Riding the Winds of Fashion, Part 1

Riding the Winds of Fashion, Part 1

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When choosing an opening system, it’s important to pick something that is within your skill set, suits your style, and makes you feel excited whenever it appears on the board. You can pick an all-gambit repertoire (it might not be completely sound, but it sure will be fun!), you can go with super-sharp mainstream theory (Sicilian Najdorf – 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6), you can create a repertoire made up of non-mainstream systems (Vienna Game – 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3, Larsen’s Opening – 1.b3, etc.), you can pick dependable positional setups (the Black side of the QGD, Tartakower Variation – 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e3 0-0 6.Nf3 h6 7.Bh4 b6), or you can take a ride on the latest winds of fashion.

When I was an active player, I mixed fashion, heavy theory, and some odd lines too. In the end, though, it was all about the positions that I found interesting. From the age of 14 onwards, I had messed around with all sorts of lines vs. 1.d4: the Modern Benoni (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 – exciting, but it was too complicated for me at that time), the Czech Benoni (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e5 4.Nc3 d6 5.e4 Be7 – I fell in love with it since it was easy to understand and it had a very sound foundation) and eventually (when I was around 18) I found myself playing the Nimzo-Indian (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 – a wonderful opening that is both sound and strategically exciting).

At that time, 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 was extremely popular (it still is), and I decided to go with Spassky’s favorite setup:

What’s not to like? Black has easy development, plenty of space, and active pieces. Though this is a very sound system, as time went by and my style changed I began to appreciate White’s plusses too: two bishops and a central pawn majority. And so, I searched for an alternative.

During that period, I decided to play over all the games from the 1972 Fischer–Spassky World Championship Match (the third time I had gone through the whole match), and while doing this, I hit game five:

Bobby Fischer | Image Wikipedia

Wow! I stopped in my tracks, reset the pieces, and then analyzed it in detail. When I first saw this game (in the newspaper, right after it was played), I lacked a good positional eye and wasn’t quite sure about the overall pawn structure that occurred after the 12th and 13th moves. The second time I saw the game I was into open structures and had no interest in actually playing this kind of closed position.

But my third viewing of this game had a completely different effect: I was instantly drawn to the pawn structure that I had once snubbed. Now I saw White’s bishop as inferior to Black’s knight (after 12.Nxg6 fxg6 13.fxe5 dxe5). I saw 13.fxe5 as an error that left White without any dynamic possibilities, and I viewed White’s passed d-pawn as a dead weight in the middle of the board. And, through my more mature eyes, I understood that if anyone was better here, it was Black.

Puzzle 1:

Some of you might be asking, “After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Bd3 Nc6 6.Nf3 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 d6 8.e4 e5 9.d5 Ne7 10.Nh4 h6 11.f4 why couldn’t Black play 11...exf4?” So, I’ll let you answer that in this puzzle! 

Gathering my Chess Informants and magazines (no databases in those days!), I realized that the line after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bd3 Bxc3+ (the Hübner Variation) 7.bxc3 d6 was smoldering hot.

In fact, Black seemed to be winning the vast majority of games! It was, without any doubt, the height of fashion and... I couldn’t care less! I was always a “knight guy,” and the pawn structure was made for knights while the strategic ideas and dynamic possibilities fit my style to a tee. In other words, I had found my Nimzo-replacement!

I played this line for many years, and it was only after White started avoiding 5.Nf3 (usually with 5.Nge2) that I moved onto other lines since the positions resulting from 5.Nge2, though perfectly okay of course, we’re not to my taste (you can see that the position after 5.Nge2 cxd4 6.exd5 d5 7.c5 Ne4 8.Bd2 is a very different animal than the Hübner Variation!)

One problem that those who “dance with fashion” will face is that everyone has thoroughly prepared for the line you play. But the position after 7...d6 was so sound and so enjoyable that I dared anyone and everyone to do their best – the Hübner Variation and I were a perfect match, and I thought it was unbeatable (if you love something, you might as well go all the way!). Indeed, I never lost a game from the position after 6...Bxc3+. In fact, to this day I believe that it’s much easier to play the Black side than the White side!

Robert Hübner | Image Wikipedia

Here are some of my games in this wonderful system. The first one has me copying Fischer while my opponent had booked up on a White improvement that various annotators had recommended. It was the final round and (if memory serves, which it often doesn’t!) both grandmaster Lombardy and I had chances to tie for first. As things turned out, I didn’t get that tie (the guy ahead of us won), and I came in second place. Afterwards, Lombardy was a bit upset and asked why he wasn’t lucky enough to get such a fantastic opening – he couldn’t understand why anyone would go into that line for White.

Bruce Leverett-Silman
National Open 1982 

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Bd3 Nc6 6.Nf3 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 d6 8.e4


Usually Black waits for White to waste a tempo with a2-a3 before chopping on c3. However, in this line, Black does so immediately since White’s knight on f3 isn’t ideally placed and the resultant closed pawn structure isn’t bishop-friendly. Compare this to the Spassky Variation (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Bd3 d5 7.0-0 Nc6 8.a3 Bxc3 9.bxc3 dxc4 10.Bxc4 Qc7 11.Bd3 e5 12.Qc2 Re8 13.Nxe5 Nxe5 14.dxe5 Qxe5) where White’s bishops can easily become extremely active:

9.d5 Ne7 10.Nh4 h6 11.f4 Ng6! 12.Nxg6 fxg6 13.0-0

Spassky played the poor 13.fxe5. 

