Sunday, February 9, 2020

Chess is a Game with 32 Pieces

Hello everyone and welcome. In the previous article, The French Connection: Volume 30, we previewed the article with the first round from Land of the Sky, a tournament played in the final weekend of January. Here, and the next article, we will be covering two other games from that tournament.

You might be wondering what the title is all about. Have you ever heard someone say, either in person or on a forum, something along the lines of "I have no idea what my opponent was playing, but I was playing the King's Indian", or some other "setup" often played against multiple lines? If they tell you that, they are amongst those that believe that chess is a 16-piece game, and does not understand that the opening is determined by both players, not by one.

For example, let's say you are a King's Indian player. The game starts 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Nc3. Black thinks "Ok, White probably just made a mistake playing the Knight in front of the c-pawn in a Queen pawn opening. I am going to blast him with my King's Indian Defense! So Black plays 3...Bg7. There is nothing wrong with this move. Another option is 3...d5, preventing 4.e4 and leading to what is known as the Barry Attack after 4.Bf4. However, back to 3...Bg7. Now White plays 4.e4 and Black plays 4...d6. What Black now needs to understand is that this is no longer a King's Indian Defense, that 3.Nc3 was not a mistake, and that we are now in a Pirc Defense. Black has done nothing wrong thus far, but let's say that after 5.Be2 O-O 6.O-O, a main line of the Classical Variation of the Pirc Defense, Black, still in a King's Indian mentality, plays 6...e5, a move that has been played in this opening, but 6...c6 is the main line and is far stronger. Black assumes that white will advance the d-pawn, where he can then move his Knight and advance the f-pawn. White, instead, plays the strong 7.dxe5!. Black says "Ok, White is going to play the boring exchange line. This is an easy draw for me! After 7...dxe5 8.Qxd8 Rxd8 9.Bg5 Re8. Ok, so now White is going to play 10.Nd5, right? Once again, this is NOT a King's Indian. White does not have the pawn on c4, and here, 10.Rad1! is strong. This is not a refutation to 6...e5, but White's advantage is greater here than against the stronger 6...c6, with the idea of attacking the e4-pawn via a future ...b5 and trying to attack the Knight on c3, the only piece guarding e4 after 6 moves. There is nothing wrong with a King's Indian player walking into a Pirc Defense, but then he needs to apply the proper ideas of the Pirc rather than just blindly continue to play under the delusion that this is a King's Indian Defense. As a King's Indian player, I've occasionally ended up in a Pirc, and while it's not my main line of defense to 1.e4 (the French is), I play the position like it's a Pirc, and not a King's Indian, and I would play 6...c6 in this position.

Now that we see what the title is all about, the game that is featured in this article will see Black, via a different opening, do something very similar to the fake incident illustrated above, and what we will see is a game where White has the advantage throughout the entire game. We will see White playing a few sub-par moves that allow Black the opportunity to hold his disadvantage to a minimum, but after continued failure of believing he's playing "his opening" rather than what is actually featured on the board, he gets blasted in short order via a strong exchange sacrifice by White.

Without further ado, let's look at the feature game.

Land of the Sky XXXIII, Round 2
W: Patrick McCartney (2087)
B: Peter Liotino (1878)
Sicilian Defense, Prins Variation

