Chess Tactics: Cuellar — Uhlmann, 1973

Wolfgang Uhlmann
Wolfgang Uhlmann. Photo: The New York Times.

Wolfgang Uhlmann (1935-2020) was eight-time champion of East Germany between 1955 and 1985, and an early International Grandmaster, earning his title in 1959. He reached the Candidates Quarter-Final in 1971, but was eliminated by Bent Larsen.

Uhlmann was arguably the greatest expert on the French Defense in the history of chess. He replied to 1.e4 with 1…e6 almost exclusively. This is exceedingly courageous in high-level chess, when all of his opponents would have been expecting it! To this end, I still highly recommend Uhlmann’s 1995 book Winning with the French, as his insights are invaluable even if some of the theory has moved on.

 

Today we’ll look at Uhlmann’s sparkling victory with the Black pieces against Miguel Cuellar Gacharna (1916-1985) in the first round of the 1973 Leningrad Interzonal. Cuellar Gacharna was an International Master (1957) and nine-time champion of Colombia between 1941 and 1971. During his career he scored several victories over top players including Efim GellerViktor Korschnoj, Miguel Najdorf, Oscar Panno, and Samuel Reshevsky.

 

Black to play.

15… ?

 

What we have is failure to coordinate

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 didn’t like 7…Nfd7?! Just look at that queenside! Maybe 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!

Chess Tactics: Tatai — Kortschnoj, 1978

Viktor Kortschnoj
Viktor Kortschnoj. Photo: ChessBase

Viktor Kortschnoj (1931-2016) was born in Leningrad, USSR (now Saint Petersburg, Russia).

A four-time Soviet Champion and two-time World Championship Challenger (1978, 1981), Kortschnoj is universally considered one of the greatest chess players never to become World Champion. Other players in this category could include Akiba Rubinstein, Reuben Fine, Paul Keres, David Bronstein, and Vassily Ivanchuk.

Kortschnoj authored Chess is My Life, and a two-volume collection — My Best Games, 1952-2000. Volume 1: Games with White, and Volume 2: Games with Black.

While I haven’t read those volumes, I did work through his Practical Rook Endings. Highly recommended, and well worth the effort expended. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kortschnoj’s boast that the book will raise your rating 100 points was true. Considering it’s only about 100 pages, this is great value!

Let’s take a look at an instructive miniature “Viktor the Terrible” won against International Master Stefano Tatai (1938-2017). Tatai was 12 times Champion of Italy between 1962 and 1994.

A series of small errors has made White’s situation critical. Black to play.

12…?

 

An Extra Tempo Isn’t Always Free!

Chess Tactics: Mecking — Tan, 1973

Henrique Mecking
Mecking at Hastings 1966. By this time he was already Brazil’s Champion! Source: ChessBase

Henrique Mecking (born 1952) was the first Brazilian to become a Grandmaster (1972) and won back-to-back Interzonals at Petropolis 1973 and Manila 1976. He was ranked as high as World #3 in January 1978, behind only World Champion Anatoly Karpov and Challenger Viktor Kortschnoj!

Unfortunately, he contracted a serious illness in the late 1970s, and this robbed him of a chance to fight for the title. He was only able to return to competition more than two decades later.

Lian-Ann Tan (born 1947) is an International Master and six-time champion of Singapore.

 

 

How did Henrique Mecking (White) win material here?

25.?

 

Not afraid to go for it

How to Get Better at Chess: Chess Masters on Their Art

Wide-Ranging Opinions by Chess Pros

How to Get Better At Chess contains answers from Grandmasters and International Masters about their thoughts on chess improvement, motivation, study methods, etc.

I can’t remember how I discovered this book, but I’m glad I did. It was hard to put this book down, and I read it all in a few sittings.

Because the interviews were collected in the late 1970s and 1980s, this book doesn’t talk about analysis engines or databases at all … I find this refreshing! The respondents also don’t give too much advice on openings.

