The Modern Italian

I’m thrilled that one of my private pupils has won a couple of Under 8 tournaments recently. However, I have a couple of problems.

One is that he always plays the Giuoco Pianissimo with white, while spending a lot of time watching videos on disreputable openings online. I’ve shown him lots of games with different openings and suggested he tries them. He prefers to stick with what he’s familiar with, but he’ll not make the next step forward until he learns how to play different openings. The other issue I have is that he won’t record his games, even though he knows how to do so. He tells me his opponents play too fast. At this age, if his opponents play fast he’ll automatically play fast as well, and will either forget to record his moves or will miss some out and get confused.

So in our most recent lesson we played a training game on the clock (25’+5″), both of us writing our moves down. He got most of the way until I started playing fast because I was running short of time. I also insisted that he tried out a different opening system, and helped him a bit with it. I gave him the white pieces.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5

Here I explained that one aim with White is to try to play d4 at some point. He asked me how to do that and I showed him 4. c3. He’s seen this before but, as it hasn’t been reinforced regularly at home, he’d forgotten the move.

4. c3 Nf6

I now gave him the choice: d4 or d3. If you play d4 here the ideas are easier to understand but you need to know a bit of theory. If your opponent’s studied this and you haven’t you’ll probably run into trouble. Likewise, if you’ve studied it and your opponent hasn’t you may well score a quick win. Alternatively, you can play d3, which, I explained, is sometimes played by Magnus Carlsen. In this system the individual moves are not so important: it’s more about understanding ideas and plans. He decided to go with Magnus.

5. d3 d6

A complex and flexible position typical of 21st century chess. Both sides have a wide range of plans at their disposal. White will look for the most favourable moment to play d4 while Black might also be thinking about playing d5 at some point. Learning to appreciate openings popular with top grandmasters is an important part of chess culture and will enable you to get more enjoyment and benefit from following live games online.

In this position the most popular moves are, in order, O-O, Bb3 and Nbd2. Bb3 might look strange at first: we all learn early on in our chess careers not to move pieces twice in the opening except to avoid or make a capture. White has two ideas: to be able to drop the bishop back to c2 if Black plays Na5, and to avoid being forced to move the bishop should Black play d5 at any point. Likewise, Black will often play a6 followed, without being prompted, by Ba7 in this sort of position. It’s all rather sophisticated. Assuming we want to stop our pupils playing Four Knights type positions, should we encourage them to play this system, or to play 5. d4?

My pupil’s next move, Bg5 is very natural, especially as he knows the idea from the Giuoco Pianissimo, but rarely played by stronger players as it’s a bit inflexible. I guess it should only be played after your opponent has castled. It should have worked on this occasion, though, as my play between moves 8 and 12 was poor.

6. Bg5 h6 7. Bh4 a6 8. O-O O-O

This would probably have been the right time to play g5: after White has castled but before Black castles.

9. Nbd2 Be6

Maybe not the best move but I wanted to see what he did. When I was learning chess the received wisdom was that you should trade on e6 in this sort of position. You’re losing control of the important d5 and f5 squares which you might want to use for a knight and giving Black what might become a useful half-open f-file. On the other hand, Black’s pawn formation becomes rather inflexible, which may be why strong players sometimes trade in this situation. 9.. g5 is possible but you’d have to be confident in your assessment of the position after Nxg5. The engines think at first that White has enough play, but if you leave them long enough they come round to preferring Black’s extra piece.

10. Re1 Bxc4 11. Nxc4 Qe7

This and my next move are both bad mistakes. If I want to unpin I really have to bite the bullet and play g5. Trying to unpin with Qe7 followed by Qe6 doesn’t work in this position.

12. d4 Ba7

12.. exd4 was slightly better as Black would be hitting e4. Now White has a very large advantage if he finds 13. Ne3. The threat is 14. Nd5, and if Black tries 13.. Qd8, then 14. Ng4 destroying the black king-side. It’s now too late to unpin: 13.. g5 loses to 14. Nf5. This opening is rather more poisonous that it looks. Just a couple of sloppy moves from Black and, in just 13 moves, White has a winning position.

I suggested this as an option but my pupil decided he preferred to chase back my knight on c6.

13. d5 Nb8 14. Qe2 Nbd7 15. Rad1 g5 16. Bg3 Kg7

I missed a tactic here: 16.. Nxe4 17. Qxe4 f5 18. Qc2 f4 when Black is better – an idea familiar from other openings such as the King’s Indian Defence.

17. Ne3 Bxe3 18. Qxe3 Nh7

He was stuck for a plan here. I suggested he might advance on the queen side starting with c4 or perhaps try to undermine my king side pawns by playing h4. He decided to play b4 rather than the more accurate c4, and, when I stopped his queen side plans, switched to the king side.

19. b4 b5 20. h4 g4 21. Nh2 h5 22. f3 gxf3 23. Qxf3 Nhf6 24. Rc1 Nb6

The knight should probably have stayed on d7, but even so White was better. My pupil’s last few moves have been excellent. Now the engines look at the rather ineffective bishop on g3 and try to reroute it or trade it for the black knight by playing 25. Bf2 with the idea of Be3 and Bg5. But instead White is seduced by the idea of playing a few queen checks.

25. Qf5 Rg8

25.. Rh8 was better, with the idea of Rh6. Now 26. Rf1 followed perhaps by a bishop manoeuvre to g5, would be a powerful plan. Instead White chooses a check which turns a good position into a bad position. All checks should be considered, but not necessarily played. All Qg5+ does is chase the black king where he wants to go.

26. Qg5+ Kf8 27. Qh6+ Ke8

Three moves ago I was practically lost, now I’m practically winning, and all because of a couple of checks. Now White spotted that his bishop on g3 was in danger, but chose the wrong way to defend it, closing off his queen’s escape.

28. Re3 Rg6 29. Qh8+ Kd7

He still looked happy here – until he noticed that his queen had no escape. In a slowplay game resignation at this point would be justified, but in rapidplay, and by now I was well behind on the clock, having been explaining the position while my time was running, anything might happen.

You’ll see the rest of the game next week.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.