09 January 2015

Opening Considerations

Szen -- Anderssen 1851

The 59 illustrative games in GM-RAM: Essential Grandmaster Knowledge (2000) are presented as the source for the 120 essential middlegame positions that an aspiring player should strive to know. However, Rashid Ziyatdinov also suggests in his book that the aspiring player should memorize these games.

This process of learning these games by rote drives the student into study of the openings employed in each game. To memorize the game and not gain some understanding of all phases from the first move to the last would seem senseless. Moreover, some of the middlegame positions occur fairly early in the game.*

GM-RAM Position 143
Position 143 is a case in point. It arises after White's ninth move in the fourth match game between József Szén and Adolf Anderssen in the 1851 London Tournament.

In understanding this position, opening principles come to the fore.

In terms of one classic formulation of the opening phase, the diagram position nears the end of the opening. White has castled, has all of his minor pieces posted to central squares, and his queen has stepped forward to connect the rooks. Black lags behind in terms of this classic definition. One minor piece remains immobile and the rooks are not connected.

It may be surprising, then, that from this position with Black, Anderssen chose to start an attack: 9...f5! After the ensuing 10.exf5 Rxf5, the absence of White's e-pawn made 11...d5 a serious threat. White suddenly faced some serious problems. It is hard to find an improvement to Szen's unfortunate retreat of his knight to its starting square as preparation to redevelop it on d2.

Black seized the initiative. Ten moves later, Anderssen missed a forced checkmate in ten moves.** Nonetheless, he launched a decisive assault of tremendous instructive value and won the game. Something went horribly wrong for White in the first nine moves. Where did Szén err?

Szén,József -- Anderssen,Adolf [B30]
International Tournament, London 1851 (2.4)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 e6

This position is found in the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings under B40, so the B30 classification by ChessBase might be inaccurate. Four possible moves for White are then given in ECO: 4.Be2, 4.g3, 4.d4, and 4.Bb5. Szén played none of these.


This move should probably be considered dubious even though control of d5 is a strategic aim. The most popular moves 4.d4 and 4.Bb5 aim at control of d4. 4.Bc4 is more popular than 4.Be2 in the ChessBase database, but it scores worse. White's scoring percentage is poor enough to recommend against 4.Be2, but it is far worse after Bc4. The number of games reaching the position after 4.Bc4 is more than twice the number of times that 4,Bc4 was played. The difference suggests that move order variations account for this bishop's presence on c4 most of the time.

The only game in Chess Informant that reached this position had the move order 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 e6 4.Nc3, CI 93/(122).

4...a6 5.a4

5.d4 is worth considering. 5...b5 6.Be2 when White's fourth move cost a tempo, but little else.


The comparison of Staunton's play as Black against Anderssen to Anderssen's play as Black deserves analysis. Anderssen's placement of this knight resembles Staunton's. But, Anderssen's queen does not go wandering on pawn grubbing expeditions.


6.d4 should be considered. If there is anything wrong with Black's slow deployment, White needs to act with vigor to demonstrate the point.


Why not harass White with 6...Nd4! 7.Nxd4 cxd4 8.Nb1 Nc6?

7.d3 Be7 8.Be3 O-O 9.O-O

We have reached the diagram position.

My first impulse as Black might be to solve the problem of the light-squared bishop with 9...b6 and 10...Bb7. Anderssen, however, chose to strike.


Did Szén have a better way to meet this thrust? Did Black have an advantage that compelled him to attack? How can we best characterize the errors in White's opening play? Lethargy? Misplaced pieces?

The c4 square often proves an active square for the bishop in symmetrical king's pawn openings. The bishop also goes there frequently in open Sicilians. However, White chose a closed Sicilian, delaying the d4 thrust. It seems, perhaps, that in such positions, the bishop is better placed elsewhere.

Nonetheless, I often see such bishop placement in my own games--at least in online blitz. I usually thrust forward my d- or b-pawn and drive the bishop back to a2 or b3. Later in the game, this bishop bites back.

Anderssen's f-pawn thrust offers another way of looking at similar positions.

*Ziyatdinov's recommended references offer another indication that opening study walks hand in hand with comprehending essential middlegame positions. For example, he lists Paul Keres, and Alexander Kotov, The Art of the Middle Game. The English edition of this book contains an additional chapter by Harry Golombek, who also translated the book into English. Surely, Ziyatdinov would expect me to read Golombek's section as well. Golombek stresses that the middlegame plan, "must arise naturally and logically out of the opening" (17).

**I posted the other middlegame position from this game last month (see "Mate in Ten").

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