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The Steinitz Gambit

Check out Kevin Butler’s new chess video introduction to the Steinitz Gambit, covering the important ideas underlying this wild chess opening! After 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 exf4 4.d4 Qh4+ 5.Ke2 the White King is perfectly comfortable behind his strong central pawns, and the monarch even plans on better placement in case of any endgame. Very bold! Kevin’s video explains what’s going on, and shows how you can use the fighting King in your chess openings.

 

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Chess Openings for Beginners (Part 3)

These three short articles, appearing weekly, gives us 21 days to master the King plus Bishop and Knight vs. lone King checkmate. Plenty of time; indeed we should clock ourselves at, say, 5 minutes against anybody. We can do that because we’re not thinking about chess openings. Of course we like to play chess games and there sits the start position every time, so let’s learn a chess opening that’s safe and sound, allows for rapid piece development, keeps our pawn structure solid and provides opportunity to transition into standard openings when ready. Finally, our “universal system” has to work for both the White and Black pieces while avoiding chess opening theory where possible.

Keeping these points in mind, consider the virtues of 1.Nc3 as White and 1…Nc6 as Black:


We develop our Queen’s Knight to its most natural post, attack two central squares and preserve all options for our pawns. This first move is early without objection, including the fact that very little is known about this “Queen’s Knight Attack”. Let’s look at what can happen when we bring out the Queen’s Knight immediately.

After 1.Nc3 as White we’re playing the “Dunst” or “Van Geet”  opening, called the “Sleipner” in Germany. Here we can enjoy free form chess, making up our own chess opening as Black reacts. The common 1…e5 isn’t a very good answer because of 2.Nf3 and then 3.d4 next. If 1…d5 by Black we go 2.Nf3 or 2.d3 or 2.e3 – and even 2.f4 is also good. The same ideas hold for 1…c5 and 1…Nf6, and White can never be forced to play a mainstream opening. But note that we can easily add traditional chess openings; the Veresov  following 1.Nc3 d5 2.d4, the Closed Sicilian after 1.Nc3 c5 2.e4 and the Vienna after 1.Nc3 e5 2.e4 are just three examples. So 1.Nc3 offers much to the chess beginner and the novice chess player too.

What about Black after 1…Nc6 then? Now everything depends on White’s first move, but our Queen’s Knight is ready for any case. If 1.e4 Nc6 we have the Nimzovich Defense, an underrated and little known chess opening. Next 2.d4 by White meets with 2…d5 (and 2…e5 is fine, but not until we know 3.Nf3 the Scotch Game), and 2.Nf3 on White’s second move is answered 2…d6, 2…e6, 2…Nf6 or later the “normal” 2…e5 when we add the Ruy Lopez to our opening arsenal. Should White go 2.Nc3 we have 2…e6 and 3…Bb4 afterward, and we can always add the Vienna Game later on with 2…e5 instead.

Nothing else White can do is very fearsome after 1.e4 Nc6, but that leaves 1.d4 Nc6 to examine. Once again Black is well placed to defend unexplored ground or add main line chess openings as we please. For example, 1.d4 Nc6 2.Nf3 d5 can enter variations of Chigorin’s Defense to the Queen’s Gambit, or Black may steer the game his way with 2…e6 or 2…d6 here. If 1.d4 Nc6 2.e4 we’re back in the Nimzovich Defense where 2…d5 was our answer. That leaves only the sequence 1.d4 Nc6 2.d5, pushing around our Queen’s Knight in an opening we’ve dubbed the “Bozo-Indian Defense“. And if White avoids 1.e4 or 1.d4 on his first move, then there is no stress for Black at all with our 1…Nc6 answer.

In summary, we can do quite well with our “Queen’s Knight Attack”, provided we follow up with rapid development of each piece and keep our pawns in good order. Make one or two pawn moves, bring our men out efficiently, then castle. After a few moves we’ll cash in on that time spent learning middlegame chess strategy, tactical combinations and chess endings. By the way, did you know that a King plus two Knights can checkmate a King if he has one pawn? Study that fun checkmate instead of chess openings – bring out the Queen’s Knight on move one!

