Another Crazy Pawn Lunge By Shirov

Another Crazy Pawn Lunge By Shirov

| 15 | Opening Theory

The article I wrote last week, "The Shabalov-Shirov Gambit" reminded me of another, more radical g2-g4 move, also largely developed by the aggressive Latvian player Alexei Shirov.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 4.Nf3 Nbd7 5.g4!?

The so-called "Lion" (1...d6 followed by 2...Nf6 and ...e5) is a modern way of reaching the Philidor defense, without allowing White various other possibilities that the 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 move order gives. Of course, the position after 5.g4 can be reached by the 1.e4 e5 move order as well.

In fact, the Philidor has had a revival in the last 5-10 years. Aggressive players as Black have been attracted to the counterattacking possibilities on the dark squares from a basically solid position. Additionally, the Philidor has proven to be a good way to reach full-play positions without a lot of theory. Top players have begun to play it, and it is not so easy for White to get an advantage. Black's flexible position in the main line after 5.Bc4 is hard for White to take on, particularly when the player of the Black pieces tends to know the themes of the position very well. Thus, for attacking players, an early diversion is tempting.

This is similar in some ways to the line in the Semi-Slav, but also different. Unlike in the Semi-Slav, this variation is almost certainly a real pawn sacrifice, should Black decide to take it. In some ways, the play in this line is even "faster" than in the 7.g4 Semi-Slav: there are clear, forcing variations in this line where Black leaves the king in the center and rapidly counterattacks. But some of the ideas are the same -- g2-g4 is a flank blow, which affects the center. The capture of the pawn costs Black time, diverts the knight, and gives White the open g-file.

I have played this move a couple of times, although, honestly, at the time I did not fully believe in it. It is a strange case that for me, and probably others, that lines I would never worry about from the reverse perspective have an attraction.

In other words, were I to play the "Lion/Philidor" with Black, I would hardly worry about this gambit. It promises action, chances, concrete play -- and ultimately I don't think it challenges the validity of Black's defense. But those same factors that mean I would not worry about it as Black also make it attractive to play as White.

Shirov introduced the move 5.g4 in a game against Zurab Azmaiparashvili in Plovdiv, 2003. This completely creative sacrifice, which had never been played before, was extremely dangerous to meet with no preparation. Shirov got a big advantage, although after some errors Azmaiparashvili managed to draw, and even nearly won.

I became interested in this variation -- although at the time, the Philidor was not something I came across very often -- and even made an instructional video about it. I got the chance to play it later, in a game in Rethymno, 2009, against GM Alexander Zubarev. The gambit proved to be very dangerous and I won the game:

While the critical lines of the gambit are far from clearly favoring White, in practice you can find that your opponents are not perfectly prepared. This line increases the tension to a high level, and increases the importance of each move. One or two "lazy" moves and the attack can be overwhelming. Here, for instance, is a game I played against an IM in the Romanian rapid team championship:

How should Black combat this gambit?

If you want to accept the pawn, you should be very well prepared. As we saw, one normal but non-critical move (such as 10...Qc7 in the above game, or 9...Qc7 in the Shirov-Azmaiparashvili game) can give White what he is dreaming of. From what I know, Black probably needs to search for a refutation in the lines given above, with 10...b5 11.Bb3 Qa5 12.0-0-0 Ba6. To counter the threat of 13...b4, White should play 13.Nd2, which leads to a critical position:

I considered this variation crucial in 2009 when I was first analyzing this line (and when I played it against Zubarev), and I still do. However, this position is far from easy for Black to play.

First of all, 13...b4 is met by 14.Nc4, when the weakening of the black queenside already gives White a very strong attack.

Black has 13...0-0-0, which puts his king into relative safety, but allows White to regain the pawn by 14.Bxf7. The resulting positions are complex and close to equal, but tend to be easier to play as White.

After other moves, such as 13...Rd8, or 13...g5!?, Black remains up a pawn but has long-term problems with where to put the king.

Many players might find declining the gambit to be more practical. The move 5...g6 looks comfortable and is therefore pretty popular, but it seems like 6.g5 Nh5 7.Be3 followed by Qd2 and 0-0-0 gives White a pleasant game. There is some serious pressure on the d-file, and Black's knight on h5 is out of the game. It is far from clear that there will be a good opportunity for ...Nf4, while White also has ideas like Bh3 with possibly Bg4 to follow.

5...h6 is a move I was never worried about, but it comes into serious consideration. I remember GM Ben Finegold's son Spencer (a chess master as well) making a pretty good case for this move while analyzing one sunny day outside the St. Louis chess club. Strangely enough, the position after 5...h6 actually predates Shirov's introduction of the 5.g4 gambit! How is this possible? The position was reached (in Vaisser-Bauer, France 1999) by the move order 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.g4!? h6 5.Nf3 e5.

If White continues naturally, by 6.g5 hxg5 7.Bxg5 followed by Qd2 and 0-0-0, Black can prepare a counterattack with ...c6, ...Qa5, and ...b5-b4. White will have to pause to deal with the threat to a2 and e4, and it is not actually so easy to use the g-file to create any threats. Not to mention, in the endgame the h-pawn can be a weakness.

Finally, 5...d5!? has hardly been played, but is completely logical -- Black answers a wing advance with a central counterblow, in the classical style. Black might end up down a pawn or even two, but it will be he who possesses the initiative, not White. Of course, after 5...d5, White will surely regret the weaknesses created by the g2-g4 advance.

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