The Muzio Gambit

Pawn sacrifices in openings are relatively common. Piece sacrifices are rare. Multiple piece sacrifices are so rare; they must be valuable, like a Liberty gold coin.


Bobby FischerCapture6 stated that the real chess genius was Paul Morphy, who was the first historical figure of Grandmaster strength.  If Fischer can win the fantasy knockout tournament between all the World Champions (, then Fischer’s assessment of Morphy’s strength is evidential.

MorphyCapture7 was so strong that he retired from chess in his early twenties.  He offered to play anyone a match at Pawn + Move handicapCapture12 yet, no one picked up the glove that he threw down.

We have all learned chess from our predecessors, yet Morphy was an exception. When he was a pre-adolescentCapture13, he somehow, intuitively, instinctively, taught himself how to play good chess.  His overall lifetime record was an amazing 84.8%.

Morphy played for rapid accurate development, and he put his pieces on their best squares.  It was joked that Fischer could throw pieces at a board, and they would land upright centered on their best squares.

Morphy said that one should not attack until all the pieces are in play.  He was so ahead of his time that Botvinnik Capture8.PNGstated that there was little the Soviets could learn from how to play open positions, since Morphy showed everyone how.

Paul Morphy played more Muzio Gambits (or variations of) than all the World Champions combined.

I reviewed dozens of opening principles and devised the following succinct opening proverb for my students: “Connect your rooks, along the back-rank, as quickly as possible, by castling into safety” ©. This game has no players, yet, it ends with how all chess games should end, with checkmate.

1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. Bc4 g4 5. O-O!


The Muzio Gambit proper, and a truly gutsy move.  Two hundred years ago, in 1816 London, Jacob Henry Sarratt ( and William Lewis Capture9played a 10-game match between themselves where Sarratt played White and Lewis played Black.  Nearly all the games opened with the Muzio Gambit, and they really played some wild chess in those days!  Game #6 (can be found in some chess databases), ended in a draw, and was particularly entertaining.  Sarratt introduced the idea that a stalemate was a draw, and Lewis’ famous pupil was Alexander McDonnell, who played LaBourdonnais in that great 1834 series of matches.

gxf3 6. Qxf3 Qf6

The Muzio Gambit is a tactical piece sacrifice.  It is imperative that White keep Queens on the board to generate threats as compensation for being down enormous material.  White’s attack will evaporate if Queens are traded.  The Benko Gambit (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5) is a positional pawn sacrifice.  In the Benko, Black can actually trade Queens and maintain his positional pressure.

7. e5 Qxe5


8. Bxf7+!

This is called the double Muzio.  Chess databases contain fewer games played with this second piece sacrifice, yet it scores better than the more frequently played 8.d3.  An excellent historical example (between two World Champion candidates) isCapture10 Adolf Anderssen – Johannes Zukertort, Breslau 1865, which continued 8.d3 Bh6 9.Nc3 Ne7 10.Bd2 Nbc6 11.Rae1 Qf5 12.Nd5 Kd8 13.Bc3 Re8 14.Nf6 Rf8 15.g4 Qg6 16.h4 d6 17.g5 Bg7 18.Qxf4 h6 19.Qh2 a6 20.d4 hxg5 21.d5 gxh4+ 22.Kh1 Nb8 23.Qxd6+ Bd7 24.Qe7+ 1-0

Kxf7 9. d4 Qxd4+ 10. Be3 Qf6


11. Nc3!

This must be called the triple Muzio.  I like this move, and is the reason why I am writing this article.  For hundreds of years, the main line has been 11.Bxf4, which is proven good, yet 11.Bxf4 always seemed to me to be out of sync with the thread of the previous moves.  I do not recall where or when I first saw 11.Nc3, but it makes sense.

Capture11Alexey Shirov – J. Lapinski, Daugavpils 1990 continued 11.Bxf4 Ke8 12.Nc3 Nc6 13.Nd5 Qg6 14.Rae1 Be7 15.Bd6!! Kd8 16.Qxf8+! Bxf8 17.Bxc7# Some consider this the most brilliant Muzio ever played.

11.Nc3 develops White’s last minor piece and connects his rooks.  Black needs five moves to connect his rooks, and White has already sacrificed two pieces. Does the position really warrant that White pause to defend the threatened e3-Bishop?

fxe3 12. Qh5+ Kg7 13. Rxf6 Nxf6 14. Qg5+ Kf7 15. Rf1


White moves his inactive Rook to the only open file on the board, and pins Black’s Knight. Black’s undeveloped Queenside pieces can only look on helplessly while White caps his resplendent play with another tactical sacrifice.

Be7 16. Nd5 Rg8 17. Rxf6+! Bxf6 18. Qxf6+ Ke8 19. Qe7#



Breaking My Opening the Short Way

Today I’d like to discuss an opening situation that’s largely flown under my radar until now: playing against the Caro-Kann. At top-level, Caro-Kanns make up less than 10% of the “big four” responses (1…c5, 1…e5, 1…e6, 1…c6) to 1. e4, and Sicilians make up the vast (even by Sicilian standards) majority of responses to 1. e4 in my own games (it’s interesting how some trends get magnified at lower levels of play!).