13...0-0 14.f5

More recently 14.a4 and 14.Rb1 have been tried, but White is still looking (without success) for something that resembles a significant advantage. 




15...bxc4 was also strong


Too aggressive for his own good. 


Houdini goes crazy for 16...Qxc3, but lines like 17.gxf6 Qxa1 18.fxg7 struck me as too risky (though Black probably wins after 18...Rf6!). My reasoning was, why go into something that might lead to problems when 16...hxg5 is simple and strong?

17.Qe1 gxf5 18.exf5 bxc4 19.Bxc4 Ba6 

19...Nh7 was also tempting, but I decided on the more fluid bishop move.

20.Bxa6 Qxa6 21.Bxg5 Qc4 22.Qg3 Rab8 23.Bh6 Ng4??

With 23...Ng4 I ignored my “why go into something that might lead to problems when another move is simple and strong” rule. Instead, 23...Rf7 (the most obvious move on the board) was easily winning due to the weakness of White’s pawns on a2, c3, and d5 (White’s airy king doesn’t help).


White should have played 24.Bxg7! Kxg7

25.h3 My memory is dim, but I think I was convinced that this would lead to a winning endgame for Black (I won’t even address 25.Qh4!, which I completely missed!). 25...Rh8! (and not 25...Rg8? 26.hxg4 Kf7 27.g5 Rxg5 28.Qxg5 Rg8 29.Qxg8+ Kxg8 30.f6 and Black doesn’t have more than a draw by perpetual check) with a split:

* 26.Qxg4+! (Best!) 26...Qxg4 27.hxg4 Kf6 White’s pawns on f5 and g4 will fall, and I thought this would leave Black with excellent winning chances. However, looking at it now, White might well be able to hold the game: 28.Kf2 Rh4 29.Rh1 (29.Kg3 Kg5 30.f6 Rxg4+ 31.Kf2 Rf8 32.Ke3 Rxf6) 29...Rxg4 30.Rag1! (30.Rh6+ Kxf5 31.Rxd6 Rb2+ wins for Black) 30...Rxg1 31.Rxg1 Kxf5 32.Ke3 Rb2 33.Rf1+ Kg6 34.Rg1+ Kf7 35.Rf1+ Ke7 36.Rh1 Rxa2 37.Rh7+ Ke8 38.Rh6 Ra6

and now NOT 39.Ke4? Kd7 40.Rh7+ Kc8 41.Re7 Kb8 (Intending ...Rb6 followed by ...a5) 42.Re8+ Kb7 43.Re7+ Kb6 44.Kd3

Puzzle 2:

Instead of the mistaken 39.Ke4, 39.Kd3! Ke7 40.Kc4, and though Black is two pawns up, he can’t win. 

* 26.hxg4 Rh7! wins: 27.Qf3 (27.Rab1 Qe4; 27.g5 Rh4) 27…Rh4 28.Rf2 Rbh8 29.Rb2 Rxg4+ 30.Qxg4+ Qxg4+ 31.Rg2 Qxg2+ 32.Kxg2 Kf6 with a winning endgame for Black.

* 26.Rf2 and we'll make a puzzle out this defensive try:

Puzzle 3

I can say with certainty that anyone willingly going into these lines when they had the simple and obvious 23...Rf7 is either deluded, a fool, or a maniac. Oh wait... this is my game... that means the delusional maniac is me! Noooo!!!


IM Jeremy Silman | Image Wikipedia

The point of all this is: If you have a won game and can finish your opponent off in a safe, clear manner, then grab it! Creating complications based on wild calculation when there’s no need to do so walks right into the great Bent Larsen’s famous line: “Long analysis, wrong analysis!” I’ve been a victim of “Long analysis, wrong analysis!” on many, many occasions.

Back to reality:

24...Rb2 25.Be7 Rf7 26.Rab1 Rxh2 27.Bxd6 Rf6 28.Bxe5 Rfh6 29.Qxh2 Nxh2 30.Bxh2 Qg4+ 31.Kh1 Qe4+ 32.Kg1 Rh4, 0-1.


When preparing an opening, you need to look at the analysis in books and also play over tons of games featuring the system in question. These puzzles (all from games using the Hübner Variation) show the kinds of things you’ll learn about your new opening when you explore the way the big guys handle it. 

Puzzle 4:

Puzzle 5:

Puzzle 6:

At times White can open up the center by chopping on e5, but that leaves him with other problems, as this puzzle shows.

Puzzle 7:

When you play an opening, you not only need to know the proper plans, setups, and ideas, but you also need to know what to AVOID! Our next puzzle shows what happens when Black (who just played 12...Ne8, which prepares the often thematic ...f7-f5 push) is a little too quick in opening up diagonals and squares for his opponent’s army.

Puzzle 8:

This puzzle teaches us a very important lesson! Make sure you read the notes to see what it is.

Puzzle 9

Not done solving puzzles? Tactics Trainer is waiting!

Riding The Winds of Fashion, Part 2 (Yes, more on the Hübner Variation!) will follow next week.


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