Tag Archives: Boris Spassky

French Defense, Part 4: Steiner Variation

A Resource for Chess Francophiles

The Centre Pompidou in Paris. Photo: Andre Harding

About a year ago, I wrote a multi-part series on the French Defense (first part here), the opening that I often cite as having saved my chess career. I played it from 1998-2008, and would not have reached 1900+ without it.

Subsequent parts of my series can be found here: 2a2b, 2c, and 3.

While not a complete survey, I think it gives the aspiring Frenchie enough to get started. Anti-Frenchies should take a look as well.

 

Endre Steiner

Endre Steiner (1901-1944)

Recently, I received a donation from NYC-area chess coach Nikki Church (thanks, Nikki!). When I asked her if she had any topic requests, she asked me what to do about annoying sidelines such as 2.c4 in the French, apparently called the Steiner Variation. Her students like to play this against her, and it proves once again that the French is an opening people either love or hate. There’s little in-between!

So, it seemed I would have to revive my series! I promised Nikki I would inflict some pain on her students’ schemes!

Let’s start!

 

French Defense, Steiner Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.c4

My feeling is this move should be a welcome sight! I believe black should play 2…d5, preparing to exchange center pawns and liberate the pieces, especially our light-squared bishop.

Well, not so fast. The challenge is that we won’t end up in a very French-like position after the following moves … and I know French players can be very formulaic …

Variation A: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.cxd5 exd5

Variation B: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 exd5

Variation C: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.e5

Variation D: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.d4

 

A: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.cxd5 exd5

Now there are two main choices — A1: 4.Qa4+ and A2: 4.exd5.

A1: 4.Qa4+

As a cautionary tale, the great Savielly Tartakower was barbecued by Endre Steiner himself!

Ugh. This kind of game sends shivers down the spine of a French devotee, as we’ve all had accidents like this! Nevertheless, I have a few points to make.

FIrst, I think 4…Bd7 was already dubious, in light of the strong reply 5.Qb3! This compelled the awkward 5…Bc6, making the cleric a bystander from early on.

I would prefer 4…Qd7, or even 4…Nd7 5.exd5 Nf6 followed by …Bd6 or …Bc5 and kingside castling.

I really did not like 7…Nfd7?! I mean, just look at that queenside! I think 7…Ne4 was already forced.

After 8.Qg3! Tartakower’s position was critical, and Steiner was off to the races.

 

Moshe Czerniak showed a simple and good way to deal with white’s play:

 

A2: 4.exd5

Against this, the French player has to be comfortable developing their pieces to more aggressive posts than usual. I know from experience that such “comfort” is not a given. Still, it’s the only way.

If you don’t believe me, would you trust Viktor Kortschnoj? Against ex-World Champion Boris Spassky?

Let’s move on.

 

B: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 exd5

This doesn’t really have independent value. 4.cxd5 transposes to A2, and 4.d4 is not part of the Steiner Variation, it transposes to the Exchange Variation covered in Part 3.

 

C: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.e5

White’s most challenging lines against the French mainlines involve squeezing the second player with an eventual e4-e5 advance, clogging up kingside development. With the black king knight barred from f6, there’s always danger of a strong attack.

So why not use this idea in the Steiner Variation as well?

I think this is a sensible approach by white. I would advise black to play 3…c5 gaining space in the center and preparing to develop in a similar fashion to the Advance Variation.

You could do a lot worse than emulate the play of GM Schmidt:

That leaves one more possibility.

 

D: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.d4

This is not actually part of the Steiner Variation, but the Diemer-Duhm Gambit (DDG). I think this continuation is unlikely because white can reliably get the same position after 2.d4 d5 3.c4.

Just take the center pawn and develop comfortably, as GM Santos Latasa does here:

That should conclude my coverage of the Steiner Variation. Did I leave anything out? What do you think of this line? Please leave a comment to this post!

Good luck, Nikki!

Bobby Fischer the Opening Model

The Never-Ending Influence of Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008). Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Since today is Bobby Fischer’s birthday, I felt I had to write something about him. Last year, I started this blog a bit after March 9.

He’s a controversial figure, shall we say … but there’s one thing no one can deny:

Fischer’s chess career basically ended 50 years ago — his 1992 match with Boris Spassky notwithstanding — but he is still the biggest name in American chess.

