Category : Openings

Riding a Bicycle

This one is from my newsletter.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be talking about physical exercise and actual riding of a bicycle, even though that is a painful subject for me, the lack of it, to be more exact. That will likely be a topic for another day.

Now I’d like to share a revelation that I recently found in a book.

For all my life I was playing the Sicilian with both colours. When I played it with Black I always felt more at ease because I knew that the long-term prospects were on my side. I only (only!) had to avoid being mated and then I knew that things will be great for me as the potential endgame would give me good chances for more than just a draw.

However, when I played it with White, I always felt rushed and under pressure. Larsen called the Sicilian a “cheap trap” in a sense that White exchanges the central d-pawn for Black’s c-pawn and then tries to “cheapo” his way to a quick mating attack. So I always acutely felt this pressure that if I don’t deliver the mate then my long-term prospects would not be something to look forward to.

With these feelings, I always treated the Sicilian in a very aggressive fashion. The English Attack, lines with f4 and g4, the Sozin in the beginning of my career, all of them aimed at either a pawn storm or a piece attack.

Of course, I knew Karpov’s games in the Sicilian, playing in so-called slow-mode and strangulating his opponents, but this was mostly because of his superior playing skills rather than the “correct” treatment of the Sicilian. When he faced a Sicilian player par-excellence in the likes of Kasparov, he was forced to abandon 1.e4 altogether – the positional Sicilians didn’t work anymore.

(Of the many slow-Sicilians I was particularly impressed by the game Smyslov-Hort from Petropolis Interzonal in 1973 where White’s knight arrived on g4 (!) before delivering the final blow on f6).

I never defined these feelings exactly and to be honest I never seriously tried. I knew what I was feeling and didn’t feel a need to share that with the world. But at the beginning of the year I invested half of my one-day commentating fee at the Rilton Cup in chess books and one of the books I bought was “Winning” by Nigel Short. While browsing the book I found what I’ve forgotten I was looking for: the accurate description of White’s play in the Sicilian. Here’s Short’s comment on Black’s 17th move from his game against Kasparov from the Amsterdam tournament in 1991:

“Playing White in the Sicilian is like riding a bicycle. You have to keep moving forward, otherwise you fall off.”

Incredibly astute observation by Short and one that perfectly described my feelings!

I have written before that one of the feelings I hate the most is the feeling of being rushed. Therefore it’s perhaps not a surprise that I have stopped playing open Sicilians with White. The itch for a full-fledged open fight with sights on the opponent’s king is still there, but most of the time I think better of it. The Rossolimo seems like a good alternative nowadays.


Fischer a-la Indian

You probably remember my post on one of Fischer’s original ideas, the move …g5 in the Sicilian/Hedgehog structures. While not completely original, as it most likely was inspired by Morphy’s game, I still think of it as one of his great positional ideas that expanded our knowledge of what is possible in chess.

Nobody will be surprised by the move …g5 today, but the talented players still manage to come up with new packaging for the old ideas. Therefore, I was definitely surprised when I saw Fischer’s idea implemented in a typical Najdorf position from the 6.Be2 line.

The following position arose in the relatively recent game between two Indian prodigies, Sadhwani-Erigaisi, played in the Abu Dhabi Masters in August:

A normal Najdorf position where Black has quite a few sensible moves at his disposal, 13…Qc6, 13…Rfd8, 13…Rfe8, 13…h6, all leading to maneuvering play along well-known lines and ideas.

However, Erigaisi came up with something completely unexpected: 13…Kh8!?. I cannot say whether he came up with this in his preparation (the engine doesn’t think too high of the idea) or over-the-board, but in any case to implement a well-known idea in a new situation is always curious to see.

Sadhwani continued with the usual maneuver 14.Nd2 (going to f1 and then perhaps to g3 or e3, in case the bishop moves from e3) and Erigaisi followed through with 14…Rg8!

Now this makes it very clear what Black intends to do: …g5-g4 is coming! The engine suggests ignoring Black’s plan by 15.Nf1 g5 16.g3, but Sadhwani didn’t want to allow any sort of aggression by Black and in fact started playing on the kingside himself! This is also a psychological decision, showing your opponent that you won’t be bullied into submission.

He chose 15.h4!? and after the suboptimal 15…Qb8?! he went 16.g4!

All of a sudden it was Black who was being attacked on the kingside! After White’s g5 and Bg4 he obtained a solid advantage, even though the game was eventually won by Black.

I found this game refreshing. Two of the best young players in the world entered a well-known theoretical position and managed to give it a new life, introducing immediate aggression. The fact that they used an old idea to do so doesn’t diminish the value of it – in fact, it only shows that these players know their classics as well.

Examples like this are proof that chess is still very rich with ideas, even in the openings. Whether they are completely new or old but in new packaging, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fresh positions they provide, and from then on it is “let the best player win.”


Fischer’s Opening Strategy in Reykjavik

To mark the 50-year anniversary of Fischer’s triumph in Reykjavik, I am publishing the full text of my analysis of his openings in the “Match of the Century.” It was first published in the September issue of British Chess Magazine and it was based on my previous writing of my weekly newsletter.

