CAN THE ART OF COMBINATION BE LEARNT?
The Difficulties of the Problem
BEFORE I begin my fascinating journey into the mysterious realm of Combination, so little explored and therefore so much the more attractive, I hasten to state my full realisation of the difficulties that await me.
One might have supposed that the study of combinations in chess would be made pleasant and easy by the imaginative beauty therein displayed, that it was at all events much simpler than the study of other chess problems, which are governed by rigid laws and strict logic. But that would be an error; for it is precisely the apparent absence of logic which makes this particular study difficult. We can hardly deal in generalities. Can we even assert that there are here any general principles or governing ideas? Is not every combination a particular case, with its own special rules? At the risk of wearying the student, therefore, it is necessary to multiply examples, without even then feeling sure that convincing deductions can be made, to reward the labour involved in the attempt.
What has been Done
What we have said is the probable explanation why combinations have been so little studied by the technical writers. There is nothing ready to hand: no definitions, no terminology, not even a classification. All that we have in this domain is the collections of famous games and brilliant combinations. Some of these are deservedly favourites, but the combinations are hardly ever grouped under heads. It is as if mere chance had governed their selection and arrangement. When one spends much time over a mass of startling diagrams, must one not be driven to ask whether there is any instruction to be gained from the study, or whether these combinations are just exhibitions of luck, or at best of sheer inspiration?
Let us then look on these collections as the raw material from which new products are to be fashioned. Let us introduce order into this chaos, and throw the light of theoretical reason upon it. After we have examined the abundant material furnished by practical play, it will be our task to group it according to certain common features; and then perhaps we shall be able to disentangle some general conclusions.
Without depreciating what our predecessors have done, we are obliged to say that most of the writers dealing with this subject are too much under the sway of facts, and so appreciably lessen the value of their studies. We must, however, do homage, among these writers, to the late Dr. S. Tarrasch, to Dr. E. Vllmy, and to P. Romanovsky.
Dr. Tarrasch had devoted to Combination several pages of his celebrated manual Das Schachspiel. Those pages are unfortunately insufficient, for so complex a subject cannot be thoroughly dealt with in a manual. The study of combinations is also attempted in Dr. Vllmy's masterly work Schachtaktik. Here we find a first essay in classification. But the author, having allowed but one chapter for the subject, has taken as his basis of classification rather the outward marks: mate-combinations, drawing combinations, Pawn-promotions, etc.—which cannot fully satisfy us.
Romanovsky's work on the Middle Game is divided into two parts: Plan and Combinations. The second part allows of a remarkable study of the mechanism of combination, as well as a praiseworthy attempt at terminology. But the absence of a reasoned classification is to be regretted. The different kinds of combinations are not completely set out. Let us hope that the author will pursue his researches in a region with which he is obviously familiar.
All this seems to confirm the objection which many amateurs of the game raise against the study of combinations, saying that they cannot be, even ought not to be, studied.
Can we Study Combinations?
If it were a case of impossibility, it would be an extraordinary fact, of which we might indeed be proud. All things are studied, all the branches of human knowledge have their courses and their handbooks. Why alone should the combinations of the chessboard evade the enquiries of science? Certainly we cannot refuse to appreciate the part played by genius, the mystery of creation. Years of study cannot make up for the lack of imagination. And yet look at Légal's mate (see p. 22). The mediocre chessplayer will never invent anything like it; he will never ever think of such. But, when the mechanism of the stratagem has been explained to him, this same player will be able not only to reproduce it when occasion arises, but to apply it in other positions. It is probable, too, that he will not fall a victim to the snare when it is laid for him.
If the examination of combinations, in the whole mass of games, shows the ability of the great masters to create new types, the majority of players only reproduce old manuvres, complicating them, adding variations to them, and sometimes also simplifying them and impoverishing them. This is because at the basis of every combination there shines an idea, and because, though combinations are without number, the number of ideas is limited.