Chess Openings for Beginners (Part 2)

If we follow the advice of Sigmund Tarrasch, then chess beginners and novice chess players are busy learning endgames first and middlegame ideas second. Simple chess endings to more complex examples, then middlegame strategy (pawn structure, weak squares, etc.) and tactics (chess combinations, Kingside attacks, etc.). On this foundation we can build our knowledge about chess openings – and for now we only want an opening “system”, a chess opening to get us safely past the first 12-15 moves.

To be fair, when Tarrasch finally introduces the opening phase of chess he provides a general survey, a little taste, of all the main chess openings. It’s okay to peek ahead and get a feel for what lies ahead, because someday we’ll adopt a few of these standard King’s Pawn or Queen’s Pawn chess openings as our own. But at this point in our career let’s find a simple and universal way to get through the opening of a chess game.

In fact, let’s save study time and find a true “stereotype”, a chess opening we can play with the White and Black pieces both. One obvious example is the King’s Indian:

Depending on what the opponent does we’ll advance our e-pawn or c-pawn two squares, staking a claim in the center. Move order is flexible, so we can play 1…g6 or 1…d6 (as Black) in answer to 1.e4 and still reach the diagrammed position; the Queen’s Knight can also be held back for deployment elsewhere. As White this layout is called the King’s Indian Attack, and as Black it’s the King’s Indian Defense or (after 1.e4) the Pirc/Modern complex, but they’re all clearly related.

Another “automatic” chess opening might be called the “Queen’s Indian” formation:

We can play Nf3, Be2, 0-0 and then push a pawn to c4 or d4 as our center play. Again we have a wide choice of follow-up plans, with a safe and solid position. Here White is playing the “Larsen Attack” and Black the “English Defense” but again the opening concepts have much in common.

It is interesting that both chess opening systems described above can lead to the “Hippopotamus Opening”, in which we redirect our King’s Knight to the e2-square:

We might plan a c-pawn push followed by Qc2, and we’re practically in the middlegame already.

Each of these chess opening “systems” pass muster – that is, we exit the opening quickly and in good order with either White or Black. It must be understood, however, that these chess openings are essentially counter-punching strategies; the enemy is free to grab the chess board’s center while we ponder how to strike back or die. This pleasure is paid for by creeping around on the first three ranks and not attacking or threatening anything. A sophisticated proposition, perhaps, for the beginner or novice at chess. But we are at least getting our chess pieces organized, and can trust to win the game with our superior new skills in middlegame chess strategy and endgame play.

The “universal” chess openings just described, playable for both White and Black, are certainly worth a look. No other plans of development fit the bill, although some chess openings come close. Bird’s Opening with 1.f4 is typical, and can be played with White or Black (the Dutch Defense) equally in all cases – except, that is, when we’re Black and White has played 1.e4 on his first move. Another near miss is 1.Nf3 and 1…Nf6 against anything, which we reject because 1.e4 Nf6 is Alekhine’s Defense and 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 leads to a crush of Grandmaster chess opening theory.

But there is another chess opening that can be played with White or Black, one that offers more piece activity than we’ve seen yet, and one that applies more directly to the “standard” openings we’ll want to learn later. Next time let’s examine ChessCentral’s favorite opening system for beginner and novice chess players!

Chess Openings for Beginners (Part 1)

Beginners at chess and even Novice chess players are today awash in a flood of books and software programs directed especially at them. New chess players risk drowning in a sea of advice about “courses” to take and “training” to do. In this circumstance even the strongest swimmers looks for a lifeline, so take hold of the following idea.

Don’t waste time on chess openings. It’s common knowledge that Dr. Tarrasch, after teaching the elementary checkmates, would then demonstrate chess endgames. After that came solid grounding in chess strategy and middlegame themes, tactics and piece coordination. Only then was there any discussion of the opening in chess, but only enough to illustrate the concept of rapid and fluid piece development.

We conclude, therefore, that Beginner and Novice chess players ought to look at the opening as something to be gotten past, to be survived in good enough condition to then pound one’s opponent. New chess players need a simple, plain and universal way to begin each chess game, devoting their time instead to tactics, strategy and chess endings. Far better to know the Lucena and Philidor Rook endgame than the latest wrinkle of Sicilian Defense opening theory.