Let’s start with his openings with the black pieces.

Fischer started the match with the Ragozin, a surprising choice as he dropped that opening in 1961, but I am convinced that he was counting on Spassky transposing to a Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian. I am also convinced that he was sure that Spassky, faced with a surprise, would follow his own old game with Krogius from 1958, which he duly did. And in an obscure side-line following the game Spassky-Krogius, Fischer improved on move 14 to reach an equal endgame. The very first game showed that Fischer studied Spassky to the tiniest detail and could read his choices easily.

Then came the Benoni in Game 3. An epic game undoubtedly, but as the book “Russians vs Fischer” showed Fischer was walking on thin ice here. The book discovers that Spassky knew the best way to react to the incredible 11…Nh5, yet he spent masses of time (23 minutes on 12.Bh5) and chose an alternative plan which gave Black excellent play. It is quite perplexing that the World Champion wouldn’t trust his preparation in a match for the title!

The fact that Fischer chose the Benoni in Game 3, after trailing 0-2, shows his infinite belief that he was the stronger player. Many sources state that he was visibly nervous before the game, but he still played for a win with Black against the man who until that moment was beating him 4-0 with White, without draws!

The surprises continued in Game 5, when in another Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian Fischer employed the plan made popular by Portisch and Huebner. Fischer’s usual preference in the Rubinstein Nimzo was the move 4…b6 (for which Spassky probably prepared the lines with 5 Bg5, hence his move order of 4 Nf3 instead of the direct 4 e3), but for the match he prepared both the main line as in Game 1 and also the relatively unexplored Portisch/Huebner plan. After only 3 Black games it was apparent that Fischer prepared a lot of new lines and he kept on surprising Spassky by playing variations he’s never played before.

The use of a recently developed plan was not new for Fischer. In the second game of his semi-final match with Petrosian he used Hort’s move 7…Ne4 in the Grunfeld with 4.Bf4, introduced in the Palma Interzonal where he played. Fischer misplayed the opening later on, but subsequent games showed the viability of Hort’s idea.

In the cases when he played variations he had played before he encountered problems. The only exception was Game 7, where Spassky seemed to botch up his preparation in the Poisoned Pawn. The repeat of the Poisoned Pawn led to a disaster in Game 11 and even the main line with 7…Be7 led him to a lost position in view of Spassky’s superior preparation.

In contrast to his responses to 1 d4, Fischer started the match confident in his usual Najdorf and didn’t try to surprise Spassky, but the problems he faced forced him to apply the same surprise-based strategy against 1.e4 in the second half of the match when Spassky moved to 1.e4 exclusively.

Game 9 saw Spassky’s last attempt at 1.d4 and again he was met with a surprise. Fischer successfully used the Semi-Tarrasch in Game 8 of his semi-final match against Petrosian and this time he again introduced a novelty. The time spent on the moves is also curious: after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Fischer spent 8 minutes on 4…c5 (perhaps wondering whether to repeat the Ragozin/Nimzo from Game 1 with 4…Bb4) and after 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 spent 1 minute on 8…Nc6 (instead of the more usual 8…Bb4) and after 9.Bc4 (8 minutes by Spassky) whole 20 minutes on his innovation 9…b5. Later analysis showed that this is dubious and the modern treatment of the Semi-Tarrasch, as played by Kramnik, sees the development of the knight to d7 rather than c6. Still, Fischer’s surprise worked and the game was the shortest draw of the match (29 moves).

We see now that Spassky generally played 1.d4 in the first half of the match and he was met with continuous changes of openings and lines by Fischer, often never played by him before. This meant that the opening initiative was almost always with Fischer. 

As a result of this Spassky switched completely to 1.e4 in the second half of the match.

The change of strategy led to an immediate success in Game 11, Fischer’s only catastrophy in the match. This was the first time he repeated an opening, the Poisoned Pawn from Game 7, but this time Spassky was ready and the punishment was severe.

This serious setback forced Fischer to implement the same strategy of changing his openings after 1.e4 as well. But this was more problematic for him because playing almost only the Najdorf since the US Championship in 1963 he had less solid openings at his disposal.

Fischer’s choices of the Alekhine and the Pirc in games 13, 17 and 19 were the most puzzling for me in the whole match, due to several reasons. Even though Fischer played the Alekhine on several occassions in 1970, the opening is far from being solid enough for a World Championship match. And the Pirc even less so! Yet he still played them in 3 games.

I remember reading an interesting observation that Fischer didn’t know how to play solidly for equality, that he always needed dynamism and activity. Thinking along these lines, this was the only reasonable explanation I could find to explain his choices of those openings. 

The Alekhine Defence in Game 13 saw a very poor reaction by Spassky. His improvisation on move 7 in a very-well know theoretical position (7.Nbd2 on which he spent 17 minutes) was of low quality. It is surprising that on both first occassions with an opening (the Poisoned Pawn in Games 7 and 11 and the Alekhine in Games 13 and 19) Spassky reacted badly! And as “Russians vs Fischer” tells us, he was excellently prepared for all the openings! Puzzling indeed.

