2017’s Game of the Year?

This past week, the chess world witnessed what many believe to be a once-in-a…well…year event.  In this past match of the Chinese League, a huge 12-team event that takes place over the course of about nine months, Ding Liren was paired as black against Jinshi Bai (2585).  When this game started, no one could ever expect what was in store; yet, when it ended, many were debating whether it could take the title of Game of the Year for 2017.  Without further ado, let’s take a look.  Note:  My comments are located within the game viewer.

Jinshi Bai – Ding Liren, Chinese League, 2017

Simple a stunning performance by Ding Liren, and the king hunt at the end was nothing short of flawless.  This was made possible from the start with Black’s early d5 lunge, which set the tone for the rest of the game in terms of counterplay.  Of course, that pawn ended up making its way all the way to b2 before being taken.  The critical point was when Black sacrificed his queen in order to keep play on the open d-file and queenside.  If White had blocked with 17. Rd2, the game may have ended differently, but the text move essentially guaranteed a middlegame king hunt, something we see so rarely these days due to long and safe opening preparation.  After that move, Ding Liren played the rest of the game perfectly, with every move after 17. … Rxd8 being the engine’s top choice.

After playing through this game for the first time, I was immediately reminded of another “game of the year” caliber game from just two years ago between Wei Yi and Lazaro Bruzon Batista.  As the reaction to that game told us back then, both of these games were masterpieces of attacking.

While the chess world continues to sit in awe, Ding Liren now turns his attention to Magnus Carlsen when the two begin a mini rapid and blitz match in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, at the time of this article’s posting, I will be in New York City for a day trip.  Thanks for reading, good luck in your future games, and I’ll see you next time.


Back to the Board

Last Friday, I returned to the chess board for the first time in five weeks.  And really, the gap is even longer than that.  I had only played in a league match five weeks prior, and I hadn’t played in a tournament since Labor Day weekend in the beginning of September.  Granted, this was also going to be a league match, but considering that I hadn’t really looked at chess myself at all in those five weeks, it counted.  Studying for the SAT and school work, in general, had taken up too much of my time.

Going into this game, I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  Historically, I had always performed well after returning from an extended break, whether it was in one-off games or entire tournaments; the only caveat with that, however, is that I still studied chess on my own during those breaks.  This time, I hadn’t prepared at all.  Without further ado, let’s see what went down.

Kobla – Kinney, DCCL, 2017

That was certainly a roller coaster of a game, and if I’m being honest, I consider myself lucky that I was able to come out of that game with a win.  My play, in the beginning, was uncharacteristically rusty, especially for the opening stage.  Yet, Black missed the most crucial moves in the critical positions, allowing me to hang in there until I was able to break through in the late middlegame.  After solidifying the queenside and getting my major pieces behind the passed pawns, it was all but over, and I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

I had a quick turnaround with an NVA Chess League match on Sunday, and with some luck in that game as well, I was able to win that, too.  Perhaps I will show that game in a later post.

I’m not sure what my next chess event is from here.  Typically, I would play in the Northern Virginia Open in the first weekend of November, but due to conflicts with a school program, I am not able to play in that.  However, one thing I do know is that I have to resume studying chess on my own time in order to avoid the horrific scene that was the first half of this game.

Good luck in your future games, and, as always, thanks for reading!  I’ll see you next time.

Recent Game Analysis:  Back to the Basics

As promised last time around, today I will show a game that I played just last month which I believe was instructive in multiple ways, especially for a few fundamental basics that we may need reminders for from time to time.  I had the black pieces against a player of relatively equal strength in a DC Chess League game.  The game began with the main line Catalan.  You can use the provided game viewer below to follow the game, as all notes and comments are located within the game text.


Steele – Kobla, DCCL, 2017


Except for a few inaccuracies (like 20. … Nd3), it was a fairly well-played game from the Black side in my opinion.  There were definitely a few lessons that I was able to take away from this game, and hopefully, they can be of help to you, too:

  1. Every tempo counts

We saw how White lost a tempo in the opening with the maneuver Bc1-f4-d2, which allowed Black to equalize with relative ease.  It goes to show how one must be accurate and definitive in his or her plans in the opening, as mixing up variations and move orders rarely makes one’s job easier when all is said and done.

