By Davide Nastasio
Everyman Chess 2016, 343 pages
I believe through GM Zenón writings, I discovered many ideas about chess that I didn’t have before.
For example, in this book (at page 9) he mentions the following: “I believe that brilliance is something that all we chess players associate with the name of Morphy, from the very first time that we see some of his games, which as a rule takes place not long after learning to play.”
Nimzowitsch had an idea on how one should learn chess. I didn’t discover such an idea until I read some of his writings, and then it was too late. And here, too, I am late. I should have been introduced to Morphy in the beginning of my chess learning. Instead I was introduced to chess through a poor commercial chess site, which mainly appealed to tactics and some articles and lessons, but didn’t have a real teaching method. That is not chess; Morphy is chess! Morphy should be taught to every chess player, like the book Chess Fundamentals by Jose Raul Capablanca should be read by everyone. They are the basics of the chess alphabet.
In the beginning of the book, many champions of the past are mentioned: Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe, just to mention a few which come to mind, and they all express their praise for Morphy. This alone speaks volumes. It means that at every amateur level, in order to progress one should study Morphy.
Many books have been written on Morphy, still GM Zenón points out, and this is a trademark of his writings, that Morphy didn’t leave anything written. This seems to be the reason why GM Zenón writes. He wrote books on champions that didn’t leave their thoughts behind: Rubinstein, Spassky, and now Morphy!
But why did I want to read this book so badly? Well, my main problem is the opening. I have extreme difficulties to get out of the opening right. I often lose one pawn or more in the opening, and then I recover it in the middlegame or endgame. It is funny, because in some of the games in one of my last tournaments, also when I was down one pawn in the endgame, my opponents asked me for the draw. Maybe they were too tired from the complications I created in the middlegame. My rationale for reading about Morphy is to gain that opening and center-control understanding that he had. Another part I find important is how he was able to become so good with the limited means at his disposal. Today we have GMs online teaching private or group lessons, articles, endless published chess books, software of any kind, and still we are not as good as a Morphy. Most players, maybe 90% of amateurs, remain between 1400 and 1900 for all their lives. My promise, made to myself to improve before next tournament was to read all this book and try to extract the lessons needed for my personal chess improvement.
Before beginning the actual review of the book, I’d like to address one point I’ve heard many times. One of the arguments made against Morphy was that his opponents were weak compared to today or just 40 years ago. Fischer answered such an argument in a video interview in 1971 in Sarajevo, he said: “Morphy was not responsible for his opponents’ mistakes.” And this is the part some people forget: when you sit down at the board, the real fight is against yourself. Your opponent is merely a mirror of the conflict nobody will ever see.
For this review, I’ve selected some positions to share with the readers, hoping they will try actively to find the solution. That is one of the ways to use this great book to improve.
The book is comprised of seven chapters. Chapter one is dedicated to Morphy’s playing style. The first four positions presented show Morphy’s attacking skills. Then the chapter continues with 11 positions which show one immortal element of Morphy’s play: the initiative. Let’s remember for a moment this book is part of the “Move by Move” series. GM Zenón is not showing the usual pedantic collection of games we can find in every book. He is showing us the traits of a player we must emulate in order to become master level players. This makes the book a training tool to hone our chess skills.
Now place yourself in Morphy’s shoes and try to guess how he continued. Black just played Pd7-d5 which is a blunder. Black is attacking the Qg4 with the Bc8. What do you play as White?
Here is the game for those who want to enjoy this miniature and know if they got it right!
The second chapter is made up of games against family members. Obviously in that time there was no television, no social media, and so on, and clearly the children, who are like sponges in their young years, grasp whatever the adults do. In this case, like for Capablanca, the environment around Morphy was made by people who loved to play chess in their free time, hence Morphy must have witnessed endless familiar and friendly challenges, and absorbed what he could. This chapter contains 4 games, deeply analyzed and annotated in Move-by-Move style, with typical questions at important moments.
This is an example of questions we can find in the book: White just played 17.f3. What did Morphy play in this position?
Once more, here is the entire game for those who want to know how it ended. (By the way, in the book this game year is given as 1852. But in multiple sources, for example Chessbase Megabase 2017 and other chess sites I have consulted, the year given is 1850.)
The third chapter is quite interesting because it tells us about the First American Chess Congress in 1857! There are many interesting games in this chapter. I was quite interested in the model of such a tournament, which copied London 1851. Maybe Tournament organizers could pick up some ideas from the past in order to make chess tournaments exciting, at least from the player’s perspective, which should be important, because it could attract more players! This chapter is made up of 15 games.
I’d like to point out that while Morphy’s games are often brilliant, and short, GM Zenón also used some games for teaching the endgame, like in the following position:
White just played 31.Nxb7; GM Zenón points out that there are many possibilities in this position. But in order to understand chess, and find Black’s next move easily, we must be able to understand in which phase of the game we are, and then it becomes clear what the next move should be, and why. In the book you’ll find the answer.
Chapter Four is a detail of Morphy’s visit to London and his match against Löwenthal. I find the way GM Zenón divided the book quite appealing. He portrays Morphy in different periods of his life, showing the evolution of the player. Notice: this chapter is 65 pages long! That can give you an idea of the insight window given to us and in Morphy’s games, but also the amount of teaching GM Zenón poured into the book! Staunton, the best player in the UK in that period, smartly avoided a match against Morphy, because that would have resulted in a humiliating defeat! Chapter Five shows the journey to Paris, and the match against Harrwitz. The book ends with Chapter Six – the match against Anderssen, and Chapter Seven, a very small chapter, on Morphy’s retirement from the chess arena.
There are a total of 44 complete games and many training positions in each chapter. I think the book is ideal for those who want to know Morphy’s games, while at the same time training themselves. The selection of the games by GM Zenón is particularly useful for those who want to train their calculation power. The more we make our training active and ask ourselves questions, the better we are going to become in tournament play. Morphy is clearly the first player we should all know and learn about in our journey toward chess mastery, and thanks to GM Zenón we can make this journey more pleasant and instructive!