However, chances are that you’re bound to see just about everything after playing high-level competition long enough. Two years is hardly near the threshold, but one of the first indicators is that I’m starting to see more Caro-Kanns. Good for them!

Unsurprisingly, the problems with facing the Caro-Kann highly resemble the reasons I play it as Black. Resource limitations also play a large role, as it’s not so easy to siphon complex opening ideas from database statistics or raw game scores. For example, almost all my theoretical knowledge about the Caro-Kann is from the book by Schandorff, whose recommendations are a little more dynamic than what I’m historically used to.

Honorable Mention: Fantasy Variation

There’s a weird candidate that deserves mention: the aptly-named Fantasy Variation (3. f3). I play this in bullet a lot, but mostly because everyone tends to play into the exciting 3…dxe4 4. fxe4 e5 5. Nf3 lines. In more serious play, I’d be more likely to get slower, French-like lines such as 3…e6 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Bf4 Ne7 6. Qd3 b6 7. Nge2 Ba6 8. Qe3.

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Position after 8. Qe3.

This is actually the most likely  for me to switch to (though interestingly, I’m not sure what I’d play as Black against 3. f3). The above is certainly viable and interesting for White (due to opposite-side castling), but I’m also considering resource limitations (Schandorff only discusses 3…dxe4) and my phobia of allowing …c5 with a knight on c3.

Finding the One

Ultimately, the decision came down to the question of which position was easiest to play for White. For example, I eliminated the Panov (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4) early on, though it’s understandably very popular at the amateur level, I tend to favor the static nature of Black’s prospects in the isolated queen pawn positions. Eliminating the Classical (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3) was a little more complicated; I’d actually like playing both sides of the opposite-side castling positions I talked about in my last post, but unfortunately the “boring” 12…Qc7 turned me off the line (not to mention Black’s other options on move 4). White has some decent deviations, but they don’t tend to promise much and certainly run the risk of petering out.

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Position after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Ngf6 12. O-O-O Qc7._. (there’s a new exclamation for you!).

The easiest of the Advanced Variation (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5) options to eliminate was 4. Nc3, which is, with all due respect to Shirov, surprisingly unreliable (Schandorff made a great case for this). Below is a “typical” example after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nc3 e6 5. g4 Bg6 6. Nge2 c5 7. h4 h5!? 8. Nf4 Bh7 9. Nxh5 Nc6 10. dxc5 Bxc5 11. Nxg7+ Kf8.

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A little deceptive; Black is down two pawns and can’t castle, but will soon play …d5-d4 and …Qd5 with tremendous play.

The “ease of play” criterion came back into play for the rest of the options. I don’t intentionally shy away from positional maneuvering lines, but most of the positional options didn’t seem particularly challenging for Black, who starts slightly cramped, but invariably untangles and challenges the center with …c5.

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Black untangles with 7…Nc8!? followed soon by …Ncb6 and …c5.

However, Black’s less-mobile position (at least initially) is fairly characteristic of the Advanced Variation; maybe there’s a way to take advantage of it without being unreliable.

The Short Variation

It’s a fairly simple idea. White gears up for a fight with some more intuitive development and dares Black to catch up, as can be seen fairly quickly after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 c5 6. Be3.

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Watch out for c2-c4.

However, my impression is that it’s gone fairly overlooked, despite being a regular guest at top level. It’s possible White players (and by extension, Black) can’t be bothered with the theory at lower levels of play. However, as I turn to facing stronger opposition this can’t be counted on. I stumbled upon the 6. Be3 Short while going over study material for Black, and was surprised at how dangerous the positions were. It certainly involves theory, but most resembles the reliably active option I’d been seeking.

White’s lead in development allows him two possible luxuries. One is the fairly overt threat of blowing open the center. The other, a bit more materialistic, can be seen from a plausible rookie mistake, 6…Nc6?.

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After 6…Nc6?

Black might be surprised at first by 7. dxc5!, but it’s clear that Black has no reasonable way to regain the pawn due to lack of kingside development, e.g. 7…Qc7? 8. dxc5 Nxe5?? 9. Nxe5 Qxe5 10. Bb5+ is brutal, or even more immediately (as my acquaintance tried against me in the Cleveland Open blitz last weekend) 7…Qa5+? 8. c3 and the pawn is White’s for good.

Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

For an example of the first type, we turn to a rare bright spot in last weekend’s Cleveland Open. My opponent and I both had a really rough tournament, but at least I got to finish with a flash.

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 Nd7.

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Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

This is actually slightly more popular than 5…c5, and intended to lead to a slower game. In fact, Schandorff is really pushing White’s buttons with the dynacism, choosing to cover only 5…c5.

6. Be3 h6 7. Nbd2.

This was an attempt to combine my recently picked-up bit of the 5…c5 6. Be3 Short theory and positional attempts by White to stall …c5 (e.g. 4. Be3 followed by 5. Nd2 instead of 4. Nf3). I initially thought 6…h6 was too slow, but Black’s doing okay as long the center stays closed, i.e. avoid…


At best, Black is playing with fire, basically playing the dangerous Short lines from earlier down a tempo or two. 8. c4! would have been most forcing, but there’s not too much wrong with the game continuation.

8. O-O Qc7

Unsurprisingly, Black is a reluctant to admit the mistake, so to speak. 8…Ne7 runs into the dxc5 problems from earlier, but is probably the lesser of the two evils.