  1. Active pieces make a difference

With the help of some early pawn breaks like 12. … c5, Black’s pieces had active prospects early on in the middlegame.  This paved the way for moves like 15. … Qd3 and 24. … Rd4, among others.  Not coincidentally, these active moves played a significant role in the final outcome of the game.

  1. Tactics, tactics, tactics!

It may seem like this point is overstressed, but it’s for good reason – all material gains, combinations, and positional motifs are all a result of tactics when analyzed at the roots.  In this game, for example, the concept of throwing a wrench in White’s system with 15. … Qd3 was a tactic that helped Black gain a few tempi and control over the center of the board.  Later, the trade of light-squared bishops and the subsequent use of the queen to influence that diagonal was a tactic in its own right, leading to a pin and eventually a mating net.

Hopefully, the game was interesting to follow and that the concepts discussed afterward were helpful.  Even though the concepts were probably ones that we’ve all heard before, it doesn’t hurt to recap them every once in a while, as we sometimes lose focus on what the most important “rules” are.  And with that, good luck in your future games, and, as always, thanks for reading!

World Cup Concludes, Other News

Only yesterday did the World Cup of chess finally come to an end, concluding the 26-day-long event and crowning Levon Aronian as the winner over runner-up Ding Liren in tiebreaks.  The much-anticipated tiebreak section for the final match was perhaps cut shorter than what many had wished for, but it still offered enough fireworks to go around.  Last week, we examined how the shorter time controls in the tiebreaks could affect matches for both the higher rated and lower rated players, so we will also investigate how that could have played a role in what went down.

Let’s take a look at both tiebreak games from yesterday.

Aronian – Ding, World Cup, 2017

In this game, we saw Aronian try for a kingside attack that just ended up working.  From the get-go, there was no guarantee that anything substantial would have been done and it wasn’t even clear if the attack was the right way to go for White.  However, with a few inaccuracies (such as 17. … g5) along the way, Aronian was able to force his way through with 19. Ng6 and a rook joining in at the end.  Overall, it was a very forcing game that truly proved that Aronian was a player deserving to win the World Cup.  Only one more game stood in his way.

Ding – Aronian, World Cup, 2017

After opting for a relatively unexplored piece setup with 6. Bf4, Ding was able to build up a respectable advantage with the White pieces.  White’s real chance came on move 23, when a move like Qd2 or even Qc1 would have left White with a sizeable advantage and the long-lasting initiative.  Instead, Ding missed the move and soon dug himself into a hole to the point where he was no longer able to create winning chances from his position and eventually lost.

In what was a fairly short tiebreak for the World Cup final match, Aronian showed incredible resilience and an ability to pounce when the position called for it.  A few perfectly-timed attacks and counterattacks were all it took for Aronian to turn the tide of the games in his favor.  In addition, the faster time controls seemed to not faze Aronian at all, but it may have made Ding uncomfortable, especially in the moments when it mattered.  Aronian’s win at the World Cup marks his third classical supertournament victory of 2017, the previous two being the Grenke Chess Classic in April and Norway Chess in June.  He also won the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz in August.  In general, this year has been very eventful for Aronian fans, who have seen their star player cross the 2800 rating threshold and become the 2nd highest rated player on the planet as of now.  And still, it is only September!

In other news, the Isle of Man International open tournament is currently taking place, and it started on the 23rd of September.  A simple crosscheck of dates would reveal that this tournament started before the final match of the World Cup would have ended.  Thus, neither Aronian nor Ding are playing in the IoM International.  Ironically, however, I doubt that any of the top players there, including Carlsen, Caruana, Nakamura, and Anand, are glad that they are there since they would probably have wanted to still be in the World Cup circuit…but who knows?!  After 5 rounds, Carlsen is unsurprisingly in the lead with 4.5/5 alongside Pavel Eljanov, who has played very well so far.  Those two will play in round 6.  Right behind them are the many players at 4/5, including American GMs Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Alexander Lenderman, who I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with on numerous occasions in local tournaments that I have played in.

A few upcoming tournaments to take note of are a few European-specific events, including the European Club Cup and the European Team Championship, both of which will take place in October.  The FIDE Grand Prix series concludes with the 4th and final event in November, which will also punch a ticket for another participant in the Candidates Tournament taking place in March of 2018.

