From Opening to Endgame: The Modern

From Opening to Endgame: The Modern

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  • Endgames

The ability to play without queens is crucial for all aspects of your chess. First of all, it gives you the confidence you need to go straight from the opening into the endgame, knowing that you can outplay your opponent. Many players avoid going into equal, queenless positions, and this can negatively affect the decisions they make at all stages of the game.

I will be starting a series of articles dealing with opening lines which lead immediately into queenless positions. One famous example of this is the Berlin endgame: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8.

It was this very queenless middlegame which famously allowed Vladimir Kramnik to finally end Garry Kasparov's reign as world champion in 2000.

One of the characteristics of these opening-to-endings is that they defy concrete analysis. Here each side has various different ideas and maneuvers, but despite years of scrutiny by top level players and computers, no clear main line has been established. From this position, you can see a huge variety of different ways that top players have played. White has choices between b3 and Bb2 or Bf4 or Bg5, h3 and g4, Nc3-e2-f4, Ng5 (hitting a Be6), various different places for the rooks, etc. And Black can play ...Bd7, ...b6, ...Kc8; or move the king back to e8 and leave it there, ...Nf5-e7-g6, ...Bb4 capturing a knight on c3, ...Be6, ...a5-a4, ...c5, ...h6 or ...h5-h4 followed perhaps by ...Rh5, and so on. No clear line of "best" play, or even anything close to it, has been established.

I probably won't be covering the Berlin in this series of articles - there is simply too much material about it already out there and too many people know more about it than I do. But I will be covering some other such endings. In this first article, we will examine the queenless middlegame which arises in the Modern Defense after the moves 1.d4 g6 2.c4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.e4 e5 5.dxe5 dxe5 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8 7.f4:

Why would this position be important to anybody? Well, let's suppose you play the Modern Defense (against either 1.d4 or 1.e4). Your opponent refuses to play Nc3 early on, preferring instead to put the pawn on c4 first. But you don't want to transpose to the King's Indian by playing an early ...Nf6, trying instead to benefit from your Modern move-order. If you don't want to play an early ...c5 going into a Benoni or Accelerated Dragon, or 4...Nc6 allowing 5.d5, then you can end up with the above position.

So the queens have been traded early on, Black lost the right to castle and is behind in development. Is this some kind of position that people go into hoping to hold the draw? Before Kramnik made the Berlin into a real weapon, that is how it was viewed - that it was a slightly worse ending where Black was just playing to draw with no winning chances. Since those days, the ending has been reassessed and nowadays good players play that ending as Black for a win.

Vladimir Kramnik

In fact, the Modern Defense is not usually something chess players choose in order to try to make a solid draw with black. Not many would be choosing 4...e5 if that was the case. Here, we have an imbalanced queenless middlegame where either side has their chances, and opinions about the objective merits of each side's position are hard to prove. Let's look into the details.

White's Plusses:

In choosing this ending over 5.Nf3 or 5.Nge2, White is hoping to obtain a theoretical advantage. He is placing his hopes in his lead in development, the disturbed position of the black king, and his advantage in space. As we will see, Black has some significant positional advantages built into the structure of the position, which is why 7.f4 is more or less necessary if White does not want to be fighting for equality.

First, let's see an example of White's space advantage. This space advantage shows itself particularly in White's use of advanced squares on the d-file, d5 and d6:

The c4-c5 push is critical for White's success. Here we will see one of the earlier games in this line, where this theme is shown. In addition we see two other plusses which White enjoys - even with the queens off the board, the black king can be uncomfortable; and the open f-file can give White some pressure on f7. In the following well-played game, Wolfgang Uhlmann is able to just keep the pressure going and grind out a win, using many tactical subtleties. However, Black should have stood well after the opening, and this game shows how tough the road to a victory is for White, even when things go well for him.

Another key idea for White is the e4-e5 push, which liberates the light-squared bishop and opens the e4 square for a knight. From e4 the knight can aim at d6. Here is a thematic game which shows White's plusses, although it must be admitted that Black didn't put too many obstacles in front of him:

The above game also shows another important factor. There are several ways in which White obtains the two bishops. Often he plays Ng5 and captures a bishop on e6. While the two bishops can be a factor, the time spent with this maneuver can also prove costly for White. By trading the Nf3, he loses control of the critical d4 and e5 squares. Other ways in which White obtains the two bishops include Black playing ...Bg4xf3, or ...Bg7xc3. Which brings us to the next part.

Black's Plusses:

Black has given up the right to castle and it is clear that his development will be somewhat more laborious than White's. What does he get in return for this?

First of all, White's pawn structure is far from ideal. The verdict of the whole position would be completely different if the white c-pawn were back on c2. As it is, he has weaknesses of the dark squares - d4 and e5 (which often becomes an outpost for the black knight after fxe5 or ...exf4). Additionally, the c4- and e4-pawns block the light-squared bishop quite severely. In many cases, even when White obtains the two bishops, he has no advantage due to this factor. Here we see a good setup by black, in which he gives up the two bishops but gains control of the central dark squares, stabilizing the position and preventing any entries.

Another important trump for Black is his strong dark-squared bishop. In most cases, this bishop will be liberated and will fire through the queenside. And yet trading it off is not an ideal solution for White, when he has to trade his own dark-squared bishop. The resulting material balance is ideal for Black in the following game - White is left with this light-squared bishop, blocked by the central pawns and unable to compete on the dark-squares; while Black has two knights which dominate all the outposts:

Another thematic idea is Black's possible exchange ...Bxc3, which gives White doubled, isolated c-pawns in return for the two bishops. Careful judgment is needed to make this exchange. The position could become static and Black will pick off the weak pawns, or it could open up and the black king would be caught in the crossfire. In most cases I have seen, however, it has worked out for Black. Here we again see the great Russian player Alexander Morozevich in action:

I would note that the white pawns on e4 and c4 can also be unwieldy in themselves. A black bishop coming to e6 and a knight on f6 puts them under constant pressure, as in the above example.

Alexander Morozevich

Finally, there is the possible exchange ...Nc6-f4xf3. This exchange unites the White pawns and strengthens his center, so at first it seems hard to understand why Black would spend his time to do so. However, this exchange serves some purpose for Black - closing the f-file, removing a dangerous piece, and liberating the c7 pawn to move to c6 (and opening a good home for the black king on c7). The scheme Vassily Ivanchuk used in the following game deserves note:

In conclusion, this line is an imbalanced, complicated queenless middlegame, where the better player will win. I believe it is fully theoretically playable for Black, who has several routes to a reasonable position. In principle, I think he should begin with ...Nc6 and ...Be6 with ...Nf6 to follow. Immediately active play can allow him to stabilize the position on his own terms. He should not be over-worried about Ng5-e6, nor should he worry about White capturing on e5 and keeping the pawn for a few moves. In most cases White will not be able to hold this pawn for long. In the majority of games where Black lost, the sickly move ...f6 was played at some early point. This should be avoided.

White, on the other hand, needs to use his lead in development to force some early concessions from Black. Obtaining access to the d6 square, managing to play e4-e5 or c4-c5 with effect, or getting pressure against the f7 pawn are all signs that things are going White's way.


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