One approach to the openings is to throw your opponent on their own resources by playing unusual moves. This in fact is an approach that Magnus Carlsen has specialized in, using a wide variety of openings and often playing something unusual very early in the game.
Here we see him using the highly unusual 6.a3 against Wojtaszek’s Sicilian Najdorf, and it works rather well!
This will be my last post on this topic for the time being, I hope I’ve managed to convince the reader that old games can contain some very instructive concepts and that these in turn can be made clearer by less than ferocious resistance.
For this last game we’re going back even further to the 18th century and it features the best player of the day, François André Philidor. Philidor was the first player to emphasize the importance of the pawns and a quote often attributed to him is ‘pawns are the soul of chess’. Actually he didn’t quite say that, it was far more subtle. But his thinking is clearly demonstrated in the following game:
After thinking about which openings to play the next stage is how to prepare them. And for older players this is fraught with difficulties, largely because we started playing chess before the computer era. For many of us our idea of preparation was to play through a few model games in an opening and then start trying it out. These days this is not enough, certainly when you get over 2200 level.
Last weekend I was talking to an older player who is on his own comeback trail. He had spent time preparing an opening only to be totally outgunned by a younger opponent. I quipped that Bilguer’s Handbook was no longer enough and that older players needed to fully embrace the computer revolution to survive. I suspect that the older players who remain competitive, and most notably Vishwanathan Anand, have done just this.
Here’s a recent game in which Anand uncorked some stunning preparation against Veselin Topalov. Apparently when he finds an interesting move he leaves the computer on overnight to take a look at it, and this may well have been the case with his 12…b5!.
In my my last article I explained how the Modern Defence actually became a useful background for playing the Kan Sicilian. It can also help with other openings, an obvious example being the King’s Indian.
I have played the King’s Indian in some games but not with great success. I suspect this could probably be put down to the fact that I played it out of desperation (“What the hell should I do as Black against HIM?”) rather than inspiration and/or preparation. But it worked out OK in the following game, even if I played the likely dubious 7…Qe8:
Let’s look at another Queen’s Gambit Declined, played between Harry Nelson Pillsbury and Jackson Whipps Showalter in their match of 1897. It provides an excellent example of how Black can obtain a dangerous queenside pawn majority with …c5-c4.
The match itself ended in a rather convincing victory for Pillsbury and had a not inconsiderable prize (for those days) of $2,000. Also interesting was the fact that Pillsbury played the Berlin Defence in a number of games but Showalter answered 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 with 6.Ba4 rather than 6.Bxc6. These old guys knew something about chess!
Moving on from some Ruy Lopez classics, this time we’ll look at a game in the Queen’s Gambit Declined. I’ve long held that this is a great opening to play for learning positional play as the planning tends to be much clearer than with more modern openings. If you want to learn something it’s good to start with straightforward examples rather than diving into incomprehensible material.
With an opening such as the QGD, old games are indispensable. This is because the theory was largely developed in the early part of the 20th Century by such giants as Rubinstein, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine and Euwe. And Rubinstein in particular developed many new plans and ideas.
Here’s a game in which Rubinstein shows a number of concepts which may mistakenly be associated with more modern times. First of all he plays the ‘trendy’ 5.Bf4, around 50 years before Victor Korchnoi popularized it when he played it against Anatoly Karpov. And then he allows Black to shatter his pawn structure with 11…Nxf4, rightly assessing that the resulting grip on e5 was more than enough compensation:
Building on my last article about opening selection, there’s another factor to consider. Rather than creating an entirely new repertoire should someone play their old stuff? Or is it better to build a stronger repertoire on what you already know?
This is a thorny issue, and one for which there is no single answer. If a player has previously played dodgy gambits there’s a good case for them starting afresh. On the other hand a player with a deep understanding of some typical middle games might want to harness that and play either their old openings or ones which are closely related.
An example of this from my own practice was at the point where I found myself moving away from the Modern Defence with 1…g6 (this is definitely a young person’s opening!). I discovered that the Kan Sicilian actually led to middlegames which were quite similar to certain lines of the Modern, but without some of the other difficulties. And my record with the Kan became very good.
Here’s a game I played against the strong Greek GM, Vasilis Kotronias. Playing Black against such a dangerous opponent can be quite a tall order, but the Kan proved to be a reliable weapon:
Let’s put some meat on the bones of the Zulu Principle concept I mentioned in my previous article in this series. Is there a good source of ideas in which a returning player might specialize?
Bill Hartston once suggested that it’s worth looking at what Bent Larsen played thirty years ago, and this isn’t a bad place to look. Actually I’ve got another two tips for where to look, first of all the games of inventive but lesser known GMs (for example Heikki Westerinen) and the blitz and rapid games of super-GMs. The latter can be a most fruitful source as super-GMs may try out ideas they think are playable in order to avoid showing any heavy theoretical preparation.
Here’s a game in which Vladimir Kramnik tries out the 5…g6 sideline of the 3…Qd6 Scandinavian, and wins in just 14(!) moves. His opponent, the late and brilliant Vugar Gashimov was a particularly good blitz player. Will your opponents do better at normal time controls? Maybe not.
I’ll make this the last Ruy Lopez for a little while, but once again it’s a deeply instructive one. Defending the Closed Spanish Black defends against White’s threatened attack by massing his pieces on the kingside (14…Ne8, 15…g6, 16…Ng7 and 17…f6 are key moves in the construction of his defensive formation). Later on Black also breaks out with 21…f5, taking the initiative in the same way Black can in the King’s Indian Defence.
Nowadays we are of course familiar with this plan, but at the time it was still being worked out. There were no computer databases to help masters figure these things out, that had to use their own brains together with the board and pieces.
One of the most underrated qualities a chess player can have is a good memory. This might be because many players want to see themselves as intellectuals and prefer to put their chess skill down to brain power rather than intense learning. Yet psychologists have discovered that chess skill is largely down to a process called chunking, where small pieces of memorized information are tied together as a whole.
As the recent World Championship match drew (ha ha!) to a close there was a good example of this. Carlsen’s winning queen sacrifice was noticed in the blink of an eye by Judit Polgar, one of the commentary team. And probably because she had seen so many tactical patterns before during her unique upbringing.
Here’s a position in which White had the same idea and it wouldn’t surprise me if Judit had seen this one before: