The Chigorin Queen's Gambit: A History

The Chigorin Queen's Gambit: A History

| 14 | Opening Theory

The Chigorin Defense is one opening whose history -- unlike some of others we have examined in previous weeks -- revolves around one man. And of course this is its namesake, Mikhail Chigorin.

Chigorin was born in 1850 near St. Peterburg, where he lived most of his life. The best player from Russia and one of the best players in the world at the time, he played two world championship matches with Wilhelm Steinitz.

Although he lost both matches, he was revered as an unusual and creative player with positional and strategic ideas that can hardly be put in the boxes of his time.

During the late 19th century, there were the new "classicists" -- originating from Steinitz, but largely based on Siegbert Tarrasch's theories -- and the dying breed of "romantics," who wished to keep alive the tradition of attacks and sacrifices.

The Chigorin Defense: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6!?

Chigorin has often been seen as belonging to the second group due to his rejection of some of Tarrasch's teachings and his use of old-fashioned openings such as the King's Gambit. But at the same time, he also created futuristic openings -- in particular, the precursor to the King's Indian Defense -- and developed some original positional concepts.

The Chigorin Defense to the Queen's Gambit is itself a great depiction of the paradox of Chigorin's approach to chess. A defense to 1.d4 that is not directly radical like 1...g6 or the hypermodern concepts that came later, the Chigorin Defense nevertheless rejects Tarrasch's teachings, because in many lines Black fails to create and maintain a solid pawn in the center.

However, the Chigorin Defense also does not belong in the same category as the open, attacking gambits like the Evans Gambit. Its success or failure depends on Black's ability to handle the positional imbalances that it creates -- in particular, the battle of knights versus bishops, Black's play on the light squares, and White's doubled pawns.

In some ways it reminds one of the Nimzo-Indian Defense, and indeed many of the themes found in the Chigorin Defense resemble those which Aron Nimzowitsch later utilized frequently.

To be completely accurate, Chigorin was not actually the first person to play the Chigorin Defense. However, this can only be expected -- the Chigorin Defense is defined as early as move two.

There are only a limited number of possibilities in the first couple of moves, so someone was bound to stumble across it earlier. However, Chigorin was the first one to play the Chigorin defense consciously,  and he created the concepts that make up the opening as we know it.

The opening's very first outing I can find, on the other hand, looks rather amateurish.

Chigorin's first three outings with his patented defense were all against Harry Nelson Pillsbury.

The 1895-96 St. Petersburg tournament was a four-player match tournament with Steinitz, Chigorin, Emanuel Lasker, and the recent winner of Hastings 1895, Pillsbury. Thus each player played each other six times -- thrice with each color.

In the first game where Chigorin was Black against Pillsbury, he shocked his opponent -- and probably the other participants of the tournament -- with 2...Nc6. However, the opening backfired badly.

Pillsbury's natural reaction was to avoid the doubled pawns and gain a central pawn majority by playing the line 2.Nf3 Bg4 3.cxd5 Bxf3 4.dxc6!? Bxc6.

This is not now considered to be such a huge threat to the Chigorin. But in that game Chigorin did not have a specific plan of counterattack or restraint of the white center in mind, did not find counterplay, and lost badly.

Several weeks later (in the same tournament) Chigorin once again faced Pillsbury as Black. Again 2...Nc6 made its appearance on the board. Pillsbury did not shy from a theoretical debate, and responded in the same way.

No doubt he expected that Chigorin had put some work into the position, but he believed in his approach as fundamentally correct. There was no Houdini in those days to find novel approaches, the danger of which nowadays causes many grandmasters to avoid repeating their openings.

Doubtless, though, Chigorin had used up a few candles in his study. This time he came armed with the idea of 7...Bb4 and 8...f5!?, and the Chigorin Defense was born.

In the third game between Pillsbury and Chigorn (where the latter was Black), Chigorin once again brought out his newly sharpened weapon.

Pillsbury, apparently convinced by the previous game, chose a different tack. Chigorin showed some more of the positional themes of his new opening, and although Black's position looked questionable at times, the game ended in a draw and another immortal early game of the opening was created.

This description of the beginning of Chigorin's Defense requires a caveat, however. First of all, the moves 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nc6 are also properly called the Chigorin Defense.

Nevertheless, Chigorin never played this, and it was hardly seen until the 20th century. And second, before inventing 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6, Chigorin had previously played 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Bg4!?, which contains many of the same ideas as 2...Nc6 and often transposes.

Chigorin used this several times in his 1889 match with Steinitz, and in some of the games reached positions that are commonly reached by the 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6 move order.

Thus it can be said that Chigorin had partially invented his defense a few years earlier. Additonally, in Hastings 1895 (just before the St. Petersburg tournament), Chigorin had defeated Lasker in a classic Chigorin Defense game that began with the 2.Nf3 Bg4 more order.

Check back next week to find out how Chigorin found success with his opening later in his career, and how the Chigorin Defense is used in modern chess.


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