Next time, I plan on showing an instructive game I played recently that may be of interest to players who get frustrated by robot-like opening systems.  Good luck in your future games, and, as always, thanks for reading!

Upsets Galore at the World Cup

Midway through the quarterfinals at the World Cup in Tbilisi, only three of the world’s top ten players remain in the circuit, and Magnus Carlsen isn’t even one of them.  Did we want it to happen like this? No, not really.  Did we predict such a thing?  Never.  Was something like this bound to happen?  You could say that.

So why do we always believe that all of the top players will have a deep run and that the last few rounds will provide more fireworks than a July 4th celebration?  Moreover, why do we dismiss the possibility that some (or even most) of the top seeds will be knocked out relatively early?  Now, this won’t be an article about the psychology of such predictions, but we can look at some of the reasons for why the World Cup has played out the way that it has this year.

  1. Schedule

The World Cup circuit is arguably the toughest tournament in the modern era.  In order to reach the finals, a player has to play a minimum of 12 games over a span of 18 days, which is already tiresome – and that’s only if you’re extremely lucky.  If you’re on the opposite side of the spectrum, you might have to play 54 games over a span of 18 days.  Overall, it is a lot of games to play at one time, and players would not have as much time to rest and prepare in between games.  And, of course, the entire event is about 2.5 times longer than most supertournaments these days.  Put it all together, and you have one of the toughest schedules on the planet.

  1. Stress

If you’re one of the top seeds in a tournament, especially a knockout tournament where you play relatively easy competition at first, you’re supposed to do well.  It’s as simple as that.  You’re supposed to win most of your games and keep moving on to the next round.  So, what happens when you try to force the issue too much and end up losing as a result?  You risk being closed out prematurely.  Depending on the color situation, it may be even harder to come back from a loss – just ask Anand in round 2 or Carlsen in round 3.  The stress to play well and not make mistakes can be overwhelming when combined with the fact that a top-seeded player must face it every day of the tournament.

On top of that, there are the added stakes to the entire event.  Finishing at the very top would guarantee a spot in the upcoming Candidates tournament, taking participants one step closer to the chance of playing current World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship Match.  Obviously, all players want to try and gain that opportunity, so the competitiveness in regards to the stakes definitely adds to the pressure on the top seeds.

  1. Time Control

The last point examined how trying to win too early in a match can just as quickly backfire.  However, there’s also the flip side to that – not winning enough early can lead to muddied waters in tiebreaks.  The lower-rated opponent may play exceptionally well in faster time controls, or perhaps the top-seeded player may not play as well in the faster time controls.  In general, games in faster time controls are much more “up in the air” in terms of possible results, and one blunder in a blitz game may be enough to knock someone out.

We looked at a few possible explanations for the struggles of some of the top seeded players in this year’s edition of the World Cup.  While there are much more possible reasons, especially, “it just happened,” these were some that definitely could have played a factor.  Looking forward, we have the chance of seeing an Aronian-MVL or Aronian-Svidler semifinal matchup on one side of the bracket, and a possible So-Liren semifinal matchup on the other side.  While anything could happen, the chess world can be excited for the fireworks to come, no matter who moves on.  And, as always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.

Free Game Analysis:  Queen’s Gambit Declined

Today’s Free Game Analysis submission comes from Michael Chiflikyan, an up-and-coming Illinois native who has almost doubled his rating from 700 at the beginning of this year.  Although he lost this game against a player much higher rated than him, Michael was able to cross 1400 for the first time after this tournament, so congratulations to him on the milestone!

This game starts off with a Queen’s Gambit Declined through a transposition, a fairly popular line among players of all strengths.  Michael, who has the black pieces, played fairly solidly throughout the opening and middlegame, but a few inaccuracies in the endgame was all it took for his higher-rated opponent to pounce at the end.  Let’s take a look for ourselves.

