Queen: The Supporting Actress

Queen: The Supporting Actress

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About a year and a half ago, I had the honor of working with GM Yasser Seirawan for two days during his visit to the Bay Area. Yasser is a four-time U.S. Champion whose storied professional career spans more than 30 years, and he also possesses the rare ability to eloquently impart his erudition to any aspiring player willing to listen.

At one point in our discussion, we broached the topic of attack. As someone with tactical proclivities, I always considered calculation - and, by extension, attacking - to be my forte. However, after listening to and reflecting on Yasser's insight, I began to doubt the veracity of my self-diagnosis. His fundamental claim appears paradoxical to the point of implausibility: In a long-term attack, the queen should often play a supporting role, keeping the position together, buttressing other pieces, or awaiting the perfect opportunity to make its presence known to the enemy monarch. 

Yasser Seirawan | Image Wikipedia

Before you (understandably) furrow your brows in disbelief, take note of the following two qualifiers: 

1. An attack is not synonymous with a winning combination. The former is nothing more than a prolonged assault on the king (or, in rare cases, on the position as a whole), whereas the latter is the culmination of a successful attack. 

2. The term "supporting role" conflates a number of possible meanings. The queen might be literally hiding in ambush, but it can also occupy a dominant square. It is in a supporting role as long as it does not actually do the attacking.

The active queen is traditionally heralded as the ultimate symbol of a crushing attack - without the lady's guidance, the clumsy rooks, bishops, and knights fall apart in a tangle of ineptitude. However, as we shall see from the following examples, one of the keys to mastering modern attacking chess is the willingness to redefine a piece's generally accepted role. 

As usual, we will begin by clearing up any vagueness. What exactly is a supporting role, and why relegate the most powerful piece to it? Hopefully, the following game will elucidate matters. 

After several moves of Grünfeld theory, Karpov uncorked a strong novelty and attained an excellent position. Although Black has situated an irksome knight on d5, White's own rook and knight are menacingly gathered on the kingside, and Karpov needs only one more move - 20.h5 - to begin an assault on Black's shoddily protected king.

However, the main defect of White's position appears to be the immensely awkward placement of the queen. It is not in any immediate danger, but its total lack of coordination with White's other pieces seems to doom any potential attack. After all, how can a middlegame attack succeed with no help from the most potent piece on the board?

The fallacy of this argument is twofold. First of all, the placement of the queen is by no means awkward. Besides preventing any possible monkey business on the queenside (perhaps starting with ...c5), the queen stands ready to join the action on the kingside. Paradoxically, White needs only two more moves - Nce4 and Bd2 - in order to clear a path for the queen to the kingside. As we will see from the course of the game, however, this will be unnecessary until the very end!

The principal moral of this game, then, is that the queen is a peerless multitasker. No other piece has the ability to simultaneously keep the position together, preclude any potential counterplay, deprive the opponent's pieces of key defensive posts, and jump into the attack at a moment's notice. To be sure, it is often remarkably difficult to keep the queen away from the vanguard of the attack, but the finest army general never risks his life on the front lines, choosing to mastermind the assault from a distance. 

Of course, words are empty without concrete justification (ah, that modern chess concreteness thing again!). Here is another pretty example of the humble lady fulfilling the capacity of supporting actress. This game is a relatively unknown tactical gem, and therefore I've tried my best to find an equitable balance between verbal explanations and variations.

I would encourage you to follow along carefully - not everyone can see what Tal saw, but every determined chessplayer can comprehend the rationale behind his dazzling sacrifices.

What a game! Both players certainly committed their fair share of mistakes, but Tal's attack would have turned to dust had the queen not played a pivotal supporting role. 

Mikhail Tal | Image Wikipedia

It is also important to make clear that a queen can play a secondary role in the attack while also actively participating in it. To this end, the queen could supervise the maneuvers of other pieces (i.e. by keeping crucial squares under her control) while simultaneously working with them to create unstoppable threats against the king. The following two games truly epitomize the queen's singular ability to attack from a distance. 

The queen on e3 epitomizes the virtuosity of the queen as a supporting actress: ineffective as the lead attacker on h6, it was relegated to a far more humble central square, but lost none of its attacking firepower. 

In our final game, an attacking masterpiece by world-class GM Evgeny Bareev, White's queen will stay rooted to its ostensibly unpretentious post for the entirety of the attack, sacrificing its self-esteem to oversee a sacrificial incursion of rare beauty. I will give the game in full due to the enterprising opening and early middlegame, but you should pay the most attention to the diagrammed position and White's final attack. 

White has succeeded in opening avenues to Black's king, but how exactly does White begin his attack? After all, White does not have unlimited time - Black threatens ...cxd4 followed by ...Ne5 and ...Kh8, buttressing his kingside and making any attack next to impossible. The first move that comes to mind is the banal 15.Qg3+, hoping to take Black's king by storm after 15...Kh8 16.Qh4. However, Black simply replies 16...f5!, when White has no choice but to accept an inferior ending with 17.Qxd8 Raxd8. Thus, it is clear that White must act more subtly, and the first shot cannot be fired by the queen.

To this end, the elegant 15.Bc1!? comes to mind (threatening 16.Bh6 and 17.Qg3+), but the threat is too artificial: after 15...Kh8! 16.d5 Ne5 17.Qh4 Rg8 White's initiative fizzles out (although, to be fair, he can still hope for a slight edge after 18.dxe6). The final option, as you might have guessed, is to mobilize the rook with 15.Rf4. White's idea is twofold: he threatens to double on the f-file and capture the vital f6 pawn, and, more prosaically, threatens to double on the h-file with Qh3 and Rh4 (perhaps with a preliminary check on the g-file to lure Black's king to an inferior location).

The queen, once again, will play a strictly supporting role, helping the rook penetrate Black's queenside. Then, if the h7 pawn falls, White will be able to activate his reserves with Raf1 and even Bc1. All the while, the queen will remain on h3, supporting the rook, keeping Black's knight, bishop, and queen at bay, and ready to join the attack at a moment's notice. Bareev's idea proves devastating, and it results in one of the most beautiful attacking sequences I have ever seen. Take a close look: 

During the final stage of the attack (beginning with 19.Rxh7+), White's queen did not make a single move. Every piece (save the knight) had its moment of glory, yet the true engine of the attack was its only "passive" observer. 

Tactical chess is even less prone to generalizations and categorizations than positional chess, so I have relied on games to do most of the talking. Ultimately, you should always keep in mind that the placement of your queen can predestine your attack to success or failure. Hopefully, this article is a worthy digression from our examination of modern, principle-breaking positional chess, which we will continue next Friday. Au revoir!


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