Lighting The Pirc Defense On Fire

Lighting The Pirc Defense On Fire

| 24 | Opening Theory

The Pirc Defense is certainly one of the most provocative openings. Black fianchettos his king bishop instead of immediately challenging in the center. White therefore has a variety of fierce attacking methods. Of these, the fiercest is the Austrian attack, 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4

Of course, it is very logical for White to place the f-pawn on f4, ahead of a knight on f3, thus spearheading a potential attack on the kingside and center. In particular, the move e4-e5 is prepared, which will blot out the dark-squared bishop on g7 -- at least temporarily -- and chase away the key defensive knight on f6.

Naturally, the Austrian attack is very double-edged. The aggressive advance of the f-pawn leaves some weak squares in its wake; if Black's counterattack -- usually involving the advance ...c7-c5 -- it should give him the initiative, and White's over-extended position will collapse. Thus, White has to use the utmost energy in prosecuting his attack.

After the moves 4...Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 (of course, 6...c5 is a key alternative, but we will not be covering it here), White can immediately begin his attack with the wild and rather speculative 6.e5!? Nfd7 7.h4

Of course, the idea is clear. White has chased the black knight from f6, and will now proceed to open the h-file. If Black does not find counterplay, White will win quickly. So: 7...c5 8.h5 cxd4.

In the first game with this line, its originator, David Bronstein, now played 9.Qxd4, meeting 9...dxe5 with 10.Qf2, soon opening the h-file and bringing the queen to h4. However, this line has been considered neutralized by the move 10...e4!, returning the pawn to leave White with the pawn on f4. Black then manages to bring the knight back to f6, defending the kingside.

Soon after, the piece sacrifice 9.hxg6!? was introduced, and that is what we are interested in here. After 9...dxc3 (Black has to capture the piece; after 9...hxg6 10.Qxd4 the queen will soon reach the h-file, by either 10...Nc6 11.Qf2 followed by Qh4 or 10...dxe5 11.fxe5 Nxe5 12.Qh4) 10.gxf7+ Rxf7 a key position is reached:

Black has an extra piece and is breaking through in the center, but the black queenside is untouched. White has attacking moves such as Bc4, Ng5, and Qh5 coming. The black king is under great danger. Will Black be able to defend, secure his king, and counterattack? Or will the white attack break through? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

This line, while not overly popular, has been the subject of analysis and practical play since the 1960s, as it is a critical kind of response to the Pirc Defense. Naturally, the position is devilishly complicated; however, it is a concrete kind of position and thus can be treated by exact calculation.

During the course of the line's history, players have taken it in many directions in the search for the truth, and they continue to do so when the line is reached. It would be easy to say that computers make a huge impact on such kinds of positions, and it is true in a way, but in fact the best lines were basically established before computers were a factor.

Without pre-game preparation, of course, players both then and now must find their way through the complications. Naturally, the better-prepared player has a huge advantage.

Let us look at some games now.

First we will see a very old game, the 1968 postal game Sorokin-Duborik, from the USSR. The piece sacrifice was fairly new at the time, and the players were wending their way through the complications in their home laboratories (without computers, of course..). A fascinating struggle resulted:

Now lets move far ahead, to the Foxwoods Open in 2005. A young Hikaru Nakamura (although rated over 2600 FIDE by this point) used this speculative line against Ilya Smirin. Surprised, Smirin did not find the best defense -- which is not so easy to find over the board. While when looking at variations at home everything might seem cut and dried, over the board White's sharp attack is intimidating, and wading through the complex variations is quite difficult -- especially when your opponent is answering your moves immediately.

Thus preparation is very important, and the player who manages to catch his opponent unprepared in this line is very likely to score an easy point.

Finally let's move ahead to a more recent game. In the 2011 World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk, Vassily Ivanchuk played Black in a must-win situation against Emil Sutovsky, having lost the first game of their match with the white pieces. Surprisingly, despite needing only a draw to advance, Sutovsky chose to play this sharp attack. At the time I remember thinking this was strange, but looking at it now I understand.

It is not as easy to draw on demand with the white pieces as it is made out to be. It often happens that a player pushes too hard for the draw, trying to trade the pieces and play "solidly," slowly allows the position to go downhill. Chess history is filled with those who tried and failed to make a draw with White, even against players who are normally their equals.

So it is not surprising that Sutovsky -- who is also a sharp, aggressive player, who might have trouble "playing for a draw" anyway -- would go into this line, knowing that the best defense for Black leads to a fairly drawish position.

Considering that varying from this line is pretty risky, I can understand the practicality of Sutovsky's choice. He either gets his draw with no sweat, or he gets to play a sharp, slashing attack. However, Ivanchuk found another -- and at least somewhat reasonable -- way to play, and despite having his chances, Sutovsky went wrong.

Ultimately, in chess the attacker has the advantage -- and regardless what precise analysis at home might tell you, everything suddenly becomes more complicated at the board. For someone defending against this sacrifice the first time, it is easy to imagine that the board starts to shake a little bit, that it is hard to get a grip on what is going on, fear begins to set in, and soon the well-trodden road is left.

And yet, our game of chess is in balance. It is not logical that such a simple and direct attack should take the game by storm, with Black not having made any mistakes. Had this line been played in the 19th century, it would surely have been seen as winning for White. But today we know better than to start overt hostilities without having first established some kind of objective advantage.

That said, the Pirc Defense is a provocative opening, and White's piece sacrifice is very threatening. As the analysis shows, it is objectively not incorrect on White's part -- should Black find the best defense, it appears that White will not lose. Meanwhile, Black must avoid many pitfalls. At a lower level, or even against a very strong but unprepared opponent, the attack is extremely dangerous.

I do not believe that this line is solved -- there is plenty of undiscovered ground here. But at the same time, I cannot believe that ultimately it will lead to an objective advantage for White against the best defense. In the end, most likely every new attempt will lead to a new kind of balance.  

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