Learning from Classic Games

In this post I would like to show you that learning and analyzing the games of top players isn’t just very useful to enrich your opening knowledge and expand the horizons, but it has a great practical value too!

Quite a few years ago, I analyzed game Leko-Khalifman for one of the issues of Chessbase magazines…

I guess it’s worth mentioning that many chess fans consider Peter Leko rather “boring player”. Indeed, his games very rarely include sharp tactical battles, unbalanced positions with most of pieces hanging in the air and amazing sacrifices – kind of chess most chess fans enjoy to see (not that he is incapable of providing that kind of stuff, it’s just he prefers a different approach to the game…).

However if we are inclined to learn about deep positional play and carrying out complex strategic plans I can’t think of player whose games are more suitable and comprehensive for this purpose than Peter Leko!

Speaking of above-mentioned encounter Leko-Khalifman, I consider it a classic example of good knight versus bad bishop play in French defense. Due to my exposure to this game back in 2000 (!), I had a very easy life in one of my rare tournament games more than 5 years afterwards!

You will find both games commented by yours truly hereafter. Despite of a different opening line there is a striking similarity between middlegame positions in both games, so I feel there is no need to spare words to make the point – the games just speak for themselves! Enjoy it!

Peter Leko – Alexander Khalifman

Budapest, 2000

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 Bxf6 7.Nf3 0-0 8.Bc4 Nc6

Black’s idea in this kind of positions is usually to push c5 in order to open a1-h8 diagonal for the bishop, but playing e5 also makes a lot of sense. By playing 8…Nc6 black prepares a push of an e-pawn, after which the knight could be transferred to g6 or f5. 8…Nd7 9.Qe2 Be7!? 10.0-0 c5! 11.d5?! exd5 12.Bxd5 Nb6 was slightly better for black in Smirin-Lputian, Wijk an Zee op 1993.


9.Nxf6+ Qxf6 10.0-0 e5 11.Nxe5 Nxe5 12.dxe5 Qxe5 13.c3 ½-½ Balashov-Dreev, RUS-ch 1995

9…e5 10.d5 Nb8

This move is a bit slow, but apparently black didn’t want to spoil his pawn structure on the kingside after 10…Ne7!? 11.Nxf6+ gxf6 even though this position is considered rather unclear.


11.d6!? Bf5 12.Qd5 Nd7 13.Qxb7 Bxe4 14.Qxe4 Nc5 15.Qd5 cxd6 16.0-0 small advantage for white, Groszpeter-Dizdar, AUT-chT qual 1997

11…Bf5 12.0-0-0 Nd7 13.Ng3 Bg6 14.Bd3!

An excellent strategic decision and a very important improvement, comparing to the game Bologan-Gurevich, where white played 14.h4 and after 14…e4! the game was drawn almost by force 14.h4 e4 15.Nxe4 Re8 16.Nxf6+ Qxf6 17.Qd2 Nb6 Bologan-Gurevich, 1999. This game is an excellent example of fight of “good” knight versus “bad” bishop. White’s idea is to trade all the light pieces except of black bishop on f6, which is limited by its own pawn on e5.


Immediate 14…Nc5 was hardly better as after 15.Bxg6 hxg6 16.h4 Re8 17.Ne4 Nxe4 18.Qxe4 Qd7 19.g4± white would open up h-file by h5 launching a dangerous attack against black king.

15.Qxd3 Nc5 16.Qe3 b6 17.h4 Re8 18.Ne4! Nxe4 19.Qxe4

It’s easy to see that the bishop is out of play. Till the end of the game black didn’t manage to find a solution to this problem.

19…g6 20.g4 Bg7 21.h5

Less convincing is 21.g5?! giving up control over f5 square 21…Qd7 22.h5 Qf5 23.Qxf5 gxf5 24.Nh4 f4 25.h6 Bh8 and black has his counterchances.

21…Qf6 22.hxg6!

Of course white is not interested to trade his fantastic knight for black bishop, that’s why he takes h6 under control. 22.Nd2?! Bh6! 23.hxg6 Bxd2+ (23…Qxg6) 24.Rxd2 hxg6 25.f3 Kg7 26.Rdh2 Rh8 27.Qe3 Rxh2 28.Rxh2 Rh8=

22…hxg6 23.Nd2!

Heading for e4.


Taking a pawn on f2 was far too dangerous so Khalifman correctly refrains from this move. 23…Qxf2 24.Rdf1 Qg3 (24…Qc5 25.Qf3 Qe7 26.Ne4±) 25.Qe2! e4 26.Nxe4 Qe5 27.Qf3 Re7 (27…Qe7 28.g5 Rad8 29.c4 b5 30.Rh4 bxc4 31.Rfh1+-) 28.d6 cxd6 29.Nf6+ Bxf6 30.Qxa8+ Re8 31.Qf3±

24.dxc6 Rac8 25.f3 Rxc6

May be better was 25…Qxc6!? 26.Qxc6!? (26.g5 Qxe4 27.Nxe4 Red8 28.Kc2 Kf8 29.a4) 26…Rxc6 27.Ne4 f5 28.gxf5 gxf5 29.Nd6 Rf8 30.Rh5± but the ending is extremely unpleasant.

