19 March 2015

Wasting Time

We are past the Ides of March,* and I am still pursuing my project for the year that began in early December. Each week, beginning Wednesdays, I am going through one game from the 59 in GM-RAM: Essential Grandmaster Knowledge (2000) by Rashid Ziyatdinov. These games comprise the source for 120 middlegame positions that represent significant tactical and positional understanding to aspiring players if each is understood thoroughly.

This week's game is Saint Amant -- Morphy, Paris 1858. It is the fifteenth game in GM-RAM, and the tenth Morphy game. Today's post concerns only the opening moves.

De Saint Amant,Pierre Charles Fourier -- Morphy,Paul  [C54]
Paris, 1858

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb4+

The moves so far are fairly standard in the Italian Opening. Two moves are equally popular in this position.


Yesterday, I posted a position from a reference game that continued: 7.Nc3 Nxe4 8.0–0 Bxc3 (8...Nxc3 is familiar from the games of Greco) 9.d5 Ne5 10.Qe2 0–0 11.bxc3 Nxc4 12.Qxc4 Nd6 13.Qd3 Qf6 14.Re1 b6 15.Bg5 Qf5 16.Qxf5 Nxf5 17.g4 f6 18.Bf4 Nd6 19.Bxd6 cxd6 20.Nd4 Bb7 21.Nf5 g6 22.Ne7+ Kf7 23.Re3 Ba6 24.Rae1 Rae8 25.h4 Bc4 26.a3 Rh8 27.Kh2 b5 28.Kg3 a5 29.h5 Bb3 30.f4 Bc2 31.f5 g5 32.h6 Bb3 33.Kf2 Rhf8 34.Re4 Bc2 35.R4e3 Bb3 36.Re4 Bc2 37.R4e3 ½–½ Gashimov,V (2740) -- Dominguez Perez,L (2713) Nice 2010.

7...Bxd2+ 8.Nbxd2 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.0–0

10.Qb3 is more popular, and may be stronger.


White to move


Looking through this game, my initial thoughts at seeing this move was recollection of Philip W. Sergeant's comment on the third match game between Paul Morphy and Alexander Meek at the First American Chess Congress, 1857. Sergeant wrote, "In nothing was Morphy so fortunate as in the frequency with which his opponents played P-R3" (Morphy's Games of Chess [1957], 44).

However, Sergeant's comment was instantly tempered in my mind by a comment I read last week in a more recent book. In this case, the reference game is Morphy -- de Riviere, Paris 1863, where Morphy played 9.h3.
Morphy himself was more apt to play this move than would be a modern master. So we have here a concrete example of evolution in strategic understanding; today, beginners are warned against such "wastes of tempo." But as we shall see, such "inaccuracies" don't render the ensuing play transparent.
Macon Shibut, Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory (1993), 9.
Moreover, in some situations, even modern masters will play h3 or h6. When is such a move a useful or even necessary prophylactic move? When is it a waste of tempo? General statements such as Sergeant's substitute facile principles for concrete evaluation.

John Watson offers a balanced view in Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy: Advances since Nimzowitsch (1998).
Whether in closed, semi-open, or open positions, flank pawn moves are regularly employed for a variety of reasons, ... Pieces are moved any number of times, if necessary, to achieve strategic goals. And the number of pawn moves in the opening can range from one to eight or more, depending on the requirements of the position. (15)
Several moves are more popular from the diagram than 11.h3, but the best move is not well established yet.

Perhaps, we can say that it would be better for White if he develops one of the rooks. 11...Bg4 does not appear to represent a credible threat worthy of expending a tempo to prevent. As the subsequent course of the game demonstrated, the advanced h-pawn could become a target.

*See William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (1599).


  1. This is a conundrum that I experience quite often. Many times a move seems useful as it prevents certain unpleasantries, but proves to be a problem in itself in the long term and determining it's real value seems impossible.
    I like what you said about Phil Sergeant's superficial evaluation. Sergeant was a capable player, but not a great one and a lot of his evaluations in both "Morphy's Games of Chess" and "Morphy Gleanings" don't quite hit the mark. Understanding how (and when) a move such as h3 is good or bad might seems inconsequential on the surface, but, then again, it may go to the heart of understanding chess itself at a much higher level.