A VERY BASIC BENKO
This continues the Classic Pawn Structure series as seen in Classic Pawn Structure, Part 1a and Part 1b. In general, chess professionals know the ins and outs of every structure, non-titled experienced/strong players (2100 and up) know a lot of structures, and amateurs are, in most instances, clueless (with the occasional exception of structures that occur in their own openings). This series should be both eye-opening for amateurs and also of interest to the 2100 and up group.
To start Part 2, let's take a long, hard look at the following Ruy Lopez where Black manages to lose a pawn in just eight moves!
Incredibly, Black now loses a pawn by force:
The pawn is gone, and one is left wondering what Black has for it. White will castle next move, so his king will be very safe. And White’s e-pawn is easily defended by f2-f3, so that’s not a big worry. And isn’t White’s extra a-pawn a solid passed pawn? Yes it is. At this point many readers must be thinking that Black must be a very weak player. “Come on man! If you’re going to hang stuff, try to go at least nine moves before you start to shed material!”
However, Black wasn’t a weak player at all. In fact, he was Jose Raul Capablanca, and in 1914, he was the second strongest player in the world (only Lasker was his superior).
Before discussing why Capablanca “hung” a pawn so early in the game, let’s take a walk down a completely different street and take a look at a heavyweight battle from Zurich 1953:
It’s interesting to note that this had been tried earlier, but was generally considered to be unsound. In fact, Bronstein faced it as White vs. Erik Lundin in Saltsjobaden 1948 and won. However, Bronstein (an extremely creative player) clearly saw the move’s potential and decided to give it a shot!
Here’s what Bronstein wrote in his very famous tournament book, The Chess Struggle in Practice, Lessons From the Famous Zurich Candidates Tournament of 1953:
“What does Black achieve by sacrificing a pawn? First, he weakens the advance guard of the White pawn chain – the d-pawn – and then, after Black’s inevitable ...a6 followed by White’s bxa6, he obtains the good diagonal a6-f1 for his light-squared bishop, which has fewer prospects on the c8-h3 diagonal. Other factors that favor the sacrifice are the two open files that give Black active play against White’s b2- and a2-pawns. Black’s bishop on g7 should not be forgotten, since in this system Black deliberately retains his e-pawn on e7, and this automatically increases the bishop’s scope. An interesting strategic idea here, which is inherent in other variations of the King’s Indian, is the development of the a8-rook without moving it.”
By the way, to show you just how epic this event was, here’s a list of the participants (in order of standing): Smyslov, Bronstein, Keres, Reshevsky, Petrosian, Geller, Najdorf, Kotov, Taimanov, Averbakh, Boleslavsky, Szabo, Gligoric, Euwe, and Stahlberg. Mindboggling!
Najdorf also wrote a book (in Spanish) about this event. An English translation is now available. Which is better? Both are fantastic, and though I prefer Bronstein’s, many others are in the Najdorf camp!
Here’s the whole game without notes:
One interesting point is that even when quite a few pieces were traded, Black still retained enormous pressure! Clearly, what we are seeing here is a true positional sacrifice, one that not only offers chances in the middlegame, but also in an endgame.
After this fine victory, Black tried this idea from time to time, but it was Pal Benko who molded it into a real opening (rather than a sideline in the King’s Indian) by sacrificing the pawn on move three: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5! 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 Bxa6 6.Nc3 d6 followed by ...g6 and ...Bg7, and singlehandedly popularized it by way of the many fine victories he earned.
The beauty of the system is that, once you get used to Black’s various strategies, it’s far from easy for White to deal with them. Indeed, I was at a tournament in Vancouver (a million years ago) and Grandmaster Walter Browne was playing White against a 1700 player (it was an epic event, with many strange things happening – I stayed in a millionaire’s penthouse suite, my car battery was stolen, a grandmaster paid me for an important opening idea that he used in the event, and even a Carlos Castaneda connection occurred!). Mr. 1700 met Browne’s 1.d4 with the Benko Gambit (oddly, Browne was one of the world’s experts on this opening, playing it as Black and winning many beautiful games), and after a titanic battle the game was drawn. Poor Browne was so upset that he stood up, looked at the dozens of shocked spectators, and screamed, “He’s 200 rating points stronger, that’s why!”
This was an unfortunate thing to say, since that would make his opponent 1900 (of course, a player like Browne ate 1900’s for breakfast). Anyway, the point is that if a 1700 can draw a grandmaster, and a GM that was an expert on the Black side too, the opening has to be good!
Now let’s return to our Ruy Lopez!
The question here isn’t whether Black’s sacrifice is or isn’t sound, it’s whether or not you can name another opening that reminds you of this structure. The point is that once you can use patterns to quickly see similarities in structure and plans, then you won’t have to reinvent the wheel whenever something you didn’t anticipate occurs.
A player with an experienced eye will instantly toss out the answer: Benko Gambit!
That’s right! Though the Benko Gambit is a 1.d4 opening, and this game is a 1.e4 opening, we still have many similarities in the mutual structures:
- White is a pawn up.
- The a- and b-files are wide open for Black’s rooks.
- Black has a powerful bishop on g7 covering the a1-h8 diagonal.
- Black will enjoy strong positional pressure against White’s queenside.
What we have here is, in an odd way, the first example of this kind of positional pawn sacrifice for pressure down those files! Somehow Capablanca created this from thin air!
The game continued:
World Champions are always ahead of their time, and this game clearly shows that Capablanca was on a whole different level than everyone but Lasker. An amazing achievement!
Let’s take a look at one more Benko Gambit, this time with a bit more detail:
The Ruy Lopez and the Benko Gambit. Two wildly different openings, but both made use of a similar structure and the same basic philosophy. This means that once you get a feel for the Benko structure you will be able to replicate it in many different situations and openings. A great example is my favorite Sicilian Accelerated Dragon.
In this position (and in many similar positions) I played the surprising 12...Na5!, allowing my opponent to give me doubled isolated a-pawns.
Why would I do such a thing? And why would I continue to do it in game after game? Let’s look at the position after White “destroys” my structure:
Black has two side-by-side files for his rooks, which will torment White’s queenside pawns for the rest of the game. The only difference between the Benko structure and this is that the files are on the b- and c-lines rather than the a- and b- lines. Note that in both, Black has a fine bishop on g7.
Though people say, “But what about those hideous isolated a-pawns?” I have an easy retort: In the Benko Gambit Black sacrifices a pawn. Here I haven’t sacrificed anything! Indeed, in many lines (after White plays b2-b3) Black can use those a-pawns as battering rams by ...a5-a4xb3 followed by pushing the a7-pawn and using that as another ram until White’s queenside disintegrates!
Here's the rest of the game:
Once you get into the duo open file groove, you can play it in various situations. Here’s an innovation I cooked up based on the previous structure.
A well-known position that, at the time, was thought to be quite promising for White. I was analyzing previous IM and GM games from this position in my London flat when it suddenly hit me: “Why not double my a-pawns?”
A few days later I faced this exact position against IM Povah and leapt at the opportunity to use my new idea.
As you can see, when you learn a particular structure and get very comfortable with it, it becomes a permanent weapon in your repertoire, often transcending openings and appearing in many different systems. In this article our structure occurred in the Ruy Lopez, the Benko Gambit, and in the Sicilian!