Chigorin's queen move

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Chigorin's queen moveEverybody has a favourite chess move. Many just love 23...Qg3. Tim Krabb?©'s favourite is 16...Nc6. According to British Chess Magazine, it's 47...Bh3. And a member of my local chess club is obsessed by the move 7.Ke3! in the Traxler Counter-Attack. These are all highly spectacular moves. My own favourite is the¬†very modest queen-shuffle 2.Qe2.

I'm talking about the little-known Chigorin Variation of the French Defence, which arises after 1.e4 e6 2.Qe2.

nullI still remember the moment when I first encountered this move. I stumbled upon it in an old volume on chess strategy by Euwe and Kramer and, incomprehensibly, the authors didn't comment on the move at all! I couldn't understand what was going on, and was very frustrated about it. The quoted game was Chigorin-Tarrasch, 1893 and this frustrated me even more: how could such an outstanding player like Mikhail Chigorin play this absurd move?

Baffled at first, I started hypothesizing that White must have some idea with it, and I supposed (correctly, as it turned out) that it was to prevent d7-d5. But this didn't make much sense either. First of all, Black could still play 2...d5 and after 3.exd5 Qxd5 he would have a position from the Scandinavian Defence with a rather strange Queen on e2, would he not? Secondly, even if Black couldn't play d7-d5, it hardly seemed worth misplacing the queen just for that.

As always, things turned out to be not so easy. I started stuyding the line and discovered many things; mostly that, of course, the white king's bishop could simply go to g2 and wasn't so blocked after all. The game would then look much like a reversed King's Indian. Also, if Black played Nc6-d4 at some point, chasing the queen even further over the board, the knight could be forced to retreat with tempo by c2-c3, making a nice 'hole' for the Queen on c2 in the process. It seemed there was actually some positional basis for Qe2 and this showed me in a profound way what a deep and rich game chess is.

Nowadays, it's of course well-known that Qe2 and the idea to develop the bishop to g2 is a kind of prelude to later King's Indian positions. Being a French player myself, I too sometimes face the move 2.Qe2 and in my experience, white players indeed usually strive for a quiet KID-like setup, apparently in an attempt to deviate from better known lines such as after 2.d3. Alexei Suetin, in his classic 1982 mongraph on the French, writes of the move:
It may be looked upon as the forerunner of the modern openings strategy which in semi-open systems aims at achieving a King's Indian position with opposite colours, e.g. in the variation 2.d3 d5 3.Nd2 etc.
Similarly, Gligoric, Uhlmann and Botvinnik (The French Defence, 1975) note:
Tchigorin's [sic] move, 2.Qe2, can transpose to the King's Indian Attack (in which White's queen usually plays to e2) but by playing his moves in a different order Black can bypass the K.I.A. setup and take a more aggresive stance.
And the great Kasparov, in the first part of My Great Predecessors, says the following of the line (as played in the game Chigorin-Teichmann, Hastings 1895):
Chigorin demonstrated all the basic ideas of the set-up with the X-ray bishop at g2 and symmetrical pawns on e4 and e5: restriction of the knight at c6 by c2-c3, manoeuvre of the knight to c4 (...) This was the style of the future! Many decades later the King's Indian Attack became fashionable.

Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch (1862-1934)

Now, I must make a personal¬†confession. Although I really love the move Qe2 for all its initial weirdness, I don't like the stereotyped moves that usually follow¬†after it! White¬†often automatically plays g3, Bg2, Nf3 and 0-0, then goes¬†for d3 and/or c3 and he reaches 'normal'¬†King's Indian structures.¬†Played this way, the system loses all its charm, at least for me.¬†It's just another boring KID with¬†reversed colours! Therefore, in this article¬†I¬†will take a¬†different point of view than the (however highly esteemed)¬†opinions quoted above.¬†In an attempt to stop this¬†clich?© treatment of the move Qe2, I will show¬†that Mikhail Chigorin played¬†it with many different ideas in mind as well, and that it's not such a boring¬†setup at all.¬†In fact,¬†Chigorin played the move to deviate from stereotyped chess to force the opponent and himself to think right from the start of the game.