9. c4 Ne7 10. Rc1 dxc4? 11. Bxc4?!

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Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

My 11th move was based on thinking Black would stick to the fairly overt intention of an immediate …Nd5. We both overlooked the obvious 11…Nc6 after which 12. d5 isn’t nearly as treacherous as the game. However, Black would have been better off with simply 10…Nc6, as 11. Nxc4! Nd5 12. dxc5 Nxe3 13. fxe3 Bxc5 14. Nd6+ is curtains; White’s ruined e-pawns are irrelevant.

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Possible position after 14. Nd6+

Instead, Black rolled along with 11…Nd5?? 12. Bxd5 exd5 13. dxc5. It may be a little dramatic to say the game is over, but Black is at least a move from castling kingside or regaining the c5-pawn or e5-pawn (e.g. 13…Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Qxe5 15. Re1). Black actually decided he couldn’t get out of the center fast enough and castled queenside (!) into a bone-crunching attack, resigning on move 28.

Holding Off On …c5

It’s pretty clear Black has to be careful about …c5. But if Black refrains from …c5 until reorganizing, it’s natural to wonder if the game just turns into one of the positional lines I tried to avoid earlier.

For example, in the 4. Nd2 line, White could try something on the kingside, ala 4…e6 5. Nb3 Nd7 6. Nf3 Ne7 7. Be2 Nc8 8. O-O Be7 9. Ne1 Bg6 10. f4.

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After 10. f4

After something like 10…O-O, White can try 11. g4 but at worst after 11…f5, White can lock up the position with 12. g5 (in which Black has the usual queenside action) or open the g-file, which looks sketchy with Black (almost) fully developed.

In the Short Variation, Black could try to get something similar with (after 5. Be25…Nd7 6. Be3 Ne7.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 02.17.49
Short Variation, after 6…Ne7

7. O-O and 7. Nbd2 look like they’ll transpose to earlier lines after 7…Nc8. Instead, White could try for the relatively uncharted 7. Nh4!? possibly followed by 7…Bg6 8. O-O.

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Short Variation, after 7. Nh4 Bg6 8. O-O

8…Nc8 might be okay for Black, but after 9. Nxg6 it’s a different game than the 4. Nd2 line. 8…Nf5 9. Nxf5 Bxf5 10. g4 Bg6 11. f4 has been played a few times, with success for White within that bubble.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 02.25.51
After 11. f4

One difference is that with the knight exchange and omitted Nd2-b3 maneuver, White is up a tempo on the kingside compared to the previous line. More importantly, White has a lot more room to generate queenside play. The computer likes White’s chances after 11…Be7 (or 11…c5) 12. c4 and whether or not that’s important, the position is a far cry from the free hand Black has in the first position.

So it’s safe to say in the Short Variation, there are always some ways for White to drum up some differences from safer lines.

And that’s the beginning of my attempts to break down my primary Black response to e4.

Any interesting ways you’ve countered your favorite openings? Let us know in the comments!




Engine Shmengine?

Since it’s inception, chess has evolved a great deal with the emergence of computer engines. In fact, many opening variations have fallen out of fashion due to undesirable engine evaluations, and overall, the increasingly detail-oriented nature of chess has led many to be dependent upon the computer, to a fault. In particular, GM’s hold engines to a very high standard, regarding both preparation and self-evaluation. When I was in St. Louis, I met multiple GM’s and caught up with others, including Fabiano Caruana, Alejandro Ramirez, Eric Hansen, and Robin van Kampen. I remember I was at a cafe with them once and Robin explained to me how essential computers are to preparation – in fact it is so important to have a powerful computer that he is linked through a cloud-like program to a computer in Europe. GM’s however are different from us – their mistakes are made in relation to slight nuances in the position, so a computer evaluation is often necessary. But with the vast majority of players under the GM level, mistakes are made based on an understanding (or lack thereof) of seemingly simplistic principles. As such, it is significantly more instructive for these players to look at their games without the use of an engine. In finding your own mistakes and the reasons for which they are mistakes, you can hope to improve your understanding of your faults and avoid similar mistakes in the future. Going through this process helps the principles stick in your memory a great deal more than a quick engine evaluation. Complete dependence on a computer is in a way giving yourself all the answers to the questions you would pose during your analysis. In this case, the common phrase “learn from your mistakes” is applicable; it’s rather hard to learn from being given all the answers.

Here are two of my own games which show the importance of using one’s own analysis before an engine evaluation, the first against Maggie Feng (top girl under the age of 20) and Emily Nguyen (the winner of the 2016 US Girls Closed):

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Ba6 5. Qa4 Be7 (5… Bb7 The mainline,which leads to a slightly different pawn structure. However, the game variation is by no means a serious mistake 6. Bg2 c5 7. dxc5 Bxc5 8. O-O O-O 9. Nc3 Be7)

Maggie 1
Position after 5. Qa4

6. Bg2 Bb7 7. O-O O-O 8. Nc3 c5 9. dxc5 bxc5 10. Rd1 d6 (10… Qb6 Possibly a better variation, anticipating the weakness of the d-pawn and preparing to provide support with Rd8 11. Bf4 Rd8)

