A flick of the h-pawn

by on June 28, 2009

Yesterday I was thinking about two of the ChessLectures I have given this year that featured a surprisingly early (to me) h4. First, the game Krush-Esserman, which I featured here in December and lectured on in January:

1. d4 f5 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nc3 g6 4. h4 Bg7 5. h5!

And then the game Ibragimov-Kamsky, which I lectured about earlier this month:

1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 d5 3. cd Nxd5 4. g3 g6 5. Bg2 Nxc3 6. bc Bg7 7. Rb1 Nc6 8. h4 and, even though it seemed to me as if White was not threatening anything particularly harmful, nevertheless Kamsky found it prudent to play 8. … h6.

So it seems to me that this early “flick” of the h-pawn is becoming fashionable among the high-level players. I started asking myself, are there any other openings where it might make sense to play an early h4?

I soon convinced myself that it didn’t make much sense in the King’s Indian. But things get a whole lot more interesting in the Grunfeld:

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. h4!? …

The main point of this move is that if Black continues to develop in “routine” fashion, with 4. … Bg7, White will surprise him again with 5. h5!, a la Irina Krush. Black cannot win a pawn with 5. … Nxh5 because the d-pawn hangs (6. cd). It is very unlikely that Black will want to wreck his kingside pawns with 5. … gh. If Black plays 5. … c6 or 5. … dc (Fritz’s top choice), then White gets to play 6. h6 Bf8. Even though this is by no means the end of the world, I have to think that Black, who is accustomed to having that beautiful bishop on g7 menacing White’s center and queenside, will be dismayed to have to redeploy it more humbly to e7. Finally, if 5. … O-O 6. hg hg 7. cd Nxd5 8. Bh6 White gets to defuse White’s dark-squared bishop in a different way, and the open h-file will definitely give him attacking opportunities later in the game.

So, all in all, 4. … Bg7 5. h5! seems to offer White very good possibilities. What are the other choices for Black?

Well, the main other choice is 4 … c5. This is by far the most principled reaction: meet a flank attack with a counterattack in the center. It can’t be wrong, can it?

I checked out Jonathan Rowson’s wonderful book Understanding the Grunfeld, which is not merely one of the best books on the Grunfeld but one of the best opening books ever written, and found 4. h4!? in his chapter called “Random Monkeys.” Here is what he has to say:

4. h4!? is slightly less compromising [than 4. g4, the previous line he looked at] but I still like 4. … c5! 5. cd Nxd5 6. dc Nxc3 7. Qxd8+ Kxd8 8. bc Bg7 9. Kd2 … following A. Zaitsev-Smyslov, Sochi 1963, which Zaitsev went on to win, and in doing so encouraged others to play 4. h4, but obviously Black was not worse out of the opening.”

There are a couple of interesting things to comment on here. First, I’d have to say it’s not too shabby that “my” opening idea, 4. h4, was used to defeat a former world champion in its first over-the-board appearance. And the second interesting thing is that when you go over this game with a computer, you’ll find that the first mistake was by Zaitsev. According to Fritz, the position after 9. Kd2? is 0.4 pawns in Black’s favor, but after 9. Bd2! the evaluation is 0.4 pawns in White’s favor. That’s a pretty significant turnaround, and it certainly makes this position worth a look.

What do you think about this position? Is the computer’s evaluation of a slight advantage for White justified? White is temporarily up a pawn, but of course he can’t keep it. It’s tempting to discount a crippled pawn like the c5 pawn and say that it doesn’t mean anything, but in fact it does. That was one of the lessons I took away from my game against Jesse Kraai at Reno, which Jesse lecture on at ChessLecture. As Jesse says, the pawn may be doomed, but Black still has to take it, and that will at least cost him a tempo.

As for the other factors, Black’s development is probably slightly better than White’s, but his king is not comfortable. Even though queens are off the board, still it can lead to problems for Black to have his king buffeted around in the middle of the board. It must be acknowledged that it is not at all clear what White’s pawn is doing at h4. At present that just looks like a wasted tempo.

All in all, I would be more inclined to evaluate the position as equal rather than as White’s advantage. But still, some things could go wrong for Black. If he plays 9. … Nd7 or 9. … Na6 immediately, White will probably reply 10. c6 bc, making the argument that “your pawns are just as messed up as mine.” Particularly in the latter line, White’s bishop on d2 can actually do something useful after 11. Rd1 Kc7 12. Nf3 e5 13. c4! and Ba5+ will follow. Now we’re starting to see Black pay a price for his exposed king, and Fritz rates this position as significantly better for White (+/-).

