Whether An Interesting Opening Idea Is Good Or Bad Depends On Context

Recently, I saw a cute game from 2005 (thanks to Nigel Davies) that featured a very early Knight redeployment by Black that was punished by White. My immediate reaction was that this was yet another instructive case of how GMs (Black was rated 2509) can be punished for breaking the “rules” of quick development and not moving the same piece three times early in the opening. However, one cannot just say that a very strong player did something completely stupid. Rather, there was a real point behind the maneuver, so strategically it was not a stupid idea. It just happened that concretely, tactically it was punishable by alert, precise play.

Examining situations like this is instructive and deepens one’s understanding of the subtleties of chess. Here I offer representative middle game positions that illustrate how Black’s Knight maneuver can be justified, if

  • It happens later in the opening when Black’s King and center are solid and not vulnerable to immediate disruption.
  • White does not play precisely, and therefore allows Black to catch up in development.

The Game

In this game, Black tried a Knight maneuver on move 4 of the opening to start redeploying from c6 to e7 to g6. There is a solid justification for this kind of maneuver, but alas, a precise attack starting with h4 and then hitting at f7 resulted in a nice sacrifice opening up Black’s King. Although some imprecise play by White almost let Black have possibilities to draw a bad ending, Black’s opening concept was clearly dubious.

The same opening with White not acting decisively

The problem with seeing a game like that out of context is that one might think “of course Black deserved to get punished for such an unusual opening concept”. It’s worth seeing how the opening might have turned out OK, if only White had played less aggressively, by developing “normally” and not quickly attacking Black’s King side or center. Below is a sample continuation in which Black is completely successful in achieving a flexible Philidor type of position, with Pawns on d6, c6, and b5, and with the Knight being more active on g6 than on the usual square of d7. This is the kind of justified position that Black wanted to get.

A possible Four Knights Game position

Finally, let’s look at the Knight maneuver in a “respectable” context, a slow Four Knights Game in which both sides have already developed most of their pieces and castled, and the position is closed. Here, because White plays a single passive move h3 at a moment when more disruptive moves were possible, Black manages to redeploy the Knight to g6, reaching a position even more active than in the Philidor situation, because of the dark Bishop being on b4 instead of e7. In fact, it looks like Black is playing the Spanish, only reversed. (A later article will examine the analogous Knight maneuver from b1 to g3 in the Spanish for White.)

Lessons

  • If you break a rule of development too early in the opening, it is likely a bad idea.
  • If you see a rule of development broken, look for a possible disruptive refutation, through opening the center or attacking the King or some other tactical idea, even if it means interrupting your own “normal” development.
  • “Normal” development in response to a weird idea may result in that weird idea turning into a virtue at your expense.

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.