At His Best: Topalov and Piece Activity

At His Best: Topalov and Piece Activity

NM SamCopeland

I would like to take a moment to celebrate Topalov's piece play. Veselin Topalov is a player who doesn't always receive the admiration he is due. In his career, Topalov has been ranked number 1 in the world for 27 months, longer than any players besides Kasparov, Karpov, Fischer, and Carlsen. After Kasparov's retirement and before Carlsen's ascension, Topalov made as strong a case as anyone for the number 1 ranking. His 6.5 of 7 at San Luis 2005 is one of the greatest tournament starts of all time. Despite this, Topalov is relatively unheralded. Perhaps it is because he is not as likable as some and perhaps because of his (and his manager Danailov's) extremely spurious accusations against Kramnik in the World Championship. Fortunately, chess players are not judge by their behavior alone, but also by their games.

There is much to admire in Topalov's games, but what I enjoy most often in Topalov's games is his willingness to accept all sorts of material imbalances in the interests of piece activity. Topalov is particularly known for his exchange sacrifices. His library of exchange sacrifices is probably second only to Petrosian's. Whereas Petrosian's exchange sacrifices often seemed to be based around the control of certain squares or color complexes, Topalov's are centered around piece activity. It seems to matter little to Topalov what the material "count" is; it only matters whether his pieces have more scope and targets than his opponent's. I once heard one commentator state that Topalov was unique in his ability among top players to identify positions that computers evaluated poorly. I think this is related to the deep insight he has regarding piece activity.

The following are some of my favorite instructive Topalov games. While it takes a super-GM like Topalov to calculate through the myriad complications, anyone can learn from the way Topalov value, exploits, and transforms piece activity. 

Game 1 - Kharlov vs. Topalov

This is one of my personal favorite games. The play is not perfect, but Topalov's consistent rejection of traditional piece values is incredibly instructive. In retrospect, his play is incredibly logical, but could you confidently play such sacrifices in a standard game against GM competition? 


Game 2 - Van Wely vs. Topalov

This game features both positional dominance emerging from an exchange sac and a nice tactical conclusion. For his exchange, Topalov gets little in the way of immediate tactical threats.


Game 3 - Topalov vs. Aronian

The following is probably Topalov's greatest game, and it has been justifiably published and analyzed many times over. In my opinion, it is unquestionably a masterpiece. Topalov offers two exchanges in the course of the game; in the end, his bishop pair and passed pawns overpower two rooks easily.


Game 4 - Topalov vs. Svidler

This game is practically a trifle compared to the lengthy complexities in the previous games; however, I quite like the exchange that is offered. Topalov has no hint of an attack in return for his piece. The compensation is entirely based around improved relative piece activity and a pawn target on c5.