Maggie 2
Position after 10. Rd1

11. Bf4 Here, just by turning on the engine, one can see that white has a slight advantage after … Qb6. However, taking a look at the position without the use of an engine can facilitate a better understanding of why my next move was a mistake. When looking at any position for the first time, it’s important to identify what the weaknesses are, what the worst-placed piece is, and what your opponents ideas are. In this position, the obvious weakness is on d6. The worst placed piece is not entirely evident yet, but it’s clear black should aim to activate the rooks and get the queen off the d-file. White’s idea is to pressure the d-pawn. But, after paying more attention to this weakness, one can see that white also has a tactical threat with Bxd6 (as played in the game). By going through the process of pinpointing the weaknesses, the worst pieces, and white’s concrete threats, the obvious continuation becomes …Qb6 (eliminating the threat of Bxd6 and preparing to support the d-pawn with the f8 rook). In this case, it is important to analyze the position without the use of an engine, because identifying the reasons for which the mistake was made with  one’s own analysis can help to reinforce positional concepts and prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future.} 11… Nh5?

Maggie 3
Position after 11… Nh5?


12. Bxd6 Bxd6 13. Nb5 Bc6 14. Ne1 (14. Qb3!) 14… a6 15. Bxc6 Nxc6 16. Nxd6 Nd4 17. Ne4 Nxe2+ 18. Kf1 Nd4 19. Nxc5 +-

Maggie 4
Final Position

Here, down a pawn and with the more misplaced pieces, I went on to lose the game. 1-0

By conducting my own analysis of this game without the use of an engine, I discovered that by taking a closer look at my opponent’s ideas and my own piece placement, I could have avoided the mistake I made. This is important, as it means that I need practice with prophylactic play.

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. g4 h6 7. h3!? Not the mainline, but aiming to get a similar game to the h3 najdorf, which I’ve also played. Nc6 8. Bg2 (8. Be3 +=) 8… d5?! Black would be best advised to just continue developing. After the game continuation, the isolated pawn on d5 becomes a weakness on which I was able to put pressure. (8… Bd7 9. Be3 Ne5 = An equal, but dynamic position)

Emily 1
Position after 8… d5

9. exd5 Nxd5 10. Nxd5 exd5 11. O-O Be7 12. c3 O-O 13. Be3 Bf6 14. Ne2 Be6

Emily 2
Position after 14… Be6

A critical position. Here, turning on the engine would show you that white has a solid advantage after Nf4. But again, taking a look at a position with your own eyes and identifying the reasons for a mistake can help to a significantly greater extent in finding the trends in your mistakes and avoiding them in the future. In this position, again, it’s important to first look at the weaknesses, the worst-placed piece, and black’s ideas. The obvious weakness is the isolated pawn on d5. White’s worst-placed piece is not obvious, though the rooks and knight don’t have much of a role yet. Black does not have any apparent threats in the position – most likely to just continue with development. Considering the weakness on d5 however, white’s plan should clearly be to continue putting pressure on it. Therefore, the obvious move appears to be Nf4, activating the knight, and putting additional pressure on the isolated pawn. The game continuation didn’t give up all of the advantage, but it was a positional mistake. By going through the analytical process described, white’s best plan becomes more obvious. 15. f4?! The idea behind this is obvious, but it proves problematic in a few moves; it weakens the kingside and takes away the best square for the knight. (15. Nf4!) 15… Qe7

Emily 3
Position after 15… Qe7

My next move was a mistake which could have been avoided by carefully looking at my opponent’s ideas and the vulnerability of my own pieces. Black’s last move aims to tactically take advantage of the unprotected Bishop on e3 with …Bxg4. This leaves me with two options; Qd2 to protect the bishop, and Bf2 to avoid the threat altogether. Qd2 was what I played in the game, but by looking more closely at black’s idea, it’s evident that after … Re8, the same threat still stands, and in this case, Bf2 is not longer possible because of the hanging knight on e2. Thus, the prophylactic Bf2 is the best continuation, avoiding any sort of discovered attack down the e-file. 16. Qd2 $6 Rfe8 17. Rf3 d4 18. Bxd4

Emily 4
Final Position

And the game ended in a draw after several more exchanges, ending in a rook and minor piece endgame. 1/2-1/2

As was the case with the last game, in this game, better awareness and anticipation of my opponent’s ideas in particular could have helped me avoid the mistakes I made. Fortunately for me, this makes a trend fairly obvious, and it’s something I can hone in on to improve.

With new and improved engines constantly being released nowadays, it’s easy to get caught up in relying on the machine. The reality though, is that in looking at your own games, you are your own best evaluator. The process of identifying your own mistakes, the reasons for those mistakes, and practice material to fix your weaknesses makes learning and improving tremendously easier. This task, of course, requires quite a lot of self-discipline – the urge to turn on an engine and simplify the analysis is very tempting at times. But the payoff for doing your own analysis is more than worth the time put into it.

The Dreaded g2-g4

0. Tl;dr
1. Classical Caro-Kann, Feisty Version
2. Good and Bad News
3. False Start
4. But Could Black Have Castled?
5. A Blowout
6. Don't Even Try Nxg4
7. Less Intuitive
8. Parting Thoughts


Lately, I’ve decided to start trying to make sense of more dynamic positions. I’ll use the g2-g4 storms in the Classical Caro-Kann as an example, but I encourage you to extend something similar in any defensive positions of interest. This is a little bit of a disorganized journey, but it has to start somewhere.