There’s much we can learn from the games of the 11th World Champion, but I’ll discuss how one of his famous victories has brought me points in my own praxis.

After all, no matter how much we study chess for pleasure, we want results!

 

A Nagging Problem

On one hand, I find the Pirc Defense (1.e4 d6) and related Modern Defense (1.e4 g6) to be among the trickiest openings to face. Fortunately, Black sits back for awhile and lets you choose the setup you prefer.

When trying to learn an opening, I look for models: games from master practice I can emulate. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with traps that arise in your openings.

In 2017 I needed something against the Pirc. I’ve pretty much always used the Austrian Attack (1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4), but strangely enough hadn’t chosen a model! Then Bobby Fischer came to my rescue.

 

When in Doubt, Steal!

Pal Benko

Pal Benko (1928-2019) in lovely Budapest. Photo: ChessBase

I rediscovered this well-known miniature Bobby Fischer won against Pal Benko in the 1963-64 U.S. Championship where the future Champ scored a clean 11-0:

Ok, now how can we use this game to fight the slithery Pirc?

 

You Must Memorize Sometimes!

Yes, memorize. The game above is short, but we should learn most of it. I’ll reveal what worked for me.

FIrst of all, remember this setup: f2-f4, Ng1-f3, Bf1-d3:

At this point, Black has a few choices: 6…Na6, 6…Nbd7, or 6…Bg4 (as in the game).

Note: 6…c5?! doesn’t work here: after 7.dxc5 dxc5 White has too much center. And if 7…Qa5? White can safely play 8.cxd6. [If White’s bishop was on e2 instead of d3, Black could strike with 8…Nxe4!]

A. 6…Na6

White can play 7.e5 as the game notes suggest, but I prefer 7.0-0 c5 8.d5 establishing a nice space advantage and asking Black what he plans to do with the Na6. If he wants to play …Na6-b4xd3, let him. You can consider c2xd3, after which Black will never break down your center.

If instead Black goes for something like 8…Nc7, looking at breaks with …b7-b5 and/or …e7-e6, just play 9.Qe2 and calmly centralize. If Black goes for …a7-a6 and …Ra8-b8, aiming for …b7-b5, I recommend playing a2-a4 and leaving a rook on a1 to use the a-file if it opens.

B. 6…Nbd7

This time, I think 7.e5 is best, otherwise Black will play this himself. Moreover, the second player’s pieces aren’t the most comfortable. I won a couple of games in The Right Move tournaments in the late 1990s with a quick e5-e6 thrust in similar positions, and after …fxe6, Nf3-g5. I seem to recall having my light-squared bishop on c4 in these situations, reminiscent of Velimirovic vs. Rajkovic, but my memory is hazy.

C. 6…Bg4?!

Surprisingly, I face this move most often! Well, if it’s bad enough for twice-Candidate Benko…

In a word, we’re going to clean Black’s clock.

7.h3! Bxf3 8.Qxf3

Then, Black won’t resist developing the knight with a hit on d4; your response is simple:

8…Nc6 9.Be3

Being that you’re now ready to play e4-e5, Black needs to get this move in first:

9…e5

Most importantly, memorize the following sequence:

10.dxe5 dxe5 11.f5!

 

What Now?

In summary, your plan is a pawn storm on the kingside with g4-g5, etc. If Black doesn’t allow this by capturing on f5 immediately, a la Benko, capture with the queen and prepare a kingside attack by using the open lines/squares available to your pieces.

All in all, I recommend learning the whole 21-move game, but getting this far will give you much improved results against the Pirc.

Have you tried learning model games or fragments from the games of Bobby Fischer or other greats? Comment on your experiences!

Which Chess Opening Move is Best? Part 3

In Part 1, we discussed 1.e4. Part 2 was all about 1.d4. Now it’s time to talk about the so-called Flank Openings.

Since I have discussed 1.c4 previously, I’ll focus on other moves, starting with…

 

1.Nf3 — Definitely NOT for keeping things simple

Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik was the most successful exponent of 1.Nf3. Photo: ruchess.ru

Unless you are married to 1.e4 until death-do-you-part, opening with 1.Nf3 seems very appealing because of the flexibilty it allows in the closed openings. You can weave in and out of different systems based on your preferences or the opponent you are facing.

