What if White *Doesn’t* Play for Advantage?

What if White *Doesn’t* Play for Advantage?

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I’ve written a number of opening books, and read many more, and the focus is always on the critical lines: the problem can usually be put like this, “How can Black equalize against White’s serious attempt at advantage?”

For example, if you wrote a book on the Classical King’s Indian, one might first focus on the position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0–0 6.Be2 e5 and then you could write that 7.0-0 is a serious attempt at advantage, while 7.dxe5 just equalizes for White. You might bolster your case with statistics, noting that according to the Megabase (based on the thousands of games) that White scores 57% after 7.0-0, while White scores only 50% after the equalizing 7.dxe5.

And if you play the King’s Indian as Black, you would certainly fully prepare for the serious attempt, 7.0-0, while you wouldn’t worry too much about 7.dxe5, as you know that, theoretically and practically, this move gives White nothing …

And yet! I know many players who always play 7.dxe5, knowing that they will get nothing out of the opening—but they’re happy to get a position they shouldn’t lose. They are not specifically playing to draw, but rather playing to be safe, playing to avoid risk.

Which means that the Black player who wants to win has a problem! How do you win against these players who want nothing from the first move advantage but safety? Such White players concentrate on solid defense foremost—which thus makes their positions very difficult to attack (look at White’s position in the main game after move 10—now that’s defense!). Indeed, these players often welcome attacks on their solid positions, for then Black might easily overextend and run into trouble!

Furthermore, since the White player does not mind a draw, equally solid play on Black’s part will only lead to that result.

Since I am of the Fischer generation, meaning I always try to get at least something with White—and I play to win as Black as well—then I have been much affected by this dilemma, since I hate to see passive play rewarded with a draw, or even a win.

When these “safety first” opening systems began to be popular, I did not have good results at once with Black—I often reacted to my opponent’s passive play as a bull might react to a red cape, but as mentioned above, my solid opponents welcomed such premature attacks, and my results were not what I wanted.

I think the instructive game given below, against one of my perennial solid opponents—played in the recent Metro Invitational that was covered by—gives the best answer to the basic question: How does Black play for a win against solid but passive play by White?

(The full game can be played over in a viewer below...)

Abrahamyan, Tatev - Taylor, Timothy
Two Knights Defense
Metro IM Invitational Los Angeles, 2010

1.e4 e5
2.Nf3 Nc6
3.Bc4 Nf6

My opponent almost always plays this unthreatening but extremely solid move against the Two Knights Defense. In my opinion, Black’s theoretical opening problems are already over: in open games White usually needs to play d4 at some point to obtain an advantage, but here, if White plays d4, a tempo has already been lost, thus negating the advantage of the first move.

Speaking of opening books, consider The Two Knights Defense, by Jan Pinski. The first 137 pages of this book are devoted to White’s two critical tries, 4.Ng5 and 4.d4. Only the last twenty pages of the book are concerned with 4.d3. Pinski’s conclusion regarding this last variation is, “4.d3 is not a dangerous move—Black should equalize in all lines.”

4.Ng5 is generally considered sharpest and best, and scores the best statistically of White’s alternatives (58%) and not least was the invariable choice of Bobby Fischer—he played it in all eleven of the games listed in the database. This move strikes at once at Black’s weakness at f7, and leads to violent, double edged play, e.g. 4...d5 5.exd5 Na5 6.Bb5+ c6 7.dxc6 bxc6 8.Be2 h6 9.Nh3 Bc5 10.0–0 0–0 11.d3 Bxh3 12.gxh3 Qd7 13.Bf3 Qxh3 14.Nd2 Rad8 15.Bg2 Qf5 16.Qe1 Rfe8 17.Ne4 Bb6 18.Nxf6+ Qxf6 19.Kh1 c5 20.Qc3 Nc6 21.f4 Nd4 22.Qc4 Qg6 23.c3 Nf5 24.fxe5 Rxe5 25.Bf4 Re2 26.Be4 Rxb2 27.Be5 Re8 28.Rxf5 Rxe5 29.Rxe5 1–0 Fischer, R- Bisguier, A/Poughskeepie 1963.

