23 February 2014

Losing my Virginity with the Ponziani

In the second round of the Collyer Memorial tournament yesterday, I played the Ponziani for the first time in a standard game. My prior experience with the opening had been limited to a few games of online blitz the previous three days, one game against a beginner in a chess class that I teach, and against the winner of Spokane Chess Club's winter championship in Friday's blitz tournament. In that game, I had a nice position but then hung my queen.

I have looked over a few Grandmaster games in the past few days. My interest in the opening was stimulated a year ago when Magnus Carlsen played it against Pentala Harikrishna in the 2013 Tata Steel tournament, and then had the Black side in his game against Hou Yifan. The latter was mentioned on this blog while it was taking place. More recently, I have been looking through the games of Rezs┼Ĺ Charousek and spent some time this week looking at a miniature that he lost to Geza Marozcy. Here is that game with a few comments.

Geza Maroczy -- Rudolf Rezso Charousek [C44]
Match Budapest (2), 19.04.1895

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 d5 4.Qa4 f6 5.Bb5 Nge7 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.d4 exd4


8.cxd4 Bd7 9.Nc3 Qf5 10.0–0 Nc8??

10...0–0–0 11.Be3 a6 12.Be2 g5 13.Qd1 Nd5 14.Nxd5 Qxd5 15.b3 g4 16.Bc4 Qh5 17.Nd2 Bd6 18.g3 f5 19.f4 b5 20.Bd5 Rhe8 21.Re1 Bb4 22.Rc1 Ne7 23.Bh1 Qf7 24.a3 Ba5 25.b4 Bb6 26.Qc2 Nd5 27.Qb3 Be6 28.Bxd5 Bxd5 29.Qc3 Bb7 30.Qb3 Qd7 31.Nf1 Bxd4 32.Red1 Bxe3+ 33.Nxe3 Qe7 34.Nd5 Bxd5 35.Rxd5 Rxd5 36.Qc2 Qe3+ 37.Kh1 Qe4+ 38.Qxe4 Rxe4 39.Rc2 Red4 0–1 Kelling,F -- Gyles,A, Auckland 1914

11.d5 Nb6 12.dxc6 Nxa4 13.cxd7+ Kd8 14.Bxa4 c6 15.Rd1 Bc5 16.Be3 Bb6 17.Rd6 Kc7 18.Rad1 Rad8 19.Bxb6+ 1–0

For the past few days, I have been contemplating deploying the Ponziani in a tournament game. Self-doubt has been a deterrent. Having been pleased with my play in round one, I decided to play it.

Stripes,James (1899) -- Lombardi,George (1429) [C44]
Collyer Memorial Spokane (2), 22.02.2014

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3

I briefly considered 2.f4, which would have been Charousek's move.

2...Nc6 3.c3

I also considered the Spanish and the Italian, both of which I have played in many games over the years.


Black has several choices, but this move is most popular.

4.d4 Nxe4

I had looked at games with this move, but forget the main lines. I was now completely on my own tactical and positional understanding without any database memory. To be forced to create something new early, and to force one's opponent to do the same is a principal appeal of the Ponziani.


I found the main line.

Black to move


I was busy taking photos of the players for the Spokane Chess Club when my opponent made this astounding move. Returning to my own board, I was certain the move was an error. Nonetheless, my king did become exposed and I had several alternate lines to consider.

6.Kxf2 Bc5+ 7.Be3 Bxe3+ 8.Kxe3

Black to move

My king's position reminds me of a conversation I had the previous evening concerning the Steinitz Gambit, where Steinitz himself marched his king forward to e3 in some King's Gambit games. The prompt was the second game that John Donaldson showed during his lecture. In that game, White's king stepped up to d2 to connect the rooks, then moved to the third rank. Eventually, it took up position on f2 where it helped keep Black's rogue queen trapped.

8...e4 9.dxc6

I spent six minutes on this move (compared to four for the whole game prior). Most of that time was spent contemplating my next move.

9...exf3 10.Qxf3

The materialistic 10.cxd7+ struck me as being a bit too helpful to Black's mobilization. With a vulnerable king, that seemed a foolish course. A computer can work out the tactics and may favor the material gain. I may check this game with an engine after posting these annotations.