Good. Then how do we do that? Suppose White plays 1.e4 and you have the Black pieces – what “simple system” gets you past the best chess opening move on earth? Or maybe White goes 1.d4 or any of a dozen reasonable first moves; or you get the White pieces yourself and what then? The choices seem limitless, and there’s no way to be ready for everything.

Perhaps not, but let’s find two or three universal chess openings for easy use by beginner and novice chess players. A chess opening “system” that allows us to live long enough to win with our acquired tactical and endgame skill. Next time we’ll offer some concrete examples…and meanwhile keep practicing that Bishop & Knight checkmate!

Classified Chess Openings

No, we’re not talking about top secret opening analysis. Instead it’s the attempt to “classify” chess openings into a fixed and arbitrary category that raises an eyebrow, especially if the proposed categories were popular over a hundred years ago. This pre-modern classification method has four basic elements:

* The Open Game (1.e4 e5). Any double King’s pawn opening; classic open games include the Danish Gambit and King’s Gambit.
* The Semi-Open Game (1.e4, then moves other than 1…e5). This class of openings includes the French, Caro-Kann, Sicilian, etc.
* The Semi-Closed Game (1.d4, then moves other than 1…d5). Here are the Indian openings, plus the Dutch, Benoni, Gruenfeld, etc.
* The Closed Game (1.d4 d5). Any of the double Queen’s pawn games; the typical closed game is the Queen’s Gambit.

But does this classification system tell us anything practical? Under that Open/Semi/Closed regimen the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit is a Closed Game, while the Smith-Morra Gambit (the BDG’s mirror image on the Queenside) falls to the Semi-Open Games. The French Defense after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 is quite closed, yet it’s a Semi-Open Game; and many lines in the Giuoco Piano, an Open Game, are closed indeed. Nor does the classification system under discussion take account of Flank Openings (1.c4, 1.Nf3, 1.f4, and others) or Irregular Openings (1.b3, 1.Nc3, 1.e3, and others).

So there are gaps and contradictions in this old grouping of chess openings. It is, however, a useful system if you’re building a general survey or compendium like “Modern Chess Openings” – or BCO, ECO and so forth. And that’s exactly what ChessBase is attempting with their new Chess Opening Tutorials. Two volumes have been released so far:

1) The Open Games

2) The Semi-Open Games

The idea is to gather experts in various fields of opening theory and to survey a number of openings in one compact form. That ChessBase is striking out in electronic format is no surprise, and will be a boon to many computer users. And the general overview of an opening (or group of openings) does fill a gap in chess literature – somewhere between “How to Play the Opening” and a specialized DVD on, say, a sub-variation of the Richter-Rauzer Attack in the Sicilian Defense.

We can now guess that at least two more volumes will follow, maybe more if ChessBase includes the Flank and Irregular openings. Let us wish them success in reviving an old chess opening classification system, and in bringing it to the 21st century on DVD.

An endgame clinic – Bishop vs. Knight

In my last blog post we looked at a really interesting endgame involving a pair of Bishops vs. a pair of Knights with pawns on both sides of the board. This time around we’re going to examine the same idea, but we’ll simplify it a bit: we’ll look at a single Bishop against a single Knight.

In both cases, though, the underlying principle remains the same: in endgames in which both players have pawns on both sides of the board, Bishops tend to be better than Knights. It’s simply a mobility issue: Bishops move farther than Knights. A Bishop can not only zip quickly back and forth across the board in a single move (shuttling from the Kingside to the Queenside and back whenever necessary) but also just plain controls more turf than a Knight. On an open board, a Bishop controls seven squares at its worst, while at its best a Knight controls only eight squares:

Even a cornered Bishop can control seven squares

A centralized Knight controls just eight squares - and that's the best it can do

A Bishop can easily pick off opposing pawns and/or support and defend friendly ones on both sides of the board. But Knights are slow and often have to struggle just to defend friendly pawns on one side of the board — never mind trying to reach the opposite side in time to be effective.

