Readers’ Games, Questions and Comments, Part 4

Readers’ Games, Questions and Comments, Part 4

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Shock Value or the Real Thing?

ejSalsac asked:

“I wished to ask for your evaluation of a line of the English Attack which to my knowledge has rarely been played: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 Ng4 7.Bg5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nf5!? (First played by Dr. John Nunn against Sadler, 1992)."

“From my database White has scored 4.5/6 from this position yet this has not been played in recent years. Is there some refutation I’m missing? What is your evaluation after 9...e6 and 9...Nf6? Does White have enough compensation for the piece/pawn or is this a novelty that was based on shock value?”

Dear Mr. ejSalsac:

The line after 6...Ng4 7.Bg5 h6 8.Bh5 g5 is very popular among the world’s elite, so if 9.Nf5 is no longer played, that means it either allows Black easy equality, or it actually gives Black an edge.

Of course, if this line was fairly rare then perhaps various “unknown” moves like this would be viable, but when 9.Bg3 has been played 3,482 times in my database (Svidler, Hou Yifan, Ivanchuk, Kamsky, Adams, Safarli, Korneev, Sutovsky and many other grandmasters played 9.Bg3 in 2013 and 2014), while 9.Nf5 has only been played eight times since 2003, that means 9.Nf5 was carefully studied and rejected (if it was good, they would be playing it!).

Nevertheless, let’s take a look and see if my statement is correct. We’ll start with the stem game: 

John Nunn (2595) – Matthew Sadler (2515), [B90]
Hastings 1992

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 Ng4 7.Bg5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nf5?! 

9...e6 10.Qxg4 exf5 11.exf5 gxh4 12.Qd4 Rg8


John Nunn | Image from the Dutch National Archives & Spaarnestad Photo / Wikipedia

12...f6 is ugly, and it creates a gaping hole on e6: 13.0-0-0 and White has everything he could have dreamed of for the sacrificed piece: a big lead in development, Black’s king is stuck in the center, and moves like Nd5 or Ne4, Bc4, Be2-h5+, and an upcoming Rhe1+ are all waiting to be played (depending on how Black reacts).

12...Qe7+!? seems promising at first glance since 13.Be2? Qe5! is really good for Black.

However, 13.Kd2 looks like a strong answer since it suddenly threatens both 14.Qxh8 and 14.Re1.

Perhaps even better is 16...0-0-0!

So perhaps 13.Kd1 is White’s best choice, when the play takes on a very forcing path:

13.Ne4 Be7 14.f6 


 14...Bf8!? might also be okay: 15.0-0-0 Qc7 16.Bc4 Nc6 17.Qe3 Ne5 18.Bb3 Be6 19.f4 Ng4 and Black’s taking over.

15.b4 Qe5!

15...Nc6? 16.fxe7! Nxb4 (16...Nxd4 17.Nf6+ Kxe7 18.Nxg8+ Kf8 19.bxa5 Nxc2+ 20.Kd2 Nxa1 21.Nf6 and White wins since Black’s knight is trapped.) 17.0-0-0 Be6 18.Nf6+ Kxe7 19.Nxg8+ Rxg8 20.Qxd6+ Kf6 leads to interesting complications, but it’s clear that Black’s in serious trouble.

16.Qxe5 dxe5 17.fxe7 Kxe7

The chances are equal, as the rest of the game demonstrates: 18.0-0-0 Nc6 19.a3 Rg6 20.Nc3 Be6 21.g3 a5! 22.b5 Nd4 23.Bg2 Rc8 24.Kb2 Rc5 25.a4 b6 26.Rhe1 f6 27.Re3 Rg8 28.Rd2 Rgc8 29.f4 Rc4 30.fxe5 fxe5 31.gxh4, 1/2-1/2.

One can understand why 9.Nf5 wasn’t seen much after its “birth.” White failed to demonstrate any advantage. As if that’s not enough, after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 Ng4 7.Bg5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nf5 Black can also play 9...Nf6, which seems to be quite playable:

An Instructive Game by Member Peter_Aus

Peter_Aus (1676) – SlimWhitman23 (1742)
Live 2014 (30/0 time control) 

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.d3 d5 5.c3 0-0 6.0-0 c6 7.Qc2 Nbd7 8.e4 e6?!

A passive move that defends a pawn that didn’t need defending. Instead of cowering (which effectively allows White to lead the dance), Black should go for it and grab something for himself by 8...e5 when 9.Re1 Re8 10.Nbd2 Qc7 leads to a comfortable position.


Peter_Aus wrote: “I am not sure if this is wise or should I develop more?”

That’s a fascinating question since serious players have been taught that developing all your pieces is important (and it is!). However, one usually needs to develop around a plan, not develop and look for a plan later. Development without a plan or goal often leaves you with all your pieces out, but in the wrong spots!

By grabbing that space, White claimed a number of advantages and, most importantly, is now able to place the rest of his pieces in positions that complement the annexed central space.