In 1893, the Russian Mikhail Chigorin and the German Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch, two of the strongest players of those days, played a 22-game match in St. Petersburg (Chigorin's home town) against each other. It was not an official title match, but the stakes were high. It was a clash not just of chess giants, but of chess schools. As Raymond Keene describes the situation in The Evolution of Chess Opening Theory:
Steinitz's games had taught the chess world much but certain eccentricities persisted in the old master's conception of opening play, which could not satisfy an idealogue and purist such as Tarrasch. For the first time, we now see the multiplicity of Steinitzian options narrowed down and pruned. Variations and moves are 'incorrect' for general and logical reasons and Chigorin's objections (in his games with Tarrasch) that his incorrect or ugly moves are actually quite viable were more or less ignored. That was until Nimzowitsch came along to renew the challenge to Tarrasch, and until (much later) Soviet writers rediscovered Chigorin as the ideological father of Russian chess, finding that his 'ugly' moves, too, had a scientific basis.
The final score of the match was +9 -9 =4. The games were famously analysed by Tarrasch in his masterpiece Dreihundert Schachpartien (300 chess games). In all-but-one of Chigorin's white games, the 'ugly' Qe2 line was played, making this historic match the 'creation story' of this particular variation. But according to Tarrasch himself, Chigorin wasn't the first to have played the move. In his comments to the first game, Tarrasch writes:
This move was no surprise for me, I had seen it already in a game by Pollock, but given it no attention. It has no other value than to prevent the usual methods of play, and to lead to a difficult, closed game for both. Such experiments are usually allowed to white without huge risks.
Tarrasch's first comment on Qe2 in his book Dreihundert Schachpartien

Tarrasch's first comment on Qe2 in his book 'Dreihundert Schachpartien'

So far, I have not been able to dig up this game by Pollock, but it must exist, as it is also mentioned in the official match book by Albert Heyde (Der Schachwettkampf zwischen Dr. S. Tarrasch und M. Tschigorin, Ende 1893).  Can a reader locate it?

It turns out Chigorin himself had something to say about his move. In the magazine Shakhmaty (1894) he writes:

I must say that the origin of this move has to be attributed, to a considerable extent, to chance. I pointed it out half in jest during a private conversation with a group of players. Analysing the move later, however, I saw that it did not at all deserve a jesting attitude. I was struck by a remote resemblance with the position in one of my games with Steinitz: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 d6 5.c3 g6 6.Nbd2 Bg7 7.Nf1 0-0 8.Ba4 d5 9.Qe2. With this queen move, Steinitz avoided the need to take Black’s d-pawn with his e-pawn, which is defended by his own d-pawn. This gave me the idea of the moves g3, Bg2, d3, a plan which I later elaborated. I think that, generally speaking, chance will time and again play a significant role in the development of an opening.

An evaluation of the move 2.Qe2 can only be made in conjunction with the whole plan arising from it and not in isolation as did the chess critics. The narrowness and short-sightedness of these critics is astonishing. One, for example, gave the variation 3 d4, after 1.e4 e6 2.Qe2 Be7, which leaves White’s game weak everywhere: but in my calculations, as mentioned above, I never had any intention of playing the pawn to d4. Another critic commented that “the move 2.Qe2 leads to a “peculiar” game which is a mixture of Sicilian, Fianchetto and French Games, and in which “the defence is easier after this move than on the usual continuations”. The result of the match games seems to sufficiently demonstrate that the defence is not as easy as appears to the critic. The third, fourth, fifth etc. insisted that “stronger was 2.d4”. But it is difficult to catch the meaning of this “stronger”! There was a time when, everywhere I read and heard that here this or that is “stronger”, it was as if I understood what this meant; but the blissful times of belief passed and the meaning of this “stronger” became for me “more obscure”.

(Quoted from Jimmy Adams, Mikhail Chigorin : The Creative Chess Genius, 1987)

Heyde, too, makes a very noteworthy observation about these games, which is also important for our pursuit:
The games with this opening which were played in this match are the most interesting. In these, Chigorin tries a move tried in America - by Pollock if I'm not mistaken - 2.Qe2, which is well underestimated by most players.  Admittedly, Chigorin himself did not immediately find the right continuation, since in the defence with 2...Be7, the queen move gains in strength only by means of 3.b3 and 4.Bb2.
Here's the thing. I've played the logical move 2...Be7 (preparing d7-d5) myself a number of times against 2.Qe2, and on none of those occasions did my opponent go for b3 and Bb2. In all cases, White automatically went g3, Bg2 and d3, without even thinking. I find this very strange. If you play such an interesting move as Qe2, why follow up with such boring schemes?

But let's not overhaste things. After all, Tarrasch himself didn't play 2...Be7 until the 10th match game. In the first four games, he played 2...c5. And as already briefly mentioned, Chigorin didn't play the g3, Bg2 and d3 setup until the second time he got the line on the board. Chigorin's first attempt went as follows (comments are by Tarrasch):

Chigorin - Tarrasch St. Petersburg (m/2), 1893

1.e4 e6 2.Qe2 c5 'With this, Black switches to a Sicilian game, in which the position of the white queen on e2 in any case can't help the attack.'