I’ve dabbled with 1.Nf3 since 1999 (A Strategic Opening Repertoire by John Donaldson). Conclusion: the move is more trouble than it’s worth.

Prepare an opening repertoire based on main lines, then play it. Start with 1.e4, 1.d4, or 1.c4. Your rating will thank you. Don’t get cute. More often than not, you’ll confuse yourself or you’ll wind up in lines your opponents know better than you do!

There is one more move to seriously consider that doesn’t get mentioned nearly as often:

 

1.g3 — A reasonable choice!

Obviously, this move commits White to a kingside fianchetto; otherwise, I think it could be a good choice for the right player. Black cannot be sure what exactly he’s facing, or not facing: 1.Nf3 takes away the King’s English (1.c4 e5), the Benko, Albin, and Budapest…but it also creates limitations against the Queen’s Gambit, Grunfeld, and King’s Indian, for example.

GM Samy Shoker has made a career of this move and wrote a book about it, with Emmanuel Neiman.

 

Now onto a bunch of moves I don’t recommend against your peers or better. My commentary may be harsh or dismissive, but that’s exactly how strong opponents will treat these moves.

Yes, they are playable. No, you should not be struggling for equality with the White pieces! It’s not the right way to play chess (though anything is fine occasionally). Sorry, not sorry!

I wholeheartedly agree with Greg Shahade when it comes to building an opening repertoire.

Of course, all of this goes out the window if you are facing significantly weaker opposition, or find yourself in a blitz/rapid competition.

 

1.b3 — I thought Spassky refuted this in 1970?

I’m kidding…sort of. In case you don’t know, I’m referring to this:

Larsen-Spassky was played during the USSR vs. World match in Belgrade 1970. Photo: FIDE

50 years have passed since this game; even now strong players occasionallly use Larsen’s Opening. So why do I bring up this game?

Black’s play is easy and natural; White’s setup is shaky from the get-go. Why do this to yourself?

Once again, I’m not saying to never use it, but please don’t on a regular basis!

 

1.f4 — Are you sure?

Henry Edward Bird

Henry Bird (1830-1908). 1877 drawing by Sam Lloyd. Source: Wikipedia

Be honest, Bird’s Opening regulars: how many of you push the f-pawn because you don’t want to spend time and energy studying something else?

Experienced opponents will be on guard from the beginning, recognizing the latent attacking potential in your setup and prepare for it long in advance.

One can argue White is playing a Dutch with an extra tempo, so it can’t be that bad. Still, I would not want to use it all the time against players who know it’s coming.

1.Nc3 — Pointless

Most likely, this move will box you into worse versions of openings you’re desperately trying to avoid. Next…

 

1.b4 — At least it gains space and doesn’t weaken the kingside…

Alexey Sokolsky

Alexey Sokolsky (1908-1969) A giant of chess in Belarus. Photo: Wikipedia

I think the Orangutan (or Sokolsky’s Opening) is a great opening for creative types to employ against someone rated 400+ points below them, because it is not completely ridiculous, admittedly.

Fittingly, New York IM Yury Lapshun wrote a book about it, co-authored with late National Master Nick Conticello. RIP, NIck.

But I’ll echo what I’ve said many times already: White is taking on a handicap by regularly using this against peers.

 

Others?

1.g4 is, to me, a riskier version of stuff like 1.b4. Instead of this, you’re better off pushing the a- or h-pawns, if you feel you must.

If you want to play with chemicals, the Sodium Attack (1.Na3) and Ammonia Attack (1.Nh3) at least develop a piece.

Again, no argument from me if you want to use this stuff against much lower-rated players, or in non-classical settings. Otherwise, avoid!

Chess Tactics: Spassky — Rashkovsky, 1973

Boris Spassky (born 1937) was the tenth World Chess Champion (1969-1972). Before that, however, he was one of the greatest prodigies of early modern professional chess.

Boris Spassky. Photo: Britannica.com

Boris Spassky. Photo: Britannica.com

Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Spassky defeated Mikhail Botvinnik in a simul as a ten-year-old in 1947, a year before Botvinnik became World Champion.