And if nothing else, you’ll get to see me getting crushed by an 11-year old 1800 in under an hour.

Classical Caro-Kann, Feisty Version

First, a quick overview of the Classical Caro-Kann for those who aren’t familiar with it. The Classical almost always begins with 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 (or 3. Nd2) 3…dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3.

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The real starting position of the Classical Caro-Kann.

In this post, we’ll examine some positions that occur after 11. Bd2. An equally popular continuation for White is 11. Bf4, which looks more active at first glance but can be countered with checks on the a5-e1 diagonal. Instead, after 11. Bd2, naturally 11…Ngf6 12. O-O-O follows.

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Kingside or queenside?

The Caro-Kann owes much of its solid-yet-boring reputation to the traditional Classical continuation: 12…Qc7 followed by queenside castling. Black isn’t particularly active, but White has no structural targets to take advantage of.

A more interesting (and trendy as of late) option is to brave opposite-side castling with 12…Be7!.

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Be bold!

I first learned of this through one of my two opening books, the Grandmaster Repertoire book on the Caro-Kann by GM Lars Schandorff, who proclaims, “Often, White will burn his bridges in his eagerness to attack, and if we are not mated, then we will win the endgame!” Indeed, in the long term, Black benefits from the thematically sound Caro-Kann structure, hoping for White’s h5-pawn to stick out even more.

Good and Bad News

But in the short term, Black shouldn’t be crowing about the placement of the h-pawns in front of his/her castled king, for fairly obvious reasons. Unsurprisingly, a common theme in this line is White’s ability to quickly rush the g-pawn, often as a sacrifice.

Black could run into this if oblivious enough:

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Black should’ve paid a little more attention.

On the other hand, as I like to remind people, a pawn is a pawn. It’s always important not to confuse a scary-looking attack with proof that it actually works, so don’t be too quick to go, “OH NO, THE G-FILE IS OPEN! RUN!” The above disaster is just one of many possibilities involving the g-pawn rush in the Caro-Kann. Others range from just as dangerous to completely harmless.

Many good players are prone to underestimating defensive resources, but as I’ve learned firsthand, it’s just as easy to do the opposite. Unsurprisingly, these dynamic positions tend to be difficult to calculate in the short-term and long-term.

Despite the “Grandmaster Repertoire” label, the aforemtneiond Caro-Kann book is remarkably good at the conceptual level. However, as someone who is much more used to slower positions, I feel there’s some overall explanation on the “g4 positions” to be desired. Schandorff dismisses some dangerous positions as “g4 is coming”, while the supposedly harmless positions (including the scores of possibilities not mentioned, although this is hardly the fault of the book) are a different story at the expert-level, since we’re far from perfect at both attack and defense.

So even though I’ve read through most of the relevant part of the book, there’s certainly room for long-term study, if for nothing else than to get a feel for the potency of White’s kingside ideas.

False Start

The easiest way to tell that White’s attack won’t succeed is that there’s nothing to attack.

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Narkeeran (1777) – Li (2058)

In a Pittsburgh club game from last February against local 11-year old Madhavan Narkeeran, Black has just played 12…Be7 as usual. Now, one of the good things about playing Black is knowing exactly what White’s planning after moving the g3 knight, e.g. 13. Ne2.

So does Black castle into the attack or not? In my case, I’d just come back from an exhausting US Amateur Team East trip that morning. Thus simply avoiding the chance of a bone-crunching attack for the moment, in this case with 13…c5 preparing queenside counterplay, was a no-brainer, especially since Black’s king is in no danger at all.

I was promptly rewarded by the eager 14. g4? and only after 14…Nxg4 and only then did White realize he had no time to shift to the open kingside, due to 15…Nxf2.

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As expected, White promptly defended f2, but was forced to simply play the rest of the game down a pawn after I shuffled the knight back and castled queenside.

But Could Black Have Castled?

Instead, suppose Black just plays (after 13. Ne213…O-O 14. g4 Nxg4.

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First, two general scenarios emanating from these positions can be identified easily:

  • If White allows Black a completely free tempo in the beginning, Black is likely better.
  • If Black allows White to regain the pawn, White is likely better, since the newly lost Black pawn is likely to be one of the kingside pawns.

Similarly to the original game, but if White meekly defends f2, Black retreats, plays …Kh8, and can heavily defend everything on the kingside at a moment’s notice. More interesting is to simply forge ahead with 15. Rdg1!?.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 01.24.48

Black only has three plausible options: 15…f5, 15…Ndf6, and 15…Nxf2. However after 15…f5 16. Nf4 wins the e6-pawn by force, and although the game is far from over, Black has simply given the pawn back and created more weaknesses. 15…Ndf6 is immediately met by 16. Rh4, and Black can snag another pawn and a rook for the two knights, e.g. 16…Qd5 17. Rhxg4 Nxg4 18. Rxg4 Qxh5 but the combination of three minor pieces, a rook, and a queen is still quite enough to cause trouble on the wide-open kingside.

