Refutation of the Gothenburg Variation

Or perhaps I should have named this post “How to Make a Draw Among Friends?”

The ongoing tournament in Ivory Coast, part of the Grand Chess Tour, saw the game Karjakin-Nepomniachtchi in Round 1. It featured the Gothenburg Variation of the Najdorf.

A line with rich history and alas, no future. Introduced in Round 14 of the Gothenburg Interzonal in 1955 by the Argentinian trio of Najdorf, Pilnik and Panno in the games against the Soviet players Keres, Spassky and Geller, respectively, it was handsomely met by the spectacular move 13 Bb5! (first played by Geller, as the story goes) and it resulted in the Argentinian fiasco with three beautiful wins for the Soviets.

It was considered that the line was refuted by this move, but three years later, citing sources from a Soviet magazine, 15-year old Bobby Fischer improved with the incredible 13…Rh7! in the crucial game against Gligoric in the last round of yet another Interzonal (in Portoroz) to secure qualification for the Candidates Tournament in 1959. (Another story goes that Fischer actually asked Gligoric about this line at some point earlier in the tournament – while swimming – and Gligoric said he didn’t know much about it.)

Fischer’s move is considered best even nowadays and the analyses have shown that this line ends in a draw. This has been known for a very long time.

However, another thing has also been known for a very long time. And that is the fact that the move 11 Qh5! (instead of the flashy sacrifice 11 Ne6) leads to an advantage for White, thus basically refuting the Gothenburg Variation.

Here’re the details (note that I’m using lichess for this one as chess.com has been having some issues with the game viewer):

Please bear in mind that by “refutation” I don’t necessarily mean a lost position for Black, but rather a prospectless position at the end of the line, making the whole variation unappealing to play. Similarly, you can take a look at another refutation here.

It is quite apparent that both Karjakin and Nepomniachtchi played this “game” in order to make a spectacular draw, as I am pretty sure that both knew the best way how to play against the Gothenburg Variation.

Some time ago Carlsen brought up the subject of these kind of “games” and it gave rise to some controversy with the accused Karjakin and Mamedyarov denying vehemently. But if you have been in the business for long enough, you learn to detect these things and understand what is happening under the surface.

Circumstances aside, bringing up the forgotten page from chess history, the Gothenburg Variation, is something I appreciate, so thanks to both players for that. After all, they could have played the Exchange Slav instead…

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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