Doubling Away From The Center

I used the opportunity of working on the official website of the European Club Cup to supply myself with a bunch of books from the local merchants. One of them was The Ruy Lopez: A Guide for Black by Norwegian authors Sverre Johnsen and Leif Johannessen.

In the extensive Preface, GM Leif gives a very instructive 12-step guide to adopting new openings. But before anything else, the necessary Step 0 is to review the Prior Knowledge of the opening, ie. basic theory, developing procedures, pawn structures, early middlegame ideas etc. Attached to Step 0 he gives a “then ground-breaking” 1912. game between Alekhine and Rubinstein.

Alexander Alekhine – Akiba Rubinstein

Vilna, 1912

  1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Nxe4 6. d4 b5 7. Bb3 d5 8. dxe5 Be6 9. c3 Be7 10. Nbd2 Nc5 11. Bc2 Bg4 12. h3

Nowadays, White are usually hesitating from pushing this pawn as Black will transfer his Bishop to g6 anyway. Curiously, one year prior to this game, Alekhine himself played the better 12. Re1 against Levenfish. That move became a mainstream choice after Boleslavsky and Bronstein picked it up in 1940’s.

12…Bh5 13. Qe1

An odd-looking move, but Alekhine probably wanted to get out of the pin in order to proceed with Nd4 and push f and g-pawns forward.

13…Ne6

Preventing Nd4…

  1. Nh2

…but White renews “the threat” of pushing the pawns.

14…Bg6!

Timely reaction that rules White’s plan out. The Bishop steps away from g4 and challenges the unprotected Bc2.

  1. Bxg6 fxg6!

We are usually taught to capture with pawn towards the center, but fxg6 is also common in modern practice – French defence comes to mind. Still, back in 1912, this was a shocking decision. Rubinstein was known for playing “unusual” moves, his reasoning very often went against the established dogma as he was expanding the horizons of the positional play. In this particular case, taking towards the center gives nothing compared to the pressure over the open f-file. Also note that Ne6 loses nothing of its stability even if pawn is not on f7 anymore. White does not have light-squared Bishop to attack the Knight and blockade of the e5-pawn remains firm.

  1. Nb3 g5!

Preventing f4 and leaving e5-pawn without support. Square g6 will also come handy for Knights’ transfer.

  1. Be3 O-O 18. Nf3 Qd7 19. Qd2 Rxf3!

And now White’s position is falling apart. The Knights will occupy f4 and h4 and White King falls under horrendous attack.

  1. gxf3 Nxe5 21. Qe2 Rf8 22. Nd2 Ng6 23. Rfe1 Bd6 24. f4 Nexf4 25. Qf1 Nxh3+ 26. Kh1 g4 27. Qe2 Qf5 0-1

Leif’s choice reminded me of a later example that I used in one of my lectures.

Boris Spassky – Robert Fischer

Reykjavik, 1972

  1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Nf3 c5 5. e3 Nc6 6. Bd3 Bxc3+ 7. bxc3 d6 8. e4 e5 9. d5 Ne7 10. Nh4!? h6!?

The Knight jump is setting the scene for f2-f4, while Black in return wants to slow this advance by playing g7-g5.

  1. f4!?

Spassky is still insisting. This was a new move at that time.

11…Ng6! 12. Nxg6 fxg6

11…exf4 12. Bxf4 g5 13. e5! is extremely dangerous for Black. After Ng6, White has nothing better than to exchange the Knights. This leaves Black with doubled pawns and isolated e5, but White’s pair of Bishops is ineffective with the locked center.

  1. fxe5 dxe5 14. Be3 b6 15. O-O O-O 16. a4 a5!

Fischer is also blocking the queenside. White’s a4-pawn is weaker than b6.

  1. Rb1 Bd7 18. Rb2 Rb8 19. Rbf2 Qe7 20. Bc2 g5!

Again Black is taking the grip on f4-square and clears g6 for pieces’ passage.

  1. Bd2 Qe8 22. Be1 Qg6 23. Qd3 Nh5 24. Rxf8+ Rxf8 25. Rxf8+ Kxf8 26. Bd1 Nf4 27. Qc2? Bxa4! 0-1

White’s position was depressing, but with 27. Qb1 he would have been only slightly weaker. Instead, the blunder allowed Fisher to deliver a tactical shot that wins thanks to a double attack (e1, g2) after 28. Qxa4 Qxe4.