Using a program like ChessBase 10, you can finds literally thousands of Bishop vs. Knight endgames. Here’s just one that I discovered, a game from 2009 played between grandmasters at the chess World Cup (and, by the way, the Black player isn’t the former World Champion of the same name):

Meier,Georg (2653) – Petrosian,Tigran L (2615) [D81]

World Cup Khanty Mansiysk (1.2), 22.11.2009

Position after White's 27th move

White is winning as he’s a pawn ahead, but Black can still make a fight of it as long as he tries to keep material on the board. White can’t advance the e-pawn to create a passed pawn (e5 is controlled by both of Black’s pieces) and his Rook is tied to the e4-pawn’s defense. Black’s best strategy is to try to keep White’s pieces tied up and play for the “frustration draw”.

27…g5 28.Be3

The Bishop retreats, but now Black decides to do something ill-advised: he’s going to trade Rooks. He’d have been far better off playing 28…f5-f4.

28…Rxe4 29.Rxe4 fxe4

Position after 29...fxe4

The material is now equal and neither player has a passed pawn. White, though, still has the advantage because (you guessed it!) his Bishop is better than a Knight with pawns on both sides of the board. And Black’s a-pawn is hanging…

30.Bxa7 Kg7 31.Bd4+

The Bishop hustles back and checks the King, picking up a tempo.

31…Kg6 32.Ke2 Kf5 33.Ke3 Nh6 34.h3 g4 35.a4

Here’s a fundamental reason why the Bishop is better than the Knight. White’s Queenside pawns, supported by the Bishop, can advance and create a passed pawn. Meanwhile the Bishop (if necessary) can still help out on the Kingside. Black’s Knight, less mobile, can only be active on the Kingside.

35…gxh3 36.gxh3 Ng8

Black loses more time as he tries to reposition his slow Knight to a more active spot.

37.b4 Ne7 38.Bc5 Nd5+

This just drives the White King to a better square. Black is really scrambling here: he can’t let White create a Queenside passed pawn, he needs to try to create his own passed pawn, and he really can’t afford to lose any more material. It’s just plain impossible for the Knight to be everywhere at once.

39.Kd4 Nf4 40.b5 Ke6

Position after 40...Ke6

Black is hopeful that his King can dash White’s plan to gain a passed pawn. But now the e4-pawn is dangling, and White’s in a happy place: he has a choice of winning moves.

41.a5

[41.Kxe4 would also win. 41…Nxh3 42.f4, then Black really has nothing better than 42…Nxf4 43.Kxf4 Kd5 44.Be7 and, to use that really annoying phrase, “the rest is a matter of technique”. But, honestly, White’s game pretty much plays itself from here.]

41…Kd7 42.Kxe4 Nxh3 43.f4 h5 44.Kf3

Black is just plain sunk. Sooner or later he’s going to have to trade his Knight for White’s f-pawn, the White King will then snap up the h-pawn, and a White Queenside pawn (aided by the Bishop) will promote. In fact, Rybka4 (with the help of the Nalimov tablebases) finds a forced mate in fourteen here. Fire up your tablebases and see for yourself!

Black resigns. 1-0

So what does all of this mean to you? When you’re in a late middlegame or early endgame, knowing that Bishops tend to be better than Knights with pawns on both sides of the board will help you determine whether or not a particular minor-piece trade is a good idea. If you have Knights, try to trade them for your opponent’s Bishops if possible, but also try to keep your Rooks (or Queen) on the board (as seen in the game above). If you have the Bishops, try to hang onto them instead of trading them for an opponent’s Knights.

On the other hand, if you have two Bishops and your opponent has a Bishop and Knight, try to swap off the same-colored Bishops so you’ll have a straight one Bishop vs. one Knight endgame.

Want to learn more about minor-piece endings? ChessCentral carries Karsten Mueller’s FritzTrainer Endgame DVDs. ChessCentral also offers an extensive line of chess pieces, boards, software, and gift items (Christmas is coming soon!)

