Cutting the Gordian Knot

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Mar 7, 2014

There often comes a time in a chess game when decisive action is needed. One must change the status quo or find a sudden solution to a long-standing problem. It is funny how this works out - chess is an equation, and decisive changes in the position must be paid for. In chess, the currency which pays these costs is material. I wonder if the designers of chess carefully constructed the game to have such a balance - to make it such an accurate imitation of the real world.

In the middlegame, this kind of "cutting of the Gordian knot" often takes the form of a piece sacrifice, either exposing the enemy king or opening new lines. In the endgame, with its differing objective, this decisive action often involves sacrificing a piece to create passed pawns. This usually leads to an interesting battle between an extra piece and dangerous passed pawns.

A typical example is the following:

When Reshevsky made this piece sacrifice on move 27, he certainly didn't calculate until the end of the game. A certain amount of intuition was needed to sense the speed at which Black could either bring his pieces over or create counterplay against the white king. I think the initial sacrifice was pretty easy to gauge, but after making a fairly serious error (29.Ra6), the offer to exchange rooks (31.Ra8) took really fine judgment. Reshevsky had to see that Black would not be able to create a blockade in the resulting minor-piece endgame.

An eight-year-old Reshevksy giving an exhibition | Image Wikipedia

Requiring even more fine intuition (or perhaps monstrous calculation) was the game Eingorn vs. Kupreichik, from Minsk, 1987. A position was reached where White has an obvious advantage. But it hardly seems possible to break through:

For a short time, White maneuvered - apparently aimlessly - with his king, perhaps drawing Black into a sense of complacency. Then the breakthrough came with a spectacular finish where a bishop and pawn defeat a king, despite the pawn being only on the sixth rank and it being Black to move!

Finally I will present - without much annotation - a famous game Gufeld-Kavalek vs. Marianske Lazne, 1962. As early as move nine, White created a certain problem for Black - and Black responded sacrificing a piece for a herd of pawns, leading straight into an ending. In the ending Black went on to sacrifice the exchange twice! These exchange sacrifices led to a position where one bishop and some pawns defeated two rooks.

I believe that Reshevsky, Eingorn, and Kavalek could not have calculated completely the consequences of their sacrifices. A combination of calculation and intuition was needed in each case. Each of these players took risks in their sacrifices, but it was necessary at some point to take this leap of faith. 



  • 3 years ago


    good artical

  • 3 years ago


    Please be relevant, and nice:)

  • 3 years ago


    Hi! Is there a printable version of this page? Nice article, by the way.

  • 3 years ago


    Very instructive but how can I ever follow these superb examples?

  • 3 years ago


    Leap of faith. 

  • 3 years ago


    Great article!

  • 3 years ago


    great article. Thanks.

  • 3 years ago



  • 3 years ago


    Beautiful games.

    The heading of the Gufeld-Kavalek game in the text is incorrect.  It was Gufeld V Kavalek in the location of Marianske Lazne (Czexh Republic?).

    This reminds me that Chess is a game; it is not maths.  For a long time I struggled, seeing much more than my opponents, because I could find hard defenses against my attacks, that my opponents would never have likely found.  I should have calculated much less, and seen that the position was (very-likely winning), instead of losing time proving there was something slightly fishy in my idea.

  • 3 years ago


    That last game was amazing.

  • 3 years ago


    part of the story of the gufeld game is that he played 7.d5?! very quickly, hoping for Ne7??, only to realise after e3! that he had fallen into a line he already knew to be good for black! (Mammoth book of worlds greatest chess games)

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks. Really instructive!

  • 3 years ago


    GM Smith is consistently the best writer in - by a big margin. The annoatations are great and the subject matter is also carefully chosen!

  • 3 years ago


    This was a great read and a lesson learned. thanks 

  • 3 years ago


    Great examples and article, thanks!

  • 3 years ago


    Thank you for your well-written and wonderfully clear annotations. The beauty of chess is all the more to behold when presented so instructively.

  • 3 years ago


    Cool! I think it wasn't a great leap of faith; they looked ahead and generaly judged the resulting endgames before going into these lines. For example, Gufeld probably saw that taking the knight would result in an endgame where he would end up with strong central passed pawns which would be hard to stop (and if white doesn't take the knight, he would still be generally okay). The same general idea with the first game, he saw that sacrificing the knight would generally give him a win in the long term, so he went for it. The one that stands out to me the most is the Eingorn game, it really seems to me as if he had calculated everything from move 63 to 72 ahead of time (very impressive!) and then saw that the game is won from that position.

  • 3 years ago


    Oh... I get it. What I wasn't getting was that the bishop was needed to keep the king out of e3.

  • 3 years ago


    @dpnorman: 30...Bxb4?? 31.cxb4 Kf5 (for example) 32. Ke3 and Black has nothing.

    Even if, say, Black captured b4 and a2 at the cost of f2, f3, e4 the White rook is mobile enough to mop up Black's queenside pawn mass. If Black played, say, ...Ke6 to defend against the rook, he loses e4, f3, and f2 for no compensation and has nothing again.

  • 3 years ago


    @dpnorman in the final example 30...Bb4?? is a mistake because it leaves Black with a lost postion after 31.cb because the Black King is too far away to help the pawns. White will blockade them by Ke3 and then take on f2 when the following will occur:

    Black is tied to the defense of e4.White will play his Rook to the d-file and then invade at d7 and blow up all the pawns on the seventh rank. If Black tries to prevent this by ...Ke6 then White can simply take on e4 and f3 winning easily or even play Rd2-d8-h8, win the h-pawn, and then queen the little guy on h2.

    In short, taking on b4 loses quickly because the pawns lack proper support. As after 30 ...Kf5 in the game when Black takes on d4 32...Kf4 is availible which prevents the pawns from being stopped. 


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