10 December 2012

Opening Subtelty: An Historical Transposition

While preparing last week's "Lesson of the Week," I sought to identify where things started to go wrong for Thomas Wilson Barnes. Valeri Beim (Paul Morphy: A Modern Perspective) offers reference to an instructive later game, but more can be said in comparison.

Barnes,Thomas Wilson -- Morphy,Paul [C77]
London m1 London, 1858

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6

As Beim notes, this game was the first time that Paul Morphy played what came to be known as the Morphy Defense. The move had been played twice previously by Charles Henry Stanley in the first U.S. Championship, which was held in New Orleans in Morphy's youth. Stanley lost both games. The move was played a few other times between those games and this one with two Black wins.

White to move

4.Ba4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bb4 6.Nd5

Black to move

Beim marks Morphy's sixth move as dubious. He recommends 6...Ba5 and references Tarrasch -- Chigorin, St. Petersburg (m7), 1893. However, 6...Ba5 was also played in the fifth game of that match, which Tarrasch won in 26 moves. Chigorin won game 7. In game 7, Chigorin omitted 7...b5.

In his comments on game 5, Siegbert Tarrasch recommends 6...Be7, "as on a5 this Bishop will remain inactive throughout the game" (Three Hundred Chess Games: Dreihundert Schachpartien, trans, Sol Schwarz, 285).

I recall Dennis Monokrousses mentioning in one of his videos that Black should play b5 only after White protects the e-pawn. Only then is there a credible threat to win Black's e-pawn by exchanging the light-squared bishop for the c6 knight. That has been my rule of thumb.

The diagram position has been rare (49 games in ChessBase Online). Tarrasch's recommended 6...Be7 has been the most frequent move (16 games), while 6...Bc5 (15 games) has been the most successful (46.7% score for White). The number of games, most of which are not from master play, is too small to draw conclusions from statistics.

7.Bb3 d6 8.0–0 Bg4 9.c3 Ba5

White to move

This position already seems difficult for White. While the comments in my two reference books focus upon inaccuracies in Black's play, White also has some problems. The pin on the knight is a source of irritation. In the Italian Opening and some lines of the Spanish, White plays h3 after Black's d6 to prevent such a pin. White's undefended e-pawn also draws attention.

In the Lesson of the Week, Black's misplaced dark-squared bishop asserted an important pin along the a7-g1 diagonal. Morphy's final maneuver to f4 with this piece was central to the lesson. Of course, that finish remains a long way off from the opening position. Knowing the conclusion of even a short game does not answer questions concerning the advantage at this stage.

Nonetheless, I did not like Barnes' move here, and I sought to find an improvement.


We know the rest of Barnes -- Morphy from the Lesson of the Week.

When I found 10.d3!, I discovered to my surprise a transposition to a later game: the fifth match game of Tarrasch -- Chigorin. Tarrasch played 9.d3 and 10.c3.

The position differs after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bb4 6.Nd5 Ba5 7.0–0 b5?! (see comments above) 8.Bb3 d6, where Tarrasch played 9.d3. Nonetheless, his comment has bearing on consideration of Barnes -- Morphy.

9.d3 "is better than 9.d4, which is recommended by the Handbook.* After 9.d4 Bg4! 10.c3 Qd7, White's game is not as comfortable as after 9.d3" (Three Hundred Chess Games, 285).

Black to move

We now shift to game 5 of Tarrasch -- Chigorin.


Tarrasch calls this move the decisive error, recommending 10...Nd7 "although even then White's position is more solid" (285).

11.Nxe5! dxe5

Black must leave the queen alone 11...Bxd1 12.Nxf6+ gxf6 13.Bxf7+ Kf8 14.Bh6# is the line given by Tarrasch.

12.Nxf6+ gxf6 13.Qxg4

What a contrast this game offers to Barnes -- Morphy. In the earlier game, White's castled king suffered the opening of the g-file. In this game, a half-open g-file helps keep the Black king in the center.

Black to move

13...Ng6 14.Bd5 Rb8 15.f4 c6 16.Bxc6+ Ke7 17.Bd5 b4 18.fxe5 Qb6+ 19.Kh1 Nxe5 20.Qh5 Ng6

White to move

21.Rxf6 Kxf6 22.Bg5+ Kg7 23.Qh6+ Kg8 24.Rf1 Rf8 25.Bf6 Qxf6 26.Rxf6 1–0

Although both games offer errors aplenty, it is worth remembering that by playing 10.d4, Barnes missed a key opportunity to transpose into the future. Had he done so, he might have left history with a very different model game for Paul Morphy's initial use of the Morphy Defense.

*Tarrasch refers to Handbuch des Schachspiels, edited by Tassilo von der Lasa. See "Learning from Errors: Adolf Anderssen".

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