A few months ago Nigel and I had an interesting discussion on Facebook about whether or not children should be taught the Fried Liver Attack. This is a question that, unless something more pressing arises, I’ll consider in a lot more detail next week. For the moment, I’ll just say that many children who play in junior tournaments learn it, and if you accidentally stumble into it with Black without knowing it you’re very likely to suffer a quick and painful defeat. If you learn it yourself, you’ll also score some quick victories with the White pieces. Whether or not this is at the expense of your long-term development is one of the aspects I’ll discuss next time.
Anyway, we’ve now reached Chapter 9 of Move Two!, which deals with the Two Knights’ Defence. After the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Black has a choice. I’ve seen a book on how to teach children, which recommends the Hungarian Defence, 3.. Be7, here, but I prefer to encourage children to play open games rather than choose a passive move like this. 3.. Bc5 is the safer option (as long as you know the theory) but 3.. Nf6 is much more fun. It’s very much a matter of taste.
The critical tactical choices are 4. Ng5 and 4. d4, but first we look at other fourth moves for White. If you want to play a Giuoco Pianissimo you’re advised to choose 4. d3 rather than 4. Nc3, which allows the FORK TRICK 4.. Nxe4 which scores very well for Black in practice. White’s best line, 5. Nxe4 d5 6. Bd3, is fine but not usually found by those who don’t know the variation, but alternatives are good for Black. Another natural move is 4. 0-0, after which Black can just capture on e4. The fact that two natural moves score badly is a big incentive for choosing the Two Knights’ Defence.
Many children learn 4. Ng5 (which they often refer to, incorrectly as the Fried Liver Attack) so you really have to know what to do against it. One well-known London teacher encourages his pupils to play the Wilkes-Barre variation, 4.. Bc5, an interesting choice. The positions after 5. Nxf7 are great for Black to practise his attacking skills (along with his memory), but 5. Bxf7+ is a safer option for White. Instead, though, we consider the main line after 4.. d5. Children who haven’t seen this position before have great difficulty finding this move, often preferring 4.. Qe7 or, even worse, 4.. Rg8. Sometimes they don’t even notice the threat and play 4.. h6. After 4.. d5 5. exd5 the recapture 5.. Nxd5 is obvious but leads to problems for Black after either 6. d4 or 6. Nxf7. The latter move, and this really is the Fried Liver Attack, is what most children learn, so it’s what we look at here. We continue 6.. Kxf7 7. Qf3+. Black very often fails to notice the threat to the knight on d5 so hurries to get his king back into safety with 7.. Ke8. 8. Bxd5 leaves White a pawn up with much the better position, and if Black carelessly plays the tempting 8.. Nd4, 9. Qf7# concludes a game which has almost certainly been played more times than any other in the history of chess.
Instead, the black king must advance into the thick of the battle with 7.. Ke6. This is an excellent position to play to train your attacking skills, as well as to gain understanding of the rather abstract concept of ‘compensation’. For the moment, we’ll just say that White scores very highly from this position on commercial databases, but rather less highly on my Richmond Junior Chess Club database. Computer analysis suggests that White has more than enough for the piece.
If Black, understandably, doesn’t fancy this he should avoid 5.. Nxd5. We investigate the main line, 5.. Na5, while briefly mentioning that Nd4 and b5 are interesting alternatives. In these lines Black ends up a pawn or two down but with compensation – good positions for both sides to play, to test Black’s attacking skills and White’s defensive skills. To the best of my knowledge, the current theoretical status of these lines favours White, but at lower levels this really doesn’t matter.
4. d4, White’s other tactical choice, is rarely played in junior chess. This in itself is a good reason to learn it. Black can equalise if he knows how, but someone who hasn’t seen it before will be unlikely to find the right moves. We end this section of the book by taking a brief look at the main line of this variation.
All of this raises the very difficult question of to what extent we should teach children openings of this nature. Although I have my doubts, it’s clear that many children do learn sharp lines such as these and win a lot of games in the process. Even if you don’t know them yourself you need to know they exist in order to avoid them. I’m currently preparing a boy for the Under 9 Gigafinals of the UK Chess Challenge. I discovered he was unaware of these lines, and as he prefers to play safe and feels less comfortable in tactical situations I recommended the Petroff as a temporary quick fix which should suit his style.
The activities section features a short selection of games played with the Two Knights’ Defence, starting with one of the earliest recorded games of chess, played in about 1600. There are also wins by Morphy and the celebrated footballer Charles Wreford-Brown, often alleged (probably incorrectly) to have invented the word ‘soccer’.
Finally, part 9 of Masters of the Universe continues the history of the World Championship through the 1960s, with games by Tigran Petrosian and (at the age of 12) Boris Spassky. Guess who’s coming next.