Kalghatgi (2138) – Chiflikyan (1397), CCC 2017

I was pleasantly surprised when I received this game from Isaac for today’s article, as Michael’s opponent was someone that I had played in a tournament game a few years ago!  As aforementioned, this game starts with a Queen’s Gambit declined, which I have some experience playing with the black side, but probably not as much as others on Chess^Summit.  So, I will attempt to analyze the opening to the best of my ability, but from the middlegame onwards it should be smooth sailing.  You can use the game player provided (from the game title) to follow along or use the text and boards in the article itself.

  1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 d5

Completing the transposition to the 1. … d5 line that has been played maybe a billion times by now.  The Nimzo, with 3. … Bb4, is more popular in this specific position, but the sole explanation for that is because this move order is one of only two realistic move orders to reach the Nimzo, while the QGD position can be reached in many different ways and thus the games are spread out over the database.

  1. cxd5

The exchange variation, which leads to one of the most popular and recognizable positions among QGD players from both sides.  White gets a simple setup with a queen-bishop battery and aims his pieces towards Black’s kingside, while Black will attempt to counter in the center with a c5 push at some point.

  1. … exd5 5. Bg5 c6 6. Qc2
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 6. Qc2

White will indeed go for this setup.

  1. … Nbd7

This move, along with Be7, is interchangeable, as they will all eventually end up on these squares.  However, an interesting idea that has been tried more than a few times is the move Na6 in this position, which aims to swing the knight over to e6 via c7 and gain a tempo on the bishop.

  1. e3 Be7 8. Bd3 h6

This bishop kick can be helpful, but in my opinion, it’s probably too early for this.  The move isn’t running away, as White won’t move his dark-squared bishop unless he has to.  Notice that White’s g1-knight still has to be developed before White can castle kingside.  It would be better to castle and let White make the decision as to where he wants to go with his last undeveloped minor piece before committing to a move like h6, which can never be taken back.  The reasoning is that when White’s knight is on f3, the move h6 takes away the crucial g5 square from the knight; but, when White develops his knight to e2, this move permanently weakens the g6 square for black, which can become a problem when white plays an eventual move like Ne2-f4.  It also inhibits Black’s ability to clog the b1-h7 diagonal with a move like Ng6.

  1. Bh4 0-0 10. Nge2
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 10. Nge2

White chooses the correct square for the kingside knight.

  1. … b6

A step in the wrong direction for Black.  With immense pressure from both of White’s bishops, Black’s usual plan in this position is to stuff the b1-h7 diagonal while simultaneously trading pieces.  This is achieved by playing 10. … Re8, which is followed by 11. 0-0 Ne4 when the discovery tactic on White’s dark-squared bishop helps Black.  With a move like b6, Black commits to this path of development for the light-squared bishop, giving White time to build up a center.

  1. 0-0 Bb7 12. f3 c5 13. Bf2 Rc8 14. Rc1
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 14. Rac1

Up until now, all of the positions in this game have appeared in the database.  But after Black’s next move, the players officially go out of book.

  1. … Re8 15. Ng3 Bf8 16. Rfd1

From an objective standpoint, I don’t really like this move for White.  It’s unclear where the rook belongs right now, but it definitely doesn’t belong on the closed d-file, and it doesn’t seem like the file will be opened anytime soon, especially with Black’s queen still on it.  I would have preferred a move like Qd2, which would move White’s queen off of the semi-open c-file and give more breathing room to the light-squared bishop.  This would also keep the position flexible since it hasn’t become apparent where White should move his f1-rook.

  1. … a6 17. Qd2 Nb8?!

Here, Black should have seriously considered the move c4, temporarily locking the center and going for pawn play on the queenside.  Black can follow up with b5, b4, a5, and if White attempts to counterstrike in the center with e4, it would finally open the diagonal for Black’s light-squared bishop, which has thus far not seen any action.  Instead, Black opts for a knight maneuver that, frankly, doesn’t harmonize with the rest of the position.

  1. Bf5 Rc7
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 18. … Rc7

Black’s position is in a tangled mess, and White should have struck while the iron was hot with the immediate e4!  which would create further disorder within Black’s camp.  However, White fails to capitalize, leaving Black with an unattractive but surprisingly solid position.

  1. Na4 cxd4 20. cxd4 Rxc1 21. Rxc1 Bc6 22. Nc3 Bd7 23. Bb1 Nc6
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 23. … Nc6
  1. a3 Ne7?