In Game 15 Fischer returned to the Najdorf and didn’t venture again in the Poisoned Pawn, choosing the line with 7…Be7. In view of Spassky’s superior preparation he was close to losing after the opening. This was another surprising choice because later Fischer would say that approximately after Game 13 he started to play safe, stopped looking for chances and was leaving it to Spassky to beat him. No reason not to trust him, but how does that go along with his opening choices with Black?

Game 17 and the Pirc Defence was perhaps the strangest choice. First about the move-order. After 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Fischer went 2…g6. This begs several questions to be asked: why did he allow the King’s Indian that would have most probably arisen after 3 c4 (and he didn’t play it in the first half of the match when Spassky was playing 1.d4)? Since Spassky was sticking to 1.e4 did he really know Spassky so well that he trusted him he wouldn’t switch to a 1.d4 opening once he abandoned them? And what was he trying to achieve by playing 2…g6 instead of 2…Nf6? The only explanation I could come up with for the last question was that he was avoiding 2…Nf6 3.f3, as Spassky played against Jansson in 1971.

To continue with the questions, did he intend something else after 3.c4 instead of a normal KID transposition, by leaving the knight on g8? And after Spassky’s 3.Nc3 (on which he spent 4 minutes, probably thinking to KID or not to KID) Fischer spent 4 minutes on 3…Nf6. Why? The only obvious alternative is 3…Bg7, so again, what was he trying to avoid?

The following few moves and the times spent on them continue to be mysterious. Being faced with an obvious surprise by Fischer, Spassky again, as in Game 1, chose a line from his youth, one he played only once in his life, in 1960 in Mar del Plata (incidentally a tournament where Fischer also played) – Fischer’s own pet line, the Austrian Attack. After 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 Fischer sank into a 15-minute think before choosing 5…c5. When playing the Austrian Attack with White Fischer convincingly demonstrated the strength of the line 5…0-0 6 Bd3, winning several good games with it. So it is perhaps understandable that he wanted to avoid it with Black, but why spend 15 minutes on that decision?

The game was very important theoretically and it established the best way to play for Black in that line of the Pirc (namely to play …Bg4 before White can prevent it by h3) and it was also notable for Spassky’s original middlegame plan of 11.Rad1 and 12.Bc4.

Game 19 saw the return of the Alekhine, with Fischer varying with 4…Bg4 instead of the 4…g6 from Game 13. Another first-ever by Fischer, but Spassky was prepared. I find an interesting parallel between this game and Game 5. Had Spassky taken 12.gxf3 (he took 20 minutes on that decision) the blocked character of the position would have resembled the one from Game 5. Why was Fischer luring Spassky in such closed positions, did he learn in his preparation that Spassky didn’t like them and played them less well? It was considered that Fischer didn’t like closed and blocked positions, but here he was actively pursuing them!

Fischer’s choice for what turned out to be the last game of the match was excellent and I wonder why he didn’t come up with it earlier. Again a first-ever, this time in the Sicilian, 2…e6 instead of the “automatic” 2…d6. (Curiously enough, in Game 20 of their match in 1992, the first game of that match where Spassky played 1.e4, after 1…c5 2.Ne2 Nf6 3.Nbc3 Fischer again played 3…e6, signalling that he wanted to play something else than the Najdorf. Here the most probable is the Scheveningen after 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 d6, but Spassky played 4.g3).

After 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 there came 4…a6, a move he so convincingly dismantled with White in Game 7 of his match with Petrosian. So the first question, what did he have in mind against his own choice of 5.Bd3? My guess is 5…Nc6, as Petrosian played, and after 6.Nxc6 dxc6, instead of Petrosian’s inferior 6…bxc6. The positions after 6…dxc6 are much calmer and more solid, quite in line with Fischer’s admission that he wasn’t trying to look for chances in the second half of the match. And being a Sicilian, it still offers more dynamism and activity than other openings. Still, this is why I think his choice was good, because he finally found a solid and safe line for Black.

But Spassky stayed in line with his established way to reacting to surprises, he chose a line he played before. The system with Be3 and Bd3 brought him the title with a draw from a winning position in Game 23 of his match with Petrosian in 1969, but Fischer played an important novelty after 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Bd3 d5 (the game Spassky-Petrosian went via a different move order 7…Qc7 8.0-0 Ne5) 8.exd5 exd5! and Black was already equal. Fischer’s love for old games was crowned by employing a move played by Adolf Anderssen in 1877!

Fischer’s strategy with Black turned out to be very efficient. His frequent changes of openings and sub-lines coupled with Spassky’s predictability and bad first-time reactions enabled him to have the opening initiative in most of the games. The only opening disaster he had was when he himself was predictable, but he didn’t let that happen again.

Now let’s take a look at Fischer’s openings with White.

Fischer’s first White was Game 4 when he immediately felt the might of the Soviet preparation team. The Sozin served Fischer so well throughout his career, but the Soviet camp wasn’t wasting their time. Fischer has always been absolutely convinced in his preparation and he confidently repeated the Sozin, but Spassky played a line that is considered one of the best today. Even Kasparov played it against Short in their match in 1993! It is notable that Fischer didn’t sense the dynamics of the position and played the tame 12.a3 (spending 7 minutes on it) instead of the natural 12.e5, the only move to offer White chances for an advantage. Spassky’s analysis was very deep and he was close to winning, but Fischer escaped.

