The Greek Queen

0 | Chess Event Coverage

While reading a very serious op-ed about the developments on the Greek crisis in the Financial Times, I suddenly had the very non-serious realization that there seems to be no such thing as a ‘Greek Opening’ in chess.

Everybody knows the Spanish and the Italian, there’s a Portuguese Variation (you should try it one day!), and I also heard of the story of the ‘Irish Gambit’ (don’t try that one), but why doesn’t there seem to be anything ‘Greek’ in chess? Why do we have all these brilliant Greek philosophers, when there are so few brilliant Greek opening innovators?

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is, of course, the enigmatic Gioachino Greco, sometimes known as El Greco, who lived from approximately 1600 to approximately 1634, and who’s regarded as the first chess ‘professional’ in history.

Most of Greco’s games are considered to be reconstructions. Nowadays, he is best known for his ideas in the Giuoco Piano and as the inventor of the ‘wrong rook pawn’ endgame where a win with Bishop + rook pawn vs. lone king is still a draw. There even appears to be a ‘Greco Defense’, but it’s hardly worthy of bearing his name (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Qf6?).

While reading on Greco, I discovered that the Owen Defence (1.e4 b6) is actually sometimes referred to as the Greek Defence. So there is one after all! The reason, somewhat predictably, again has to do with Greco, though ironically, Greco wasn't Greek at all - he was an Italian. (Update: As reader Panagis Sklavounos notes in the comments, the name is actually derived from Greek traders who played this opening in the early 19th century.)

One of Greco's recorded games goes as follows:


1.e4 b6 2.d4 Bb7 3.Bd3 f5? 4.exf5 Bxg2 5.Qh5+ g6 6.fxg6 Nf6?

[FEN "rn1qkb1r/p1ppp2p/1p3nP1/7Q/3P4/3B4/PPP2PbP/RNB1K1NR w KQkq - 0 7"]

7.gxh7+! Nxh5 8.Bg6 mate.

Some people may protest that this game is obviously a reconstruction, but during my chess life, I have already seen this exact scenario unfold in chess simuls twice! The first time happened right next to me during a chess simul when I was in high school; the second one I witnessed while being a spectator to a simul given by the Dutch GM Genna Sosonko .  (Amazingly, he played 7.g7+? but still won. To this day I am convinced Sosonko played this move out of courtesy rather than out of ignorance.) 

Moreover, the variation has a respectable echo in another line (from the so-called English Defence): 1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6 3.e4 Bb7 4.Bd3 f5 5.exf5 Bxg2?! 6.Qh5+ and although modern theory now prefers White, things are actually not that clear. The whole line becomes even more relevant if Black, instead of taking on g2, immediately, plays 5…Bb4+! first, clearing f8 for the Black king. White should therefore go 6.Kf1 when Black has promising compensation after 6…Nf6 followed by 0-0.

I probably wouldn’t have thought about the Greek Defence and its possible roots again (though it’s hard to avoid thinking about Greece these days), but yesterday I received an inspiring new book from the Quality Chess publishers titled The Alterman Gambit Guide, in which GM Boris Alterman devotes an entertaining chapter to a line which is another distant cousin of Greco’s original idea:

1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6 3.e4 Bb7 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.f3 f5! 6.exf5 Nh6!

[FEN "rn1qk2r/pbpp2pp/1p2p2n/5P2/1bPP4/2N2P2/PP4PP/R1BQKBNR w KQkq - 0 7"]

One of the funny things of this line (and indeed many silimar ones) is that here it’s not White who’s doing the Qh5+ checking, but Black: after 7.Bxh6?! there follows 7….Qh4+8.g3 Qxh6 and Black is fine. (This idea is also seen in some variations of the Saemisch King’s Indian.)  Black’s big idea is that if White takes on e6, the knight jumps to f5, threatening a deadly 'Greek' check on h4:

7.fxe6?! Nf5!

[FEN "rn1qk2r/pbpp2pp/1p2P3/5n2/1bPP4/2N2P2/PP4PP/R1BQKBNR w KQkq - 0 8"]

Alterman now analyses the logical moves 8.Nge2 and 8.Bf4 which are indeed played the most often, but he doesn’t mention another very natural continuation - especially if you are familiar with the idea of clearing a square for your king in the face of the Qh5/h4 check:

8.Bd3!? Now, 8…Qh4+ 9.Kf1 Ng3+ 10.hxg3 Qxh1 11.Nb5! is suddenly good  for White, so Black should play differently. One option is 9…0-0, the other is the immediate 8…0-0 which does, however, allow White to take on f5. (8…Nd4 9.Be4! is what White wants.) In both cases, Black has interesting compensation but, at least according to the engines, not more than that.

When you think of it, the idea of putting a queen on h5 or h4 is so pervasive in this opening that almost anything goes, really. I have always been particularly fascinated (but afraid to try out myself) by this one:

1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6 3.e4 Bb7 4.Bd3 Qh4!?

[FEN "rn2kbnr/pbpp1ppp/1p2p3/8/2PPP2q/3B4/PP3PPP/RNBQK1NR w KQkq - 0 5"]

Attacking e4 and if 5.Nf3, then 5…Qg4! and Black threatens to take on g2 as well! Of course, the most beautiful line now is 6.0-0 Bxe4 7.Bxe4 Qxe4 8.Re1 Qb7! when White doesn’t seem to have much compensation despite his huge lead in development. Instead, White has tried several alternatives, most prominently 5.Nd2 and 5.d5 (played by Alexei Shirov, back in 1990, against Eric Prie). My engine, however, comes up with an even cleverer move:

5.h3!? I guess only a machine could come up with the point that 5…Bxe4 fails to 6.g3! and Black loses his bishop: for once, the ‘Greek’ queen is punished for her risky adventure.

I’m sure many of today’s politicians and financial analysts couldn’t agree more.

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