The case is the same with problems; but it must be remarked that their "themes" are known and catalogued. Nothing like that has been done for combinations in the actual game, in spite of the advantage which a fine repertory of ideas displayed in them confers on the player. His task still remains very difficult, since the application of these ideas in quite dissimilar positions demands great experience. The game of the weak amateur, however, will be none the less enriched, because it will be enough that he should know these creations of inventive genius to see his horizon enlarge and to produce himself games interesting in their variety. He will besides be forearmed against the trap-abounding manuvres of an adversary bolder and more experienced than himself.
What can be Studied in Combinations
The study of combinations, then, should take first the ideas which inspire them. As we advance, we shall arrive at other conclusions.
Let us establish first the relationship between certain kinds of combinations and certain kinds of positions, so that, when we see such and such a position, the corresponding combination will instinctively come to our mind. Reciprocally, the combination of which we are thinking will suggest the type of position that we must bring about. It goes without saying that it is not in the limited area of the first game which comes along that we can realise all our ideas. We must be content with keeping a clear brain, to enable us occasionally, without striving after the impossible, to realise at least one idea, and not complain; for this partial success, in place of the shadowy "all that can be got", may be obtained, in infinitely varied ways, in the numberless games, with all their compromises and concessions, which still remain for us to play on earth.
It is well known how difficult it is to analyse all the variations of a simple ordinary combination. The mediocre player cannot foresee them all. What then, it may be asked, is the use of knowing the different types of combinations and positions, if we cannot prove the soundness of our conceptions when they are carried out? This is precisely what should be studied.
The analysis of combinations of the same type gives us the necessary conditions for soundness. This one cannot be sound, we know, unless the hostile King has no flight-square, unless we have a Bishop available for the attack, unless a certain square is unguarded. Therefore we can not only see well in advance whether the combination is to be realised, but can manuvre so as to bring about the position which makes it possible. Every move, it is true, brings features which may modify our views; but we shall examine them at the right time, with all the more ease when we know more clearly the general conditions necessary for success.
In this way then the problem of working up combinations confronts us.
Some players believe that a combination is a spontaneous creation, that the possibility of a sacrifice springs up in the mind like a flash of genius, as surprising to the player as to his opponent. The truth is that combinations due to pure chance are not merely fantastic. There are combinations based on the opponent's errors; and most "traps" may be classed among these. There is even a type of player, the coffee-house expert, who speculates on the ignorance and inexperience of his adversaries. But this is a detestable and inglorious style of play, based on others' weaknesses, not on one's own strength. True combination is quite another matter. The crown of a fine player's logical chess, it must be prepared, and not left to chance. The border-line amateur says, "It may be sound—in any case, I don't suppose my opponent can find the answer, so here goes!" But no; our play should be more intelligent, deeper, and more honest than that.
So study of the task of preparation is necessary. It will teach us how a champion is able to create the conditions favourable to his combinations and to mask his schemes to upset his opponent's calculations. We shall not, however, dwell on this, since it differs but little from all other preparatory work in chess. For the same reason we shall not discuss the exploitation of an advantage gained by a combination, nor other questions of the same kind. We shall even refrain from drawing distinctions between the combination and its execution. In our new elementary instruction we must banish all subtleties.
Ought we to Study Combinations?
If great masters opposed the study of combinations, we might say that it was not fashionable; but their attitude would be intelligible. As a matter of fact, surprising though it may be, the chief opposition comes from the moderate players. Listen to what they say. "What will become of our game if all its mystery and even its interest are to be destroyed by analysis under a microscope? We don't want the art to be contaminated by too much science, or creative genius to be spoilt by reasoning!"
May I be allowed to have a better opinion of chess? Its riches seem to me inexhaustible. It is indeed one of the strongest reasons for my increasing admiration for this intellectual distraction that, after centuries of analysis, it poses us with ever new and ever more profound questions. The further one advances in its study, the more one discovers fresh vistas and mysterious problems of which one did not even suspect the existence. If, too, we grant to the representatives of the art, to the players properly so called, the right to protest against excessive scientific research, the representatives of the science, that is to say the theorists, have also their interests, their ambitions, their ideal, which we must not despise.
