The Modern Defense: A History, Part 2

The Modern Defense: A History, Part 2

| 21 | Opening Theory

Last week, we learned about the pre-war origins of the opening that would become the Modern Defense. 

Thus far, the Modern Defense did not have a real name, nor any kind of reputation. It was a curiosity which had been played a few times and which was repudiated by virtually everyone. And nobody knew how to play it right! That changed after World War II.

Among the forefathers of the Modern can be included Vasja Pirc, the Yugoslav player after which the related Pirc defense is named.

The Pirc Defense begins 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 -- it is somewhat less radical than the Modern, since Black develops the kingside faster and puts more direct emphasis on the center. But many of the ideas are the same, and transpositions also occur very frequently.

After Pirc showed the way with many energetic and fascinating victories in his favorite defense, it was not long before people thought of the idea of delaying the development of the Ng8 in order to keep the Bg7 open and avoid the dangers associated with an early e4-e5.

Thus the Modern Defense was rediscovered.

Anatoly Ufimtsev was born in Omsk, Russia, in 1914. He lived most of his life in Kazakhstan, which he won the championship of 11 times. He had already played his patented defense a few times in the late 1930s.

In the years after the war, he appeared, not only playing the unusual 1...g6 and ...Bg7, but also connecting it to a strange and seemingly random advance of pawns on the queenside: ...c7-c6 and ...b7-b5.

It looked like some wild eccentricity, but it worked.

So the defense had been enriched not just by an idea which remains to this day a common one, but also by a basic concept -- that, having played ...g6 and ...Bg7, Black should remain flexible and ready to adapt to White's play.

There was no need to develop more pieces towards the center or hit back in the center early on. Black could delay its development for some more moves, gaining space on the queenside in the process.

After Ufimtsev's games renewed interest in the Modern, other players began to play it as well, bringing in their own ideas. Karl Robatsch of Austria, Maximilian Ujtelky of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Kotov of the USSR, and Duncan Suttles of Canada all became devoted players of what we now know as the Modern Defense.

And eventually, even the patriarch of Soviet chess himself, Mikhail Botvinnik, began to use it

Once players began to understand what was permissible in this opening, its advantages could be seen. While Black does not stake out space in the center with pawns, he is not wasting time either. Unless Black makes some serious misjudgments, he does not forfeit the chance to hit back in the center -- and gets to choose the timing as well.

Black's system is based on flexibility -- he can respond differently to each of White's setups. There is a basic logic in Black's play as well. If Black has the disadvantage of moving second, why should he instigate an early clash?

Players began to see the practical and indeed aesthetic value in the Modern Defense. With an almost infinite variety of ways for both sides to play, the game becomes more about understanding than memorization.

There are few forcing variations in the Modern. Grandmasters began to see that it was a great opening for playing for a win with Black.

Let us now start to look at some of the new ideas that developed for Black and White. We have already seen the ...c6 and ...b5 idea.

That...b5 can also be supported by ...a6.

The idea of gaining space on the queenside was well accepted, and it was natural that it could be supported by ...a6 as well as ...c6. This did not free the black queen, but left the bishop open on b7, allowing Black to step up pressure on the center:

Direct pressure against d4 can be made by ...Nc6 and ...Bg4.

In a way, this was the most natural way to put pressure on White's center. These moves could be followed up with ...e5, inducing the closing of the center. The point was that Black's opening play is very flexible. Depending on White's response, Black could return to relatively classical play, even reaching something akin to a 1.e4 e5 opening in some cases.

Black can try to obtain an improved Dragon or Benoni by hitting back with ...c5.

Having achieved the valuable ...a6 and ...b5 advance, Black saw that it could play ...c7-c5. If White the black c- and white d-pawns were then traded, the structure would be like a Dragon, while avoiding the Yugoslav attack and with (often) many unhelpful moves by White included.

If White responded with d4-d5, then the game would look like a Benoni, but with Black already having achieved the valuable ...b5 advance -- as in this game, a favorite from when I was first learning chess.

Gurgenidze created a system combining the kingside fianchetto with ...c6 and ...d5.

Bukhuti Gurgenidze, a grandmaster from Georgia, developed the idea of combining the Caro-Kann and the Modern. By playing ...d5, Black gained space in the center and avoided many of the dangers of the typical Modern Defense position. This was a safer system, with an emphasis on positional play on the light squares, but with somewhat less counterplay for Black.

