| 44 | Opening Theory

A blog appeared by farbror (10/05/2009) that claimed I seemed to be recommending the Latvian Gambit to readers while badmouthing the same opening on my site.

Dear farbror and all the people that think I have turned into a Lativan Gambit junkie:

I’m rapidly becoming convinced that a large number of people don’t understand what “context” is. They read a word here, pick a line there, and then come up with some grand scenario that has nothing to do with what the speaker or writer meant. One sees this in politics all the time, but now it seems to be bleeding over into chess.

In my article (which was titled, Picking an Opening By Style), I wrote the following: “In fact, why not play gambits for both sides, forcing your opponent into positions that suit your brutal, caveman tastes? Of course, you’ll go down in flames from time to time, but if it’s raw fun you’re after and not chess improvement or balance, then this might well be the path for you.” 

This was somehow translated by the blogger as: “It is sort of a surprise that IM Silman recommends the Latvian after a handful of rather sharp statements about the gambit on his website.”

I thought the titles of ONE DIMENSIONAL AND LOVING IT! and FOR THE MAD DOG, might give some readers a clue about the material that followed ... apparently, this supposition was foolish of me.

I was NOT recommending the Latvian or any other gambit as a sound opening choice. I was simply saying that they will prove fun for a certain kind of player. Theoretically, all 2nd and 3rd tier gambits stink, but that doesn’t stop an enormous amount of attacking fans from playing them every chance they get. And, if playing this stuff makes them happy, then they should continue to play it. In fact, “garbage” openings like the Latvian often prove far too much for many inexperienced opponents to deal with, thus handing the Latvian addict one crushing win after another. This doesn’t make the Latvian theoretically good, it just makes it a perfectly acceptable choice for the player in question and his particular needs. 

My articles (on my site, that attacked the Latvian (my outrage over the gambit was tongue in cheek) pointed out its theoretical failings. Yet, some readers responded to my anti-Latvian raves by letting me know how many games they were winning with it because their opponents didn’t know how to respond. They were really enjoying their experience using this opening, so they were wise to continue playing it. I hope you see the difference here: Ultimate theoretical truth versus a particular player’s needs. One doesn’t necessarily influence the other.

In the case of the Latvian, it turns out to be very popular in the lower realms of postal chess – surprising since anyone can crack an opening book and look for the best replies. Be that as it may, I guess many opponents don’t know how to deal with it and quickly crash and burn. Then the guy that lost with White returns with reams of anti-Latvian analysis which is met in turn by a slew of postal maniacs “save the Latvian” analysis which somehow or other proves a draw for Black in an endgame on move 31! I’m not kidding: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Qf6 4.Nc4 fxe4 5.Nc3 Qf7 6.Ne3 c6 7.d3 exd3 8.Bxd3 d5 9.O-O Bc5 10.Na4 Bd6 11.c4 d4 12.Nc2 c5 13.b4 Ne7 14.Nxc5 Bxc5 15.bxc5 Nbc6 16.Bb2 0–0 17.Nxd4 Nxd4 18.Bxd4 Bf5 19.Bxf5 Nxf5 20.Be3 Qxc4 21.Qb3 Nxe3 22.fxe3 Rxf1+ 23.Rxf1 Qxb3 24.axb3 Rc8 25.Rf5 Rc6 26.b4 b6 27.Kf2 bxc5 28.bxc5 a5 29.Kf3 a4 30.Rf4 Rxc5 31.Rxa4 and the resulting endgame is dead drawn, B. Sporrer - Klaus Kredler, Töging 2004.

I particularly enjoyed a comment by postal master Manuel Gerardo Monasterio regarding my articles (titled Splat the Lat) on the Latvian:

“I was most amused by Mr. James’ phrase referring to Mr. Silman’s ‘hatred of the Latvian gambit.’ The Latvian does not deserve to be hated by anyone, it can be simply described nowadays, and with total confidence, as absolute Bovine Excreta. From a theoretical point of view, it is a refuted opening variation; that does not mean that some people don't gain points with it in practical play. But the fact that there are people still smoking and yet alive does not mean that smoking is good for anybody’s health!”

There are, of course, many good ways to meet the Latvian Gambit. But my favorite is 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Qf6 4.Nc4 fxe4 5.Nc3 Qf7 (Stefan Bucker has a nice series of articles about the Latvian on where he looks at White and Black alternatives at various stages. Clearly, hope springs eternal!) 6.Ne3 c6 7.d3 exd3 8.Bxd3 since it turns things around and leaves White with all the attacking chances (this must be a real slap in the face for aggressive Latvian Gambit fans). Last I looked, the most dangerous try for White was: 8…d5 9.O-O Bc5 (If 9…Bc5 turns out to be dead, then that leaves Black trying to rehabilitate the old, discredited 9…Bd6: 10.Re1 Ne7 11.Nexd5 cxd5 12.Nb5 0-0 13.Nxd6 Qxf2+ 14.Kh1. Since 14…Bg4 15.Qd2 Qh4 16.b4 is much better for White, Black must seek salvation in the following pawn down endgame: 14…Nbc6!? (recommended by Franz Destrebecq) 15.Rf1 Bg4 16.Bxh7+ Kh8 17.Rxf2 Bxd1 18.Be3 d4 19.Rxf8+ Rxf8 20.Bg1 Kxh7 21.Rxd1. Let’s be realistic. Black has a pawn less and will have to suffer for a long, long time in the hope of sniveling a draw, which I don’t think he can achieve. On top of that, it’s not clear to me if White can’t improve somewhere earlier.) 10.b4!!

This is the new idea (the old 10.Na4 isn’t nearly as strong). Now Black can take the pawn or decline it: A) 10…Bxb4, B) 10…Bd6.

