Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Four Knights Opening

I was going to look at some Najdorf theory, but it really is daunting to get into if you haven't looked at any over the past 25 years. Unfortunately I gave up the Najdorf just as Nunn and Short were pioneering the English Attack which had been known as the Byrne System before the 1980's. The latest issue of New in Chess magazine contains one Najdorf game, an English Attack between Anand and Topalov from the recent Norwegian super tournament. In the magazine, the first 14 moves get no commentary which doesn't really help me understand the nuances of this opening. So I've decided to leave the Najdorf for another day when I feel up to the challenge of wading through the reams of games and analysis.

Instead I saw a game from TWIC which featured the h3 move that Kramnik used last year in the Scotch Four Knights Opening. The position comes after the moves:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4 6.Nxc6 [Someone fell for 6.Ndb5? last week which works well in the Sicilian Pelikan, but here loses material after 6..a6 when white's best is to drop back to d4 with his knight, losing the e4 pawn] 6..bxc6 7.Bd3 d5 8.exd5 cxd5 9.0-0 0-0
The mainline here is 10.Bg5 which seems like a natural enough move, but last year Kramnik used the move 10.h3 against Aronian in the 2012 Tal Memorial. That game ended in a draw, though it seemed as if Aronian was under a little pressure. Since then the line has come under top level scrutiny, with Karjakin, Morozevich, Wang Hao and Anish Giri playing this position for white among others. I have a database of recent games, and in 100 games from September 2012 until now white has scored 59% with the move 10.h3. Funnily enough, running Stockfish for 10 minutes on my laptop just brings up a level score for this position, -0.08 with 10..c6 as it's main move and 10..Re8 as the main alternative. Well these are 2 of the top 3 moves, but neither score particularly well for black. The move that is performing the best for black at the moment is the "pass the ball back to white's court" 10..h6. The obvious idea behind white's tenth move is to prevent black from using g4, especially for his bishop. So the prophylactic 10.h3 secures white's queen along the d1-h5 diagonal, and means that white will develop the queen to f3 most likely. So by playing 10..h6, black deprives white of the most natural move for their dark squared bishop, g5. White can still develop the dark squared bishop to f4 which is a pretty good square. Usually white develops the queen first 11.Qf3.
I guess this position is a vital one to understand. White has the better structure and white's pieces seem more centrally directed. After white plays Bf4 and connects rooks it will be time to plan on how to bring about the demise of black's centre. Because black's central pawns, whether they are on c6/d5 or c5/d5 are annoying and holding on to a lot of space. Black may have to work a bit harder with the pieces to coordinate them properly, but black's pieces have great shelter from the central pawn mass. Black has 2 natural files for the rooks, the semi open b-file, and the open e-file, and the possibility, at least temporarily, of shattering white's queen side by exchanging on c3. Saying that, giving up the bishop pair for pawn weaknesses is not a risk free strategy in this type of position.

The most high profile game played from this position is the all GM clash Quesada-Bacallao Cuban Ch 2013.
11..Re8 12.Bf4 c6 [interesting that black does not trade dark squared bishops by 12..Bd6. This plan seems to be scoring well for white. Also the c6 pawn prevents white's knight from using b5] 13.Ne2?! [Now I don't want to start criticising GM's for their moves (lol) but 13.Rfe1 seems to make a lot more sense, challenging the e-file, as played int he game Zelcic-Bayer Austria 2013. In that game, white simply centralised his rooks, and only regrouped his knight after black had played Bb4-d6, so as to recapture on f4 with the knight or transfer it to the king side] 13..Ne4 [Throwing the knight into the centre, taking advantage of white's last move. Also notice that white cannot develop a rook to the e-file for the moment] 14.Rad1 Qf6 15.c3
Black's bishop needs to retreat, but where to? In the game it dropped back to f8 but it certainly could have stayed more active on either c5 or d6.
15..Bd6 [and white can hardly play 16.Bxd6 Qxf3 17.gxf3 Nxd6 with an excellent game for black] 16.Rfe1 and black can force a similar structure to the last note after 16..g5!? 17.Bxd6 Qxf3 18.gxf3 Nxd6 and black is better
15..Bc5 [Covering both d4 and f2, though the down side is that that black will not be playing Rb8 in a hurry] 16.b4 Bb6 17.a4 [This queen side expansion is probably what black was wary of in the game] 17..a6 [17..a5 allows white to push 18.b5 undermining black's centre; 17..g5 is not so good here as after white's bishop retreats, a queen swap will not favour black eg. 18.Bh2Qxf3 19.gxf3 Nf6 20.a5 Bd8 and black's pieces have been pushed uncomfortably backwards] 18.c4! I think this move keeps white in the game eg. 18..Be6 19.c5 Ba7 20.Be3, a nice regrouping taking control of the d4 square and keeping the balance, though maybe not much more.

All in all an interesting little look at what seems an innocuous move. I'll leave you with a database of games :)


  1. When are you going to cover the Possum Opening ?

  2. Send me some info and I'll think about it :)