With a third-place finish in his very first USSR Championship, Spassky qualified for the 1955 Gothenburg Interzonal. At Antwerp he captured the World Junior Championship a point ahead of Edmar Mednis. He next qualified for the 1956 Amsterdam Candidates Tournament — earning an automatic Grandmaster title.

At 18 years old, Spassky became the youngest GM ever, eclipsing Tigran Petrosian‘s record by five years.

He established himself as a top player in the early 1960s. Highlights include the 29th USSR Championship (Fall 1961) and the 1964 Moscow zonal.

Spassky battled through the World Championship cycle to earn a title match with Petrosian in 1966. The match went the full 24 games, but Iron Tigran narrowly retained his title.

Undeterred, Spassky immediately won the Second Piatigorsky Cup. In the next Championship cycle he defeated Petrosian in June 1969 to become the new Champion.

Why he is underrated

Unfortunately, Spassky was outshone by two meteors: first Tal, then Fischer.

Mikhail Tal was born less than three months before Spassky. He won back-to-back USSR Championships, an Interzonal, a Candidates Tournament, and a World Championship match within four years! Just 23 years old, he shattered the record for youngest World Champion ever.

Bobby Fischer broke Spassky’s youngest-ever GM record by three years. Later, he won 20 consecutive games en-route to victory in the 1970 Interzonal and 1971 Candidates series with tallies of 6-0, 6-0, and 6½-2½. Then he took Spassky’s World Championship title in 1972.

This is a loss for chess! The casual fans who only know Spassky as “the guy who lost to Fischer” should play through some of his best games — they are as enjoyable and imaginative as those of any player in chess history, full stop.

By chance, an old student of mine was given a book of Spassky’s games. He was mesmerized by Spassky’s wide-ranging talent. Totally understandable!

Resilience

After losing his title, Spassky won probably the strongest-ever USSR Championship, the 41st, in October 1973. The field included established stars like Lev Polugaevsky, Viktor Kortschnoj, Efim Geller, Paul Keres, and Mark Taimanov, youngsters Evgeny Sveshnikov and Alexander Beliavsky … and four other World Champions — Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, and Karpov.

Today we’ll look at Spassky’s minature against Nukhim Rashkovsky in Round 8. Like Maia Chiburdanidze’s classic win over Dvoirys, it comes from a Najdorf Sicilian with 6.Bg5.

White to play. How did Spassky punish his opponent’s imprecise play?

12. ?

 

Mr. Universal

Edmar Mednis: Great Chess Authors, Part 1

A Completely Biased New Series!

I own several hundred chess books, and I’ve given several dozen books away over the years. I don’t buy books nearly as often as I used to, but even now I sometimes cannot help myself!

This is the first part in a new series of posts on writers I consider to be Great Chess Authors. I don’t yet know how long (or frequent) this series will be.

There will be obvious names, perhaps some surprising names, and controversial omissions! Everyone has a different taste in chess authors.

Today I begin with the author who makes up more of my chess library than any other.

Edmar Mednis (1937-2002)

Edmar Mednis. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Edmar Mednis. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Born in Latvia, Edmar Mednis emigrated to the United States during World War 2. A notable early result was second-place in the 1955 World Junior Championship. Future World Champion Boris Spassky won the event.

Few would proclaim Mednis a great player, but it’s incredible that the USCF refused to apply for his Grandmaster title. Puerto Rico did so in 1980. Mednis played on the 1962 Olympiad team and qualified for the 1979 Riga Interzonal. The first player to defeat Bobby Fischer in a U.S. Championship was not exactly a weakling!

A Tour of the Edmar Mednis Library

Mednis will be most remembered for his books (and columns in Chess Life magazine).

How To Guides

I don’t have one of his most famous titles, How to Beat Bobby Fischer, which includes his own victory plus 60 other defeats inflicted upon the 11th World Champion. A similarly-themed book is How to Beat the Russians, a collection of losses by Soviet Grandmasters to foreign players in 1973. I have the 1989 reprint How to Defeat a Superior Opponent.

Another, even more highly-acclaimed book is his How Karpov Wins, giving insight into the play of the 12th World Champion. I regret not finishing this one! Maybe someday…

Mednis game collections are an instructive, easy read for improving players.

