The Chigorin Queen's Gambit: A History, Part 2

The Chigorin Queen's Gambit: A History, Part 2

GM BryanSmith
Jan 15, 2015, 12:00 AM |
10 | Opening Theory

Last week, we examined the origins of the Chigorin Defense at the end of the 19th century. 

In the following years, Chigorin used his defense many times and demonstrated its basic themes. Let's look at some of them.

Black's play on the light squares:

A great many of Chigorin's games in his opening followed the same pattern: Black gave up a bishop for a knight, and White built up a pawn center and castled queenside. Black then played the thrust ...b7-b5, both fighting for the light squares and opening lines against the white king.

Let's see an archetypal example of this, Chigorin's 1904 game against Richard Teichmann from Cambridge Springs:

Black's strong knights:

Chigorin was a great believer in the power of knights against bishops.


He did not accept the view that bishops are slightly stronger than knights, and he regularly defended his point of view. It is not surprising that his opening almost always involves trading bishops for knights early on, and he succeeded in quite a few games in showing that the knights could be superior.

Here is yet another game with Pillsbury, from London, 1899:

Play against the white king:

The Chigorin has another very often-seen feature: the white king doesn't have a safe haven. Black typically makes major positional concessions (giving White two bishops and a strong center) and at the same time permanently weakens the white king's position, usually by doubling the pawns on f3.

In this we can see the romantic, attacking element of the great master's style.

In the following game we see a great battle with Steinitz, who held the diametrically opposite point of view -- that the king can look after himself, and that long-term structural features are paramount.

Chigorin's attack broke through, and only a weakness of technique prevented him from reeling in the full point:

Naturally, White has many advantages against Chigorin's defense. Sometimes White's two bishops and strong center took the day.

After Chigorin's death in 1908, his opening wasn't exactly forgotten, but it did sleep soundly throughout most of the 20th century. It was used occasionally by strong masters (Vassily Smyslov used it sometimes, and perhaps its biggest exponent in the middle of the 20th century was Savielly Tartakower -- a fan of all unusual openings).

But the top players did not really make it a large part of their opening repertoires. While many of Chigorin's "experiments" became important parts of opening theory, it seemed that the Chigorin defense was never going to become really acceptable.

However, in the later parts of the 20th century, two strong grandmasters took up the Chigorin and created a small increase in its popularity: Alexander Morozevich and Igor Miladinovic.

Morozevich via Wikipedia

Morozevich's innovative and complex style have brought him many fans, and his adoption of the Chigorin Defense was one thing which set him apart from other top grandmasters.

Throughout the 1990s, this defense was one of his main weapons, not simply an occasional surprise -- and he put a great deal of theoretical work into the opening.

Morozevich brought Chigorin's defense into the modern era, where the tricky "Nimzovichian" type principles were fleshed out by dynamism.

Although Morozevich's name is strongly associated with the Chigorin, he stopped playing it after the early 2000s. Upon quitting the opening, he wrote a book on it -- one of the few opening books written by top players in recent times: The Chigorin Defence According to Morozevich.

The tricky tactician Igor Miladinovic is one of the top players who continues to regularly use the Chigorin Defense. This opening allows him to reach unusual and rich positions that avoid heavy theory, as well as drawish lines --  a great value in open tournaments.

In the Chigorin Defense, we have an offbeat and frequently forgotten opening that nevertheless revolutionized the understanding of chess when it was first introduced.

Although the top players of the time may not have had a high regard for the opening itself, the ideas that they saw in it doubtless were forerunners to the hypermodern ideas and Nimzowitch's theories of the 1920s.

Today, the opening remains as a rather obscure relic that is sometimes essayed by various mavericks looking for unusual and dynamic play.


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