Looking at the games of elite players, a club player is often bewildered by the nature of some of these games, in which development and castling are sometimes ignored in favor of weird flank attacks and the like. Sometimes this way of playing succeeds and sometimes it fails; furthermore, sometimes it succeeds when it is actually unsound, and sometimes it fails when it is actually sound, because of human fallibility on both sides.
As a practical matter, even when it is sound to delay development, such as when accepting a gambit and believing that it should be possible to defend, the slightest inaccuracy may lead to headaches. I believe there is value in practicing both sides of gambits, in order to learn both how to attack and open lines, as well as how to defend. Also, it is instructive to see where one slip can completely change the evaluation of a position, while practical considerations might make one side easier to play.
I present three recent games illustrating the challenges of playing in a queenless middlegame when behind in development:
- One of my recent tournament games
- A Kamsky-Carlsen game from the Sinquefield Cup in which Kamsky got in trouble and lost
- The final Carlsen-Aronian game from the Sinquefield Cup in which Carlsen got in trouble (but Aronian self-destructed)
The main message is that all of us, whatever our level, should remember the basics of good chess play: developing pieces quickly to good squares and keeping the King safe. It is risky to try for a more aggressive setup through slower development with an intention of getting each piece (especially Knights) to a seemingly better place, because there may not be enough time.
In a recent game on mine (round 2 of a 6 round tournament in progress at the Pittsburgh Chess Club), as White I accepted a gambit offered by my opponent (rated USCF 1998) on his third move, which quickly resulted in a curious queenless middlegame in which I had a King on e2, and my King side pieces could not be developed immediately, in return for being a Pawn up. (I saw people watching the game with funny looks on their faces.) Although the gambit is not wholly sound, which is why I was happy to enter the position, it presented practical opportunities for either side to go wrong. In particular, I made a couple of decisions that led to slowing down my development and offering a tactical target in the form of a poorly developed Bishop on e3. However, with the help of my opponent, I did end up consolidating and winning. But I could have saved myself a lot of trouble by simply focusing on accelerating my development after winning the Pawn. As it turned out, because of inaccurate play, I was defending from move 3 to 22 and only when I made my first non-defensive move did I actually consolidate.
Recently in the Sinquefield Cup, Gata Kamsky lost a game because he neglected natural and quick development in a queenless middlegame at White.
And Magnus Carlsen tried to be clever with a dubious a5 and Bishop and Knight maneuvers that just left him with a terrible position after which he probably really should have lost.