Last time we looked at Chapter 2 of Move Two!, which concluded with an introduction to Paul Morphy and the famous Opera House game.
Hugh Patterson considered this game in an excellent recent Chess Improver post, but it’s worth another look. Like most chess teachers, I demonstrate this game regularly (most recently last Monday). When teaching young children we try to keep things simple, but we always have to be prepared for difficult questions. About 30 years ago a bright young boy asked me a difficult question. Now, with the aid of computer analysis, I can answer if it comes up again.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4 4.dxe5 Bxf3 At this point many children will prefer gxf3 because they’ve been taught not to bring their queen out too early. I recently saw a boy move his queen rather than take back at all in a fairly analogous position because he’d been told not to bring his queen out too early and to avoid doubled pawns. Children need to understand that (other things being equal) Superior Force Wins before they move onto positional play and the tricky concept of Compensation. 5.Qxf3 dxe5 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.Qb3 This is a very difficult move for children to find. I think it’s hard for them to see the threat on f7 because the queen’s backing up the bishop. Not only do we teach children not to bring their queen out too soon: we also teach them not to move pieces twice in the opening, but Morphy does just that. Why? It’s a double threat that wins material (although Morphy chooses not to do so) and also forces Black to make an awkward move in reply. 7.. Qe7.
Now we come to the point where I was asked the difficult question. As it happens, White has an interesting three-way choice here. The obvious move is Qxb7, but Black has prepared Qb4+, forcing the queen trade. With a healthy extra pawn White should win: this is the computer’s first choice and you couldn’t really fault anyone for choosing this option. So, the bright young boy asked me, why doesn’t White play 8.Bxf7+ Qxf7 9. Qxb7 when he’s decoyed the queen so can now win the rook on a8. Had a 9-year-old spotted something the great Morphy missed? We need to take a look.
After 9.Qxb7 Black’s going 9.. Bc5. Now 10.Qxa8 0-0 (10.. Bxf2+ doesn’t work here but it’s now a very big threat. If, for instance, 11.Nc3, Bxf2+ is still winning. So White needs to defend his king: 11.0-0. Now Black has 11.. c6!, cutting off the white queen. The immediate threat is Nxe4 when White has problems defending f2 but there’s also a slow threat of Qc7 followed by Nbd7, trapping the queen. It turns out that White has to give up a piece in order to complete his development.
White can also go for the other rook instead: 10.Qc8+ Ke7 11.Qxh8. This time it’s best for Black to play 11.. Bxf2+ at once. First we have to consider 12.Kxf2 Nxe4+. Although he’s a rook down and with his other rook and knight stuck in the corner Black has a winning attack, with all White’s pieces out of play. Observe how well the queen and knight work together. So White’s best move is 12.Ke2. Now Black has a choice. He can play another check, 12.. Qc4+. After 13.Kxf2 Qd4+ 14.Ke1 Qxe4+ White has to ditch the bishop with 15.Be3 to avoid the perpetual. Alternatively White can try 13.Kd1 when the computer can’t find anything immediate for Black. Instead Black could retreat his bishop on move 12, when White seems to hold onto his extra exchange. The computer has a slight preference for White in all these lines after 10.Qc8+, but they all look seriously scary to me.
I think we can agree that Morphy’s judgement was unerring in rejecting Bxf7+. Next time you are asked why he didn’t play it you can explain that Black has some compensation for the exchange in a highly unclear position.
Moving on: 8.Nc3 c6 9.Bg5 b5 This is the decisive error, although the alternatives were not inspiring. Plausible options were 9.. Qc7, when after 10.0-0-0 b5 11.Bxf6 gxf6 my silicon friend recommends another piece sacrifice: 12.Nd5! and 9.. Na6, threatening to drive White back with Nc5, when White can smash up Black’s pawns by trading his bishops for the enemy knights. The rest of the game is self-explanatory and more or less forced. 10.Nxb5 cxb5 11.Bxb5+ Nbd7 12.0–0–0 Rd8 13.Rxd7 Rxd7 14.Rd1 Qe6 15.Bxd7+ Nxd7 At this point, when I ask my pupils to choose a move for White they immediately go for Qb8+, announcing mate, before noticing that it can (and must) be captured and moving on to consider alternatives. At this level they haven’t yet learnt HOW to think ahead. 16.Qb8+ Nxb8 17.Rd8#
When you ask children what they learnt from the game you hope they’ll tell you about the importance of rapid development, about how, in open positions with unsafe kings, the initiative can often be more important than material, and about the need for accurate calculation and knowledge of checkmate positions. But if you demonstrate the game to children who have yet to grasp the basics they’ll probably tell you that Morphy lost a bishop, then lost a rook, and finally left his queen en prise, but it didn’t matter because he got checkmate with his last two pieces. So they won’t mind if they lose a few pieces in their next game because they may well get checkmate just as Morphy did.
Finally, perhaps you’re wondering what happened to the bright young boy who asked the question about Bxf7. His name was Caspar Bates. He was very strong up to age 11, played rather less after that and dropped out of chess on leaving school. A few years ago he made an unexpected comeback. He played in Gibraltar 2008 and 2009, and in the London Chess Classic 2012, has an ECF grade of 206 and a FIDE rating of 2205. He also has a new chess career as a composer of endgame studies. You can find one here.