3.Nc3 'This is, on account of the however insignificant threat Nb8-c6-d4, not good and lays the foundation of later problems. White should play g2-g3, as in the 4th and 6th games of the match, and not rob himself of the possibility to chase away the enemy knight with c2-c3.'

3...Nc6 4.Nf3 a6 5.g3 'The wing development of this bishop was of course already intended with Qe2.'

5...Nd4 6.Qd3

nullAt this point, we get a marvellous example of Tarrasch's famous sarcasm: 'One sees, Chigorin has learned a lot from Steinitz, perhaps too much. In any case it was more natural to withdraw the queen to d1 and continue the game with d3, Be3, Bg2 etc.' In the end, Tarrasch got a beautiful position indeed, but unfortunately, he got mated.

Well, never mind that Black got a good position out of the opening - what's important for us is to note is that White wasn't playing the typical KIA moves here. It shows that the move can also be used to achieve interesting, different kind of positions. Tarrasch himself understood this point well when he wrote, in that other famous book of his, Die Moderne Schachpartie (1916): 'The one idea of this unusual move is that it complicates the game and makes it more difficult.'

Although Tarrasch obviously was no fan of Qe2, I think it does show that Tarrasch values the move not as a way for White to reach a certain kind of standard setup, but to make play interesting. And this can be done in many more ways than just one! In a way, Tarrasch acknowledged this also by varying his own setup as Black during the match. For instance, even though he reached a perfectly fine position (and a classic victory) in game 6 after 2...c5 3.g3 Nc6 4.Bg2 Nd4 5.Qd3 Be7, he played differently with 4...Be7 in the 8th game, 'to take a new course as soon as possible'.

Let's now turn our attention to the line described above by Albert Heyde.

Chigorin-Tarrasch St. Petersburg (m/12), 1893

1. e4 e6 2.Qe2 Be7

nullWhile searching for contemporary sources in the Max Euwe Centre in Amsterdam, I discovered that at the time, opinions about how to play this line varied considerably. In the november 1893 issue of the Deutsches Wochenschach magazine, the text move is regarded as the 'simplest and securest' reply to White's concept. On the other hand, in the same issue of the Deutsche Schachzeitung, 2...c5 is considered 'clearly the best answer to this untheoretical move'. 

In the end, it seems history has proven the Schachzeitung right. For instance, The Handbuch des Schachspiels by P.R. von Bilguer (1922) mentions that Steinitz considered best a setup with ...c5, Nc6, d6, Nf6, Be7 and 0-0, later followed by d6-d5. Euwe (Theorie der Schaakopeningen, 1953) does likewise. Suetin (1982) and Psakhis (The Complete French, 1992) also prefer 2..c5, and so does Uhlmann (Franz??sisch - richtig gespielt, 2004). It has also been the choice of players such as Morozevich, Bareev, Jussupow and Kortchnoi., but I wonder if it was just an 'autoreply' or if they actually considered 2...Be7, which I personally find more esthetic.

Deutsches Wochenschach

In the end, it seems history has proven the Schachzeitung right

3.b3 'A creative reply, directed against d7-d5' - Tarrasch.

3...d5 4.Bb2 Bf6 Tarrasch's notes are worth quoting in full:
The normal development would have been 4...Nf6, after which Black must ruin his king's side by means of 5.exd5 exd5 (5...Qxd5 is not good for Black) 6.Bxf6 gxf6. Because of this, I chose the bishop's move in all games with this opening. This further provokes the advance of the e-pawn, which is almost always more unpleasant for Black on e4 than on e5. In general, central pawns are best advanced only two squares, and because of this 4...d4 isn't good; White would attack the pawn several times with c2-c3, Nf3 etc, and the end force the exchange.
An interesting discourse, but it's interesting that Chigorin appears not to have intended 5.exd5 at all! In three later games, he chose 5.Nc3 or 5.e5. The latter move, by the way, was also played against Grandmaster Rafael Vaganian in 1998. It seems these positions have not lost all relevance after all...

5.e5 Later in the match, Chigorin deviated with 5.Bxf6. But according to Kasparov, who analyses some of these games in his already mentioned My Great Predecessors vol. 1, taking the bishop is inferior to the text.

5...Be7 This position also occurred in the 14th match game. On both occasions, Chigorin played

6.Qg4 after which Tarrasch played the amazing 6...Bf8 null

A unique position: on move 6, Black has 'completed' his bishop manoeuvre with Bf8-e7-f6-e7-f8! According to Tarrasch,  this is better than weakening the king's side with g7-g6. He writes: 'One can't blame the bishop now for making four moves; of course, taken together these are wasted. But because of the move e4-e5 Black has the opportunity to develop play on the queen's side well, and start an attack there, while not much can happen to him on the king's side.'