A) 10…Bxb4 11.Ncxd5 cxd5 12.Nxd5 and now:

A.1) 12…Ba5 13.Qe2+ and now 13...Be6 14.Nf4 and 13...Kf8 14.Ba3+ are instant losers for Black, while 13... Kd8 is met by 14.Bg5+ Nf6 15.Nxf6 gxf6 16.Qe5. That leaves 13...Qe6, but then 14.Qh5+ g6 15.Qg5 is curtains. Analysis by Steve James.

In the article, I mentioned that 13.Re1+!? (instead of 13.Qe2+) was also strong, and Mr. Melchor added to this with: 13...Bxe1 14.Qxe1+ Kd8 (14...Be6 15.Nf4) 15.Bg5+ Nf6 16.Qe5 Nc6 17.Qd6+ Qd7 18.Bxf6+ Ke8 19.Qf4 Qxd5 20.Re1+ Qe6 21.Rxe6+ Bxe6 22.Bxg7 and White wins.

A.2) 12…Bc5 was also assessed as bad for Black in SPLAT after 13.Bf4 Kf8 14.Qf3 Nc6 15.Nc7 Rb8 16.Bc4. As it turns out, this is what occurred in the game Rosenstielke – Melchor, 5th. LG World Ch. 2005/2006. In my original analysis, I gave 16…Qf5 17.Rfe1 Be7 18.Rad1. Mr. Melchor feels that 17…Nf6 is a better try for Black, but still unsatisfactory after 18.Bd3 Nd4 (18...Qh5?! 19.Re8+ Qxe8 20.Nxe8 Bg4 21.Nxf6 Bxf3 22.Nd7+ Kf7 23.Nxc5) 19.Qg3 Qd7 20.Be5. Analysis by Alejandro Melchor.

Thus my impression that 10…Bxb4 gives White a very dangerous attack has been verified and the life or death of this line rests with 10…Bd6.

B) 10…Bd6 and now 11.Re1! is by far the most critical response: 11…Ne7 12.Nexd5 cxd5 13.Nb5 Bxb4 (13…0-0 14.Nxd6 Qxf2+ 15.Kh1 Bg4 16.Qd2 and now 16…Qh4 leaves White a very important tempo up on a line from another move order [10.Re1 Ne7 11.Nexd5 cxd5 12.Nb5 0-0 13.Nxd6 Qxf2+ 14.Kh1 Bg4 15.Qd2 Qh4 and now Strautin recommends 16.b4 with a clear advantage.] 16…Qf6 [Both 16…Qxd2 17.Bxd2 and 16…Qh4 17.Bb2 are horrible for Black] 17.Qg5! and Black’s getting stomped since 17…Qxa1 18.Qxg4 is simply winning for White.) 14.Rb1! (Much stronger than 14.Nc7+ Kd8 15.Nxa8 Bxe1 16.Qxe1 Nbc6 when Black’s King will always be a source of discomfort, but White’s Knight is trapped and in many lines won’t get out alive. White’s chances are probably better, but it’s by no means clear how big that advantage will turn out to be. A good alternative is 14.Bd2!? 0-0 15.Bxb4 Nbc6 [15…Qxf2+?? 16.Kh1 leaves Black’s pieces hanging to threats like Bxe7 and/or Nc7] 16.Bxe7 Nxe7 17.Nc7 Rb8 18.Qe2 Nc6 19.Nxd5 Bf5 20.Bc4 Kh8 21.Ne3 and a forced series of moves has left White with an extra pawn. However, 14.Rb1 seems even better!) 14…0-0 15.Rxb4 Qxf2+ 16.Kh1 Nbc6 17.Be3 Qf6 18.Rf4 and black is in a very bad way.

I ended the original Splat the Lat with the following: Sorry Latvian fans, but your opening is dead meat. Ah, what deep satisfaction. Excuse me while I enjoy a long, leisurely smoke.

But let’s be fair! Perhaps the combined might of every postal player’s Rybka and Fritz has found a way for Black to somehow walk away with some drawing chances in a bleak endgame (I hope you don't really expect me to be following the latest theory here). And, in over the board play, who will know any of this stuff? So I retain my stance: The Latvian is fine for certain players and will give them lots of fun attacks and striking wins. But theoretically? Well, I personally wouldn't touch the black side with a barge pole.

To finish up, let me say something about an important comment that was posted in the farbror blog (there was an extremely ignorant, rude comment there too, but we'll ignore that one):

PerfectGent said: "If the Latvian is sooo bad then why do I keep winning with it?"

Dear Gent, 

There can be many reasons for that. You might be an incredibly strong player who would win with almost any opening. Or you might only use this opening against children and small pets. Most likely, you are exactly the kind of player I targeted when giving thumbs up to the Latvian -- your opponents aren't pros or theoretical monsters, you enjoy playing it, and you win with it. What's not to like? However, those things don't mean the opening is good. It just means that it's a good choice for you, and you should continue playing it until you decide to move on.

PS: LOL ... okay, you got me! Of course the King's Gambit is fully playable, and the Queen's Gambit isn't even a gambit. Then there's the Benko Gambit, which is a fine opening based on deep positional considerations. And yes, there are all sorts of lines where one side soundly sacrifices a pawn. I'm clearly not talking about those. I'm talking about rather poor but fun openings like the Latvian and 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d5 and others of that ilk.

My message remains the same: If you like it, play it. Chess is about having fun, and if a particular opening helps in that respect, embrace it! But don't go medieval if I dare point out that an opening is theoretically unsound. Note that I'm not telling you to quit your opening, just that it won't stand up to grandmaster analysis. And, since most of you aren't facing grandmasters, who cares if it doesn't hold up theoretically?

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