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.f3

Those that have seen previous articles, such as the first two rounds of the tournament in Georgia that I played in October and covered here in late 2019, will know that I play this system regularly, and I have covered many ideas for White, and will continue to do so, but I want to spend a moment here explaining what options Black legitimately has here. In essence, there are three approaches to defending this line.
  • The first option is to play an early 5...e5. This drives the White Knight to b3, and after 6.Nb3 (6.Bb5+, known as the Venice Attack, is another line, but it is not good for White, and a little research by Black would be valuable because with correct play, Black gets a small advantage here), there are three possibilities for Black.
    • He can play an early 6...d5, beating White to control of the d5-square, but this often leads to miserable positions for Black. An example can be found in round 2 of the mentioned tournament in Georgia in October, which I covered here. This is not meant to imply the line is bad. It is fine for Black, and with correct play, he should be able to draw it, but despite the high draw ratio, Black has very few winning chances, if any at all, and do you really want to play for two results as Black? If you are in the final round and need only a draw, I would recommend this line for Black. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't.
    • The second option is a positional approach. 6...a5. The idea here is to harass the Knight before White has time to set up the Maroczy Bind, and White should now play either 7.Nc3 or 7.Bb5+ instead of 7.c4?!.
    • The third option, and by far the most popular in this line, is the combative 6...Be6. Follow that up with 7...Nbd7 and 8...Rc8 and White is left with a choice to play the materialistic, though passive 9.Na3, or the pawn sacrifice line with 9.Nc3.
  • The second option is to play 5...Nc6, leading to dragon structures. After 6.c4, Black has two options. The first is to play 6...g6 and directly transpose to the main lines of the Accelerated Dragon, Maroczy Bind. The other is a tricky line with 6...Qb6. After 7.Nc2 g6 8.Nc3 Bg7 9.Re1, Black can continue to proceed with normal development, or he can try the very tricky 9...Ng4. The idea is that 10.fxg4? Bxc3+ is winning for Black. Instead, after 10.Qd2 Bh6 11.Qe2 Bxc1 12.Nd5!, White gets a small advantage in what turns out to be a fairly quiet game.
  • The third and final option is to play it similar to an English opening, which can also lead to the Maroczy Bind position, and defend the position with a hedgehog setup.

Outside of these three lines of defense, Black will usually get into a lot of trouble, and what happens here in this game is no different.


This is the first sign that Black is both a Najdorf player, and also a player that likely doesn't understand the idea behind 5.f3. They probably assume, or at least hope, for a transposition to the 6.f3 Najdorf, which can also lead to lines of the English Attack. This move itself is not losing, and Black can still easily play the hedgehog setup, but since those that intend to play that line tend to play an early ...e6 rather than an early ...a6, probably means you aren't getting a transposition, although I have occasionally seen it happen where Black has played this move and lead to a hedgehog setup.

6.c4 e6 7.Nc3 Be7 8.Be3 Qc7 9.Qd2 Nbd7 10.Be2

Ok, so Black is going to go for a hedgehog setup, right? Fianchetto the Bishop with ...b6 and ...Bb7, castle Kingside, and play ...Ne5, right?


Ok, so Black goes for this move first. Possibly a tad early, but it shouldn't hurt Black. White plays a move that shows why Black usually completes development first.


The c-pawn is currently poisoned!


Ok, so now it is clear that Black thinks he's playing a Najdorf, and doesn't get that this position, with White pawns on c4 and e4, is not a Najdorf, and that Black cannot just blindly play his desired line of defense against the main line Open Sicilian. This is just like the hypothetical example in the introduction of a King's Indian player trying to play King's Indian moves and apply King's Indian ideas to what was actually a Pirc Defense. Now we see Black with the delusional idea that he can just blindly play the Black side of the English Attack lines of the Najdorf, which Black's 13th move will confirm, when what we have is not an English Attack. Sure, White played f3, Be3, and Qd2, but that doesn't make it an English Attack. The Yugoslav Attack along with the Maroczy Bind, whether via the English or Sicilian, also feature these moves, and just like how the difference between the King's Indian and the Pirc is the c-pawn, where the King's Indian sees the c-pawn on c4 while the Pirc sees the c-pawn at home on c2. The English Attack sees the White c-pawn on c2 while the Maroczy Bind sees the White c-pawn on c4, and the differences in the two positions is alarming.

12.O-O Rc8 13.b3

After Black's 12...Rc8, the c-pawn was threatened.


Even further confirmation that Black doesn't understand the position. In the English Attack, White castles Queenside in most lines, and goes for a direct attack on the Kingside. In the Maroczy Bind, White might occasionally attack the Kingside, but that can often be dangerous with his own King sitting on that side of the board. Notice that White castled short, which is normal in this line. Now had Black fianchettoed his Queen's Bishop and set up a Maroczy Bind, then with the Bishop raking down the long diagonal, the Queen coming in, the Knight coming to e5, could raise major questions to White playing a move like g4. He might be able to eventually, but he has to be able to defend the weakening of his Kingside and the cover on his own King to do it.

