Thoughts on the Sacrifice …

Sacrifices in chess are among the most exciting things to observe. They are also very satisfying to play … especially when they go right. They have the ability to take calmness and turn it on its head, giving the game a dramatic and tense flavour.

However, sacrifices are not things to be taken lightly or made on a whim. The player is, after all, giving material to the opponent. So how should sacrifices be approached in chess? This, like everything else, is a much debated topic, of course. There are some materialists who wont entertain sacrifices; then there are others who will sacrifice at the slightest opportunity. Neither player is right, in my opinion, the decision should always be based on the position, with as deep an insight as possible.

In playing over Grandmaster games featuring sacrifices, some factors do stick out, however. I would not call them ‘rules’ exactly, but they are consistently present in the games. More specifically, they are present in games where the player making the sacrifice is successful and vindicated.

First, the reasoning must be valid. Even in the case of so-called ‘speculative’ sacrifices, one can never approach it with a ‘let’s see what happens’ mentality. Even a speculative sacrifice must have something that one can use or work with: activity, it opens up the King, it creates an avenue for passed pawns to march, or some other form of compensation. Ultimately, it gives the opponent considerations. These considerations by themselves can prove decisive.

Second, one must commit. There is no going back after a sacrifice of material, no second chance, and usually changing one’s mind will not have positive outcomes. Therefore, once a sacrifice is made, the player sticks to it.

Recapture material only when the motive behind the sacrifice has been achieved — or, if the sacrifice is refuted and you get lucky enough to get your material back, I guess. I have seen countless games where good sacrifices are made, only for the attacker to lunge at regaining material later on. It often follows, that the rewards reaped following the sacrifice are diminished … often making me wonder why the player sacrificed in the first place to be honest.

So, with these in mind, let’s look at the following game, played between Emil Sutovsky and Ilya Smirnin in the Israeli Championship of 2002. Sutovsky takes relative tranquility and blows it wide open with two bishop sacrifices.

If we look at our factors, we should probably conclude that his sacrifices were valid — he opens Black’s King, which is not able to run for cover. On top of this he obtains activity, while the Black pieces lack quality. Following on from that, Sutovsky commits fully to his action. His focus is firmly on the Kingside, Black’s king specifically; and well, he gave two bishops, if that’s not commitment I am not sure what is.

Then, when he has the opportunity to re-capture material, he declines it at first, and only does so when it is not at the cost of what the sacrifice brought him. Finally, with all these factors in place, Sutovsky goes one step further, finishing the game in style and making yet another sacrifice to mate his opponent.

This is a lovely sacrificial game, I hope you will enjoy it.

John Lee Shaw