To appreciate a combination at its true value it is not enough to admire the sacrifices which accompany it. Account must be taken of the difficulties which it presents, the risks and dangers which it involves, and the qualities which it demands of a player. It is science that reveals these to us. It is science, too, that gives us a just notion of its beauty, that teaches us to distinguish and appraise, without excessive admiration, the tinsel of certain combinations, hailed as brilliant, but often complicating the game without necessity and rendering victory doubtful, which are really useless, unsound, or the sequel of a gross blunder.
How far we are in them from the problem, properly so-called, with its strict conditions of purity and economy! And yet our satisfaction is great when we succeed in winning a fine game, forming a homogeneous whole, crowned with a final combination which attains its end by the surest, neatest, and quickest means. When, too, we finish with a "problem-mate", we feel that we have created, not indeed an immortal work, but a little art-treasure of our own. If, on the other hand, chance wills it that at a turn of the game we can profit by a hostile error to sacrifice our Queen and thereby snatch a doubtful victory, we have the winner's commonplace satisfaction, but none of the artist's inner joy.
There remains a last essential query: Who is able to profit by the study of combinations £ Is it the grand masters? Certainly not, for they know by experience much more than is currently taught. The study of combinations is particularly for the moderate player, whom it will arm in his battles and will show that his admiration for some of his conquerors is often merely the result of ordinary ignorance; for his losses are frequently due not to his opponents' talents, but to their acquaintance with the works and ideas of others. We must distinguish between the genuine creators and the numerous imitators—who are really counterfeiters. If we thoroughly understand the structure of combinations and the mechanism which sets them going, when the part borne therein by genius flashes before our eyes, we shall appreciate it still better.
I shall therefore strive here, as in previous books of mine, to be as clear and simple as possible, to be accessible to all, to stifle nobody under the burden of a learning which aids in the preparation of the work, but should never make it crushing; to justify, in short, the sub-title which I have given to this book, "a guide for all players of the game".CHAPTER 2
WHAT IS A COMBINATION?
All chess players know what a combination is. Whether one makes it oneself, or is its victim, or reads of it, it stands out from the rest of the game and stirs one's admiration. Nevertheless, it is difficult to define the meaning of the word exactly. Definitions are either too wide or too narrow. The best of them convey very little to our mind, and do not correspond with the feeling which an actual combination inspires in us. Here, for example, is one of Dr. Vllmy's most successful definitions: "A combination in chess is a transition (Übergang) in the game which, by its form, is distinguished from the general expected trend of the game".
We may substitute for the word "transition", which is not familiar to the majority of players, the phrase "series of moves between two positions" (between the middle and end games, for instance), and can then see that this definition includes the essence of a combination. Yet how inadequate it is! We cannot think of the decisive combination in the famous "Immortal Game" without feeling that such a definition does not cover it. If one were asked, in an inversion of the definition, "What is a series of moves which is distinguished from the general expected trend of the game?", would one answer offhand, "It is a combination"?
But is it necessary to find a definition? Why not simply give up the attempt? Before confessing our inability, however, let us see what are the indispensable conditions which make out of a series of moves a combination.
Are the Moves of a Combination forced?
Generally speaking, a combination, in the course of a game, has a quite distinct unity. Its beginning and its end can be determined. The moves which compose it are fairly closely linked with certain special characteristics, which we may sum up.
First let us ask whether the moves of a combination are forced. In comparison with the positional game of today, wherein a complete freedom of movement prevails, where often the next move cannot be foreseen, the combinational game seems to be governed by some inevitable necessity. Yet, really, it is not only in combinations that the moves are forced. Remember those end-games in which every move is compulsory, those blocked positions where there is no choice, those immediate direct threats which allow but one reply. There is no question of combination in these cases. And, besides, forced continuations are only found in simple short combinations. The longer and more complicated they are, the more freedom the defence has, even to the point of having almost as much as in the normal course of the game.
Our first example shows one of the most complicated combinations ever seen. Black sacrifices a Rook, although he had not completed his development. The consequent difficulties can be imagined. Pieces are lacking for the attack, and the decision can only be reached by an increase of development. Quiet moves, without a direct threat, leave White freedom to do much as he wishes, and to make his choice, on almost every move, between several replies.