Unbalanced Middlegames: Three Pawns for a Piece
How should you play a middlegame with three pawns for a minor piece? Who has the advantage? No matter what theory or the computer says about your position, in practice the player with the better technique will win.
I have recently been looking at quite a well-known line of the Symmetrical English Reversed Botvinnik or 'Wedberg' Variation (so-called by Carsten Hansen) in which, after only nine moves, white gives up a knight for three pawns. The situation arises as follows:
Interestingly, the position that arises out of this line has generally been evaluated as favourable for white. John Watson admits that the sacrifice is speculative, Carsten Hansen believes the position 'looks rather promising' and that 'black will not have easy time at all', while Mihail Marin states that white gets 'more than enough material and positional compensation'.
In fact, my database shows black scoring rather better from this position, but analysis of the games themselves suggests that this need not have been the case. The goal for white is to prevent black from seizing the initiative and attacking with his pieces, while white himself should hope to press forward with his protected passed pawns in the centre. In an ideal world, black will be forced to give up a piece under disadvantageous circumstances in order to prevent white from queening. Black, on the other hand, needs to generate enough activity to prevent the pawns from advancing or to force them to do so without adequate support. In an ideal world for him, he will be able to use his extra piece to win material and convert the game into a victory.
So how do things actually fare in practice? Thus far, white's pawn activity has generally only been able to secure a draw, whereas black's extra piece has proved more dangerous. I'll present two games with some analysis. The first shows black efficiently converting the material imbalance into a win because white did not get his pawns moving quickly or securely enough:
In the game just reviewed, white was simply outplayed in a wonderfully impressive technical performance by Mariya Muzychuk, who went on to win the women's prize in Gibraltar. White's approach was simply too passive. While strategically it was right to try to exchange off pieces to increase the significance of his central pawn majority, he gave black too much freedom to develop active piece-play, restrain and undermine his pawns, and dominate the position. His plan to make progress on the queenside seemed rather unnecessary and too slow. Nevertheless, black's play is an object-lesson in how to restrain and undermine a pawn majority with powerful centralised pieces.
In the following rapid game between two elite grandmasters, Wang Yue and Ian Nepomniachtchi, things were not so one-sided. Indeed, white was able to get a strong advantage in the middlegame. But unbalanced positions can be technically demanding and difficult to evaluate, especially in rapid chess. Nepomniachtchi's dynamic style allowed him to wrest back the initiative and turn the game around. Though the game contains mistakes, it is a good example of the combination of strategic and tactical motifs that characterize this line:
What lessons can be drawn from these two games?
- When theory books say that a complex imbalanced position should be better for one side they might in principle be right, but practice might not bear out the theory, and at any rate you should be prepared for a complex fight.
- With three pawns against a minor piece it may not be enough simply to seek to trade off pieces and enter an endgame in which the value of the pawns should theoretically increase - positional control is absolutely crucial.
- The side with the initiative may be able to cause discoordination in the opponent's camp (whether of the pieces or of the pawns) which can quickly lead to a winning advantage, but a moment's lapse that allows the other player to regroup or repair his structure may throw away any advantage or even the game.
- In complex positions like this, threats and counterplay may create enough smoke and mirrors to induce an inaccuracy to let you back into the game if you are losing.
In my database, most of the high-level games in this line have been drawn, but the results say little about the nature of the struggle. There are still relatively few games exploring these murky waters, but the dynamics and imbalances in the position make the encounters potentially very instructive and they would certainly reward further investigation.