9...Ng4 10.d4

Black can’t allow White’s central space advantage to go unchallenged. He handed it to White on a platter, but now he needs to do some nibbling and try and create some play via ...f7-f6 (which could lead to White using the e5-hole and putting mega pressure against the e6-pawn, though in return Black fights to activate his d7-knight, his g7-bishop, and his f8-rook!), or ...c6-c5 followed by ...Qc7, ...b6, etc.


This defends the knight, but other than that it wastes time, weakens Black’s kingside structure (Black’s thematic ...f7-f6 push will now leave the g6-pawn in a very vulnerable position), and creates a hole on g5. Note how Black, after White’s 10.d4, played two self-destructive moves (8...e6 and 10...h5).

Spend a bit of time comparing Black’s do-nothing 8...e6 and the do-nothing weakening move (10...h5) with moves like 10...f6 and 10...c5 which both try to activate his pieces and dictate the mode of play.

REMEMBER: Every push of a piece or pawn is precious and you want to get the maximum from it! One way to make sure you’re really trying to make your moves count is to ask yourself (after you decided what you intend to do), “What wonderful thing(s) does this move do for my position?”

If you find that you don’t have an answer to that question, then don't make that move!


As long as you make reasonable, purposeful moves, I can’t complain. In fact, though such moves often miss the deepest needs of the position, they are good enough for you to beat some pretty good players!

11.Bg5! is more “pointed” (h2-h3 only occurs if and when it’s needed), but the most advanced move is 11.c4!

The idea is that Black has only two forms of counterplay: ...c6-c5 and ...f7-f6. The push of the c-pawn makes both of these Black breaks highly dubious. ...c6-c5 leaves d5 very weak, while ...f6 leaves g6 hanging out to dry (while the possibility of a well-timed cxd5 will always be hanging over Black’s head). Here are two samples:

  • 11.c4! c5 12.h3 Nh6 13.cxd5 exd5 14.e6! (breaking in the center to destroy the last defender of g6 – a pawn that was weakened by 10...h5) 14...Nf6 (14...fxe6 15.Bxh6 Bxh6 16.Qxg6+ Bg7 17.Qxe6+ Kh8 18.Qxd5, 1-0.) 15.Bxh6 Bxh6 16.exf7+ Kg7 17.Nh4 and that 10...h5 (weakening g6) is still punishing the hand that made it.
  • 11.c4! b6 12.h3 Nh6 13.cxd5 cxd5 14.Bg5 Qe8 15.Nh4 (Eyeing both f5 and g6.) 15...Ba6 16.Re1 Rc8 17.Qd2 Nf5 (17...Kh7 is better, though Black’s position remains quite miserable.) 18.Nxf5 gxf5 (18...exf5 19.Nc3 and d5 is falling, thanks to our 11.c4!) 19.Nc3 Kh7 20.h4 (freezing the target on h5.) 20...Nb8 (20...f6 21.exf6 Nxf6 22.Nxd5) 21.Bf3 and Black’s a goner.

Note that 19...Nb8? (after 11.c4 b6 12.h3 Nh6 13.cxd5 cxd5 14.Bg5 Qe8 15.Nh4 Ba6 16.Re1 Rc8 17.Qd2 Nf5 18.Nxf5 gxf5 19.Nc3) suffers a horrible death and allows us to enjoy a puzzle:

Want to solve more puzzles? Tactics Trainer is waiting!

 Back to the real game (after 11.h3):

11...Nh6 12.Bg5 Qc7 13.Be7?

White wrote: “My dark squared Bishop sequence is development with disruption to Black’s piece placement.”

I understand White’s sentiment and logic, but it’s actually a mistake. Nevertheless, as long as your errors have a firm foundation, then you have nothing to be ashamed of. Oddly, it turns out that the dark-squared bishop is better placed on the c1-g5 diagonal (hitting h6) than it is sitting on d6!


Black missed 13...Nxe5! 14.Bxf8 Nxf3+ 15.Bxf3 Bxf8 when all of White’s pressure is gone, and the bishop, pawn, and dynamic breaks via …c6-c5 or e6-e5 leave Black with an excellent position.


White’s big idea. The bishop looks great on this square, but as I mentioned earlier, it was actually doing a better job on g5. To repeat an earlier statement about this Bg5-e7-d6 idea: It tempts the heart and eye, but it’s wrong.

14...Qd8 15.Nh4

White wrote: “At this point I have locked out the Black dark squared bishop and his kingside knight.”

White’s goals are wonderful and it seems that he’s achieved some very important things. However, it turns out to be more illusion than reality. The fact is that White’s Bg5-e7-d6 maneuver and this move (15.Nh4) have given Black options that he didn’t have before.


Passive. Black could and should have fought for freedom in two different ways:

1) Going after the initiative with 15...g5! (As mentioned earlier, courtesy of White’s Bg5-e7-d6 and 15.Nh4) 16.Nf3 Nf5 17.Ba3 (The poor bishop has traveled an unfortunate path to g5-e7-d6-a3.) 17...f6! (a move Black has wanted to play for a long time.) 18.g4 hxg4 19.hxg4 Nh6 20.Qg6 Nf7.

