A couple days ago I got a comment on my post “Bird by Bird, Part 3B,” which raised a very interesting question. In the variation that runs 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4 4. Nxd4 ed 5. O-O g6 6. d3 Bg7 7. f4 c6 8. Ba4 d5 9. ed Qxd5 10. Re1+ Ne7 11. Bb3 the only move I discussed in my blog post was 11. … Qd8. Even though this move was played by none less than Boris Spassky, I expressed my feeling of uneasiness about the continuation 12. f5! (not played by Spassky’s opponent) Bxf5 13. Bg5! f6 14. Bf4.
In his comment, James Burke asked a very natural question:
Due to the Bg5 pin on the queen – apart from that of the rook on the king – the obvious thought that occurred to me was, â€œWhy place the queen on a square to be pinned?â€ (rather like the proverbial idea of â€œcastling into itâ€).
The obvious move is 11â€¦, Qd6.
and then he goes on to give some of his own and Rybka’s analysis of this line. So let’s take a look at the position after 11. … Qd6:
First of all, let me say that I would really like this to work for Black, because it would simplify my approach to the 7. f4 line. I would like to give a blanket recommendation that Black should always play … c6 and … d5. Unfortunately, this line with 8. Ba4 seems to be the one stubborn holdout, and I had to come reluctantly to the conclusion that 8. … d6 is safer in this one case.
The reason I originally thought 11. … Qd6 was bad was that White simply plays 12. Qe2! Now in the 11. … Qd8 variation, the recipe against 12. Qe2 is 12. … Bf6 followed by 13. … O-O. But here there is an inconvenient problem: after 12. … Bf6? White plays 13. Nd2, and after 13. … O-O? 14. Ne4 forks the queen and bishop and wins material. That is why Black had to bring his queen all the way back to d8.
But Burke and Rybka show that things are not so simple for White. After 12. Qe2 they recommend 12. … h5! This is pretty amazing — here Black’s king is still in the center, with a rook and queen staring him in the face, but Black just blithely ignores that and plays a non-developing moveÂ on the kingside. The point, though, is that Black wants to play … Bg4 and chase White’s queen away from the e-file, after which Black will be able to castle and have a decent game.
Now actually White may do well just to continue his development and allow this: 13. Nd2 Bg4 14. Qf2 O-O 15. Ne4 Qd7 16. Nc5 Qc7 17. f5! gives White the same sort of active piece play that we were trying to avoid. Fritz gives this a +/=, and this is already enough reason to look with some suspicion on 11. … Qd6.Â However, Rybka and Fritz both agree that the main line is 13. h3, where White tries to prevent Black from untangling his pieces. This brings us to the position shown below.
Diagram 2 (after 13. h3).
So the question is: Has Black gained anything from the interpolation of … h5 and h3?
Rather surprisingly, the answer is yes! This morning I thought I found a beautiful equalizing line for Black. Here it is: 13. … Bf6!? (the move we couldn’t play before) 14. Nd2 (the move that seemed to refute … Bf6 before) 14. … Bf5!
Diagram 3 (after 14. … Bf5!)
Now it seems as if this move couldn’t possibly be playable, because White can simply chase the bishop away with 15. g4? However, if White plays this, Black can draw by force! The idea is 15. … hg 16. hg Qxf4! Okay, now we start to see how the interposition of … h5 and h3 changed the position in Black’s favor — because White’s king is now vastly more exposed. But still, it seems as if 17. Ne4! is deadly. Black can’t take on g4 because White will take the bishop on f6 with check and a fork. Meanwhile, what is Black going to do about his queen, which is under attack by White’s bishop?
The answer is — sacrifice it! Black plays 17. … Bxe4!! 18. Bxf4 Rh1+ 19. Kf2 Bh4+! 20. Bg3 Rh2+ with a draw by repetition!
White’s king can’t escape from the checks on h2 and h1. Black has to settle for the draw, too,Â because he has too many pieces en prise to successfully take White’s queen.
What a sensational line! I was thinking now that James’s 11. …. Qd6, with that incredibly subtle followup, was starting to look pretty good. Unfortunately, Fritz threw some cold water on my idea. If we go back to Diagram 3, we can see that 15. g4 was a mistake, and White should play in simple, cold-blooded positional fashion with 15. Ne4. Now 15. … Bxe4 16. de is forced. It’s not as if I missed this — after all, the whole idea of 14. … Bf5 was to take the knight if it came to e4 — but Fritz shows how dominating White’s position is. I will skip the detailed analysis, but basically the point is that Black is going to lose two more tempiÂ moving his queen and bishop out of the way of the pawn fork. And even so, the move e4-e5 for White is going to cut off the defense of the d4 pawn, and also create some dangerous possibilities of e5-e6 at some point. It is unlikely that Black will actually be able to hang on to his d4 pawn, but even if he does, all the ingredients in the position favor White — the two bishops, the open lines, the mobile pawn majority on the kingside. So once again, romantic tactical dreams get shot down by cold, hard positional facts.
That means we have to go back to Diagram 2 to look for improvements for Black, and in fact there is one: both computer programs recommend 13. … Be6! Black gives up a pawn with 14. Bxe6 Qxe6 15. Qxe6 fe 16. Rxe6 Kd7 17. Re4 Nf5.
What do you all think about this position? I’d be interested to hear other opinions. Fritz calls it about equal. If 18. Nd2 the tactical line 18. … Ne3 19. Nb3 Nxc2 etc. seems to work out okay for Black. Otherwise, for example if 18. Bd2, Black’s idea is to clamp down on the kingside with 18. … h4 and make it impossible for White to activate his pawn majority.
However, I’ll tell you why I don’t quite trust this position for Black. The thing is that I don’t see anywhere on the board where Black can actually create threats. So basically, Black’s lead in development has reached its zenith, and Black is going to just sit there trying to keep his finger in the dike, while White will gradually get his pieces out and eventually start thinking about a break in the center. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but I don’t see any winning chances for Black, only drawing and losing chances.
So, all in all, James’s suggestion of 11. … Qd6 was a really nice try, which had more to it than met the eye, but I’m still not happy with Black’s position. My recommendation remains unchanged — either avoid this whole mess and play 8. … d6, or else play Spassky’s 11. … Qd8 and keep your fingers crossed.