The city of Mar Del Plata is located on the coast of the Atlantic – its name means “Sea of Silver”. It is one of Argentina’s biggest fishing ports.
One alluring thing about chess, for those just beginning, is the names of the openings. Far away places, long-dead people – most openings have some sort of creative or evocative name. I remember when I first moved out of Alaska, going to my first big tournaments in 1999 and taking the Greyhound bus, I saw listings for buses going to Cambridge Springs, Pennyslvania – known to me from the Cambridge Springs variation of the Queen’s Gambit.
Mar Del Plata has a population of over 600,000 people, skyscrapers, and a large tourist industry; so it is not really the sleepy fishing village you might imagine. It has been the site of many strong tournaments, including one held in 1953 where a game took place between Miguel Najdorf and Svetozar Gligoric in what became one of the most critical lines of the King’s Indian Defense. Sixty years later, it is still a huge battleground and still as mysterious as ever.
Later this unbelievably sharp variation became called the “Mar Del Plata” variation. To this day, many consider it the iconic King’s Indian Variation. Black induces white to close the center, and the battle lines are drawn.
As you can see, both sides have pawn chains. White’s points toward the queenside – which means he will generally play there, while Black’s points to the kingside, where he will look for his play. Black almost always prepares …f5 in the next few moves, since he has no other reasonable plan. Piece play will not achieve anything in this closed position, and playing on the queenside, where White has more space, usually only does harm. In response to Black’s …f5 plan White can either prepare to meet it by a possible later Ng5 move (9.b4, 9.Bd2) or he can shift his knight to the queenside while preparing to meet …f5 with f2-f3 (9.Ne1, Nd2). In the first case, the play tends to take place more over the entire board, while in the second both sides have a huge advantage on “their” side of the board, and the game can almost become a race, at least for some time. Let’s look at some of the themes.
The g3 square
After Black plays …f5, he often continues his attack by playing …f4 and beginning a pawn storm. Typically the g3 square becomes very important. A breakthrough by the move …g3 is the key. Black often plays it as a pawn sacrifice, to open lines on the kingside – this happened in one of the earliest Mar Del Plata games, a revolutionary game which changed the reputation of the variation. After the Mar Del Plata tournament, this line was considered dubious for Black, but Najdorf showed the way:
Often the g3 square becomes home to a very dangerous piece (knight or bishop) as in the following game, which ended with a beautiful queen sacrifice:
The b6 square
Symmetrically, White’s key square is often the b6 square. If White manages the b5-b6 push, he undermines the base of Black’s pawn chain, which can lead to the collapse of the black position.
In many cases, the b6 square becomes White’s invasion point, with a knight, bishop, or queen entering on that square. The following game is particularly instructive:
White’s g2-g4 push
As a measure to slow Black down on the kingside, White often resorts to playing the move g2-g4. Although it “breaks the rules” to play on the side where you are defending, sometimes the rules are meant to be broken:
Black’s light-squared bishop
Normally you would imagine that the crucial piece for Black in the King’s Indian is the famous dark-squared bishop. That might be true in some other variations, but not in the Mar Del Plata! In this particular structure, Black’s light-squared bishop is golden. It is crucial for enabling the important …g5-g4 pawn push, and often for sacrificing on h3.
It is worth noting that Black’s play, up to a certain point, is based around the dark squares. He places his pawns on dark squares and brings his pieces up on the dark squares. But for the final breakthrough he has to conquer the light ones – h3 and g2.
If White can manage to trade this bishop off, he can often stop the black attack cold. Sometimes even an exchange is sacrificed for that bishop.
Not always does the standard pawn storm with …f4, …g5-g4, etc make sense for Black. In lines where White keeps a little more flexibility in his position, Black often cannot afford to release the tension on e4. In this case, he sometimes pursues his attack in a different way – by playing …f5xe4, opening the f-file. Often this involves the move …Bh3 (taking control of f1) as well as knight invasions like …Ng4 or …Nf4, building storm clouds around the white king.
Play on both flanks
While the Mar Del Plata can turn into a race, it is important that it is not always that way. Usually when White is successful, his queenside invasion turns into a turning movement, eventually leading to an attack on the kingside. Or, Black may get desperate in his attack, creating weaknesses and allowing White to take the initiative on the kingside, as in the following famous game:
And while there are thousands of examples where Black’s attack reached immediate success early in the game, typically if the players play with similar strengths the black attack will not lead to an immediate mate, but rather complications will proliferate as the game goes on, the game will open up and play will leave the straightforward “Black – kingside; White – queenside” paths. When Black is successful, often it is due to the long-term weakness of the white king in complications, later in the game.
One of the major factors in the Mar Del Plata variation’s richness is its resistance to computer analysis. Computers simply have problems with this line. A player can be completely lost (typically, White) but the decisive attack is not within the computer’s horizon, so it will often evaluate the position as won for White. An experienced human player may know otherwise. While computers can be amazing in many positions, especially when the pieces are in direct conflict, I would warn that you often cannot trust them in the Mar Del Plata.
While there are ways to play the King’s Indian without entering the Mar Del Plata, most King’s Indian players have played it at some point in their careers. It is certainly not for careful players. While it is the most principled way to play against the classical variation (5.Nf3 and 6.Be2), it is also hazardous for Black to try to “force” the game from the beginning. Nevertheless, Black is certainly not the only one facing risks in this variation.