26.Qe2 Qe6 27.Kb1 e4!?

Trying to get a space for the pieces, but white with accurate play restrains all the attempts.


28.Nxe4? f5 29.gxf5 gxf5 30.Rh4 fxe4 31.Rxe4 Qg6-+

28…Qc8 29.Qd3 Rd8 30.Qe2 Re6 31.Ne4 Rxd1+

31…f5 32.Rxd8+ Qxd8 33.Qc4+- Kf7 34.f4!+-

32.Qxd1 Qc6 33.Qd3 a5 34.Rd1± Be5 35.Qe3 Qc7

35…b5 36.Rd8+ Kg7 37.Qc5 (37.Ng5?! Re7 38.f4? Qh1+ 39.Kc2 Qh2+) 37…Qxc5 38.Nxc5 Re7 39.Rd5+-

36.Rd5 Bg7 37.Qd3 Re8 38.Rd7 Qe5 39.a4! Rf8 40.Qd5 Qf4 41.Nd6 Be5 42.Nc4+-

Now it becomes clear that black pawns on the queenside will fall pretty soon.

42…Bc7 43.Qc6! Bd8 44.Rb7 Kg7 45.Nxb6 Bxb6 46.Rxb6 Rd8 47.Ra6 Qd2 48.Qe4 Rd5 49.Ra7 g5 50.Ka2 Rc5 51.Qd4+ Qxd4 52.cxd4 Rd5 53.Kb3

A perfect play by Hungarian Grandmaster! 1-0

Alexander Finkel – Dotan Ganor

ISR-chT Israel, 2005

In the following game I successfully implemented a plan which I learnt from Leko-Khalifman.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nbd7 6.Nf3 h6 7.Nxf6+ Nxf6 8.Be3

Other popular replies are 8.Bxf6 Qxf6 9.Bb5+ c6 10.Bd3 and 8.Bh4 c5 9.Bb5+ Bd7

8…Nd5 9.Bd2


9…Bd6 10.Bd3

10.c4 Nf6 11.Bd3 c5 12.dxc5 Bxc5 13.Qe2 Qe7 14.0-0-0 b6 15.Bc2 a6 16.Kb1 Bb7 17.Bc3 0-0 Xu Jun-Zvjaginsev, Moscow 2001


10…0-0 11.Qe2 c5 12.dxc5 Bxc5 13.0-0-0


11.Bf1 Nd5 12.c4 Nf6 13.Bd3 c5 14.dxc5 Bxc5 15.Qe2 b6 16.Be4 Nxe4 17.Qxe4 Bd7 18.0-0-0 Rc8 19.Ne5, small advantage to white in Palac-Kovacevic, Zadar 2001

11…Bxf4 12.Qe2

The arising position is similar to the line with 8. Bxf6, however there is a difference: The black queen is better placed on d8 than on f6, but the bishop is misplaced on f4. In other words the position should be slightly better for White, but it’s very close to equality.

12…Qd5 13.c3 0-0 14.g3?!

At this point I was hoping to launch an attack on the g-file, but it proves to be an illusion. It was better to play 14.Be4 Qa5 15.g3 Bd6 16.Ne5 Rd8 17.f4 with a comfortable advantage.

14…Bd6 15.Rg1?!

Basically it’s a good place for the rook as white’s idea is to play h4 and g4-g5 at some point, but it’s too early for that! I thought that black can’t play 15…Bd7!, but once my opponent played it on the board I realized that I can’t touch the pawn on b7! 15.Be4 was better


I was counting on 15…Be7 16.g4 c5 17.Be4 Qd6 18.dxc5 Qxc5 19.0-0-0 with excellent attacking chances.

16.Be4 Qb5!

16…Qa5!? 17.g4! (17.Bxb7?! Rab8 18.Be4 c5 (18…Qb6!?) 19.Kf1 cxd4 20.Nxd4 Qb6 21.Rb1 f5 with attack) 17…Bf4 18.g5 hxg5 19.Ne5 with idea Qh5.


I realized that I can’t win a pawn on b7, so I had to switch to alternative plan. 17.Qxb5 Bxb5 18.Bxb7 Rab8 19.Be4 f5 20.Bc2 Bc6 21.Nd2 Rxb2 22.Bb3 Bd5 with counterplay, or 17.Ne5 Qxe2+ 18.Kxe2 Bxe5 19.dxe5 Rab8 20.Rgd1 Rfd8= with idea Kf8-e7, b6 and Be8.

17…Qd5 18.Nd2

18.Ne5 Bxe5 19.Qxe5 Qxe5+ 20.dxe5 Bc6=


There was an interesting possibility for Black to complicate the position after 18…c5!? 19.Be4 Qg5 20.Bxb7 Rab8 21.Ne4 Qe7 22.Qa6 Bb5 23.Qxd6 Qxb7 24.Nxc5 Qf3 25.Qe5 Bc4

19.Be4 Qe6 20.d5 Qe7 21.g4!