Instead, Stockfish evaluates 15…Nxf2 at slightly better than +1 (for Black), but as usual, the evaluation doesn’t tell the whole story. Indeed, when Black is about to be up at least an Exchange and two pawns but still only scores +1, there’s some trickery going on. After 16. Qb3 Nxh1 17. Bxh6, we see another thematic issue for Black: White being able to “reload” on g7 with both the bishop and h-pawn, e.g. Bxg7 and h5-h6 is a possibility no matter what (on the other hand, 16. Qe3?? Nxh1 17. Qxh6 blows out to 17…Bf6 and White has no follow-up for being down so much material).

Even now, we have quite a few possibilities after 17. Bxh6. The first one that came to mind was 17…Kh7 18. Bxg7 Rg8 19. Qd3+ f5 20. Nf4 Nf8.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 01.47.46

At this point I switched off Stockfish so that my phone would last for more than 15 minutes, but a natural follow-up seems to be 21. Nxe6 Qd5 and perhaps White is running out of steam; Stockfish settled at around -2.2 (for White) here.

However, Black might also want to worry about 18. Bxg7 Rg8 19. h6 after which the threat of 20. Qd3+ f5 21. Nf4 isn’t as easy to repel.

Of course, Black should be willing to calculate far more in a real game than I am at the moment, but the point was to show how hairy things can get even in a fairly non-critical try (13. Ne2/14. g4).

A Blowout

In the larger picture, Madhavan is a highly promising junior player. He’s been giving the established Pittsburgh players a lot of trouble, but a win over an expert has eluded him… until last Tuesday.

This certain expert is probably not going to relax too much against any of these kingside attacks anymore, no matter how unsound they seem.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.19.15
Narkeeran (1800) – Li (2157)

At the 12…Be7 tabiya, Madhavan deviated from our previous game with the common 13. Kb1, and we blitzed through 13…O-O 14. Ne4 Nxe4 15. Qxe4 Nf6 16. Qe2 Qd5. White has attempted to clear the path for g2-g4, while Black attempts to trade into a comfortable ending via …Qe4. We’re still in well-trodden theory.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.26.45

It turns out that White doesn’t have a great way to start the attack. 17. g4?! is a dubious sacrifice with Black’s queen so active, e.g. 17…Qe4 18. Be3 Nxg4 19. Nd2 (19. Rdg1? Nxe3 20. fxe3 Bg519…Qf5 20. Rdg1 Nxe3 and Black gets the free tempo and blocks the g-file pressure easily.

17. Be3, which Madhavan played, is one of the harmless moves as labeled by Schandorff, but is White’s last chance to avoid …Qe4.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.32.32

An interesting idea from the book is 17…Bd6!?, seemingly placing the queen awkwardly but preparing …Qf5 and …Bf4 if need be. By now, the role that dark-square control plays in the defense is becoming clearer.  And Madhavan immediately whipped out the strange 18. Nh4?!.

One problem with skepticism is that it extends too far beyond the first move. My instinct was that this was too contrived to be correct, and it should have stayed that way – instinct. Since I now thought I could play basically anything reasonable and hold, I stuck with my first impulse to trade queens with 18…Qxh5. Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to play the resulting position than I realized, and in fact 18…Nxh5! threatens to completely stall White’s play on f4 (especially if 19. g4?) and probably would have won with much less trouble.

Naturally, White’s response to 18…Qxh5 was to immediately sacrifice another pawn with 19. g4!.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.48.10

In lieu of my above comments, it’s not surprising that my reaction was basically, “well, kids like to sac pawns galore; also, no one sacrifices two pawns here, so…”

Of course, instead of the nearsighted 19…Qxg4? there’s also 19…Qd5 but that completely defeats the purpose of 18…Qxh5; after something like 20. Rdg1 preparing g5, Black is still walking a fine line with White fully developed.

And it’s quite embarrassing to note that after White’s 20. Qd2, my first real think of the game – about 20 minutes – produced 20…Qe4??.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.55.18

In some sense, it was just forgetting something after too much time analyzing something else. But the damage was done and even though after 21. Bxh6! Nd5 White gave me a chance to regroup slightly with 22. Qg5?, I immediately squandered it with 22…Qh7?? which was followed by 23. Rdg1 and total carnage (for what it’s worth, 22…g6 was called for, but defending an airy kingside an Exchange down is not on many players’ bucket lists). I ended up getting mated in a few more moves, ending the game after a little under an hour.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.58.36
After 23. Rdg1

On one hand, I just played a bad game, but as I discussed in my previous post, this is not exactly acceptable damage at the 2150 level. Furthermore, there is something to be said about taking into account the possibility of playing worse, when preparing.

So now, it’s pretty clear what dangers lurk in even harmless-looking positions. For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss any others in great detail, but will bring up a few that came up in my exploration of the g4 positions.

Don’t Even Try Nxg4

After 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Ngf6 12. O-O-O Be7, White has a tricky prophylactic idea in 13. Qe2!?.

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Avoiding the problems of the 13. Ne2 sideline from earlier, as can be seen after 13…O-O 14. Nf1!? c5 15. g4!.

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After 15…Nxg4? 16. Rg1, Black doesn’t have that tempo due to White’s sneaky 13. Qe2 protecting f2 and has a lovely choice between 16…f5 and 16…Nf6, in each case giving White back a clear pawn and some weaknesses to attack. Of course, Black can settle for 15…Nh7.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.14.07

But this is a long-term concession. White is still willing to sacrifice the g-pawn and can prepare it with an eventual f2-f4. Black’s plan on the kingside is not so obvious and the queenside attack is a little slower than we’d like.