Another somewhat puzzling move.  Black’s knight is positioned fine for now on c6.  It is, in fact, the f8-bishop that should be brought into the game at some point.  The text move suffocates the bishop and creates disharmony within the position.  A better plan would have been Bd6 followed by Qb8, taking control of the h2-b8 diagonal and eyeing the f4-square.

  1. Nce2?

Missing his chance.  White should have played the practical Qd3! which simultaneously attacks the undefended a6-pawn and threatens Nh5, a move that would create chaos on the kingside with sudden mate threats.

  1. … Qa8 26. Rc3 Rc8 27. Qc2 Rxc3 28. Qxc3 Qc6 29. Qxc6 Nxc6
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 29. … Nxc6

Let’s stop for a moment and take stock.  In a flurry, the remaining major pieces dropped off the board, and we are left with an endgame where all of the minor pieces are still left on the board, which is very rare.  The black knight has returned to c6, allowing the f8-bishop to finally see light again.  The pawn structure is virtually identical for both sides, with each side having 3 pawn islands, one of them being an isolated queen pawn.  If a couple pair of minor pieces were already off the board, this game would be very close to a draw already.  Yet, this is not the case, so there is still a game left.

  1. Nf4 Bd6 31. Nd3 Ne7

It shouldn’t make too much of a difference, but I do believe that it was important to prevent a piece from invading on e5.  This knight maneuver voluntarily takes a defender off of the e5 square, and just like last time, it is unclear where exactly this knight is going from here.

  1. Ne5 Bb5 33. Bc2 Nd7?!

It’s almost like a mirage about Black’s light-squared bishop.  It seems so wide open and that it controls a lot of space, but in reality, it only has one “safe” square other than the one it is occupying right now, and that is e8.  And, unfortunately, Black probably had to play a move like Be8 in order to safeguard the bishop.  Black must have played Nd7 believing that White had to do something about the e5-knight right then and there, but White capitalizes on this error cleanly.

  1. a4! Bc6 35. Nf5!
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 35. Nf5!

This is a funny looking position, not gonna lie.  Discussing the geometry of it would be pretty cool, but at that point, we would be going off on a tangent.  In all seriousness, Black is able to navigate the complications and find the best continuation, but White will emerge with the bishop pair in a positionally-superior position.

  1. … Nxf5

Another possible continuation would have been 35. … Nxe5 36. dxe5 Nxf5 37. exd6 Nxd6 38. Bxb6 where White is still slightly better.

  1. Nxc6 Ne7 37. Nxe7+ Bxe7 38. Bd3 a5 39. Bb5 Nf6 40. Bg3
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 40. Bg3

White is positionally dominating this position.  The bishops rake into Black’s position and there aren’t many useful squares for Black’s pieces.  While this position isn’t completely lost for Black yet, he is certainly losing the thread on the position, as a single misstep will prove costly.  It’s as if Black has to walk a tightrope for the rest of the game.

  1. … Bd8

Only move to avoid material loss.

  1. Kf2 Kf8

Maybe not the best plan, as the king still can’t progress very far.  Perhaps black could have thought about activating the king with g5 and Kg7, but it still doesn’t change much.  What’s unfortunate for Black is that he can’t even kick White’s dark-squared bishop off the h2-b8 diagonal with a move like Nh5 since the bishop can hide with Bb8 and absolutely nothing can touch it.

  1. Bd6+ Be7

This move loses a pawn, although it’s hard to criticize Black at this point.  Moving the king right back to g8 would have saved material, but it doesn’t get Black anywhere.  Even though this would have objectively been the better move, it’s no fun to sit around and wait for your opponent to walk his king over to the queenside and gobble up your pawns.

  1. Bc7 Bb4 44. Bxc7 Ne8 45. Ke3 g5 46. Bc5+
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 46. Bc5+

White trades into a pure bishop v. knight endgame where he has the superior minor piece and a pawn to the good.  Now, it is just a matter of technique.

  1. … Bxc5 47. dxc5 Nc7 48. Kd4 Ke7 49. Bd3 Ke6 50. g3 f5 51. h3 h5 52. g4
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 52. g4

Forcing open lines on the kingside and allowing the bishop to penetrate.  With the d5 pawn on a light square and no way for black to protect the d5 pawn and simultaneously drive the White king away from d4 quickly enough, it is only a few moves until White will win more material.