You’ll find answers given by players like Nick DeFirmian, Larry Evans, Bent Larsen, Vladimir Liberzon, Viktor Kortschnoj, Yasser Seirawan, and lots more.

The players often have conflicting opinions, but that shows there isn’t just one recipe to success as a chess player. I find it inspiring that different approaches can be highly successful. Find what works for you.

The authors also includes a selection of games.

If you’re a fan of “thought-provoking” chess literature, I consider this book a must-buy!

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

Chess Openings Discussion

A Lively Chess Openings Debate

Chess Openings are always a contentious topic! My recent post “The Smith-Morra Gambit, and How to Beat It,” generated spirited discussion on Facebook, as I expected it might.

I don’t consider the Smith-Morra (1.e4 c5 2.d4) completely unsound or without merit, but a Sicilian player should embrace the Morra, Alapin, or Bb5 lines. If you fear Anti-Sicilians, study more!

As a (sometimes) Najdorf player (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6), which worries me more: the Smith-Morra or 6.Bg5? It’s not even close!

The Grand Prix Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 and 3.f4) is another line that is supposed to intimidate Sicilian players. Um, no. Well, at least white doesn’t give away a center pawn in the GPA…

In my French Defense years, I loved nothing better than facing the Milner-Barry Gambit (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bd3)! Because of my study I knew what to do and scored better than I did against French main lines.

Players wanting to cut down their chess openings study time with white are better off playing the London System (1.d4 with an early Bf4) every game than borderline gambits against decent opposition.

Old Games?

One objection raised against my post is that I only used games from 1972 and before.

These were the games that helped me learn how to defend the Smith-Morra! Old games are unacceptable in a cutting-edge mainline, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. I’m sure white has some wrinkles I’m not aware of, but I would expect to come up with something decent in a tournament game.

This is also a great reason to play online chess: keep sharp and have a look at various attempts! Take it seriously; I don’t play anything online I wouldn’t consider using in a classical game.

Could a specialist “catch” me? Maybe! It’s a chance I’m willing to take in order to score more by accepting the gambit instead of giving white an easier time.

I don’t face Grandmasters often in tournaments. Against the 1900-2200 crowd I’m comfortable trying to emulate the play of Viktor KortschnojLarry Evans, and Henrique Mecking!

Conclusion

When it comes to chess openings, especially with the white pieces, don’t give in. Play a line capable of setting a variety of challenges for your opponent. It doesn’t have to be highly theoretical, but don’t give them the chance to rely on one pet line or one main setup.

Why has the popularity of the Ruy Lopez endured for more than a century? The resources for each player are seemingly endless! Most openings cannot match this level of richness, but it is something to keep in mind.

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!

Beating the Smith-Morra Gambit

The Smith-Morra: A Controversial Anti-Sicilian

Faced with the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), many white players avoid the Open Sicilian that comes about after 2.Nf3 and 3.d4. Instead, they choose an Anti-Sicilian like the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3)

At club level, an unprepared black player can quickly find themselves in serious danger. White aims for a menacing setup like this:

Of course, black needs to survive long enough to face even this!

Traps

The Smith-Morra Gambit player hopes their adversary will fall into a nasty trap, and there are many. For example:

Or this one:

Many black players look to turn the tables on white with the so-called Siberian Trap:

To avoid accidents, many black players decline the gambit or give back the pawn immediately.

I’m not one of them. If I knew all my opponents would play the Smith-Morra, I would always answer 1.e4 with 1…c5. If the line is so great for white, why do top players not use it?

 

The Recipe

In the traps above, black has problems on e5 and b5, and uncoordinated pieces. Knowing what you’re up against makes it far easier to deal with!

There are many viable setups for black, but I defend the Smith-Morra with the line 2…cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6! Don’t rush that …Nf6 move.

Let’s see some examples.