This first game was a very important lesson to Fischer. Starting from Game 6 he invariably changed his openings after a setback. What is curious though is that he didn’t immediately apply the same recipe with Black. Perhaps he was lulled by his successful Game 7 where Spassky’s first take at the Poisoned Pawn was rather meek.

Game 6 is one of the best known in chess history, Fischer opening with 1.c4 for only a second time in his life (the first one was at the Palma Interzonal against Polugaevsky, a famous Najdorf player himself; I am not counting the last-round forfeit win against Panno, again at Palma, when he knew Panno wasn’t going to play) but from an opening perspective and knowing the inside information from the invaluable “Russians vs Fischer” Spassky was well-prepared there as well. The only problem was that he didn’t play what he knew was good. As in Game 3 with the Benoni, Spassky again showed mistrust in his preparation. In both cases he gave Fischer an easy ride through the opening and lost convincingly.

I wondered why Fischer decided to play 1.c4 and not 1.d4. Words aside (“I have never opened with 1.d4 on principle”) I think he was trying to get Spassky into a reversed Sicilian, i.e. 1…e5, as the latter had repeatedly played in his match with Larsen in 1968. Another point was made with his move-order. After 1.c4 e6 Fischer played 2.Nf3 d5 3.d4 and I think this was particularly aimed against Spassky’s Tarrasch Defence, which he successfully played in his title-winning match with Petrosian in 1969. By keeping the knight on b1 White has more options against the Tarrasch and Fischer must have prepared them well.

In Game 8 Fischer didn’t see a reason not to repeat the successful 1.c4 but he was met with a surprise. Spassky went for the Symmetrical English, a variation he’d never played before. The opening gave Spassky a good game, but he was in awful form in this period and just blundered the game away soon enough.

Even though he was twice successful with 1.c4 Fischer was nevertheless surprised in Game 8 so for Game 10 he returned to 1.e4. He had enough time to prepare something against the Classical Sicilian from Game 4 but it was only in Game 18 that it was revealed what that was. Spassky chose the Breyer Variation in the Ruy Lopez for Game 10 and Fischer used the rare (at that time) plan with queenside expansion with 13.b4. Coincidence or not, this plan was frequently used by Kavalek in the late 1960s, and Kavalek was in Reykjavik and helped Fischer with analysis of adjourned games. Still, Spassky reacted well and the game was of high quality. Spassky didn’t play badly, but Fischer played better and won deservedly.

Game 12 saw the return to 1.c4. Probably Fischer again needed some time to prepare something against the Symmetrical English from Game 8, but Spassky returned to the Queen’s Gambit, only this time opting for the Orthodox Variation instead of the Tartakower. This game was a rare case of Fischer trailing behind on the clock throughout the game. An evenly played game where Fischer didn’t get much out of the opening.

The repeat of 1.c4 in Game 14 saw Fischer vary again after the surprise with the Orthodox from Game 12. This time he changed the variation and chose 5.Bf4 instead of the 5.Bg5 in the QGD. Spassky was fine after the opening and this game finally convinced Fischer that he cannot hope for much in the QGD. From the next game he went back to 1.e4 (or perhaps he considered 1.e4 easier to play when he didn’t look for winning chances himself).

Game 16 saw another Ruy Lopez but Fischer showed his pragmatic side and played the Exchange Variation. The variation brought Fischer an almost 100% until then (only Smyslov managing a draw in Monaco in 1967) but he couldn’t hope for much against Spassky’s preparation. But this was the Fischer who stopped looking for chances and didn’t mind the draw. This game convinced Spassky that he must go back to 1…c5 if he were to try to play for a win with Black.

Games 18 and 20 revealed what Fischer prepared against the Classical Sicilian and it was the Richter-Rauzer Attack. Small detail in the move-order of Game 18. After 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 Fischer played 3.Nc3. He played 3.d4 in Game 4, so why the change? In the blitz tournament in Herceg Novi in 1970 Tal played that same move-order against Fischer and then Fischer played 3…e5. If Black wants to play the Najdorf after 3.Nc3 he has two options: 3…Nf6 and 3…a6. Fischer played 3…a6 on three occassions and never 3…Nf6. He probably didn’t like the possibility of 3…Nf6 4.e5, a line which Larsen and Keres used in the 1960s and, perhaps more importantly, Huebner used in his match with Petrosian in 1971 (though the game was quickly drawn). Was he trying to trick Spassky with the 3.Nc3 move-order? We will never know since Spassky played 3…Nc6 and after 4 d4 soon there was a Rauzer on the board. (In Game 20 Spassky played 2…Nc6.) The complicater Rauzer saw a fascinating struggle, perhaps too complicated for Fischer’s taste with so few games remaining. 