So in general, Black can certainly decline Nxg4, but in many lines this faces the long-term issue of a further push of the kingside pawns.

Less Intuitive

After 12…Be713. Ne4 Nxe4 14. Qxe4 Nf6 is actually most common. Historically, White has usually stuck to 15. Qe2 but 15. Qd3!? is a little devious.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.36.33

After 15. Qe215…Qd5 equalizes fairly easily in a similar manner to one of the earlier lines. However, if Black tries (15. Qd3) 15…Qd5?! suddenly 16. c4 Qe4 17. Qb3! places the queen in a very awkward situation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.38.43

Castling queenside into a bone-crushing attack is out of the question, especially since White can relegate the queen to h7 with Rhe1. Castling kingside (presumably after b7 is dealt with) with the queen so misplaced gets tangly for multiple reasons I won’t go into.

Black defenses to this haven’t been studied that much. 15…c5 has been played a few times and I recall seeing it in a random book I found at a chess tournament in May, but Schandorff considers the best bet to castle into the attack with 15…O-O and prepare.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.43.10

Schandorff’s analysis runs 16. g4 Nxg4 17. Rhg1 f5 (apparently 17…Nxf2 is too dangerous) 18. Qe2 Kh7!?.

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Not the most intuitive at first glance. But the traded off pieces have made all the difference; with the freer center and rock-solid Ng4, Black can afford to cooly respond to 19. Qxe6 with 19…Qd6. The book analysis continues 19. Ne5 Nxe5 20. dxe5 and while I haven’t studied this in detail, it looks like due to the trades Black is mobile enough to defend everything on the kingside with fairly good chances.

Parting Thoughts

Unfortunately for me, the g4 positions get more difficult than what I’ve posted. But these positions are fairly representative of what one might get at a competent, but less theoretical (i.e. players go out of book sooner) level of play. And while more difficult positions certainly require either more calculation or preparation (depending on when one chooses to be lazy), the above positions have proven to be fairly manageable by considering more positional aspects of the lines. Of course, remembering all of them is easier said than done. But this is where general playing experience and preparation, if I ever get around to it, comes in.

Again, in other defensive setups, similar exploration might be helpful.

It might also prevent some unsuspecting upsets by young players if you do it well!

Meeting a new Najdorf

Opening theory in chess is constantly evolving. However, being the stubborn person I am, my personal repertoire has barely changed since I first began playing tournament chess. Never the type to want to learn and understand extensive theory, I relied upon relatively rare lines to throw my opponents off. For example, I have always played 6. h3 against the Najdorf Sicilian, and while this opening worked beautifully in the beginning of my chess career, its efficiency has decreased as the line itself became more well-known and as I reached a higher level of play.

h3 Najdorf
Position after 6.h3

About two weeks ago, I was participating in the US Girls Junior Championship, where ten of the top girls under the age of 20 are invited to play in a round robin tournament. There, I had three games against the Najdorf and while I won two out of the three games, the game where I lost made me realize that with the right preparation, I could easily be outplayed straight from the opening. This realization made it evident that I needed to learn something new against the Najdorf. Upon asking around and researching on my own, I’ve realized that not only has opening theory itself changed, but so has the way in which we acquire opening knowledge.  Recently, grandmasters have been using correspondence games as a source for opening theory. In the annotations for a game between Caruana and Gelfand (which was, in part the inspiration for the subject of this article), Caruana says of his 14th move, “This had been played before by correspondence players. I didn’t fully understand the move, but I figured I should listen to them!”

In looking through correspondence games myself, I found a recurring variation in the Najdorf that seems to be gaining popularity; the 8…h5 variation in the Be3 Najdorf. The variation itself is very suitable for correspondence chess as it entails a lot of positional maneuvering and long-term planning. While I am not the most positional player, I still find the variation appealing due to its constricting nature, as white essentially aims to eliminate black’s counter-play.


Najdorf h5
Position after 8…h5

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e5 One of the mainlines — the others being …e6 and …Ng4 7. Nb3 Be6 8. f3 h5 A trending line nowadays. The obvious goal is to stop white’s king-side expansion; one of the central ideas in the mainline with opposite-side castling. The old mainline is 8…Be7 9. Qd2 O-O 10. O-O-O with white aiming for a king-side attack and black aiming for a queen-side attack (See Anand – Topalov, Stavanger 2013). 9. Qd2 Nbd7 10. Nd5 Bxd5 The more common variation – here white pursues similar goals to the variation with the knight taking instead: 10… Nxd5 11. exd5 Bf5 12. Na5.

Najdorf Na5
Position  after 12. Na5

The idea behind this variation is that white will opt for queen-side expansion with c4, b4, a4, and eventually a break with c5. Black will often opt for central play with an eventual e4 in conjunction with potential king-side play. In this position, the key recent game at the GM level was between Caruana and Nakamura (while Na5 is moved later in this game, it serves as the inspiration for the earlier Na5 line). Here, black has three main options: Be7, Qc7, and Rb8. Against 12…Be7, white should play normally as black is not creating any eminent threats. For 12… Rb8, white should make sure to stop black’s counter-play before developing naturally: 13. a4 Be7 14. Nc4 O-O 15. Be2

Najdorf f4
Position after 18. f4!