 

Early Games

Debut by Transposition

According to the MegaBase, Dutch master Lodewijk Prins first reached the position after 6…a6 against Savielly Tartawkower in 1950, but couldn’t recover after his pieces got tangled early on. The game started as an O’Kelly Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6).

 

Battle of Titans

Fischer and Kortschnoj drew in Buenos Aires 1960, also after transposing from an O’Kelly.

 

San Antonio 1972: No Respect for the Smith-Morra

Ken Smith attempted the Smith-Morra Gambit several times in San Antonio 1972.
The Tournament Announcement for San Antonio 1972. Source: Chess Life and Review, October 1972

The Church’s Fried Chicken International, held in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 remains one of the strongest events ever held in the United States. Lajos Portisch, former World Champion Tigran V. Petrosian, and future World Champion Anatoly Karpov tied for first place with 10.5 points out of 15.

American master Ken Smith (the “Smith” in “Smith-Morra”) tried the gambit several times, but without success against such chess heavyweights.

Let’s take a look at two of those games. Both were played in the second half of the tournament when black could have expected the Smith-Morra Gambit.

Round 9 vs. Evans

We saw this American legend play a model game before. He does again here:

Evans also played in Buenos Aires 1960, so he would have known the Fischer—Kortschnoj game above.

Round 13 vs. Mecking

The future World #3 emulated the Kortschnoj/Evans treatment and then collected material.

 

The Bottom Line on the Smith-Morra

If you play the Sicilian you should be happy to face the Smith-Morra, or any Anti-Sicilian for that matter. Playable though they may be, Anti-Sicilians are inferior to the Open Sicilian,

Don’t use the common excuse “white knows their pet line better than I will.” Study! Learn how to deal with the annoying sidelines your opponent can throw at you, and thank them for not challenging you in the most critical way.

I don’t have a perfect record against the Smith-Morra Gambit, but I score better than 50%. Anytime you can say that with one of your black openings, that is a big success.

French Defense, Part 2a: Winawer & Classical Variations

Notre-Dame de Paris
Notre-Dame de Paris in August 2016. Photo: Andre Harding

In Part 1, we looked at French Defense lines where black exchanges pawns on e4.

Now we’ll start looking at the most common center type in the French: white plays e4-e5. In this post we’ll look at the Winawer and Classical Variations.

The next post will feature the MacCutcheon and the Tarrasch.

White locks the center with e4-e5; Winawer and Classical

There are several important lines where this can happen. In all of them, the main idea is the same: Black wants to attack white’s d4-pawn, starting with the pawn advance …c7-c5!

(a) Winawer Variation 3.Nc3 Bb4

The Winawer is the most dynamic system in the French Defense. It starts as follows:

Now black tries to break down the white center, while white accepts weak queenside pawns in order to get black’s strong bishop. Typically, white attacks on the kingside, and black goes for counterplay in the center and on the queenside. An important example:

This is the Winawer Poisoned Pawn Variation. Both sides face danger! In other versions of the Winawer, black castles kingside while he still can and creates counterplay on the queenside and in the center, while white goes for mate.

A classic example of Winawer chaos comes from the first game of the 1960 World Championship match:

Or the famous duel between Fischer and Tal later that year:

I have never played the Winawer as black in a tournament game…too crazy for me! The next possibilities occurred in plenty of my games, however.

(b) Classical Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7

This is another double-edged variation, but play is not as “fast” as in the Winawer. Still, attacks can appear suddenly:

Games in this line often become positional struggles where black’s “problem” bishop on the light squares is a long-term factor:

(c) Classical Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7

Both sides have attacking chances here as well, but too much enthusiasm can backfire, as here:

White can also play more aggressively, and offer a dangerous gambit.

(d) Alekhine-Chatard Attack: 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.h4

Black can take a pawn but needs to be careful, as shown by games like the following:

With care, black has chances as well.

Let’s stop here. Next time, we’ll see examples of the MacCutcheon and Tarrasch Variations.