In Game 20 Fischer employed another move used by Kavalek, 10.Be2 instead of the main line 10.Nf3 as played in Game 18. Spassky introduced a novelty immediately, 10…0-0, and by Kavalek’s admission this was something they hadn’t analysed! Fischer spent 17 minutes on his next move and soon allowed a simplifying combination by Spassky that brought about an equal endgame. It was a passive endgame for White and Fischer drifted into an uncomfortable position, but he held it confidently.

Fischer scored his White wins in Games 6, 8 and 10, in the first half of the match when Spassky was playing badly. He scored his Black wins in Games 3, 5, 13 and 21 – the first two when Spassky was playing badly, the third in the most complex game of the whole match and the last one when Spassky probably already gave up. It is a rare case that in a World Championship match one player has more wins with Black than with White, but recent history has seen two more cases: Anand in his match with Kramnik in 2008, winning two with Black and one with White and Carlsen against Anand in 2013 with the same ratio.

To sum up this lengthy analysis of Fischer’s openings we can conclude that his strategy to change his lines after a surprise or setback was an outright success. There were moments in the openings when a certain move or move-order prompted a deeper investigation or thinking on my part and I found that captivating, to try to enter the mind of the great player and understand why he made that decision or what his intention might have been. As mentioned in the beginning, I have thought about the match in Reykjavik so much and I hope you will find this kind of analysis as fascinating as I did.


Differences Between the QGD Repertoires

As you probably know, I recently created a Lifetime Repertoire (LTR) based on the Queen’s Gambit Declined (QGD) for Chessable. This one was not my first repertoire on the Queen’s Gambit Declined. In fact, I already had a trilogy published on Chessable that covered “everything except 1.e4” based on the QGD.

The natural question, one that I have been asked many times, was what were the differences between the two. Apart from the usual improvements thanks to the advances of chess theory and engines (these go without saying) in this post I’d like to give an overview of the differences in the chosen variations. Before continuing I want to stress again that the lines in both the trilogy and the LTR are perfectly valid and it is a matter of choice which ones to choose. I also intend to keep updating both repertoires, so rest assured that I will continue to provide feedback.

Without further ado, here are the main differences:

  1. In the Exchange Variation, after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bf4 c6 the trilogy analysed the move 6…Bd6 after both 6.e3 and 6.Qc2. The LTR analyses 6.e3 Bf5 and 6.Qc2 Nf6. The reason for the change was that the lines in the LTR have proven to be more dynamic and I considered them interesting enough to explore and propose them.
  2. In the Main Line with 6.Bxf6 I tried to condense the lines in the LTR by mainly proposing plans based on …dxc4. This is especially important in the lines with 8.Rc1 and 8.Qb3 (after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bxf6 Bxf6 7.e3 0-0). In the trilogy I proposed 8.Rc1 c6 and 8.Qb3 c6.
  3. In the Main Line with 5.Bf4 (after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3) the trilogy analysed the lines with 6…c5 while the LTR analyses 6…Nbd7. The reason for the change was a more general approach to the whole opening by proposing a more unified repertoire based on …Nbd7 against White’s main theoretical tries of the Main Line with 5.Bg5, the Main Line with 5.Bf4 and the Catalan.
  4. In the Catalan, after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3, the trilogy looked at the variation 4…dxc4 5.Bg2 Bd7 while the LTR, in line with the approach described above analyses the Closed System after 4…Bb4 5.Bd2 Be7, followed by …0-0 and …Nbd7.
  5. In the Reti Opening, after 1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 e6 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 in the LTR I concentrated on the lines with 4…d4, while the trilogy analysed 4…dxc4 in detail. After feedback from students I found that the lines with 4…d4 are much less theoretically heavy and therefore much more practical. The move 4…dxc4 still remains the main theoretical option, however.
  6. In the London System the choice of variation remained the same, but here there was a major shift in direction of better understanding of the ensuing positions after Bxg6 hxg6. After the trilogy was published there were several discoveries that showed the potential of White’s attack in these structures so in the LTR I came up with an important novel concept to defuse these attacks.
  7. In the Nimzo-Larsen, after the moves 1.b3 d5 2.Bb2 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.Nf3 Be7 5.c4 0-0 6.Nc3 the trilogy looked at 6…b6, while the LTR analyses 6…dxc4, which leads to much more dynamic play.

The above 7 variations are the main differences between the repertoires. I hope this now makes it clearer when navigating between the two.


A Surprising g4 in the Najdorf

You must be wondering how a g4 move in the Najdorf can be surprising, but there are some cases when it is.

The year 2005 was a great year for me. At the end of it I made my first visit to Russia. In total I spent one month in Russia, divided between a tournament in Saratov and a stay in Moscow.

The tournament I played in Saratov was the first of the Aratovsky Memorials that became so strong in the following years. Back then it was a relatively unknown tournament, though very strong nevertheless.

In Round 5 of the tournament I was White against FM Isajevsky. He played the Najdorf and I had a chance to use a rare idea I discovered while analysing a previous game of mine.

This position arose from the positional line 6 Be3 e5 7 Nf3, after 7…Qc7 8 a4 Be7 9 Be2 0-0 10 0-0 Nbd7 11 Nd2 b6.

Black’s treatment of the line was sub-optimal, as White has achieved the ideal set-up: he can continie with 12 Bc4 followed by Bg5, obtaining strong control over the d5-square, which coupled with Black’s inability to push …b5 leaves White firmly in control.