In the game, we will see White's attack come down the middle of the board, especially now given that it's clear that Black's King will remain in the center, but even in the normal lines of the Maroczy Bind, White will often use things like the loose Bishop on e7 as a tactical resource to attack in the center.

14.Rfd1 Qb8 15.Kh1 h4 16.f4 Neg4


This is the first time that White made a slight error. It would have been better to immediately retreat with 17.Bg1, and after 17...b5, reply with 18.h3, chasing the Knight away. We will see this ultimately happen in the game, but by trading the Bishop for the Knight, it alleviates Black's cramp a little. Without the trade, Black wouldn't be able to retreat back to f6 as his other Knight sits there.

17...Nxg4 18.Bg1 g6?

Black shows fear of an f5-push, and hands the advantage right back to White. Black would be near equal by simply retreating 18...Nf6 and then 19.Nf3 h3 or else playing 18...h3 straight away.

19.Nf3 Bc6

Now 19...h3 is answered by 20.c5! and Black is in trouble.

20.h3 Nf6 21.Re1 Rd8


This was to set up the next move, but this move isn't necessary. White can blast the position open now with 22.Nd5! Black cannot win material safely. If he tries to grab the Knight and keep the material via 22...exd5 23.exd5 Bd7, he will get blasted via 24.Qd4 Kf8 25.Ng5 Qc8 26.Rxe7 Kxe7 27.c5 Bf5 28.Re1+, and other lines of defense from move 24 onward are only worse, and so Black cannot safely hold on to the material, and would have to give the Bishop up on c6, or else not take on d5 in the first place.

22...Nh5 23.Nd5 Ng3+ 24.Kh2 exd5 25.exd5 Nf5 26.Qc3

Stronger was 26.Qe2!, where once again, Black pays the price if he tries to hold the material. For example, after 26...Bd7? 27.Nd4 Qc7 (other moves, like 27...O-O, drop the Bishop after a Knight trade) 28.Nxf5 Bxf5 29.Bb6! and Black is dead. Instead, 26...O-O would be relatively best, but White is still winning.


The only move that remotely keeps Black in the game is 26...O-O.

27.dxc6 bxc6 28.Bf2 Kf8 29.Kg1 Qc7 30.Rcd1 a5 31.Nd4 Ng7??

The only moves that remotely keep Black in the game are 31...Kg8 and 31...Nxd4, but either way, Black is hurting.

White to move and Win


This move and the next move are interchangeable. 32.Nxc6!! also works, followed by 33.Rxe7, so if you tried to figure out the move from the diagram, and came up with this, you'd also be correct!


32...Qxe7 33.Nxc6 followed by 34.Nxd8 leads to a position where White emerges a pawn up and Black's remaining position is shattered. With the game move, Black emerge ahead in material temporarily, but the resulting attack on the back rank is fatal.

33.Nxc6+ Qxc6 34.Qxg7

And so now the main threat is 35.Re1+ followed by 36.Qxf7, completely shredding Black's position. Only two moves stop that, and Black plays one of them, but they don't work.


The idea here is that f7 will be protected following the check, but it leads to fatal issues on the back rank, and even the Bishop on f2 plays a role! The other move that doesn't drop the pawn immediately is 34...Re8 because 35.Re1+ Kd8 would be attacking the e1-Rook, making 36.Qxf7 impossible. This defense is probably the most resistant as it would force White to find a slightly more complicated winning line. The winning line for White after 34...Re8 is 35.Bxh4+!, when after 35...Rxh4 36.Re1+ and now 36...Kd7 37.Qxf7+ and one of the Rooks will fall or 36...Kd8 37.Qf6+ followed by 38.Qh4, protecting e1, and in both cases, emerging up multiple pawns.