Various animals emerged, in particular a hippopotamus and a pterodactyl.

The above formation -- known as the "Hippopotamus" -- began to be used. It was an idea which would shock early 20th-century classicists -- or would it?

Those guys were smarter than we give them credit for, and might have been able to understand the strategic nature of this setup. The main idea was to create a reactive creature that prevented any encroachment by the white pieces.

White has more space and better development, but the difficulty is finding a plan to open up the board. The d4-d5 break can be met by ...e6-e5, and the e4-e5 break can be met by ...d6-d5.

Meanwhile, Black can slowly attack on the kingside by ...g6-g5, ...Ng6, etc. It wasn't foolproof, but experience showed that this creature (named after the appearance of a hippopotamus rising from the swamp) could work out sometimes. 

Another idea was the Pterodactyl, where Black combines the kingside fianchetto with a quick ...c5 and perhaps ...Qa5. It has its logical basis but might be a little too simplistic, which is why it hasn't gained much traction among top-level players. Unlike the main variations of the Modern, it doesn't have the same flexibility or absence of forcing play.

Naturally, while the adherents of the Modern Defense were developing many of their ideas, their opponents were also working out ways to combat the opening. White has more space, faster development, and a great choice about how to proceed. One of the downsides of the Modern is that White has a huge variety of ways to proceed. There are quiet, positional lines and vicious attacking lines.

Something for everybody.

The Austrian Attack with f4.

Another crossover from the Pirc was the Austrian attack. The idea of putting the pawn on f4 before developing the Ng1 was very natural and was even played in ancient games between John Cochrane and a mysterious Indian player named Mahescandra in 1854.

But it was not played against the Modern Defense proper until the middle of the 20th century.

Geller's System.

One of the disadvantages of the Modern compared to the Pirc was the fact that Nc3 was not induced. Thus White could transpose into something akin to a King's Indian by playing c2-c4 (as Yuri Averbakh typically did) or utilize a relatively quiet, positional system developed by Yefim Geller, in which White combined c2-c3 with Nf3.

This was a very natural and practical way to combat the Modern -- the c3 move restricted the Bg7.

The move h4-h5.

Of course, in any fianchetto opening, the attack with h4-h5 becomes a possibility. White can play this attack at a very early point.

The Fianchetto and Archbishop.

Another relatively quiet approach was to fianchetto the king's bishop. White's king bishop does a great job controlling the center while the knight can be brought to e2, with a modest but very harmonious formation.

However, in this line the Modern shows to great advantage over the Pirc -- the unblocked Bg7 allows Black to attack d4 with a quick ...Nc6.

A more dangerous version is the idea to use the relative lack of opposition from Black to stake out space on the kingside. White could thus play h3 and g4, followed by Bg2 -- a setup sometimes called the "Archbishop".

This could be better achieved with move orders designed to induce some committal moves by Black. However, Black's delay of development of the Ng8 also makes this system less threatening than against the Pirc.

The Be3/Qd2 setup.

Today, one of the dangerous setups against the Modern Defense is the one involving Be3, often followed by Qd2. Much of modern opening theory is about flexibility, and 4.Be3 fits the bill with that in an unusual way.

White develops a piece to a strong square, but does not show his hand to such an extent. By not blocking the f-pawn, White retains the possibility of f2-f4 or f2-f3; at the same time, he can revert to the classical setup with Nf3 (in front of the f-pawn).

Black's ...b5 advance can be prevented by a2-a4; or White can wait for ...b5 to happen and then us a2-a4 to strike at it. White, in some cases, can reach a setup called the "150 Attack" against the Pirc, where White plays Be3, Qd2, Bd3, and Nf3.

The h2-h4 move is also possible, and White has not given up the possibility of fianchetto developments of the king bishop. Thus it is no wonder that the main battlegrounds of the Modern Defense have been with 4.Be3.

In the Modern Defense we seen an opening that, in the carefree days of chess before science, was stumbled upon. Upon the development of positional theories, it was condemned; but when those theories were deepened and broadened it became an accepted opening once more.

It is an opening that touches upon the elemental basis of chess, which -- in some way -- tests and validates the viability of the initial position.


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