That would have been the typical treatment of the line from White’s side. However, while analysing my game against Gunnarsson from that year’s European Club Cup I discovered a surprising idea.

That idea was the move 12 g4. It was quite shocking for my opponent and understandably so – White is not supposed to attack on the kingside in this line!

The game was tense, it continued with 12…h6 13 h4 Qd8 14 g5 hg 15 hg Nh7 16 g6 fg 17 Nc4, which was very promising for White. My opponent blundered and lost only 4 moves later. This game didn’t make it into the databases (none of the Saratov tournament did) and even checking now I can only find 3 games with the 12 g4 idea, the latest one from 2015 when Wei Yi used it to beat Sevian.

These types of ideas, when a positional line is suddenly turned into a dynamic one, have become more common nowadays, with the modern engines coming up with such moves on regular basis. Still, it felt good to spark such a surprise back in 2005!


The Chebanenko Slav

Recently I published my 7th course on Chessable, after the Simplest Scandinavian, the three courses of the QGD series and the Najdorf with the Anti-Sicilians. You can see these on the right hand side under My Chessable Books. The latest course is part of Chessable’s new golden standard, the so-called Lifetime Repertoires. The opening I chose for it – the Chebanenko Slav.

Why the Chebanenko?

I always thought that if a player is to play an opening for a lifetime then this opening should be less reliant on concrete variations and more on general understanding. The Chebanenko fit this description perfectly. Black needs to understand his main plans and ideas and these are more important than the concrete variations, mostly because the concrete lines come from these main principles and ideas.

As I mention in the Introduction of the course, Black has 5 of these main development ideas:

  1. To develop the bishop from c8 outside the pawn chain before playing …e6.
  2. To fianchetto the dark-squared bishop in order not to close the h3-c8 diagonal for the light-squared bishop.
  3. To play …e6 with the idea to take on c4 and expand with …b5 and …c5 in order to develop the bishop on b7.
  4. To play …e6 with the idea to to push …c5 and develop the knight on c6, in order to put pressure on White’s centre.
  5. To play …e6 and …a5 in order to fix the b4-square when White has played a4.

Add to these the possibility to play the move …b5 that is aided by the …a6 move and you already know the basis of all the variations in the Chebanenko!

Now you understand why my choice fell on the Chebanenko. It is easy to grasp conceptually, it is solid and robust and it provides strategically rich middlegames where Black can hope to outplay his opponent.

The course has more than 25 hours of video, which I recorded in the Chessable studios in 5 days. As a curiosity, I recorded the video on the Chapter White Plays Nf3 and Nc3 in one single sitting of 6 hours and 1minute! Don’t ask how I did it.

You can take a look at the course (which is still at a big discount) here. The course also has a free version, the Short&Sweet that has more than 1 hour of video.

An aspect I was very excited about was the promotional video of the course. I got to act! The video was a very professional high-level production and I really hope all promotional chess videos in the future are made at least on this level or better.

The Chebanenko Slav is out on Chessable.


Karpov’s Ruy Lopez

Anatoly Karpov always had a classical opening repertoire. Against 1.e4 it was either 1…e5 or 1…c6, while against 1.d4 the Nimzo/QID complex or the QGD. The deviations from these choices were rare.

The Ruy Lopez is an opening Karpov played all his life. It served him tremendously until his matches with Garry Kasparov.

As I wrote in a previous post about both Kasparov’s and Short’s motivations for choosing certain openings, one may wonder why Karpov persisted with the Ruy Lopez when things stopped being favourable.

When facing Kasparov, Karpov was constantly under pressure in the games when the Ruy Lopez was played. He won just one, Game 5 of the match in 1985, and lost 4, two in each of the next two matches – the London/Leningrad in 1986 and New York/Lyon in 1990. It was not only about the losses of these games, they also turned out to be the decisive ones for Kasparov’s victory in both matches.

I had a chance to speak to one of Karpov’s seconds for the New York/Lyon match and he told me that in preparation for that match they worked very hard and prepared the Caro-Kann. Karpov worked independently on the Ruy Lopez with Portisch. He was surprised why Karpov didn’t play the Caro-Kann in the match even once.

With Kasparov’s emergence the treatment of the Ruy Lopez from the white side evolved in a more dynamic direction. I think this is the main reason why Karpov started having problems with his favourite opening. However, when playing his great rival Karpov realised that he couldn’t hope to win only with White, as Kasparov’s opening preparation rarely allowed him promising positions. Therefore he willingly entered the complications from the Zaitsev Variation in order to create winning chances with Black as well. Unfortunately for him, after that Game 5 he never managed to win a game, even though he was winning on more than one ocassion. That just wasn’t his type of game.

After the matches with Kasparov, Karpov slowly started to move away from the Ruy Lopez and switched to the Caro-Kann. In the 1990s he was playing the Caro-Kann on a regular basis.

Even though Karpov never abandoned the Ruy Lopez completely, the effect of increased dynamism in the Lopez that started with the matches with Kasparov forced Karpov to change his primary opening against 1.e4 in favour of the Caro-Kann. This was a positive change and it helped him maintain his competitiveness for almost another decade.