  1. … fxg4 53. fxg4 h4 54. Bh7 Kd7 55. Bg8 Kc6 56. Bf7
Kalghatgi – Chiflikyan – position after 56. Bf7

Zugzwang.  White is clearly winning now, so the rest of the game will be provided without notes.

  1. … Na6 57. Bxd5+ Kd7 58. Be4 Nb4 59. Ke5 Nc6+ 60. Bxc6+ Kxc6 61. Kd4 Kc7 62. Kd5 Kd7 63. c6+ Kc8 64. Kd6 Kd8 65. c7+ Kc8 66. b3 1-0

An unfortunate but very instructive loss for Michael, who went on to play a very nice rest of the tournament and gain rating.  There were definitely a few key points that we can take away from today’s game.

  1. Endgames, endgames, endgames! It is perhaps the most important phase of the game, but it is also the least studied. Many games come down to the wire in the endgame, and one has to know as much as possible about the endgame in order to avoid making mistakes in textbook positions.  We saw in this game how one mistake was all it took to take a potential draw into a loss.
  2. Bishop pair – It has been said an innumerable number of times in the past, but the bishop pair has a lot of value to it. In a relatively open position with weaknesses, the two bishops can come to life and can even decide the game in some cases. We saw in today’s game how White’s two bishops together restricted both of Black’s minor pieces and even the king to an extent.
  3. Middlegame plans/ideas – When playing an opening, it is important to know the specific ideas, maneuvers, and plans associated with the opening in the middlegame. In today’s game, we discussed how a common idea is to trade off at least a pair of minor pieces early with the Re8, Ne4 idea. Instead, Black went with a fianchetto of the c8-bishop, which led to a somewhat awkward position later in the middlegame.

Hopefully, the topics we covered today will help you in your future games!  I wish Michael and everyone else good luck in their future games, and, as always, thanks for reading!  I’ll see you next time.


The Italian Revival

Let us take a hypothetical trip through time to the past.

The date is March 24, 1858.  In the middle of New Orleans, a bustling port city at the time, two people sit at a chess board surrounded by a crowd of people.  With the white pieces, a well-known expert by the name of Paul Morphy; with the black pieces, the notorious “NN.”  The game starts with:

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bc4

The Italian was an opening emblematic of the 19th century, which was really the Romantic Era of chess.  Almost any game that started with double King pawn would go down this path or the King’s Gambit, another Romantic Era opening.  Almost all of these games were highly tactical and there was always, as GM Alexei Shirov would say, “fire on the board.”  A few other examples of this type of play can be found in Anderssen-Kieseritzky (1851) and Morphy-Schrufer (1859).  It was not until many years later that the majority of players realized that these tactical games in the Italian almost always favored White, and most Black players switched to the Giuoco Piano (3. … Bc5).  White attempted to punish the early bishop development with an early c3-d4 push in the center.  This formation had early success, but Black found the eventual

  1. c3 Nf6
  2. d4 exd4
  3. cxd4 Bb4+
  4. Bd2 Bxd2+
  5. Nbxd2 d5!

which equalized immediately.  White briefly tried to avoid this equalizing move altogether by playing 7. Nc3, called the Moeller Attack, but even that was refuted.  With these new findings by Black picking up, the Italian declined in popularity altogether in favor of another King Pawn opening that was gradually increasing in popularity in the shadows of the Italian.  This opening was none other than the Ruy Lopez, which offered White with a measure of flexibility that the c3-d4 lines of the Italian never allowed.  Noticing the popularity and success of the Ruy Lopez, die-hard Italian players imitated some of the positions that came out of the Ruy Lopez with a c3-d3 setup, but the Ruy Lopez still triumphed over for the longest time.