4.d4, immediately attacking in the center, must also be respected and has been played with success by Sveshnikov: 4...exd4 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4 Bc5 8.0–0 Bd7 9.Bxc6 bxc6 10.f3 Ng5 11.f4 Ne4 12.Be3 Bb6 13.Nd2 Nxd2 14.Qxd2 c5 15.Ne2 d4 16.Bf2 f5 17.c4 a5 18.a4 0–0 19.b3 Bc6 20.Rad1 Qd7 21.h3 Rae8 22.Kh2 Re6 23.Bh4 Rg6 24.Ng3 Rh6 25.Bg5 Re6 26.Rde1 Qf7 27.Qd1 Be8 28.Qf3 Kh8 29.Qd3 Bd7 30.Rf2 Kg8 31.Kg1 Bc6 32.Ree2 Bd7 33.Kf1 Kh8 34.Ke1 Ree8 35.Kd1 Rg8 36.Nf1 h6 37.Bh4 Qh5 38.Bg3 Bc6 39.Kc1 Qg6 40.Re1 Rgf8 41.Nd2 Kg8 42.Bh2 Qe6 43.g4 g6 44.Rg1 Kf7 45.h4 Bd7 46.Rfg2 Rg8 47.h5 gxh5 48.gxh5 Rxg2 49.Rxg2 Rg8 50.Rxg8 Kxg8 51.Qg3+ Kf8 52.Nf3 Be8 53.Qh3 Bd7 54.Nh4 Qc6 55.Ng6+ Ke8 56.Qh4 Qe6 57.Kd2 Qf7 58.Bg3 c6 59.Qh1 Kd8 60.Bh4+ Kc8 61.Be7 Kb7 62.Qh4 Be6 63.Kd3 Kc8 64.Qf6 Qxf6 65.Bxf6 1–0 Sveshnikov,E - Petschar,K, Finkenstein 1994.

Now this is all very well, and certainly the Black Two Knights player must be seriously prepared for these sharp attempts at advantage, 4.Ng5 and 4.d4—but what of actual practice? In my own experience, in eleven games with the Two Knights, all played in local tournaments, I have faced the serious 4.Ng5 twice; the serious 4.d4 not at all; and the “not dangerous” 4.d3 nine times!

Speaking as an active tournament player, it seems that Pinski should have devoted 90% of his book to the simple and non critical 4.d3, and just the other 10% to the critical lines! Of course I’m joking a bit here—the serious lines must be addressed, or you will be blown off the board by a well prepared aggressive player—while you can play against a move like 4.d3 with no preparation at all.

Since White's opening is so slow and unforceful, Black already has numerous good moves; the text simply prevents Ng5 and prepares a kingside fianchetto. Also good are 4... Be7 and 4... Bc5, which have both previously been played against Tatev with success:

A. 4...Bc5 5.0–0 d6 6.c3 a6 7.Bb3 Ba7 8.Nbd2 0–0 9.Re1 h6 10.Nf1 Re8 Black has complete equality in a boring position—he took some risks and finally won as follows.  11.Ng3 d5 12.exd5 Nxd5 13.d4 Nf6 14.Nxe5 Nxe5 15.Rxe5 Rxe5 16.dxe5 Qxd1+ 17.Bxd1 Ng4 18.Bxg4 Bxg4 19.Nf1 Rd8 20.Be3 c5 21.f3 Be6 22.Kf2 Rd3 23.Ke2 Rd5 24.f4 g5 25.Nd2 gxf4 26.Bxf4 Bb8 27.Nf3 f6 28.Bxh6 fxe5 29.h3 Rd6 30.Be3 Bc4+ 31.Kf2 e4 32.Nd2 Rf6+ 33.Kg1 Bd3 34.Bxc5 Bg3 35.Be3 a5 36.b3 a4 37.c4 a3 38.Rc1 Be5 39.c5 Bb2 40.Rd1 Rf5 41.g4 Rd5 42.Nf1 Kf7 43.Kf2 Ke6 44.h4 Rd8 45.h5 Rf8+ 46.Kg2 Be5 47.Re1 Rf3 48.Bf2 Rf4 49.Nh2 Rxf2+ 50.Kxf2 Bxh2 51.h6 Be5 52.Rh1 Bd4+ 53.Ke1 e3 54.h7 Bc3+ 55.Kd1 e2+ 56.Kc1 Bxh7 0–1 Abrahamyan,T-Friedel,J/San Diego 2004.

B. 4...Be7 5.0–0 0–0 6.Re1 d6 7.c3 Na5 8.Bb5 a6 9.Ba4 b5 10.Bc2 c5 Black has a typical main line Ruy set up, only White hasn't played d4, so there is no pressure on Black, thus, easy equality. Again, Black went on to win: 11.Nbd2 Nc6 12.Nf1 Nd7 13.Ne3 Nb6 14.d4 cxd4 15.cxd4 Nxd4 16.Nxd4 exd4 17.Qxd4 Be6 18.Qd3 g6 19.Bd2 Bf6 20.Ba5 Qb8 21.Bc3 Bxc3 22.Qxc3 Rc8 23.Qd4 Nc4 24.Bb3 Qb6 25.Qf6 Qd8 26.Qd4 Nxe3 27.Rxe3 Bxb3 28.axb3 Rc2 29.Rd3 Rac8 30.Rxa6 Rc1+ 31.Rd1 Qf6 32.e5 Qxe5 33.Qd2 Qxb2 0–1 Abrahamyan,T-Panchanathan,M/Stillwater.