Wrong Mentality

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I have written before about the character of openings, how different openings require different treatment. Getting into the right mentality for the opening isn’t always easy.

As a lifelong Najdorf player I have got accustomed to always seeking counterplay, with the moves being aggressive and counter-attacking. So when in 2006 I played my first Petroff, I was far from ready from it (and I am not talking about the theoretical part).

My opponent, a strong GM, was surprised by my choice and chose a sideline, for which I was prepared, and I got a great position.

Black has a great position – smooth development and no weaknesses. But this position is different from the typical Najdorf middlegames. Here calm play is required, solid moves are the norm. A move like 14…Ne7 with the idea of …Nf5 is a good idea. But I remember I was kind of at a loss here – I knew I was doing more than alright, but I didn’t know how to continue. I simply didn’t know how to think in this type of position.

What I did was to treat the position in Sicilian style! Completely wrong mentality, of course, but it was so characteristic: I thought I saw a concrete line that gave me good play. This is common in the Sicilian, but here and in similar positions it is not necessary; in fact it is often counter-productive.

Take a look at my next moves. I went for 14…Bh4. The first incursion. Even looking at it it appears so out of place… After 15 Bf3 it came 15…Bd3. The calm 15…Rb8 with …Ne7 was still OK. My bishops are now scattered around, but I had an idea…

He went 16 Bd5. The bishop is annoying here, though my idea was to continue in aggressive style with 16…Qf6. This is actually a blunder, as after 17 Nf3 my bishops are hanging loose. See how easy it is to spoil a perfectly safe position in 3 moves when your play doesn’t correspond to the requirements of the position?

My opponent didn’t play 17 Nf3, he went for 17 g3, which was also good enough. After 17…Qg6 18 Qf3 Na5 a simple comparison between the previous diagram and the next one tells the whole story. Black’s pieces are all over the board, definitely not a way to play!

This is not the way to play the Petroff! I learned my lesson the hard way.

The point of this example is to draw attention to this important, but rarely mentioned aspect of opening play – the mentality the opening requires. And also, how and if the mentality of the player is suitable for the given opening. In the example above I definitely wasn’t suited for the Petroff and that showed immediately.

It pays to think about this aspect when you think about your openings, both your current ones and also the ones you would like to take up. A careful consideration beforehand will save you a lot of effort (and suffering) afterwards.

In my case, I learned. My next outings with the Petroff and 1…e5 in general were more successful, at least when it came to my mentality and approach. Though, to be honest, I am still unsure whether I am suited for 1…e5…



A few days ago my Chessable course on the Anti-Sicilians was published.

After working on the Najdorf it was only natural to round up the whole repertoire for Black against 1 e4 with the coverage of “everything else.” Now that job is done.

While I did intend the Anti-Sicilians to be suited for the Najdorf player, some of them can be used by other Sicilian players. In fact, if you play 2…d6 then the course is 100% suitable, while in the case of 2…e6 (except for Scheveningen players, who fall into the 100% suitability) or 2…Nc6 then only part of it is and this is basically all White’s 2nd move alternatives (the Morra Gambit, Closed Sicilian, the Grand Prix, the Alapin to name the more important ones).

The main difficulty in creating the repertoire were the move orders. The Najdorf players are particularly susceptible to these. I guess that’s the price to pay for playing one of the most popular Sicilians!

To illustrate my point, after 2 Nc3 the Najdorf player is already at a crossroad. If he wants to preserve the option to transpose to a Najdorf (but this option depends only on White!) he must play 2..d6 or 2…a6. The former is the traditional Najdorf move, but it is exactly here that White has come up with a plethora of interesting and testing options. Necessity is the mother of all invention and the necessity here being a desperate need for something to play against the Najdorf!

Everybody suffers when having to meet the Najdorf, even the World Champion. And it was him who came up with one of the more original ideas – after 1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 d6 he came up with 3 d4 cd 4 Qd4 Nc6 5 Qd2, followed by b3, Bb2 and 0-0-0. This line is still very much alive with no clear consensus of what Black’s best variation against it is.

Other tricky lines for Black are the Grand Prix Attack (currently with Bb5 instead of Bc4), the transposition to a Dragon via the Grand Prix (1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 d6 3 f4 Nc6 4 Nf3 g6 5 d4), the move-orders with Nc3, Nge2, g3 and then d4 when Black plays …g6, thus transposing to a Fianchetto Dragon and a few more.

Mind you, all of them are perfectly fine for Black from a theoretical perspective, which is only natural. However, when thinking about constructing a repetoire and wanting to make it easier for the students by eliminating tricky move-orders, too much theory and open Sicilians they may not be too happy with, then the choice is limited.

All of the above explains why I chose 2..Nc6 as the move to play against 2 Nc3. I was “helped” by the World Champion as in the past period he demonstrated quite a few ideas in the line 3 Nf3 e5. This further led me to create a repertoire that completely prevents a transposition to an open Sicilian, which should come as a sort of relief.

