Let’s Bughouse! Playing Against the Sicilian, Part 1
Bughouse has a well-deserved reputation for being an extremely tactical game. The values of all the pieces are lower than in normal chess, and sacrifices are extremely common. Unfortunately, all the wild-and-crazy, combinatorial excitement often obscures the subtler beauty of the game.
For instance, the purpose of a bughouse opening isn’t to throw pieces at f7/f2 as fast as humanly possible. It’s to create long-term positional potential. The reason the Sicilian is a dubious opening for black is not because it opens up the c7 square for that juicy knight fork, but because the hole on c7 makes the d6 square too weak to handle long-term pressure.
(The tl;dr version? When playing against the Sicilian in bughouse, attack d6.)
Let’s start with a familiar move order: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6. In keeping with today’s theme, white attacks d6 with 3. e5!
This immediately poses black some problems. The knight on f8 doesn’t have a good development square. By playing 3… Nh6, black either commits herself to Ng4, Nxf2—which is dubious because white can develop her attack and counter that plan effectively—or has to live with the threat of Bxh6, weakening the kingside defense. In some lines, white can also play d4 to make that threat, while gaining tempo on the queenside.
Since the Nh6 lines tend to transpose into the other lines below, I’ll leave it at that for now.
Instead, black needs to deal with pawn on e5. Playing 3… f6 is not a good idea, because it weakens f7. After 4. Bc4 black almost has to play 4 …e6, leaving a hole on d6. White’s aim has been accomplished. Within the first four moves of the game, white’s forced black to make a major positional concession. The idea of p@d6, then N@c7 is very strong—strong enough to wait 2-3 seconds to see if your partner can get those pieces.
The alternate 4… Nh6 isn’t that good either, due to this line: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. e5! f6? 4. Bc4 Nh6 5. d4! e6 (since the defending knight on h6 won’t be around for much longer) 6. Bxh6 gxh6 7. exf6 Qxf6.
The d6 square is still weak, and now f6 and g7 are as well. White has many punishing drops, such as N@h5, N@e4, p@e5, B@e5. And if there are no pieces yet, white can maintain the initiative with a line like 8. d5 Qxb2 (poisoned pawn) 9. dxc6 Qxa1 10. cxd7+ Bxd7. With moderate flow, white can drop B@c3 to fork the queen and rook (which is always fun because they’re on the exact opposite sides of the board); N@c7+ directly; or ideas centered around p@f7+ and N@e4.
Better yet, if you add up the material, in this position white has sacrificed 1 point of material for an overwhelming positional advantage. (In bughouse, knights, bishops and rooks are worth 2 points, while queens are worth 4.) Black’s pieces are uncoordinated—only the queen has a realistic chance of making threats—and with heavy piece flow, it’s easy to set up a mating net, even without a queen, with a line like 11. Qxd7+!! Kxd7 12. Bxe6! Kxe6 13. N@f4+ Kf6:
Black has an exposed king, not many routes into white’s position, and the knights on f3 and f4 also control h3 and h4, meaning that white will have an advantage in king safety after she castles kingside. She also has the option of B@c3+, regaining 2 points of material. And she only needed to drop one piece to do it, keeping out of sac-sitting FEED ME territory.
So let’s go to black’s other reasonable option: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. e5! d6.
Despite today’s theme, it’s important not to capture…not yet. After 4. exd6?! exd6, black is solely in control of the d6 square. There are two defenders, and white can’t attack just yet. Both 5. Ne5 and 5. Ng5 hang the knight, and 5. Bc4 is met by 5… Qe7+.
The queen move defends f7, continues to eye c7, and gives potential counterplay after 6. Qe2 N@f4 7. Bxf7+ Kd8. White has an advantage in the ensuing tactical melee, because of the weakness of c7, but black still has chances.
Instead of just attacking d6, white wants to win it. So she’ll provoke another weakness first with 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. e5! d6 4. Bc4.
Now black has to decide how to defend f7. 4… Be6 is very iffy. For one, it allows a pawn drop on d5. And even without pieces, after 5. Bxe6 fxe6 6. Ng5 Nh6 7. Nxe6, black has a very unpleasant game ahead of her.
After 4… d5, 5. Bxd5 Qxd5 6. N@c7+ is a common trap, and even if white doesn’t get a knight immediately, the bishop can move to b5 instead, pinning the knight, and if black’s e-pawn ever moves forward, d6 is free for a pawn drop. Mission accomplished! White now owns d6.
Lines Beginning with 5… Bxd6
In addition to d6, the other critical square for white in this position is c4. White’s plan is to drop a knight on c4 to further increase pressure on d6. But being a good bughouse partner, white is not going to start screaming for pieces and sit until she gets them. Besides, she’s got a bishop on c4 right now anyway, so she’ll have to do something about that first.
Play continues with 6. Bb5. Having provoked the weakness on d6, the bishop moves to a more useful diagonal, threatening 7. p@e5. Black usually doesn’t ignore the pin, because developing the g8 knight is difficult. 7…Nf6 runs into a fork with 8. p@e5, and 7… Nh6 runs into 8. d4, which threatens 9. Bxh6 and p@e5 with 2 pawns in the injection instead of just one. White will often sacrifice a rook for compensation.
This is the position after 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. e5! d6 4. Bc4 e6 5. exd6 Bxd6 6. Bb5 Nh6 7.d4 Ng4 8. p@e5 Nxf2 9. Qe2 Nxh1 10. exd6 p@f2+ 11. Kd1 Qxd6 12. p@e5.
With white’s knight on f3 and queen on e2, even if black drops a rook or queen on g8, white’s attack will usually be a move or two faster. Just don’t take it. Drop a piece, preferably a bishop or rook, on f1 instead.
Because of this, instead of 6… Nh6, black will usually play 6… Bd7, unpinning the knight. If white gets a knight, play might continue: 7. N@c4 p@c7 8. Bxc6 Bxc6 9. p@e5
If not, white could keep asking for a knight on c4, or she could make a stalling, quiet move that puts the clock pressure back on her opponent. In this case, that move is 7. d3.
This prophylaxis defends against 7… N@f4, and poses black another problem. Knowing that white wants to play N@c4, black wants to prevent it. Unfortunately, white has good responses to all attempts, because there is no move that defends against both N@c4 and N@h5 at the same time.
Some sample lines:
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. e5! d6 4. Bc4 e6 5. exd6 Bxd6 6. Bb5 Bd7 7. d3 a6 8. Bxc6 Bxc6 9. Na3 (not 9. p@e5 Bxf3 10. Qxf3 Bxe5) b5 10. N@h5 N@f5 11. p@f4 p@g6 12. Nxg7+ Nxg7 13. p@e5
Even without getting a knight immediately, there are still many, many ways for white to play actively, with enough force that black doesn’t have the time to fix the hole on d6. Stay tuned next time for a discussion of lines starting with 5… Qxd6 and white’s Accelerated Attack!