The Author of a Variation 3

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  • | Jul 13, 2011

The Variation

As I said at the end of last week's article, Polugaevsky devoted much of his considerable analytical energies to one particular ultra-sharp variation of the Sicilian, which now bears his name. Polugaevsky devoted his first book largely to the story of his long relationship with "the Variation;" his agony as the Variation lost games, his striving for improvements to resuscitate it, his joy at each new saving discovery, and his exciting games with it.

The defining move of the Polugaevsky Variation, b5, appealed to me! I love ignoring "apparent" threats, which e5 is (e5 does not really win the knight on f6). Next, b5 is all about getting counterplay as fast as possible, while leaving things hanging together by a thin tactical thread. As a young Najdorf practitioner, I experimented with playing b5 as early as possible in a number of lines, for example 6.Bc4 b5? and 6.Be2 b5? Both turned out to be bad, but I did not realize that yet, and was enamored of such variations.

Here is a memorable game of Polugaevsky's from early in the book. (Again, I'm only showing games that stuck in my memory for all these years!)

Kasparov famously once said "getting better at chess isn't about writing open letters to Garry Kasparov, it's about not allowing Rxc3 in the Sicilian." Well, this game sure brought that lesson home for me; having played through it at the beginning of my sicilian career, it made an indelible impression. Especially two salient details: 1) that you play Rc8 before other development often in order to threaten Rxc3 faster 2) that you will often follow up with d5! opening up all your pieces now that the Nc3 no longer controls that square, rather than trying to gobble pawns at c3 or a3 immediately. I believe I have never allowed a good Rxc3 by black, while I have perpetrated it on many; so when Kasparov delivered his famous insult I got to have a good laugh!

Here's another classic Polugaevsky Variation game-- this one again shows his great ability to interpret the Sicilian beautifully over-the-board, as well as his fantastic opening preperation. Try to find this next move; it is a move which has stuck with me through the years.


Record your idea in your mind, and now you can play out the full game:


Now here is an example that will show how he had to really search long and hard to come up with his ideas. He had played the following game against GM Suetin:

A very near escape (and gosh, didn't Suetin play well!! that guy just kept coming!)! This game is an excellent representative of Polugaevsky's defensive tenacity and endgame skill. Despite his heroic defense, Polugaevsky knew that Suetin would be confident repeating his Be2 variation, and he searched and searched for an answer to it.

Eventually, he found it, and everything made sense! The next time they played, the following game developed:

Despite the "same result" it's clear how great a value Polugaevsky's searching had; this was a much more "fun" game for him. Basically he was playing for "two results"-- a win or a draw-- as black after 10 moves. That was the last time Polugaevsky faced Be2!

Polugaevsky cared about his variation so much that when other people lost games in the variation, he himself felt the pain of each and every one of these losses. The following line, developed by Rashid Nezhmetdinov was looking dangerous and taking victims, and so Polugaevsky took note, and analyzed it.

This was another tough nut to crack, but again, once he cracked it, everything made sense. What makes this story memorable is that after his endless searching, he had the chance to put his solution into practice against... the inventor of the idea Nezhmetdinov himself! And this is also a classic, classic game of chess strategy:

"The Variation" was also responsible for his Candidates Match victory over Mikhail Tal in 1980. Polugaevsky faced down some of the scariest attackers in the history of chess, while playing the Variation, basically waving the red flag in the face of bulls like Suetin, Nezhmetdinov, Bronstein, and Tal! The bravery was as impressive as the following result:

Phew! Escape #1. And Tal's second attempt to break the Variation:

With such success as white, Tal could not prevail against Polugaevsky!! And here for your enjoyment is one more Polugaevsky masterpiece, that I could not resist sharing:



On August 30, 1995, Lev Polugaevsky died. I was in first place, playing in the C section of a local open, and of course playing... the risky Polugaevsky Variation. An expert came up to me as I walked around the tournament hall: "that's a very nice tribute, you know he died today," he told me. I had not known, but I was sad. Though we had never met, and though I had just read his book in the last year of his life, he was like a living teacher through his writing. Every time I play the Variation, it is a tribute to Lev Polugaevsky.

You don't have to be the strongest player in the world to provide an appropriate tribute; we play the games that we can. A friend on once commented in my blog with a variation he had invented, humorously offering me money if I would play it in the tournament I was at. It was an absolutely hair-raising line in the Variation. Coming up with this analytical line, also, is a tribute to Polugaevsky.

I wish I had my game from Aug 30, 1995 to show you, but I have misplaced it. I also lost a terrific game to Peter Thiel when we were both about 2300, as far as I can recall the only game I've lost in the Variation; I am not leaving it out because I lost the game, but because I lost the scoresheet. Here are the two games I have in my database, both dedicated to Polugaevsky, of course:

I do not often play a decent endgame, but when I do (as in that game and the next one) it is often because the endgame comes from the Sicilian and follows the exact contours of some endgame of Polugaevsky's that I have seen.

