Unsound Sacrifices

It was the last week of term at the primary school chess club. The children had all completed their games the previous week and received their fluffy mascots. At the start of the session we handed out the Megafinal qualification forms to the lucky recipients and then moved onto the traditional end of term simul.

There were 19 players present and six large tables in the room so I appointed the six strongest players as team captains, with one to a table, and distributed the other players into teams, leaving one team with four players and five teams with three players each.

One of the games started like this:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bc4 Nxe4
5. Nxe4 d5
6. Bd3

I was impressed that they found the right move here, and, when they suggested it, confirmed that it was the best move. At this level most of my opponents play Bxd5, but it’s clearly better to keep the bishop rather than the knight.

6.. dxe4
7. Bxe4 Bd6
8. d3 O-O

At this point I expected them to do something sensible like O-O, the usual move here, but instead they surprised me by playing Nd4. I explained that I could capture the knight. “Yes, we know”, their captain replied. “We want to play this move.”

I then realised what they had in mind, so the game continued:

8. Nd4 Nxd4
9. Qh5

As expected. They were sacrificing a piece for a mate threat, hoping that I wouldn’t notice.

9.. g6

Good enough, but 9.. Nxc2+ was more accurate as White could now have played Qd1.

10. Qh6

Now I spotted that they might be planning Bg5, followed by Bf6 and Qg7#, but I decided I had time to meet that threat and played:

10… Nxc2+, winning easily with my extra material.

I suppose I have to be impressed with the idea, which demonstrates imagination and creativity as well as the ability to think ahead. Unfortunately, that sort of thing isn’t going to work against a reasonably competent opponent. If you want to play for a mating attack on move 8 it would make much more sense to play Ng5 when Qh5 really is a threat, but instead they wanted to bait the trap.

I should add, in case anyone from the school is reading this, that the teams played really well in the simul, two of them totally outplaying me, although I think I might have almost equalised in one game when time was called.

Two days earlier I’d been demonstrating the Aronian-Kramnik game from the Candidates Tournament to a group of rather stronger players (about 800-1000 rating) at Richmond Junior Club.

You’ve probably seen the game already, so will be aware that the first moves were:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 Nf6
4. d3 Bc5
5. Bxc6 dxc6
6. O-O Qe7
7. h3

I asked the class to guess Black’s next move, telling them it wasn’t an easy move to find.

Several of the class liked the idea of Bxh3. One of the stronger players in the group told me he’d play either Bxh3 or Bg4. Someone else suggested Ng4, possibly thinking of the Fishing Pole trap.

Again, you have to be impressed, up to a point. They’d identified that White’s last move had created a weakness and they wanted to take advantage of it. Most of them have seen games in which the winner successfully sacrificed a piece for a winning attack on the enemy king. I might have been more impressed if someone had suggested the idea of Be6, Qd7 and then Bxh3, which, if White gives you the opportunity, will give you two pawns for the piece and a stronger attack.

As you probably know, Kramnik actually played 7.. Rg8 here, continuing with Nh5 and g5, and winning with a brilliant sacrificial attack against Aronian’s king.

It occurred to me some time ago that I was mistaken in thinking that when players at this level lost a piece they were either playing too impulsively or looking at the board but not seeing. Once you talk to children about their moves you’ll realise that very often they know they’re losing a piece but either think it doesn’t matter, or, as in these two examples, think they’re doing something rather clever.

This is what happened, for rather different reasons, in both these examples.

In the first position, they were simply setting a trap which they hoped I’d fall into. How should we look at this? A failure to consider risks and probabilities? Immaturity of thought, playing a move based on what they hope their opponent will play rather than what their opponent is likely to play? A lack of understanding that Superior Force Wins and how to play endings?

The second example (playing, for example, Bxh3 rather than Kramnik’s Rg8) is a higher level error. These players have seen lots of examples of sacrificial attacks but lack the ability to calculate whether or not the sacrifice works and the experience to estimate whether or not the sacrifice is likely to work. Of course all chess teachers like to demonstrate this sort of game, but as you progress in chess you realise that in real life most potential sacrifices don’t work, and that you’ll reject the majority of the sacrifices you consider.

Returning, for a moment, to the first diagram, according to my database, two players (rated 1855 and 1949, so about my level) have tried 9. Bxh7+ here. If you’ve learnt the Greek Gift sacrifice it’s very tempting, isn’t it? I suspect that if I showed this position to the Saturday group, many of whom will know the idea, a lot of them would suggest the same thing.

In this position, though, it just doesn’t work. After 9.. Kxh7 10. Ng5+ Kg8 11. Qh5 Black can defend comfortably with Bf5 (or, if he prefers, 11.. Bb4+ 12. c3 Qxd3 13. cxb4 Nxb4). It’s important to know basic tactical ideas like the Greek Gift and Légall’s Mate, but you have to understand that they don’t always work. The Greek Gift, for example, is unlikely to work if your opponent can, as in this position, play Bf5 in reply to Qh5.

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.