10...0–0 11.Bd3 dxc6

White to move


This set-up of a cheap tactic invites trouble. I seemed to be daring my opponent to find a way to skewer my queen to get at the rook. Perhaps Re1 puts the rook on a better square. I also contemplated Nd2.


Somehow I overlooked this zwischenzug to set up the skewer.

13.Kf2 Qh4+ 14.Kg1 Bg4 15.Qf4

A strong chess player would have found this pin before playing 12.Rd1, and then assessed the consequences of Black's choices.

Black to move 


15...g5! looked dangerous to me. 16.Bxh7+ Kxh7 17.Qxf7+ Kh8 and I would seriously consider bailing out of this game with a draw.

My opponent chose a forcing line that kept me from burning much clock time contemplating alternatives. It appeared there were none.

16.Rxe1 Qxe1+ 17.Qf1 Qe3+ 18.Kh1 Re8 19.Na3 Be2

My opponent used ten minutes deciding upon this move, and I had already decided to force the queens off the board with the bishops. The clock showed 1:32 remaining for me and 1:06 for my opponent. Our time control was 1:55 for the game plus a five second delay.

White to move

20.Qxe2 Qxe2 21.Bxe2 Rxe2 22.Rb1?

22.Nc4 must be better.

22...b5 23.Kg1 f5

White to move


My seven minutes on this move was my longest think of the game. I should have spent a few of these minutes on move 22.


The critical line that I examined was 24...Rxb2 25.Rd8+ Kf7 26.Rd7+ Kf3

The king could consider e8 and e6, too, as I'm not interested in the kingside pawns just yet.

27.Rxc7 Rxa2 28.Rxa7 with the idea of 29.Nxb5 if the rook remains on the a-file.

A version of this line is still possible after 24...Kf7, but is more likely advantageous for White, or so I thought during the game.

25.Rd7+ Re7

My opponent makes my job easier. At this point, my opponent from the previous round stopped by and looked at the game. He smiled because in our postgame analysis, we had played out a variation where I had a knight against a superior number of pawns. He, too, had sacrificed a knight for two pawns and an attack.

26.Rxe7+ Kxe7 27.Nc2

Black to move


Black needed to address the threatened fork with 27...c5 or 27...Kd6.

28.Nd4 Kf6 29.Nxc6 a6 30.Kf2?

The immediate 30.Nb4 was decisive.

30...h5 31.Nb4

Black to move

Another fork is coming.

31...a5 32.Nd5+ 1–0

I am pleased with the result.

Five players finished day one with 3.0 and with my third round bye, I am one of three with 2.5. This morning, I have a stronger opponent.


  1. You'll regret flirting with the Ponziani. I should know, I played it for over 10 years.

    The only good thing about it is that Black has so many plausible responses that he might stumble in to one that gives you an advantage. As Karpov did against Miles when he played 3...d5 4.Qa4 dxe4?

    In the Maroczy game, 7...exd4? is a bad mistake, because it gives white's knight access to c3. As you note, 7...Bg4 and Bd7 are both better, and I think those lines are Black's best ways to try for an advantage against the Ponziani.

    3...Nf6 is the safest move, and gains Black equality if he plays 5...Ne7 instead of your opponent's insane 5...Nxf2? After 5...Ne7 6.Nxe5 Ng6! White has absolutely nothing.

    I call 5...Nxf2 "insane" because he has a far scarier option if he wants to be berserk, mainly 5...Bc5?! At least that way he gets to keep his black-squared bishop, which he needs if he hopes to press his attack. In that line, White can beat the attack off, but he has to play precisely, while in your game, after 7.Be3!, it's almost over. In fact, after 8...e4 I'd be tempted just to play 9.Kxe4 and then retreat my king back to c2!

    1. Thanks for the comments, Dave. I flirted with the Ponziani again this afternoon and won a wild game where I thought it was possible that I could easily get hurt.

      After posting my analysis this morning, I ran a quick engine analysis. 9.Kxe4 was Stockfish's choice, and then the king heads back towards c2.

      Two wins against weaker players with the Ponziani seem a good start. But, in both of those games, I reached positions where a more resourceful opponent could have created plenty of pain.