Everything else in the course was much easier to cover. The main theoretical alternative to the open Sicilian is the Moscow Variation (3 Bb5+) and here while all three Black moves are perfectly viable, I went for 3…Bd7, as the easiest one to play.

As usual with Chessable, the course comes with a free video where I give an overview of the whole repertoire in the duration of 1 hour. The total course has almost 10 hours of video. That also includes the chapter on Model Games where I analyse games that are important for the understanding of the material.

Generally I’m quite happy with the work I did on the Anti-Sicilians. It also helped me refresh my own repertoire and take a closer look at some lines that I have neglected for years (a good example is the Morra Gambit, where I came up with a very exciting idea for Black!). I like analysing openings and I like to explore them, so this type of work is something I always look forward to! I can only hope that it helps the others as it had helped me.

Break Down Anti-Sicilians is out on Chessable


Choice of Openings

I like to think about chess. All aspects of it, whether they are psychology, plans in a certain type of position, openings, endgames, ways to study.

I have written before about certain puzzling moments from chess history that I will probably never know the reason for, like why Fischer chose 1 e4 d6 2 d4 g6 in Game 17 of his match with Spassky in 1972, allowing a King’s Indian. He didn’t play a King’s Indian in the first half of the match when Spassky played 1 d4, so why did he allow it in the late phase of the match (and why did Spassky not take that opportunity)?

These opening choices in the matches have always been fascinating to me, especially when they were out of the ordinary repertoires of the players. I have always wanted to know the reasons why the players chose those openings.

While I have my own opinions on these choices, no matter how deeply-thought they may be, only the players themselves can give the complete answer. From the recent chess history, two questions have been on my mind for quite some time:

  1. Why did Nigel Short play the QGA in his match against Karpov in 1992? He never played the QGA before that and very rarely after that match.
  2. Why did Garry Kasparov think the Dragon was a good choice against Anand in 1995? Similarly, why did he think the QGA was a good choice against Kramnik in 2000?

Luckily, the protagonists of these matches are still alive and well, and even more fortunately I had a chance to meet them and ask them these questions.

A bit more than a year ago, in the VIP room of the Carlsen-Caruana match I had a chance to ask Nigel Short about his match with Karpov. There were other GMs present and they were also curious to know Nigel’s reasons.

I was expecting a reply based on deep analysis of the QGA and the positions arising from them, resulting in understanding that these do not suit Karpov’s style. However, the answer was much simpler and a lot more practical.

Nigel said that he chose the QGA because that was the only opening that did not feature in any of Karpov’s previous World Championship matches. As simple as that!

He said that Karpov probably hadn’t analysed the QGA in the same depth as the QGD (which was Short’s main opening back then) and the others that were at his disposal. This answer was illuminating of sorts, as it showed how Nigel approached one of the most important matches in his career – in a practical way, yet armed with excellent novelties in all the QGA games in that match!

[On a sidenote, I didn’t ask him about the choice of the Budapest Gambit in Game 1 of that match. The next time I see him I will.]

A bit more than a week ago I was in Monaco for the European Women Rapid and Blitz tournament and during the event the first European Chess Awards ceremony took place. One of the winners was Garry Kasparov.

During the gala there was a lot of socialising and Garry was in the centre of attention all the time. I didn’t think I would get a chance to talk to him.

But suddenly, at one point later in the evening I noticed him outside of the hall posing for a selfie. I recognised my chance and approached him. He didn’t seem too happy to be bothered, but when I asked my chess-related question he sort of showed interest.

In view of the positive atmosphere of the ceremony I decided to skip the part on the Kramnik match, not to bring unpleasant memories back and I just asked about the Dragon and Anand.

Surprisingly, the answer was very similar to Short’s. Kasparov said that while checking Anand’s games he noticed that he wasn’t very comfortable playing against the Dragon and that his results there weren’t very good. Therefore he took the practical decision to prepare this opening. Again, a very practical approach!

My own take on the use of the Dragon was a bit different. I thought that since Kasparov expected Anand to limit him a-la Karpov, which he did rather successfully in the 6 Be2 lines of the Najdorf that transposed to the Scheveningen after 6…e6, just like in the first two matches with Karpov, he needed a weapon to break the grip. In the Dragon the only theoretical way for White to play for an advantage are the lines with long castle where a super-sharp battle ensues. (This is especially true for the mid-90s when the lines with 9 0-0-0 instead of the Yugoslav attack with 9 Bc4 weren’t that prominent yet. Nowadays White successfully curbs Black’s attack after 9 0-0-0 d5 10 Qe1.) Anand would be surprised and unwilling to enter the sharp territory knowing that Kasparov would be excellently prepared and this would give Kasparov a tremendous practical advantage. The match proved that my thoughts were not far from the truth, which did feel satisfying.

Kasparov also mentioned that once he got “wind” in Game 10 he decided it was time to use the secret weapon in Game 11 and the rest, as they say, is history. He turned the match around and never looked back.

It was great to talk to the legends and ask these questions. It broadens my chess understanding when discussing chess with these players who have been the best in the world ever since I started playing the game! I was happy to have my curiosity satisfied, but I still have a few more questions prepared, just waiting for the next occasion!

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