2) Punishing White’s d6-bishop and h4-knight by forcing a favorable exchange: 15...Nf5! 16.Nxf5 exf5

The side with less space generally likes to make some soothing trades, and the swap of knights has given Black more room to play with. Moving his pawn from e6-f5 has:

  • Made his king safer.
  • Gives Black’s pieces access to the e6-square.
  • Increased the activity of the kingside-rook and the c8-bishop.
  • ...h5-h4 (with or without ...Bh6), nibbling away at White’s kingside and dark-squares, is also suddenly “on.”

16.f4 c5 17.Na3

Contemplating Nb5, but I don’t like placing the knights on the side. In fact, we have a very rare occurrence: both White knights are living on opposite rook-files! In any case, 17.Nd2 feels more natural to me.

17...Ba6 18.Rf2 Qc8 19.Nxg6!?

White wrote: “I don't know where this move came from to be honest. It looked like Black’s pieces were not working well together, and that I could pick up 3 pawns for the knight and remove the Black king’s defenses. I can’t say that it is good or bad, I don’t know enough about the game, and the move was played on intuition only (it seemed right to me).”

It’s an interesting and brave move (A young Tal would have certainly played this!), and if you like it you should play it. But, I have to add the following: White is so transfixed by possible kingside attacks that he’s forgotten about central play (a good central blow will often add to wonderful wing opportunities). The best move seems to be 19.c4! (The kind of move an old Silman would play!) demanding that the g2-bishop gets its day in the sun:

19...cxd4 (Black doesn’t get enough compensation for the Exchange after 19...dxc4 20.Bxa8 Qxa8 21.dxc5.) 20.cxd5 exd5 21.Bxd5 and White’s clearly better, though after 21...d3 22.Qc6 Qxc6 23.Bxc6 Rad8 it’s still a fight (24.Rd1 going after d3 is probably White’s best bet).


This gives White what he wanted. Instead 19...Nf5 would have led to extreme complications: 

  • 20.Bxd5 Ne3 (going for a home run. 20...fxg6 21.Bxa8 Qxa8 22.Qa4 Qb7 is also interesting) 21.Qd2 Nxd5 22.Nh4 cxd4 23.cxd4 and though Black’s a piece for two pawns up, the h5 pawn is loose and f4-f5 is annoying. Black’s safest bet is 23...f5 24.Qd1 Qb7 25.Qxh5 Nf8 26.Nf3 Qf7 when Black has all the winning chances.
  • 20.Nh4 Nxd6 21.exd6 cxd4 22.f5 dxc3 is messy but in Black’s favor (though I’m not sure how much!).



Also critical was 20...cxd4 21.cxd4 Nf8 though crazy complications continue with 22.Qxh5 Nf5 23.Rc2 Qd8 and now 24.Rc7 (24.Bxd5 Nxg3 25.Qg4 Ne2+ 26.Rxe2 Bxe2 27.Qxe2 exd5 28.Qg4 Qd7 29.f5 is a whole other story. Black has to be better, but once again I’m not sure by how much!) 24...Nxd6 25.exd6 Qf6 26.f5 Bd3 27.d7 Red8 28.fxe6 Nxe6 29.Qxd5 and the madness goes on and on!

21.Bxd5 Nf8??

Black cracks!

21...Nxd6! 22.Bxa8 Qxa8 23.exd6 Nf6 leads to a position where three results are still possible.


Missing 22.Qxf5! exd5 23.Qxh5 and White’s four passed pawns on the kingside are more than anyone can handle.

22...Kxf8 22.Bxf8 Kxf8 23.Bxa8 Qxa8 24.dxc5 Qd5 25.cxb6 Bb7 26.Kh2 h4 27.g4 Qd3 28.gxf5 exf5 and Black, realizing that White’s queen is now defending the g3-square, wisely resigned. White wins easily after 29.Rg1 Re7 30.Qd6 Be4 31.Rxg7! (Keeping things simple.) 31...Qxd6 32.exd6 Rxg7 33.bxa7 Rxa7 34.Rd2 Ke8 35.Nc4.

An exciting, very complicated game with many interesting sidelines and hidden possibilities. 


  • If your opponent is playing passively and allows you to grab a significant central space advantage, it’s more often than not the right thing to do.
  • Chess moves are precious, and you should be able to explain what wonderful thing every move you play does (pretend your chess teacher stops time and asks after every move, “What wonderful thing does the move you’re about to play do?”). If you can’t answer that question, then why are you going to play that move?
  • Chess isn’t about developing your pieces and then asking, “What’s my plan?” It’s about noting the correct plan(s) via the pawn structure (or previous experience in that position) and then developing in a manner that caters to the needs of that plan.
  • Once you get some pieces out it’s easy to want to make instant use of them and ignore an inactive piece in doing so. White’s 19.Nxg6 was a fun and worthwhile try, but 19.c4 (this pawn push could also have been played earlier, as shown in the notes to move 11.) addresses the inactivity of the g2-bishop.
  • At times occupying a wonderful hole like d6 with a bishop or knight is a real dream. However, there is no such things as “always” in chess, which means that sometimes occupying that usually wonderful square has nothing to do with the position’s needs.


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