35.Re1+ Kd8 36.Qf8+ Kc7 37.Re8

Black is dead here. The main threat, which Black doesn't prevent, is of course to skewer the King to the Queen, but even after a move like 37...Qb7, this is where the usefulness of the Bishop comes into play. White responds with 38.Ra8! and the Queen can't be saved. If she moves away, like 38...Qb4, then 39.Qc8 is mate while a move like 38...Kc6 allows 39.Rc8+ and the Queen must take as 39...Rc7 40.Qe8 is also mate.

37...Qa6 leads to the same problem after 38.Ra8, and so the Queen cannot be saved no matter what Black does anyway.

37...Rc5 38.Rc8+ Kb7 39.Rxc6 Rxc6

White emerges with a Queen, Bishop, and pawn for two Rooks, and more pawns are about to fall. Black can safely resign here.

40.Qe8 Rdc7 41.Bxh4 d5 42.cxd4 Rc1+ 43.Kh2 1-0

Despite a few minor errors by White on moves 17, 22, and 26, what we saw here was Black getting blasted mainly because Black treated the position as though White's pawns didn't exist, and just continued playing moves blindly like as if he was playing a completely different opening. Black was determined to play a Najdorf Sicilian, despite the fact that the game never was a Najdorf Sicilian. There should be two vital lessons learned from this article:
  • The first is that the opening is determined by the moves made by both players, not by one. At the start of the game, you have 16 pieces, but the board features 32, and what both sides do matters, not just what you do with your own pieces. We saw in the hypothetical the scenario of a King's Indian player ending up in a Pirc Defense, and here we saw a Najdorf Sicilian player ending up in a Maroczy Bind. Recognizing the differences is vital.
  • Do not get trapped into matching the opening with the middlegame ideas. There may be common ideas that happen time and time again in the main lines of a given opening, like an attack on a specific pawn or square, but this repetition results from positions where the 16 pawns are aligned in similar fashion, keeping in mind that some of those 16 pawns may be traded off. In the game we saw, Black thought because White played 3.d4 that he could apply his Najdorf Sicilian ideas regardless of how White followed up, but the Najdorf Sicilian, English Attack and the Maroczy Bind do not feature the same pawn structure, and so the same ideas cannot be repeated. The former sees White's pawns on a2, b2, c2, e4, f3, g2, h2, and White is about to advance the Kingside pawns with his King castled Queenside. In the Maroczy Bind, the White pawns are usually on a2, b3, c4, e4, f3, g2, and h2 with White often looking to attack in the center, timing a Nd5 move, and if Black trades his Bishop, White will recapture with either the c-pawn or e-pawn, depending on the position, and attack down either the open c-file or semi-open e-file rather than storm his Kingside pawns, mainly because he King sits on that side of the board. So the moral of the story is to match pawn structure with idea, not opening with idea. You can get different openings that lead to the same pawn structure, such as the English Hedgehog, certain lines of the 5.c4 variation of the Kan Sicilian, and certain lines of the Sicilian Prins Variation, just to name one example. The 2...Qxd5 and 3...Qa5 lines of the Scandinavian and the 3.Nc3 lines of the Caro-Kann are another example.

As a final thing I'd like to mention, this is also a common problem with Queen Pawn openings. Many players like to play "systems", and think they are good against all Black responses, not even paying attention to what Black is doing. The London is no good against the Modern Defense. The Torre is no good against early d5 lines (e.g. 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6). The Colle is no good without ...e6 played while the Bishop is still behind the pawn chain, and if Black does throw his Bishop out there, an early c4 becomes necessary (e.g. 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 Bf5 (or 3...Bg4) and now 4.c4 is necessary) to attack the slightly weakened Queenside caused by the early development of the Bishop by Black. The list goes on and on, but many amateurs think that playing these lines can ease their burden, and they get the false perception that they can play the game like there are 16 pieces on the board and virtually ignore what the opposing side is doing. Always remember, there are 32 pieces on the chess board when the game begins!

This concludes this article on the importance of paying attention to what your opponent is doing and not just yourself, and until next time, good luck in your games.

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