I’ve always felt that there’s one thing above all that makes chess such a fascinating game. We have two types of piece in our army which have very different abilities yet are very similar in value. It’s this interplay between knights and bishops which goes a long way towards making chess so interesting.
I recently had the honour of playing Stefano Bruzzi for the first time. Stef represented Italy in the Clare Benedict Cup way back in 1960, and, a few years later, moved to England. He’s played for Surbiton Chess Club for many years but, surprisingly, we’d never encountered each other over the board until last month.
(The Clare Benedict Cup was an international team tournament for counties in Western Europe which took place annually between 1953 and 1979. It was funded by the American writer and patron of the arts Clare Benedict (1870-1961), a distant relation of James Fenimore Cooper, best known as the author of The Last of the Mohicans).
The game was a short and, on the surface, uneventful draw, but on several occasions we both had interesting decisions to make concerning minor piece trades. Most of the decisions that fell to me I probably got wrong.
As usual (at least over the past season and a half) I was awarded the black pieces.
1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 Nc6
It’s not very often these days I have the luxury of playing someone significantly older than myself. I’ve had mixed results with this opening (I think there are a few promising lines for White) but considered it unlikely that my opponent would have studied it in any depth.
He has to decide which knight to develop first. I’m going to meet 3. Nc3 with 3… e5 and after 4. d5 my knight’s going to e7 followed by g6. After 3. Nf3, though, we reach a somewhat eccentric Nimzo-Indian type position.
Almost certainly not the best move. Nc3, a3 and g3, in that order, are the most popular moves here. The bishop is just a target on g5.
The first minor piece decision falls to White. Retreating looks natural but Bxf6 is also perfectly reasonable.
5. Bh4 Bb4+
Here and on the next move I turn down the opportunity to play Bxc3, doubling White’s c-pawns. An interesting alternative, though, would have been 6… g5 7. Bg3 Ne4 8. Qc2 Nxg3 9. hxg3 g4 10. d5 gxf3 11. dxc6 fxe2 12. cxd7+ Bxd7 13. Bxe2 Bc6 which has been seen in several games.
7. e3 O-O
Now I no longer have the chance to saddle White with doubled c-pawns. Should I have taken the opportunity? Don’t ask me!
Here White has to decide which structure he wants to play. He can push with d5, trade with dxe5 or maintain the tension, which is what he chooses to do.
An interesting choice which looks slightly risky as the king might be exposed there, but it does have the merit of unpinning the knight on c3.
Very careless. I spend much of my life teaching children about the danger of having doubled f-pawns in front of your king in Giuoco Pianissimo type positions. I also explain that this idea can happen in many openings so you always have to be on the lookout and see it coming a long way off. Here, though, I forgot my own advice. Now was the right time to trade minor pieces on c3, even though I’m no longer doubling his pawns. 9… Bxc3 10. Qxc3 Qe7 is about equal.
Now Stefano thought for some time, during which I realised I had a problem if he played 10. Nd5. I have to continue 10… dxe3 11.Nxf6+ gxf6 12.a3 Bd2+ 13.Nxd2 exd2+ 14.Qxd2 when my computer thinks White is slightly better, with more than enough compensation for the missing pawn.
Instead, much to my relief, he preferred to trade bishop for knight on f6.
10. Bxf6 Qxf6
11. Nd5 Qd8
Now White has the chance of another minor piece trade, this time on b4, but he rightly spurns the opportunity because the bishop on b4 is now awkwardly placed.
12. a3 Ba5
There was a sharp alternative giving Black the chance to sacrifice a piece. A computer generated variation: 13.exd4 Ne7 14.Nxe7+ Qxe7 15.b4 Bb6 16.c5 dxc5 17.dxc5 a5 18.cxb6 axb4 19.a4 b3 20.Qxb3 Be6 21.Re1 Qc5+ 22.Qc2 Qa3+ 23.Qb2 Qc5+ with a perpetual check.
14. exd4 a5
Again White has to decide whether or not to make a minor piece trade. 15. c5 Ba7 16. b5 Ne7 17. Ne3 was another option which seems OK for Black. This time he selects the knight for bishop swap.
15. Nxb6 cxb6
16. b5 Ne7
Fixing the pawn structure in this way helps Black, but I guess he wanted to keep the queen side closed. 17. Bd3 was also possible when Black’s pawn structure doesn’t look too healthy but he has plenty of piece activity and White’s king might become exposed.
Giving me the opportunity to double his f-pawns… and offering a draw. After a move like Be2 or Qe4, for example, Bxf3 would be reasonable, trading off White’s potentially active knight and leaving Black with a horse heading for g6 and e5 against a not terribly useful bishop.
Now the choice of whether or not to trade minor pieces falls to me. I didn’t seriously consider playing 18… Bxf3 19. gxf3 when his rook might be coming to g1 and all his pieces are pointing at my king. But my computer tells me that Black is fine after 19… Ng6 followed by Qf6 and putting a rook on e8. A stronger or more confident player than me would have continued in this way.
The move I was considering was Qd7 (not the best square for Her Majesty) when the position is indeed about equal. Anyone who knows me, though, will not be at all surprised that I accepted Stefano’s proposal to share the point.