This week I am going to discuss a particular kind of sacrifice. This is usually a piece for one or two pawns. There are no clear-cut immediate threats and the defending side has many possible defenses. However, the defender’s king is perpetually exposed and the attacking side has some lead in development and can attack freely. Threats can come at any part of the board, and even if they are not decisive, they are very hard to defend, and the game can easily get out of control. Tal was an expert at these sacrifices.
Why did I call it a ‘barbecue sacrifice’? Good question! I was playing foosball (table soccer) recently. Basically you use a bar with a handle to turn the ‘players’ to try to hit a ball. It is possible to spin the players around constantly, so that if the ball comes near they will certainly hit it, but we made it against the rules. The people I played with called it ‘barbecuing’. This reminds me of the sacrifice I am talking about. There is no clear variation, but the side making the sacrifice can constantly create threats, and if the ‘ball’ comes close, it will hit it! Of course, the difference is that in chess this is legal…
Quite often such a sacrifice is not fully correct. Nevertheless, for humans in a practical game, trying to play with an exposed king long-term is not easy. In the following game against the champion of Bosnia, IM Zelko Bogut, I had to face such a sacrifice. I found the proper way to defend and reached a won position. But then we will see the practical difficulties such a position poses. I missed the most accurate way of transforming the position, by sacrificing my queen. A second oversight forced me to return the piece and go into a difficult ending. The ending was, however, not lost, and after my opponent missed the point where he needed to make a draw, slowly I took over again. Unfortunately, right near the end I missed the win and the game ended in a draw. Rather disappointing, but a very interesting fighting game.
At first I thought this sacrifice must be unsound. But after a few minutes the difficulties began to pile up. The a6 pawn is hanging; Rhe1 or Rde1 is coming; Qe2-h5 is another possibility. ...Kf7 is usually met by Rh7+. But worst of all, Black seems to have no counterplay whatsoever. There are no targets as important as White's target - the Black king. Sure Black can take an irrelevant pawn on f2, but this is not important. I can surely calculate variations and keep my king alive in the short term, but the problem is that the attack goes on and on, and there is no where to hide the king. Thus in a practical game between humans it is a terribly difficult task to play black here.
I was pretty proud to find perhaps the only way to play. Black needs counterplay. The only relevant target is c2. The light squared bishop must be activated. So first Black grabs control of some squares by threatening to exchange queens, and then plays ...f4 activate the bishop on f5. One's first impulse in these situations is to try to hurry the king to safety. But really, there is no long-term safety, and the only way to play is to take the battle to White.
A lot has happened in a short time, typical of such a volatile position. After I found the correct plan I felt sure I would win. Nevertheless, the position remained tricky. As it turned out, I needed to find the way to sacrifice back my queen to finally take over the initiative and stop the foosball player from spinning! But I missed the moment, imagining that such measures were not necessary. As a result, White continued to have a strong attack. After a further mistake, I had to return the piece and go into a difficult ending where I was a pawn down. Luckily the ending was not lost. The remainder of the game is not relevant to our theme, but it was interesting anyway. My opponent overpressed in the ending and I had a chance to win, which I - again - missed.
Despite some mistakes, I think this was a great fighting game. The main point is that in such situations as occured after White's sacrifice (where the Black king will never find any safety) it is crucial to make some counterplay. My first impulse was to somehow try to run my king to the queenside or the kingside, but in all cases White had a lasting attack. Only when I realized that my king could look after itself in the short term (including even allowing discovered checks in some variations) and that what my position really needed was some counterthreats - then it was possible to play. Nevertheless, as you see, even after reaching a won position, such situations need strong nerves - stronger nerves than I had at the moment.