Chess Myths – Creativity

The hidden inventiveness of chess

I used to think GM’s were all the same. They were all at least 50 years old, they played only the most mainstream openings, they never sacrificed anything and they won games by grabbing a pawn and hanging on to it.

This was when I was still at school and before the internet boom. Kasparov and Short were on TV when I was 6; I had learnt to play a year before that but I don’t think I watched it or knew what it was – and I didn’t find out they were both aggressive, highly creative players until much later (just think of Kasparov’s immortal game and Short’s infamous king-walk).

In 2018 we have an abundance of creative players, not least the exciting junior Richard Rapport. Check out any of his games for some fresh ideas, but meanwhile here’s a finishing attack against none other than Levon Aronian from 2016:


Here Rapport unleashes Rh1+! Whichever way White takes it there is devastation to follow (Nxh1 and Nf3+ or Kxh1 and Bxd4 followed by Qh4+ and mate soon) – but the more important point is that Rapport had to imagine this idea before he played the rook manoeuvre over to h5, as if the attack fails then it is really out of place there.

That’s how these young GM’s do it! But no, I thought GM’s had to be super patient, super restrained, super technical and super ruthless. And this is how I think many people outside chess still see it. Imagine for a second you don’t know the rules. You see on TV someone studying for 25 minutes and moving a pawn forward one square – you see the crowd going wild. What the…? As an observer you are hardly going to appreciate creativity here – because you won’t be seeing everything they are – chess is not naturally a spectator sport in this way.

But take IM Danny Rensch’s analysis of Gelfand’s extraordinary queen sacrifice here, saying he fell off his chair. This is more like the reaction you want for chess – seeing moves that are unexpected and intuitively creative – like a cheeky drop-shot in tennis. But creativity takes many forms and it is difficult for chess commentators to bring it all out.

From watching a lot of mainstream TV interviews with chess players over the years, the non-chess-playing interviewer often seems fascinated that the chess elite ‘spend their whole lives within 64 squares’ – they ask how a person can do it, they ask if it ever gets boring, they ask if they miss out on normal life. They are both in awe and also a little condescending towards the GM who is often attempting to debunk the myths of calculating 30 moves ahead, seeing every possibility, or of an inevitable descent into paranoia. What they never ask about is creativity.

The fact is that in chess, like in art, there are principles. To be good at art, you can learn the principles, but to be a great artist, you need to break them. Great chess players know when to break the rules – and they do it surprisingly often.

Every game is different. And to improve at chess it’s not just about openings, and not just endgame technique or tactics. You have to adjust how to approach your own thinking about chess positions.

And yes – part of this is your own brain – your own ideas and imagination. You will have many previous learnings about chess (doctrines like “passed pawns must be pushed!” or certain styles like Nimzowich’s ‘overprotection’). Let them advise you but don’t let them control you. The real fight is happening in your own mind – balancing impulses against logic, the innovative against the tried-and-tested, the right brain against the left brain if you will. Just let your creativity have influence – and have trust in your own moves.
See this video (or the game below) by Ronen Har-Zvi called ‘Trust your calculations’ where he focuses on a wild game from Dr. John Nunn. Notably Vishy Anand also said that the first time he beat a GM he learned to “believe in his own moves”.

I have a very different view of GM’s now – in fact almost the opposite from my 10-year old self. Sure they are technically very good, and sometimes win games by grabbing a pawn and hanging on to it. But to get there they had to hone their own style, and their own personal take on the game. They had to create something.

Here’s the game between Nunn and Anthony – played in Bristol in 1981!


Mike is co-editor of the Bristol Chess Times and plays regular Bristol chess