One of the most surefire strategies in chess for either side is the minority attack. It is so effective because it arises directly from a certain type of pawn structure, is often nearly impossible to prevent, and almost always causes some structural problems for the other side when successful.
Pawn minorities are usually disadvantages if anything, but given the above structure, White has the deceptively effective plan of attacking Black’s c6 link with a well-timed b2-b4-b5. Queen’s Gambit Declined Exchange players will recognize the pawn structure very well.
Once there’s a pawn on b5, there’s not a lot Black can do to prevent damage. If Black simply ignores White’s play, White takes on c6, leaving Black with a backward pawn on the open c-file or an isolated pawn on d5. Both …cxb5 and …c5 (after dxc5) also leave Black with an isolated d-pawn. White may be left with an isolated a-pawn, but it’s usually not very easily attackable and thus not a major factor.
Of course, those aren’t the only factors at play; as with many positions involving pawn weaknesses, the structurally weaker side often gets compensation in the form of open lines, space, and activity. But it’s clear that the victim of the minority attack cannot just sit and wait for the plan to unfold. Because of the static nature of the minority attack’s benefits, I personally try to avoid that pawn structure (as the victim) at all costs, and have been relatively successful, despite that structure being extremely common.
The minority attack can obviously arise from the Queen’s Gambit Declined, but another common pathway is through the Exchange Caro-Kann as Black. Many players like to describe it as a safe option for White, but in my opinion, the minority attack shows that it’s not as safe as it might seem.
Here’s a “typical” example of how I put it to use against a 1900 in the Pennsylvania G/60 last weekend.
Henninger – Li
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 4. Bd3 Nc6 5. c3 Qc7!
In a previous game against the same opponent, I’d played 5…Nf6 in a tough game where White played Bf4, Qb3, Bb5, Nf3-e5, and more. This is a lot easier, as White will find it hard to develop the dark-squared bishop.
Ideally, White would play Nf3 or Bf4 here, but it’s not so easy to challenge Black with that. The only real tries here, in my opinion, are 6. Ne2 (preparing Bf4 and ready to meet 6…Bg4 with 7. f3) and 6. h3 before Nf3.
Even in this early position, a seasoned Caro-Kann player would already be waiting to prepare …b7-b5-b4. There’s not a lot White can do to prevent this, but he can prepare for it.
6…Bg4 7. Be3 e6 8. h3 Bh5 9. Nbd2 Bd6 10. Qc2 Nge7 11. a3
White’s already sensing the minority attack, but interestingly enough, this rarely proves effective, as Black just plays …a5, daring White to force matters with b2-b4, which has its own problems.
Indirectly pressuring c2 to make an eventual …b4 more effective and lessen the chance of b2-b4.
12. O-O O-O 13. Rfe1 a5
It’s also worth noting that White is stuck defending the queenside, since Black has given White absolutely nothing in the center and kingside. White has a chance at the ugly b2-b4 (by getting rid of the pin on the c-file immediately), but ultimately chooses not to contest matters.
14. Nf1 b5 15. Bg5 b4
White has the usual 3 choices (plus or minus axb4); unsurprisingly, none of them are particularly appealing as they all lead to weak b, c, and/or d-pawns.
16. Bh4 bxc3 17. bxc3 Rfc8 18. Bg3 a4
Black will quickly make White’s life miserable if allowed to play …Na5-b3 or …Na5-c4, so White lashes out.
19. Bxd6 Qxd6 20. Bxg6 Nxg6 21. c4
This simplifies things a bit, but White’s d-pawn is still very weak. Black is the only one with chances here.
21…dxc4 21. Qxc4 Nf4 23. Ng3 Qd7 24. Qc1?
White caves and simply blunders the exchange after 24…Nd3. Needless to say, White did not last much longer.
But that was a little too straightforward, as White didn’t really do anything to prepare for the minority attack. Let’s see how well this can work against one of my toughest opponents ever, FM Gabriel Petesch.
Same opening, but again, White has not pressed for much and Black is already comfortable. Still, there’s a lot of game left to play – White is not closing in on 2400 for nothing.
7. Bg5 Nf6!
Not fearing 8. Bxf6 gxf6, which can be followed soon by …e5! But that’s a story for another day.
8. Nbd2 e6 9. Qa4 Bd6 10. O-O O-O 11. Rfe1 Bh5 12. Bh4 a6
It looks like Black will get in …b5-b4 easy. But White can do a bit about it.
13. Rac1 Rfc8 14. Qc2 Bg6 15. Bxg6 hxg6 16. Bg3 b5 17. Nb3
And here we see one of the few downsides of the minority attack: the c5 (or c4 if you’re White) square is a bit weak because of …b5/…d5/bishops getting traded left and right. But this is not quite a save for White.
17…Bxg3 18. fxg3 Qd6 19. Qd3 Ne4! 20. Nfd2 Nxd2 21. Nxd2 b4
And White couldn’t stop …b4 after all. Still, White can plant a knight on c5, which makes it kind of tough for Black to break through. However, it’s clear that Black has the only real chances, due to White’s weaknesses.
22. Nb3 bxc3 23. Qxc3 Qb4 24. a3 Qb5 25. Nc5 a5 26. b3 Ra7 27. Rc2 Rac7 28. Rec1
Black’s plan has been very straightforward up to this point, but 60 minutes is not a lot of time, and by now I was down to under 10 minutes to Gabe’s 5.
The fact that I eventually lost this game on a blunder should not detract from the simplicity and effectiveness of the minority attack. Although White’s knight seems powerful, the a, b, and d-pawns are still quite weak and White has no real targets anywhere else. I was happy to reach this point against a 2400.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll just show the ending.
Almost any other reasonable move keeps a sizable advantage for Black, the most natural being 34…Rb8. 34…Na5 is especially cute. On the other hand, almost any move attacking the b4 knight wins for White here, so it’s amazing that I even considered this.
35. Rdb1 and I resigned in a few more moves.
Although that didn’t work out in the end, the first game and most of the second were pretty solid demonstrations of how simple the minority attack can be. If you want some more opportunities with that, I’d certainly recommend getting some Exchange games with the Caro-Kann!