In my opinion, this manoeuvre also shows that Siegbert Tarrasch wasn't only the dogmatist he has often been called , but also, like Chigorin, an empiricist who liked to experiment. Recall the Keene quote, or what Robert Wade (in his well-known book Soviet Chess) had to say about it:
Dogmatic as benefits a teacher and a methodist, Tarrasch tried to explain chess in an uncomplicated mechanical fashion rather similar to the way in the same period that the universe was explained. Just as small exceptions upset the rules to which the universe supposedly conformed, small exceptions required the rules propounded by Tarrasch to be modified. Chigorin was a non-confirmist, just as Nimzowitsch became in the days of the twentieth century preceding World War I.
Well, that may be so, but I fail to see what's so 'conformist' about making four bishop moves in your first six moves, ending up on f8 anyway! (By the way, in an internet game from 2004, Alexander Repritsev played 6.h4!? against the well-known grandmaster Sergey Shipov, so we'll never know if the grandmaster analyst also intended Tarrasch's non-comformist move Bf8...)

But this wasn't the end of it. The idea of attacking g7 by means of Qg4 inspired Chigorin in 1899 to play (against Showalter) the even more radical 3.Qg4!?! after 2...Be7. The game continued in 'Winawer style': 3...Nf6!? 4.Qxg7 Rg8 5.Qh6 and White won - all of which goes, I hope, to show the potential versatility of the move Qe2.

And even if Black doesn't play 2...Be7 but the more¬†popular 2...c5,¬†White can still play differently than¬†a standard¬†King's Indian Attack setup with Nf3 and g3. This time, it was G?©za Mar??czy who found out how.¬†In early 1904,¬†after 2...c5 he played the move 3.f4 against Swiderski, postponing the development¬†of the white squared bishop to a more suitable moment.

nullTwo months later, during the famous Cambridge Springs 1904 tournament, Chigorin himself caught Mar??czy's idea and tried it two times (against Showalter and Marco). He lost both games, though, and generally was in poor shape in those days. (He did win $67,50 for his final result, according to the tournament site.)

Still, despite this bad experience with 3.f4, the move was regularly seen in tournament pratice. It was employed by Paul Keres in the 1930s, and after that occasionally used by strong players. Admittedly, most white players later went for a KIA setup anyway (but now with the standard move f4 included already), but not always. Canadian IM Lawrence Day, for instance, has played the position with considerably more gusto, trying, after 3.f4 Nc6 4.Nf3 g6 the move 5.Na3!? and after 4...Nge7 our good old plan 5.b3!? And as a perfect example of how the system can be played in a creative fashion, consider the beginning of the following game:

Day - Stonkus Toronto open 1995

1.e4 e6 2.Qe2 c5 3.f4 Nc6 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.c3 b5 6.g4!? Nxg4 7.Qxb5 Be7 8.Rg1 Bh4+ 9.Ke2 null and White won.

Now, according to my database, 3.f4 is still only White's third most popular move behind 3.Nf3 and 3.g3, but not too long ago, it has also caught the attention of the creative British top grandmasters Nigel Short and Luke McShane. Short employed the move twice in his 1997 FIDE knockout match against Viktor Kortchnoi, while McShane, too, has played it against Kortchnoi. (Short told me that he had played the move mainly because he 'must have been desperate'. Well, even better, for apparently he hoped that  Chigorin's move would somehow bring back his usual creativity!)

Nigel Short

Nigel Short, who admitted playing 2.Qe2 only because he was desperate...

The strong Belarus grandmaster Alexei Fedorov has also played 3.f4, and guess what - he played b2-b3 two moves later. I consider all of this sufficient proof that Chigorin's Qe2 is not just 'some move' to enter a King's Indian Attack in a less theoretical way, but has independent value as a system. However, to my knowledge, no monograph or theoretical survey has ever been written about the variation in over 100 years! Why is this?

Is it because White's move still just looks too silly to take seriously, as Tarrasch used to think? Or is it because people think it's just another boring (when you're playing black) or easy (as white) way to arrange your pieces without actually having to think the first few moves? I hope I have convinced you that this was not the fate Chigorin intended his variation. He played it as a way to start a chess game in an interesting, creative way. When I first saw the move Qe2, I thought it was a great big mystery.

Now I know it still is.

Arne MollArne Moll regularly writes columns for ChessVibes. Here you can find previous columns all listed together.
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