Accept The Sacrifice If The Alternative Is To Lose Anyway

When I was in my final year of high school, I played in the last tournament of my life before I returned to chess two decades later: I played in the 1987 Michigan High School Team Championship. I ended up winning the first board prize with a perfect score of 5 points, but I always felt funny about how I achieved that, because in one of my games I played a sacrifice that I felt guilty about for two decades. Also, that was the only tournament in my life that I ended up losing my score sheets for, so I do not even have the full score of that game. But I do remember vividly the moves leading up to the critical position, and my mindset.

Seeing the possibility of a Greek gift sacrifice

On move 10 out of the opening, I suddenly spent a huge amount of time deciding whether to play the “Greek gift” sacrifice against my opponent’s King, sacrificing my Bishop on h7 with check.

But in my attempt to calculate a win, I could not find a forced win. I saw defensive resources, so I was reluctant to play an unsound sacrifice. But the idea of playing the sacrifice really appealed to me. You have to understand that I had never played the Greek gift sacrifice before, only read about it in books, and also I knew this might be the last chess tournament of my life, as I was going off to college in the fall, and I had actually “retired” from chess in my sophomore year of high school, and came out to play in the Michigan High School State Championship only because I had started up a chess club in my high school in the fall in hope of boosting my college application (I brought four teammates who had never played in a tournament before). I outrated my opponent by over 500 USCF rating points, so there was no need for me to play recklessly to win, so my motivation was just to finish my chess-playing days in style.

I did see that I would get compensation for the sacrifice, and therefore should not lose if I played the sacrifice, but that was all I could see. Even after I went home to analyze the game, because I did not have access to good computational power in the 1980s, I did not believe I had the full truth of the position until the 2000s, on my return to chess, when chess engines by then had become very strong.

Sacrifice declined!

I was simultaneously ashamed and relieved when my opponent thought only briefly and declined the sacrifice, and therefore easily lost, being a Pawn down without compensation, and having a weakened King side also.

My opponent must have concluded that my deep thought meant I had figured everything out, but in fact, my deep thought came from not having figured it out! Granted, I was much higher-rated than my opponent, but higher-rated players can make terrible moves too, and sometimes even deliberately as a swindle, so you should think for yourself for a bit, and not always assume your higher-rated opponent has everything figured out. Granted, psychologically it was clearly a shocker to him that I thought mysteriously for such a long time moves before the sacrifice.

In club play, I often see fear of accepting sacrifices, and painful losses resulting from declining. The loss is usually painful because a sacrifice significantly disrupts a position, so if your position is disrupted anyway, and there is no visible immediate mate, maybe you might as well grab some material for your trouble; if the attack goes wrong, then you may have a good chance of consolidating and winning as a successful defender. Part of chess is choosing to defend.

So I’m saying, accept the sacrifice if you honestly do not see anything wrong with doing so. You might be making a mistake, but at least make the mistake and lose rather than choosing the path of sure loss, losing material against a much higher-rated player.

How sound was the sacrifice?

The fact that White is missing the dark-squared Bishop and only has a Queen and two Knights really restricts White from having a win in this position. The only possible things White can do are try to push h4, maybe castle Queen side, and use the two Rooks somehow. Meanwhile, Black can defend the King and develop. Note that if White tries to win back an exchange, the result is an unfavorable balance of material in which White gets a Rook and a Pawn or two for two minor pieces, so it is no use for White to regain material.

I’ve inserted some variations into my annotations below.

Irony: there could have been an alternative Greek gift sacrifice!

The irony is that if I had played Nc3 instead of Bd2, and “normal” development had continued, with Black “castling into it”, then the Greek gift sacrifice would have been obviously sound and winning. The huge difference is that with White’s dark-squared Bishop still on the board, and guarding the Knight on g5, White does not have to support the Knight with the Queen, but can calmly play h4, followed by Qg4, with a deadly barrage of discovered checks to follow: a check with the Queen or with the Bishop on c1 if the King goes to h6.

Note that it is important to play h4 first, to avoid Black’s tempo-gaining …f5 against the Queen on g4, because with the Pawn on h4 first, then h5+ can be played at any time, and optimally when Black’s King on g6 cannot escape to f5. Check it out with a computer engine if you want to verify that it’s a quick win for White.

Why did I play Bd2 anyway? I had some vague idea that getting rid of Black’s “good” Bishop for my “bad” one was advantageous. Also, note that I recaptured “wrong” with Nbxd2; I just recently wrote an article about why Qxd2 is usually best. But in 1987, my positional understanding was not so good.

Some resources on the Greek gift sacrifice

A well-written overview by GM Daniel Naroditsky.

A previous Chess Improver article by Ashvin Chauhan.

A 2012 game of mine in which I played a correct Greek gift sacrifice.

The game (up to the point of the sacrifice)

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.