Mikhail Tal And The Modern Benoni

Mikhail Tal And The Modern Benoni

| 35 | Opening Theory

Botvinnik had regained the title from Smyslov in their 1958 rematch, but soon he had a new challenger: the fiery Latvian player Mikhail Tal.

Tal had appeared out of nowhere, and within a few years went from an unknown young player to a challenger for the world championship. His play was characterized by imaginative attacks, bold sacrifices, and a search for fantasy. Closely allied with him was his favorite defense against 1.d4: the Modern Benoni.

The Benoni, with its unbalanced and complex nature, perfectly suited Tal. It is a risky opening, which leads to complications and sharp positions, with tactics taking place on both sides of the board.

While today the Modern Benoni is a major opening (if not particularly popular with top players), before Tal's time it was very rare and almost unknown. The structure of the Modern Benoni -- or Hromadka System as it was known then -- had been reached a number of times going back even to the 19th century, but usually by a variety of different move orders, and often arising much later in the game, sometimes from an Old Benoni with 3...g6, followed later by ...e6 and ...exd5; or a by transposition from the King's Indian; or the move order Frank Marshall used when he unsuccessfully tried the Modern Benoni a few times in the New York 1927 tournament -- i.e. with the moves Nf3 and ...e6 included before the ...c5 move.

Meanwhile, the move order which Tal used -- 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 -- most directly going for the Modern Benoni, was very new. It had started to appear in Soviet tournaments in the 1950s, but only in a handful of games, by players like Alexander Tolush, Tigran Petrosian, and Genrikh Kasparian.

Thus Tal had picked up an opening which was very close to new. He independently developed a great many of the positional and tactical ideas of the Modern Benoni, which form the basis of the opening's theory today.

For instance, he showed many times the desirability of the exchange ...B(c8)-g4xf3, which has long been a basic tenet of the Benoni. For instance, in this early game against Gheorghe Mititelu:

Tal played 10...Bg4, meeting 11.h3 with 11...Bxf3 12.Qxf3 Nbd7, which ought to be second nature for any experienced Benoni player today. Black de-clutters his pieces and improves his control over the crucial e5-square; White's two bishops are less relevant.

In the subsequent play, Tal showed some more typical Benoni motifs: the activation of the queen on the queenside, the advance...b5 and ...c4, and further combined pressure on the queenside (via the pawn majority and the bishop's influence on the long diagonal) along with pressure against e4.

Tal makes it look very easy; and sure enough, in the almost complete absence of theory, a player armed with a good understanding of the Benoni will make short work of his opponent. But it must be remembered that Tal was blazing new paths. There was no one to teach him how to play these positions, he just felt  them intuitively.

In a game against Efim Geller, Tal showed a similar idea, which is fundamental to the Benoni: the advance ...c5-c4 (even when ...b7-b5 is not possible), followed by the activation of the knight on c5. Sure, the c-pawn becomes separated from its fellows, but the dynamic play Black obtains as a result provides compensation.

Tal played 16...c4, and after 17.Be2 Rac8 18.a5 Nc5. The knight threatens e4, and also threatens to come to b3 (and subsequently to d4 or capture on a5). White thus captured the c-pawn with 19.Bxc4, but after 19...Ncxe4, Tal had liquidated the center, and remained with pressure on the c-file and the long diagonal. Here are the above moves and the rest of the game:

A very paradoxical idea was carried out by Tal in two early games, against Antoshin and Lebedev.

Both games reached this position. Now Tal played the surprising 10...Bxc3!? Normally one does not exchange this bishop in the Benoni; sometimes even winning the exchange is not sufficient justification to do it. But here Tal exchanges the bishop without winning anything at all. He met 11.bxc3 (11.Qxc3 would be met in the same way) with 11...b5.

The tempo gained on the knight was the explanation for the exchange on c3. The knight was forced back to b2, and in the subsequent play Tal was able to show that his grip on the central squares, pressure on d5, and queenside majority gave him compensation for the missing bishop, while it proved impossible for White, in either game, to create an attack on the king.

This strange exchange remains part of the theory of the line and is considered justified.

In a famous game against Yuri Averbakh, Tal demonstrated a tactical blow against e4. Later analysis showed the sacrifice to be wanting, but in the face of unexpected complications Averbakh backed down from the struggle, presenting Tal with a winning position:

A sort of perfect example of Benoni themes can be found in Tal's game against Jan Hein Donner. Donner was among the best players in the world, but Tal cut him down with complete ease. Once again, these are the benefits of having a great understanding of an opening that has practically no established theory:

Of course, not every game went perfectly, and soon after becoming world champion, Tal faced the British player Jonathan Penrose, who demonstrated a new attacking setup to score a great upset:

Black's play was not confined to the queenside, as Tal showed on many occasions. Unlike some counterattacking openings that might focus on Black building up play on one side of the board (e.g. the King's Indian main lines), in the Benoni Black's jabs could occur anywhere. Tal's famous win against Bukhuti Gurgenidze is a case in point:

And finally we will see a nice victory over Vladimir Tukmakov, where Black's play springs up simultaneously on all parts of the board. This game took place in 1969, by which time some decent systems were known for White to keep control of the board and press for the advantage. Some more theory had started to develop, and players were not grasping in the dark. However, even armed with some knowledge, it was hard to keep Tal under control:

Like Smyslov, Tal was only champion for one year, but he contributed a great deal to the culture of chess. His style of seeking complications was not unknown, but nobody had taken it so far while managing to remain within the bounds of reasonably correct play. The same can be said about Tal's wild pet, the Benoni: it is at once the most positionally radical opening, while remaining sufficiently justifiable and rich of ideas that it has persisted all attempts to refute it conclusively. 

More from GM BryanSmith
Magnus Carlsen And The Nimzo-Indian Defense

Magnus Carlsen And The Nimzo-Indian Defense

Vishy Anand And The Semi-Slav Defense

Vishy Anand And The Semi-Slav Defense