Now, let’s travel forward through time, but not quite to the present.  The year is 2013, but no specific date.  Almost every game that opens with 1. e4 goes into a Ruy Lopez.  The opening is characterized by the moves

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5

This trend is clearly shown in the World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand late in the year, where 4 out of the 6 games that opened with e4 headed into a Ruy Lopez.  However, the key reason why I bring up this match, in particular, is because of the evident rise in popularity of the Berlin defense (3. … Nf6), which was quickly becoming a trustworthy line against the Ruy Lopez.  In the 2013 WCC match, all of the Ruy Lopez games went into a Berlin, and not surprisingly, 75% of them were drawn, and the lone decisive result was a win for Black.  The 2013 year was part of the “back-end” of the decade-long rise of the Berlin, which was first used with great success by Vladimir Kramnik against Garry Kasparov in the WCC match of 2000.

Now, we come back to present day.  Since Black proved that the Berlin was an extremely tough setup to beat, White has tried a number of different attempts to sidestep the line.  One fairly popular route that emerged right out of the 2013 year was the move 4. d3.  From there, there are a couple of different paths that players have taken, including a rather intriguing formation where White captures the knight on c6, forces Black to double his pawns with dxc6, and continuing with Nb1-d2-c4 and Bc1-d2-c3 where pressure is applied to the e5 pawn.  The relatively mundane 4. Nc3 has also been experimented with from time to time, but more as a surprise attempt than an attempt to gain an advantage.  However, the most interesting try of late has been to eschew the Ruy Lopez completely and instead try – you guessed it – the Italian once again.  However, the variations that seem to appeal to the players of today are far different in nature than the ones we have previously examined.  For one, Black is now far more willing to strike in the center early with d5 instead of going for a slow, maneuvering game.  Meanwhile, White seems to prefer variations where Black does play d6 and keep the center closed for the time being.  As a result, we arrive at one of our key differences in the new Italian “reimagined.”

  1. White delays the c2-c3 push until Black commits to d6, instead opting for play on the flanks.

The reason for delaying this push is that Black’s d5 thrust in the center comes with less effect, as White now has more ways to develop pieces into the newly-opened center.  However, this reluctance to play an early c2-c3 leads to what classical Italian players may consider a crucial drawback – the light square bishop, aka the “Italian Bishop,” no longer has a safe haven on c2.  In the typical Italian lines, as we’ll call it, White has a c3-d3 phalanx setup; Black typically kicks the bishop once with a b7-b5 push and sometimes offers a trade of light squared bishops with Be6, but White usually avoids the trade with the retreat from c4-b3-c2.  With the new system, however, White prefers to inhibit b7-b5 (although this push is sometimes possible due to tactics, as will be shown in games later) with an a2-a4 push and is thus unable to retreat in time in order to avoid the trade.  As a result, White makes the most of what arises from the bishop swap, as it requires Black to spend multiple tempi, and we arrive at our second key difference.

  1. If Black offers a trade of light squared bishops, White allows the trade in return for the relatively uninhibited advance of the queenside pawns.

If everything goes according to plan, White is able to pawn storm with a4, b4, b5 and kick the knight from c6.  The resulting lead in queenside space can be deterministic of the later stages and possibly the result of the game.  However, if Black does not offer the trade of bishops, the player has to find play elsewhere, which typically consists of the well-known knight maneuver to the kingside.  This allows White to counteract in the center with a d4 push much earlier than in the classical Italian variations.  This leads us to our third and final key difference.

  1. White is often able to push with d4 much earlier in the game if Black does not directly challenge control of the center with the bishop trade offer; this push is made easier by the restricted play that Black has with the queenside pawns.

If the d4 push is achieved, the focus of play reverts back to the center, where both sides have dynamic opportunities to push their agenda.  Black often tries to gain control of the f4-square and later the kingside, while White usually tries to play in the center or the queenside and punish Black’s potentially awkward piece placement.  There are many games that have already been played in this opening in the last year or so, but there were a select few that really stood out to me.  Those were Kramnik-Mamedyarov (2017), Anand-So (2017)MVL-So (2017), and MVL-Aronian (2017).  These games illustrate the key concepts of both sides in this new version of the Italian, and it will be interesting to see how long these lines stick around.  The presence of play in all sectors of the board can lead to exciting games, both position and tactical, for both sides.  The ability to play for an advantage from both sides, whether static or dynamic, makes this opening an ideal one for tournament play, and its current popularity among the world’s top players definitely makes it an opening to keep an eye out for in future games.  And, as always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.