2485"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 f5 4. Nc3 Nd4 5. exf5 c6 6. Nxe5 Nf6 7. Bd3 d6 8.
Ng4 Nxf5 9. O-O Be7 10. Nxf6+ Bxf6 11. Re1+ Kf7 12. Ne4 Rf8 13. c3 Kg8 14. Bc2
d5 15. Ng3 Nxg3 16. hxg3 d4 17. Be4 Qb6 18. Qc2 d3 19. Qxd3 Bxc3 20. bxc3 Qxf2+
21. Kh2 Qxe1 22. Ba3 Qxa1 23. Bxh7+ Kh8 24. Bxf8 Be6 25. Bxg7+ Kxg7 26. Qg6+
Kh8 27. Qh6 Bd5 28. Be4+ Kg8 29. Qh7+ Kf8 30. Bxd5 cxd5 31. Qh8+ Ke7 32. Qxa8
Qxa2 33. Qxb7+ Kd6 34. Qb8+ Kc6 35. Qf4 Qc4 36. Qf5 a5 37. g4 a4 38. d3 Qc5 39.
Qc8+ Kb5 40. Qb7+ Ka5 41. g5 Qd6+ 42. g3 a3 43. g6 Ka4 44. g7 Qh6+ 45. Kg2 Qd2+
46. Kh3 Qh6+ 47. Kg4 Qg6+ 48. Kf4 Qf6+ 49. Ke3 d4+ 50. Ke4 Qe6+ 51. Kxd4 Qg4+
52. Kc5 1-0

And to appreciate this earlier game, too, you must turn to the notes to get the most out of it -- or, as the authors recommend, play through it as though you had the black pieces, and try to work out the best moves.

[Event "Phillips&Drew"]
[Site "London"]
[Date "1982.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Portisch, Lajos"]
[Black "Nunn, John DM"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "A79"]
[WhiteElo "2630"]
[BlackElo "2590"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 e6 4. Nc3 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. e4 g6 7. Nf3 Bg7 8. Be2
O-O 9. O-O Re8 10. Nd2 Na6 11. Kh1 Nc7 12. a4 Rb8 13. f3 b6 14. Nc4 Ba6 15. Bg5
Qd7 16. b3 Nh5 17. Rc1 f6 18. Be3 f5 19. g4 Bxc4 20. bxc4 fxg4 21. fxg4 Nf6 22.
Bf3 Qe7 23. Bg5 h6 24. Bh4 g5 25. Be1 Rf8 26. Bg2 Nd7 27. Rxf8+ Rxf8 28. Ne2
Be5 29. Qd3 Ne8 30. Bd2 Qg7 31. Rf1 Rxf1+ 32. Bxf1 Qf7 33. Kg2 Nef6 34. h3 Qg6
35. Nc3 Bxc3 36. Bxc3 Qxe4+ 37. Qxe4 Nxe4 38. Be1 Ne5 39. Be2 Kf7 40. Bf3 Nf6
41. Be2 Ng6 42. Bf1 h5 43. gxh5 Nxh5 44. Kf3 Ne5+ 45. Ke4 Kg6 46. Be2 Nf6+ 47.
Ke3 Kf5 48. Bc3 a6 49. Be1 g4 50. hxg4+ Nfxg4+ 51. Kd2 Ke4 52. Kc3 Ke3 53. Bd1
Nf3 54. Bg3 Nf2 55. Bc2 Ng5 56. Kb2 Nge4 57. Bh4 Kd4 58. Bb3 Nd3+ 59. Ka3 Ne5