Taking f5 under control.


By preparing the trade of the light-squared bishop black is playing into White’s hands. It was much better to prepare f5 in order to get counterplay in the center. 21…Rab8 22.0-0-0 g6 (22…b5 23.Kb1 b4 24.c4 a5 25.Nf3 a4 26.h4 Rfe8 counterplay) 23.Nf3 Kh7 24.g5 hxg5 (24…h5?! 25.Nd2 with idea Bc2 and Ne4, f6 is weak) 25.Nxg5+ Kg7 26.h4 Rh8 was unclear.

22.0-0-0 c6 23.Kb1 cxd5 24.Bxd5 Bc6

24…Ba4?! 25.b3 Bc6 26.Ne4 Rfd8 27.g5 with strong initiative.

25.Ne4 Bxd5 26.Rxd5


Doesn’t this position look a bit familiar?! It’s true that the bishop is on d6 instead of f6, but it doesn’t really change much…

26…Rfd8 27.h4!?

I could’ve won a pawn on e5, but preferred to keep the pressure hoping that my attacking chances on the h-file worth a pawn. 27.g5!? hxg5 28.Nxd6 Rxd6 29.Rxe5 Re6 (29…Qd7 30.Rexg5 g6 31.h4±) 30.Rxe6 Qxe6 31.Qxe6 fxe6 32.Rxg5 Rf8 33.Rg2 Rf3 34.Kc2± or 27.Nxd6 Rxd6 28.Rxe5 Qd7 29.Re7 Qc6 30.g5

27…Bc7 28.Rxd8+ Rxd8 29.g5 hxg5 30.hxg5 Qe6?!

30…Qd7!?, with idea to release the pressure with queens trade after Qd3, 31.Ka1! Qd3 32.Qg4 g6 33.Rh1±

31.a3 Qg6 32.Rh1!

Setting up a nice trap.


32…b5 33.f3 a6 34.Qh2 Kf8 35.Ka1 a5

33.Qg4 f5?




34…Qxf6 35.Qc4+ Qf7 36.Rh8+ or 34…Kf8 35.Qb4+ Kf7 36.Qc4+

35.Qc4+ Kf8 36.Qxc7 f4+ 37.Ka1 Qg7

37…Kg8 38.Qc8+ Kf7 39.Rh8 Rd1+ 40.Ka2 Qb1+ 41.Kb3+- From now on we were in the severe time-scramble so the number of mistakes is pretty high even for such a weak player as your columnist!


Missing a forced win number one. 38.Rh8+! Qxh8 39.Qc8+ Kg7 40.gxf6+ Kh7 41.Qh3+ Kg8 42.f7+

38…Ke7 39.Qxb7+

Number two… 39.Rh8 Rd7 40.Re8+ Kd6 41.Qc4 Qf7 42.Qb4+ Kc6 43.Rc8+ Rc7 44.Rf8+-

39…Rd7 40.Qe4 Ke6 41.Qc6+


41…Rd6 42.Qe8+ Qe7 43.Qc8+?! Qd7± 44.Qc4+?!


44…Kf5 45.gxf6 Rd1+ 46.Rxd1 Qxd1+ 47.Ka2 Kxf6 48.Qc6+ Kf5 49.f3 Qe2?!

Returning a favor. After correct 49…Qd3! (controls key square d5) followed by e4 black would be out of danger.

50.Qd5! Kg5 51.c4 Kh4 52.c5 e4 53.c6!?

I felt that I should be winning in this rather unique endgame, so I didn’t even try to calculate 53.fxe4 which was also sufficient: 53…f3 54.c6 f2 (54…Qc2 55.e5 f2 56.Qf7 Kg3 57.c7+-) 55.c7 Qc2 56.Qd8+

53…exf3 54.c7 f2 55.c8Q f1Q


Making a bad use of my queens! It was much better to play 56.Qh8+ Kg3 57.Qg5+ Kf3 (57…Qg4 58.Qhh4+) 58.Qhh5+ Ke3 59.Qc5+ Kd2 60.Qc3+ Kd1 61.Qd5+ winning…

56…Kg3 57.Qc3+?!

57.Qg5+! Kf3 (57…Kh2 58.Qh8+ Qh3 59.Qxf4+) 58.Qc6+ Qe4 59.Qh5+ Ke3 60.Qhc5+ Kf3 61.Qc3+

57…Kf2 58.Qh4+ Kg1 59.Qd4+ Qef2 60.Qhxf4+-

Well, after numerous adventures we finally transpose to easily winning queen’s endgame.

60…Qxd4 61.Qxd4+ Kg2 62.Qg7+ Kh3 63.Qd7+ Kg3 64.Kb3 a6 65.Qd6+ Kg2 66.Qd5+ Kh2 67.Qe5+ Kg2 68.Qd5+ Kh2 69.a4


69…Qe2? 70.Qd6+ Kg1 71.Qc5+ Kh1 72.Qc1+ Kg2 73.Qc2 1-0