Don't Feed the Hippo
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Don't Feed the Hippo

GM Illingworth
Oct 10, 2018, 5:14 PM |

A few months ago, I visited Adelaide Zoo and saw many beautiful and interesting animals, including the Hippopotamus. I don't think I'll ever forget Brutus the old hippo - he would spend nearly all his time in the water, lured only by the prospect of chomping on carrots. (Speaking of which - if you missed the solution to yesterday's puzzle, see my previous post).

If you wanted to see Brutus, you had to wait until everyone left...then he would slowly emerge from the water. But you had to be quick because as soon as you got near to take a photo, he would lumber back into the water.

Now you're probably thinking, what does this monkey business have to do with chess? Well, in chess the basic Hippopotamus setup looks as follows:

Now you may see the similarities to Brutus - if you try to get near, the Hippo will hide again in the water. And if you insist on approaching, you could easily get knifed...At the same time, we can't just turn our backs, or we will be hit with a sudden ...c5 or ...f5 when we're least ready for it (not to mention other ideas, such as the central breaks or a dark-squared strategy with ...g5/...Ng6). 

So, what is the solution to our dilemma?

Don't let the opponent complete their Hippo setup!

Now let me share with you a few ways to make our opponent's life difficult. 
Option 1: Play a quick h4-h5

This tends to work best when Black commits to the double-fianchetto or ...e6/...Ne7 early. For example:
Naturally, your chosen setup against the Hippo may vary a bit, depending on our opponent move order - the 'Modern' move order (starting with the kingside fianchetto and ...d6/d3) being the most flexible. We may notice that Black's typical reply to the h4-h5 attacking idea is ...h6, to meet h5 with ...g5, closing the h-file.

But as we saw in the sequence above, White can open the position with f4, and after the subsequent exchange of pawns, Black's h6-pawn is a fixed weakness, and Black's king can no longer find safety on the kingside. On the other hand, it will take a while for Black to castle queenside, and even then, his king may not be completely safe. 

You might be wondering what happens if Black meets h4 with ...h5. That's possible, but then we can bring our knight to the g5-square (most likely via. h3). Black will have a hard time getting in ...f6, and even if he does, it could be considered a serious weakening of his pawn structure.

You probably figured this out already, but when White goes for the Qd2/Be3 battery, Black should play ...h6 before ...Ne7, otherwise Bh6 trades Black's bishop and creates some dark-squared holes in Black's camp. h4-h5 could then naturally follow, without any interference.

Option 2: Take the center with three pawns (c4/d4/e4)

This could be considered the positional approach, opting for a setup such as the following:
When I reached these types of positions as a 2100-2200 player over a decade ago, I would often be lost for a plan as White, and in my post-game analysis, I would find the engine's suggestions to be a bit planless. My feeling is that, if you're a club player, you'll find my other two recommendations easier, but at the same time, if you're a 1.d4/2.c4 player and the opponent uses a Modern (1...g6/2...Bg7/3...d6) move order, you may not have a choice. 

Since I'm also curious about these positions (you'd be surprised how often I reach them in bullet/blitz on, I've taken the engine's variations and explained them below:
Step 3: Go for f4-f5! (The Reinfeld Plan)

I call this the Reinfeld Plan because I recall it was first recommended in an old book of Fred Reinfeld (who was one of the most prolific chess authors of his time). This was the key position he identified:
Obviously, we can't easily go for this if Black has achieved both ...e6 and ...Ne7, so this is again a somewhat situational plan. Some of you may remember the rapid game Harika-Tan Zhongyi from last year's Women's World Championship, which was a model attacking example from White's point of view. I've analyzed it below while noting some improvements for both sides:

Armed with these ideas, I'm sure you will not have any problems obtaining an advantage, and having a clear middlegame plan, the next time you face the Hippopotamus setup. Granted, if the opponent plays the Hippo as White, we may have to be more restrained in our aggression, as the extra tempo does make some difference when things get sharp - but the same basic development schemes will work all the same. 

If you want similar guidance in how to deal with Tiger's Modern (the setup where, instead of ...Nd7/...e6 in the Harika-Tan game, Black plays ...b5/...Nd7/...Bb7), I have just posted some ideas for White on my Patreon page. However, you will need to pledge $8 for the month to access it (and the full range of content on my site). 

Relating this Article to Training Methods

This was already quite a long post, but I will do my best to incorporate the questions asked in yesterday's post into future posts. That said, I think this article gives a fair indication of how to approach opening study - combining concrete analysis with understanding why certain moves are best, and how to exploit inferior moves. 

@ralphsnider asked a question about handling different move orders, and that was to some extent our topic in this article, where we saw ways to find and then exploit the disadvantage of the opponent's move order. The other key is to be aware of opening transpositions and try to identify them - which becomes easier as our opening knowledge grows. 

As for  @wingchun1's question - we saw in this article how having model games to follow makes it much easier to come up with a good plan or transformation of the position once we are out of 'book'. If you are really stuck, try using Aagaard's three positional questions, which I will probably discuss in a later blog post.

The other questions don't relate directly to this post, but they've been noted, and I'll do my best to incorporate them in subsequent posts.