I have been discussing gambits with a student of mine, to explore the concept of positional sacrifice, a sacrifice of material with long-term positional objectives rather than with a clear immediate tactical winning shot. A position came up that illustrates a dilemma that often comes up when playing a positional sacrifice: when do you “cash in” your advantage? Very often, the logical result of a positional sacrifice is boxing in your opponent in such a way that tactics become possible, such as regaining your lost material. It is very tempting, after having played a Pawn down for much of the game, to see a way to finally win the Pawn back and do so, and in fact, in many situations it is entirely appropriate to win back your sacrificed Pawn “with interest”, retaining a positional advantage. But often it is actually counterproductive to “cash in” too early, if that results in giving up much of the non-material advantage you have so carefully accumulated.
Here’s an example, in which White is down an h-Pawn but finally has a chance to win Black’s h-Pawn in return. Unfortunately, doing so is terrible and results in a dead equal position in which White has nothing to look forward to and even has to be careful. Instead, White can ignore the fact of being a Pawn down and continue to build up with deadly pressure. Let’s look at why.
Assessing the position
First, let’s look at the position with White to move.
White has more space, with a Pawn on e5, a powerful dark-squared Bishop on f6 restricting Black’s activity, a grip on c5, active Rooks doubled on the h-file, and a Queen attacking Black’s Rook on h7.
Black has a pitiful Rook on h7 that is completely immobile and under attack, a Queen on g8 that is tied to defending that Rook, a light-squared Bishop that has no possible moves, a Rook on d8 that can barely move, and a dark-square Bishop on c7 that is currently attacking nothing (there is no hope of getting at White’s e5 Pawn).
So for a mere Pawn, White has a tremendous-looking position. The question is, how to cash in eventually?
What taking back the h-Pawn accomplishes
Taking the Black Pawn on h6 throws away all of White’s advantage:
- Black gets to trade off his worst piece on the board, the trapped Rook on h7.
- Black gets to swoop down and activate the Queen by checking on White’s unprotected back rank.
- Tactically, the threat to win White’s f2 Pawn forces White to retreat horribly with Nd1, self-pinning the Knight (which wants to go to e4) and making it do nothing other than defend the f2 Pawn.
- Black can start putting pressure on White’s d4 Pawn, and think about swinging the Rook to the open g-file and coming down.
- White no longer has any threats. The Bishop on f6 was once a powerful piece keeping Black’s Rook on h7 trapped against its own h-Pawn, but both of those are now gone. White’s Queen is now just guarding the d4 Pawn.
I’ve given a sample bad continuation by White to illustrate how quickly Black can actually end up winning, if White tries to continue an “attack”.
Continuing the pressure instead
The alternative to winning the Pawn back is to observe that Black has serious problems with the Rook trapped on h7. White can try to win the Rook eventually, by driving Black’s defensive Queen away from protecting it. Rh3 and Ne4 and Rg3 not only improve White’s pieces in general but also serve to restrict Black’s activity and aim to win Black’s Rook.
A defensive counter-sacrifice!
It turns out that the only real try for counterplay by Black to avoid losing the Rook is to open up the position and try to activate the light-squared Bishop. Sacrificing the c-Pawn with …c5 is the best chance for Black, to get the Bishop to …c6, where it exerts power over the light-squared diagonal to h1, and also can at least, if needed, trade itself for White’s powerful Knight on e4.
So it is ironic that White’s best plan is to ignore the Pawn on h6 and instead force Black to give up the c-Pawn instead as a defensive sacrifice. After White gains the c-Pawn, of course, White has a huge advantage still, but at least Black is still surviving and has some practical chances.