When I checked on chessbase.com, it listed four games that got to the position after 8. … Bg7 (including the aforementioned Zaitsev-Smyslov) and only one that continued 9. Bd2. That was a game Szabo (not Laszlo, but some other Szabo) versus Sondermann, from Budapest 2006. Black won this one, but White did not play it in the best way. The continuation was 9. … Na6 10. c6 bc 11. e4 (maybe too optimistic) Nc5 12. f3 (White is moving pawns, not developing pieces, which can’t be good) Be6 13. Nh3 f5 14. Ng5 Bg8 etc. White is now facing real problems because Black’s bishops are strafing the queenside pawns at c3 and a2. Eventually White sacked the pawn on a2, but he didn’t get any compensation. This gives us a good idea of what White should watch out for.

All in all, the jury is out on 4. … c5. As I said, this has to be Black’s most principled response, but the position is extremely untested.

Finally, if Black doesn’t play the routine 4. … Bg7 or the pugnacious 4. … c5, what else might he play? The one other obvious possibility is that he might try to stop the advance of the h-pawn with 4. … h6 or 4. … h5, on the theory that, “You’ve wasted a tempo, so I can waste a tempo too.” Now we’ll get back to normal Grunfeld lines, but with the difference that h4 and … h6 have been inserted, and the challenge to each side will be to prove that the extra move has been favorable to them.

First, I think that 4. … h5?! is just bad, because White can play 5. Bg5 and the bishop cannot be chased away. Note that in a normal Grunfeld, 4. Bg5 would be met by 4. … Ne4, but Black does not have that option here. So already the insertion of h4 and … h5 has made a difference in White’s favor.

As for 4. … h6, I think that in principle White should be glad to see this. Black’s play in the Grunfeld is based on his bishop’s pressure on the long diagonal, but now there will be variations where that bishop can’t leave g7 because the pawn will hang on h6. As a concrete example, White can play Sokolsky’s exchange sacrifice, which is considered dubious in the main line, but is absolutely a killer here:

5. cd Nxd5 6. e4 Nxc3 7. bc Bg7 8. Bc4 O-O 9. Ne2 c5 10. O-O Nc6 11. Be3 Bg4 12. f3 Na5 13. Bd3 cd 14. cd Be6 15. d5! Bxa1 16. Qxa1 (diagram)

If you mentally transport the h-pawns back to h2 and h7, you get the book position, where Black is supposed to defend successfully after 16. … f6. But here, 16. … f6 is met by 17. Bxh6. White has already recouped a pawn for the exchange, plus the g6 pawn is weak and can immediately be attacked by h4-h5. So that innocuous insertion of 4. h4 h6 has payed huge dividends for White.

But clearly there is a lot more to be investigated in this line, too. Perhaps some readers who are more expert in the Grunfeld than I am will have some cogent thoughts. The irony is that I almost never play 1. d4 (I haven’t played it in a tournament game since 2000, I think). But maybe I’ll have to start playing it again, just to see if I can test out this line. The trouble with playing 1. d4 is that I will also have to deal with all the other defenses, the King’s Indians and the Nimzos and most especially the Slavs. I’ve always disliked facing the Slav, and the bad news is that it has gotten a lot more popular since 2000.

Even so, it would probably do me good to put 1. d4 back into my repertoire, just to become a little less predictable and gain experience in a greater variety of positions. In fact, back in the days when I used to play both 1. d4 and 1. e4, my record with 1. d4 was actually a little bit better, even though I liked it less!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Aziridine June 30, 2009 at 12:55 am

The position after 9.Bd2 doesn’t look convincing for White. Firstly, after 9…Na6 10.c6 bc 11.Rd1?! Black should just play 11…Ke8! followed by …Be6 or …Nc5-e4. If this doesn’t satisfy Black, then 9…Bd7 10.e4 Bc6 11.f3 Nd7 also regains the pawn. Finally, the sacrifice 9…Nd7 10.c6 Nb6!? 11.cxb7 Bxb7 with …Nc4 and …Rc8 to follow is interesting.

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Ed Ward April 10, 2011 at 7:22 am

Did you play professionally? Reading your strategies made me think so. You’ve a great mind to think of such ways.

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