Practical Advice

Mednis wrote a series of three books, all of which I have read and whole-heartedly recommend: Practical Rook EndingsPractical Bishop Endings, and Practical Knight Endings. They teach you the ABCs of these endings and provide great tips and examples. I only wish he had written books on pawn endings or queen endings!

The word “practical” appears in a lot of the great author’s works, and in many of the titles! Mednis did not drown his readers in variations, instead providing step-by-step winning (or drawing) methods in a given position type, and then proceeding to lightly annotated examples.

He wrote a “Practical” series in the late 90s: Practical Opening Tips, Practical Middlegame Tips, and Practical Endgame Tips. I don’t think I own any of these works, so I can’t really comment. I do abide by the general rule “anything Mednis is a safe buy,” however!

Endgames and Strategy

Other endgame books I enjoy include Rate Your Endgame and Questions and Answers on Endgame Play. Mednis also wrote Advanced Endgame Strategies which I don’t believe I have, though it may be hiding somewhere!

Strategic Chess: Mastering the Closed Game is a good introduction to games starting with 1.d4, 1.c4, or 1.Nf3 for club players. Strategic Themes in the Opening and Beyond covers the strategic ideas in certain lines of the French Tarrasch and English Opening in depth.

There is also From the Opening to the Endgame, which features a selection of opening lines that can reach endgames (or at least queenless middlegames) almost immediately. This may be the only Edmar Mednis book that shows its age.

I’m leaving out some other titles (he wrote more than 25 books in all) but I think you can see the affinity I have for Mr. Mednis!

The Apple of My Eye

One book in particular had the biggest influence on the way I saw chess for most of my career.

From the Middlegame to the Endgame gave me hope. It gave me a grasp of the nebulous space between the middlegame and the endgame where I harvested so many points in the early part of my chess career. I finally found something I was good at in chess: endgame transitions. And there is no way I would have reached 1800, let alone 2100+, without this weapon.

Pick up an Edmar Mednis book if you haven’t already. Beware: you might fill your chess library with them before long!

Happy Birthday, Anatoly Karpov!

My Favorite Chess Player

Anatoly Karpov was born May 23, 1951 in Zlatoust, Russia (then part of the USSR).

Anatoly Karpov, 12th World Chess Champion. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame.

Anatoly Karpov, 12th World Chess Champion. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame.

Karpov first gained widespread international attention after winning the 1969 World Junior Championship with 10 points out of 11 in the final.

He won the Moscow 1971 tournament (tied with Leonid Stein) ahead of World Champion Boris Spassky and former champs Vasily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian, and Mikhail Tal.

Karpov’s World Championship debut at the 1973 Leningrad Interzonal was a success, tying for first place with Viktor Kortschnoj, and qualifying for the Candidates Matches. The winner of the elimination series would become Bobby Fischer‘s Challenger in 1975.

In the 1974 Candidates Matches, Karpov defeated Lev Polugaevsky 5½—2½ in the quarterfinal and Spassky 7—4 in the semifinal to meet Kortschnoj in the final. He won this Best-of-24 match 12½—11½, setting up a showdown with Fischer in Manila, Philippines.

It was not to be. FIDE accepted all but one of Fischer’s 179 match demands, but he refused to play and forfeited his title, making Anatoly Karpov the 12th World Chess Champion.

If anyone doubted the new champion, he proved his worth over the next decade by dominating matches, tournaments, and the rating list. While Garry Kasparov dethroned Karpov in the 1985 World Championship Match, he was the Number 2 player in the world through the mid-1990s.

Karpov won more than 160 international tournaments in his career, with his most resounding victory coming as late as Linares 1994. He scored 11 out of 13 (9 wins, 4 draws) in a superstar field, leaving Kasparov and Alexei Shirov 2½ points behind; one of the greatest performances ever in a top tournament.

My Favorite Anatoly Karpov Game

Anatoly Karpov could play flashy combinations, such as in his famous victory against Veselin Topalov at Linares 1994, but I most enjoy his positional masterpieces.

I began playing chess tournaments in 1996 and began receiving Chess Life magazine. Not only was Karpov’s Grandmaster Musings column one of my favorites, I remember following his 1996 FIDE World Championship Match in Elista, Kalmykia against Gata Kamsky with great interest.

Game 4 from that match is a great example of why I love Karpov’s chess! Enjoy!