With 12… Qc7 13. c4 b6 (13… Be7 14. Rc1 Rc8, although 14…e4 is probably an improvement over the game
continuation (Zakhartsov -Bratus, Voronezh 2008), but white still holds a slight edge after Be2, 0-0, and b4 with the same queen-side expansion.) 14. Nc6 Nb8 15. Nxb8 Rxb8 16. Be2 Be7 (16… g6 Here, a game between two masters: Madl and Gerard, illustrates the queen-side expansion that is essential to white’s opening strategy). 17. O-O Bg6 18. f4! +=


Najdorf g4.png
1-0 Jensen – Krivic, ICCF 2014

Now, let’s return to what happens if the bishop takes back: 11. exd5 g6. Here, 11…Qc7 is also possible, to be followed by 12. c4. Should black play 12…g6, white should try to relocate his knight to its ideal square on c6 via c2 and b4. Another possible continuation is 12…a5 13. a4 b6 14. Bd3 g6 15. O-O Bg7. Here, white’s plan deviates as it becomes difficult to pursue queen-side play as black has locked down the b4 and c5 squares. White’s attention thus shifts to the center and king-side:  16. Rae1 O-O 17. Nc1 Nc5 18. Bc2 Na6 19. b3 Nb4 20. Bb1 Na6 21. Ne2 Nd7 22. Bh6 Qd8 23. Nc3 f5 24. Nb5 Nac5 25. Bc2 Qe7 26. Be3 h4 27. g4 (1-0 Jensen,E (2495)-Krivic,D (2528) ICCF 2014). 12. Be2 Bg7 13. O-O b6 14. Rac1 O-O 15. h3 Re8.

Najdorf Rc3
Position after 12. Rc3 +=

Caruana recommends 15…Nh7, but after 
16.c4 f5 17. Bd3 Bf6 18. f4 exf4 19. Bxf4 Be5 20. Bxe5 Nxe5 21. Nd4 Qf6 22. Bb1 Rae8 23. Rc3 
+= White’s knight has two potential squares on c6 and e6 and the queen-side majority yields an advantage. Should black play 15…Qc7, white should focus more on the center and king-side (A worthy game to look into is Jónsson,D (2538)-Magalhães,L (2540) ICCF 2014).


16. c3 While 16. c4 might seem more logical, it lacks a future after a5. 16…Kh7 (16…Qc8 17. Kh2 Qc7 18. g4 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 20. Nxc5 bxc5 21. g5 Nd7 22. Bd

Najdorf Qc7.png
Position after 17. Qc7

3 += Black’s bishop is essentially trapped by his own pawns and white has the bishop pair and more space) 17. Rfe1 Qc7 (17…Ng8 is met with 18. g4 Bh6 19. g5 Bg7 20. Bd3 Ne7 21. Be4 Rc8 22. Kh2 with white looking to relocate the knight on b3 and looking for more play on the queen-side) 18. Bf1 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 (19…Qc7 20. a4 Qb7 21. Kh2 e4 22. f4 Rac8 23. Kg1 Ra8 24. c4 Nc5 25. Nd4 Nfd7 26. Qc2 Bxd4 27. Bxd4 a5 28. Re3 Rac8 29. b3 += 

Najdorf b3.png
Position after 29. b3 +=

White has an advantage with the bishop pair and a more favorable pawn structure) 20. Nxc5 bxc5
21. Bc4 e4 22. f4 Nd7 
(22…Ng8 23. Bf2 Rab8 24. b3 f5 25. Be3 Ne7 26. Rb1 a5 27. Red1 While white does not necessarily have an advantage here, his position is easier to play with space, the bishop pair, and a potential break on b4) 23. Bb3 Qb5

Najdorf Bb3.png
Position after 23…Qb5

(23… Rab8 24. Ba4 Red8 25. Rb1 f5 26. Bc6 Qc7 27. Qe2 a5 28. Rec1 += White has a tiny advantage here with better placed pieces, the bishop pair, and a queen-side majority) 24. c4 Qb4 25. Qxb4 cxb4 26. Ba4 Rad8 27. Re2 += In this endgame, white has a small edge and should be trying to play g3, move the king towards the center, place the light-squared bishop on c6 and play for a c5 break. Should …Nc5 happen, which should capture with the dark-squared bishop and then double rooks on the d-file and push through using the d-pawn.

Najdorf final position.png
Final Position

Overall, the …h5 variation poses an interesting problem to white, as he or she must switch strategies from the traditional king-side attack to a more positional game in the center and on the queen-side. In the Nxd5 variation, the knight maneuver Na5 to c4 in conjunction with a4 and queen-side play is essential to white’s strategy. White should also aim to contain black’s central counter-play with a timely f4. In the Bxd5 variation, white’s plans are more long-term and often the queen-side pursuit will not work out, in which case, one must focus one’s attention on the center and king-side. In many variations, white does not necessarily have an advantage, but the bishop pair and extra space provide for easier play and a potential advantage in the transition to the endgame. The variation on the whole contains fascinating positional planning, and has become a line I can’t wait to try in tournament play.