The present game was my third Two Knights Defense against Tatev. The first two times I reacted sharply with 4...d5, but this leads to a quick clash and a rapid  dissipation of the energy of the position, which can mean a quick draw: 5.exd5 Nxd5 6.0–0 Bc5 7.Ng5 f6 8.Ne4 Be7 9.Qh5+ g6 10.Qh6 Be6 11.Nbc3 Qd7 12.Bxd5 Bxd5 13.Qg7 0–0–0 14.Nxf6 Bxf6 15.Qxf6 Rdf8 16.Qh4 Nd4 17.Bh6 Nf5 18.Qh3 Bxg2 19.Kxg2 Nxh6 20.Qxh6 Qg4+ 21.Kh1 Qf3+ 22.Kg1 Qg4+ 23.Kh1 Qf3+ ½–½ Abrahamyan,T-Taylor,T/Los Angeles 2010.

Not wishing to repeat this unhappy result, I chose 4… h6 with the idea of a gradual strategical build up.

5.0–0 d6
6.c3 g6
7.Bb3 Another recent Two Knights Defense game continued 7.Be3 Bg7 8.Qd2 Ng4 and I took off the WQB with easy equality and … sigh … an eventual draw in Yankovsky,R-Taylor,T/Los Angeles (rapid) 2010.

8.Re1 0–0
9.Nbd2 Na5
Another way to play is the straight forward attack which my opponent had faced before: 9...Kh8 10.Nf1 Ng8 11.h3 f5 12.exf5 gxf5 13.d4 e4 14.N3h2 d5 15.Bf4 Nce7 16.Ng3 Ng6 17.Ne2 Nf6 18.Qd2 Kh7 19.Nf1 Nh5 20.Nfg3 Ngxf4 21.Nxf4 Nxg3 22.fxg3 c6 23.Rad1 b5 24.a4 a6 25.Ra1 Bd7 26.Bd1 Rg8 27.Qe3 Bf8 28.b3 Bd6 29.Rf1 Qg5 30.Kh2 Raf8 31.axb5 axb5 32.c4 Rg7 33.cxd5 cxd5 34.h4 Qd8 35.Be2 Rfg8 36.Ra6 Rxg3 37.Qxg3 Rxg3 38.Kxg3 Qc7 39.Ra2 b4 40.h5 Kg8 41.Bd1 Bb5 42.Rff2 Qc3+ 0–1 Abrahamyan,T-Melekhina,A/Saint Louis 2009

While this was a complete debacle for White, I assumed she had some improvement ready, and so I went my own way here—again choosing creeping pressure over direct attack.

White protects e4 with the KB, the QN, the d3 pawn, and the KR! Wake Nimzovich up! Obviously such extreme overprotection, when nothing much is threatened, gives Black an entirely free hand.
Indeed, after my next move it's obvious that Black has more space and a more active development, but the advantage is still slight.

11.Nf1 Be6
Our US Champion chose a sharper path: 11...Nc6 12.Ng3 Nh7 13.a3 a5 14.Bb3 Kh8 15.a4 Bd7 16.h3 Qe7 17.Be3 f5 18.exf5 gxf5 19.Nh5 Be8 20.Nh2 f4 21.Bd2 Qg5 22.Nxg7 Qxg7 23.Qg4 Ng5 24.Kh1 Bd7 25.Qe2 Rae8 26.Nf3 Nxf3 27.Qxf3 Ne7 28.d4 Nf5 29.Bd5 cxd4 30.Bxb7 Rb8 31.Bd5 Rxb2 32.Bc1 Rc2 33.Ra3 d3 34.Rd1 Nh4 35.Qh5 Be6 36.Bc6 Nf5 37.Bd2 d5 38.Rb3 Rg8 39.g4 fxg3 40.Rb7 Qf6 41.Qf3 Qh4 Black dominates both the center and, fatally, the kingside. 0–1 Garcia,G-Kamsky,G/Philadelphia 1993.

Meanwhile, I resolutely refused to rush!