Have fun! — Steve

A Rubinstein “swindle” – the answer

In our last blog post we looked at most of a game by the great Akiba Rubinstein, stopping at the point at which he was about to pop off a really sweet little combination. I also said that a “chess engine wouldn’t find it” (or words to that effect); that now appears to have been a misstatement. My good friend (and longtime partner in chess crime) Jeroen van Dorp informs me that Rybka3 does indeed find Rubinstein’s solution, so I stand corrected. I’d tried the position in Rybka4, Fritz12, Shredder12, plus Crafty and a selection of other Winboard/UCI engines, and none of them found Rubinstein’s solution.

That actually makes this a better position for us to admire, because it shows us two things: first, that Marotti had painted himself into a corner, and second, that Rubinstein had enough on the ball to spot his opportunity.

To really get our heads around this position, we’ll need to discover how it comes about. So break out your analysis sets and follow along with the fun!

Rubinstein,Akiba – Marotti,Davide [B38]
London BCF Congress London (7), 1922

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.c4 Bg7 6.Be3 d6 7.Nc3 Nf6 8.f3 Bd7 9.Qd2 Nxd4 10.Bxd4 0-0 11.Be2 Ne8 12.0-0 f5 13.exf5 gxf5 14.Rfe1 e5 15.Bf2 Bc6 16.Rad1 Rf6 17.c5 Rg6 18.Bc4+ Kh8 19.Bf7 Rh6 20.f4 Qe7 21.Bd5 e4 22.Bxc6 bxc6 23.cxd6 Rxd6 24.Qe2 Rg6 25.Qc4 Nc7 26.Rd2 Rg8 27.g3 Ne8 28.Nd1 Qh4

The Queen is quite safe, of course, because the g3-pawn is pinned by the Rook on g6. The f4-pawn is now hanging, though, and if 29…Qxf4 then the d2-Rook is attacked (and undefended).

29.Ne3

Although Rubinstein drops a pawn, the Knight serves a useful dual purpose: after …Qxf4 it blocks an attack on the d2-Rook, plus the Knight is now poised to get into the action. 29.Be3 might have been played instead, but the d1-Knight then would have nowhere useful to go.

29…Qxf4 30.Qf7

Rubinstein decides to mix it up and turn the game into a dogfight. The f5-pawn is attacked twice (by White’s Queen and Knight).

30…Bh6

The losing move, believe it or not, and the one which sets up everything which follows. Had Black played …Bf6 (where the Bishop would have been guarded by the e8-Knight) White would have needed to come up with a new plan.

31.Rd8 Qe5 32.Nxf5

Rubinstein levels the material balance but, more important, his forces are now poised for attack.

32…Rf6

This is where the light bulb popped “on” in Rubinstein’s head, so hard that I’m amazed Marotti didn’t hear an audible “click” from across the table. What follows is based on the idea that the Black Queen, Rook, and King are all on the same diagonal.

33.Nxh6 Rf8

The position from our last blog post. Had Marotti played 33…Rxh6 instead, Rubinstein would have fired off 34.Bd4, pinning the Queen.

Position after 33...Rf8

Here’s where it gets really, really cool. Marotti as Black is completely sunk here, but Rubinstein still needs to fire the killing torpedo and has his choice of tubes. Most chess engines will find 34.Rxe8 here, with the continuation 34…Qxe8 35.Qxe8 Rxe8 36.Bd4 (pinning the f6-Rook instead of the Queen, with the same idea as in the actual game) Kg7 37.Ng4 which retreats the Knight but piles up on the f6-Rook. If Black defends it with …Ref8 he loses the e4-pawn. Either way, he’s down a fair bit of material.

But instead, Rubinstein opts to win this one with style:

34.Qxf8+!  Rxf8 35.Bd4

and Marotti quits on the spot. The best he has here is the forced 35…Qxd4+ (otherwise he loses his Queen for nothing), then 36.Rxd4 and White is just plain winning being as he’s up a Rook.

Games like this are the reason I’m an Akiba Rubinstein fan — win or lose, he often did it spectacularly.

What??!!?? You don’t have an analysis set??? ChessCentral offers this chess analysis set with roll-up vinyl mini-board, which is the same analysis set I use when I’m on the go.

Have fun! — Steve