Well, if you have followed all of that, then you now know about 1/100th of what I know about how to play the Polugaevsky Variation, which in turn is perhaps 1/100th of what Polugaevsky himself knew about it. Hopefully you feel inspired to create your own tributes to this great man, and to create your own Variation, that you will defend against all comers for three decades!


  • 5 years ago

    NM oddodddodo

    Hi David,

    Nice article! In the Gruenfeld-Polugaevsky game, I was wondering why you stopped your comments after 20. ... Nb3+!! 21. ab, because the line clearly isn't over.

    Then I put it on a computer and found out! The position is totally unclear. As best I can tell, after 20 unbelievably tense moves where you can't tell who's winning, Black can finally get to something resembling a drawn endgame.

    Obviously such a long line would have been too much of a distraction from the main point of your article. But just in case anybody's curious, here is at least the beginning of the Line From Hell:

    20. ... Nb3+!! 21. ab Ra1+ 22. Kd2 Qd7+! (The first key point. If Black plays 22. Rxd1+?, the move I would have played, he is toast after 23. Rxd1 Bxb5 24. Qa8+.) 23. Ke3! (White's king has to dance along the black squares in order not to allow a murderous ... Bxf3+.) 23. ... Bc5+ 24. Kf4 g5+ 25. Kg3! The king reaches shelter and the position is just as unclear as before. Here Shredder recommends 25. ... Rxd1 26. Bxc6 Rxf1 27. Bxd7+ Kf8!, and I'll let the other readers and their chess engines take it from there. Incredible stuff! I wonder how much of this Polugaevsky found? Does he say in his book?

  • 5 years ago

    IM dpruess

    that's fine by me VegetableMan :-) but to see what i was really hoping to inspire just read the last sentence again ! ("Hopefully you feel inspired to create your own tributes to this great man, and to create your own Variation, that you will defend against all comers for three decades!")

  • 5 years ago



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  • 5 years ago


    Great article!

  • 5 years ago


    Cross-pin is fantastic!

  • 5 years ago


    Hmm. Looks like a lot of people are going to switch to the Najdorf.

    Perhaps one should also mention that Karpov crushed Polugaevsky's Najdorf in the 1974 candidates. ...Anyway 6. Bg5 is not white's most common move anymore against the Najdorf, and Karpov certainly did not play it.

    Nunn has an interesting take on the Polugaevsky variation decline in popularity (from the Complete Najdorf: 6. Bg5)-- "-- who wants to beaten by a weaker player who has used his Fritz to come up with a killing novelty?"

  • 5 years ago


    man... i love this game

  • 5 years ago


    He had a won game against Karpov in their match but he only drew,.
  • 5 years ago

    IM dpruess

    thanks for the kind words!!

  • 5 years ago


    i enjoyed this article actually, i hate playing ruy lopez, so boring and i like alternatives to e4 games, ill try this opening out

  • 5 years ago


    Easily one of my favorite ever online chess articles. The games alone would make it a good article, but the whole package here is magnificent.


  • 5 years ago


    Peter Thiel, the hedge fund manager? Now that is a game I would love to see!

    Brilliant article!

  • 5 years ago

    IM dpruess


    in the previous article, i gave an anecdote that did refer to his work with Spassky for the 1969 match against Petrosian-- you are absolutely right! that article even includes one game of Spassky-Petrosian.

  • 5 years ago


    I don't usually comment on articles, but in this case I will make an exception.

    Your article was brilliant. I played through every game and checked every variation. I particularly enjoyed the way you presented it in a historical fashion, explaining how Polugaevsky dealt with new challenges.

    I am a Najdorf devotee (rating around 2000) and I have never tried "the variation", but I might subject it to some serious analysis and try to create a tribute of my own.

    Thank you very much for the time you have put into this.

  • 5 years ago


    He's 1 of these great players like Keres who never got much recognition.

  • 5 years ago


    Didn't this guy work w/ Spassky during the Spassky-Petrosian World Championship Rematch of '69? 

  • 5 years ago


    Great article! Very much helpful in improving chess

  • 5 years ago


    One of the best articles on yet. The games (against Tal) were terrific.

  • 5 years ago


    Got to brage some and say that I suspected the 17th move to be Kd7. However I could not calculate correctly why. Really great article about a great master. 

    Since I dont play the sicilian I had very little knowledge of these variations but they all seem really fun and I'm impressed by the guts on all of those who let their oponent develope all their pieces while self only move the queen around. 

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