12.h3 Qc7
13.N3h2 d5
While White has been aimlessly shuffling her pieces from the third and fourth ranks to the second (Bc4-b3-c2 and Nf3-h2) or even from the second to the first (Nd2-f1), Black has gradually prepared this central break. In general, I think my strategy in this game is a good way to combat this very common passive White play. Instead of going right after the opponent (let's say with 4... d5 or even the Melekhina/Kamsky attack with a quick …f5) I gradually move forward, square by square, putting the squeeze on my foe!

Evidently disconcerted by my glacial but effective play, my opponent blunders a pawn here. Possibly she overlooked that the BQ controlled f4 now, which was not the case until Black's last move cleared the diagonal! In any case, where Mr. Fritz had me at a modest =/+, about .70 worth of positional advantage after 13... d5, the machine now jumps to around 2.5 in Black's favor, that is a good pawn plus even more positional advantage!

15.e5 Nh5
16.d4 cxd4
17.cxd4 Rac8
18.Bd3 Qb6
19.Nf3 Nc6

The game is of course "won" here—Black is a pawn up, while all but one of White's pieces occupy the back rank—, but how to actually win it? I noticed two main possibilities: in view of the cluttered pieces blocking White's communication on the back rank, the WQB, conveniently on an open file Black can control, is a key target. And furthermore, should Black exchange two Rooks for White's Q, then the old rule will be true: if the King of the rooks is safe, the rooks are better, but if that K is in danger, then the queen's attacking power outweighs the rooks. Since the WK position is very weak in view of the errant 14.f4, all Black has to do accomplish the rooks for Q trade, and then bring the BQ close. All this will be seen in the following moves. 

21.Kh1 Rfc8
The complications after 22.Qb3 Nxd4 23.Qxb6 axb6 24.Nxd4 Rxc1 25.Bxg6 Rxa1 26.Rxa1 fxg6 27.Nxe6 Bxe5 only result in an endgame where Black is two pawns up.

Black's point: my goal is the aforementioned trade of my rooks for the WQ, while picking up pawns as available. Then the difference between the respective heavy pieces will be dramatically seen in a few moves.

Not 23.Nxe5 Rxc1 24.Qxc1 Rxc1 25.Rxc1 Qxd4 which forks R and N.

On any other move Black is just up two pawns for nothing.

25.Rxc1 Qf2!
Compare the BQ (close to the vulnerable WK, with the powerful threat Bxh3 at hand) with the W rooks—disconnected and threatening nothing.

A blunder that loses at once, but even after the better 26.Kh2 Black breaks through with 26...Bxh3! Anyway! 27.Kxh3 Ng3 28.Rc8+ (Also losing is 28.N1d2 Nf5 29.Nf1 [29.Kh2 Ne3 30.Rg1 Bxe5 31.Be4 (31.Nxe5 Qh4#; 31.Bd3 Bxa1–+) 31...Bxa1 32.Bxd5 Bg7 33.Bxb7 Qg3+ 34.Kh1 Qg4 35.a4 (35.Nh2 Qd7 36.Ndf3 Qxb7 with enormous material advantage) 35...Qh5+ 36.Nh2 Ng4 37.Ndf1 Nf2#] 29...Ne3 wins) 28...Bf8 29.N1d2 (29.N1h2 Nf5) 29...Nf5 30.Kh2 Ne3 and mates.

Black is a piece up with a winning attack, therefore White resigns.

Here is the full game in a viewer:



While some may say this was an easy game (and I'm glad if it looked that way) I hope it was instructive. I think, by trial and error, I have found the best way to play for a win against the passive White players who will choose moves like 4.d3. The answer is not to attack precipitously, but not to play passively like your opponent either. Instead you go forward—glacially perhaps, but forward, taking one square after another, e.g. my maneuver … Na5 followed by the pawn advances to c5 and d5.

This kind of slow building pressure is more unpleasant to the passive player than direct attack, and elicits errors, as here.

If I had been on the White side of this game, I would have rethought my opening—but my opponent was true to herself when we met a month later, and continued with 4.d3 again! After 4… h6 5.0-0 d6 she improved slightly with 6.Re1 and after 6...g6 7.d4 Bg4 8.c3 Qe7 9.h3 Bd7 10.Bb3 Bg7 11.Nbd2 0–0 Black had equalized but no more than that—and yes, an eventual draw in Abrahamian,T-Taylor,T/Los Angeles American Open (rapid) 2010.

This means that of our four Two Knights Defenses, which all featured 4.d3, I have won one with three draws, which is a credible result of course, but I’d prefer the one from the Fischer – Petrosian match in the USSR vs. Rest of the World battle, when Bobby “broke even” with Tigran—two wins for Fischer, and two draws!