26 January 2016

Smashing the Berlin Defense

Tata Steel 2016, Round 9

The Berlin Wall variation of the Spanish (or Ruy Lopez) has been popular since Vladimir Kramnik employed it in his World Championship match against Garry Kasparov in 2000. Most games in this line have ended in draws, but not often quick draws. After the queens come off, the game reaches an immediate endgame, or perhaps a queenless middlegame, depending on how one defines the endgame. Black has a queenside pawn majority with doubled c-pawns. White has a slight lead in development.

The Berlin is rich in positional subtleties. If both contestants play accurately, the game will end in a draw. Small errors lead to decisive results.

This afternoon I won a blitz game from the Black side. My opponent created a phalanx of center pawns, but that gave me 3-2 on the queenside and 2-1 on the kingside. When my queenside pawn majority lured his king that direction, a breakthrough on the kingside led to a pawn promotion.

In the Tata Steel Chess Tournament this year, there have been no Berlin Walls and few Berlin Defense games. Then today, a novelty was played in relatively new line against the Berlin that keeps the queens on the board. This novelty was played in two games. Fabiano Caruana played it first against Sergey Karjakin. Karjakin played accurately and the game was drawn when it was clear that all the pawns would be consumed.

Wei Yi, who claimed the novelty was opening preparation, played the novelty a few minutes after Caruana. His opponent, David Navara, did not play Karjakin's move and was swiftly punished.

Wei,Yi (2706) -- Navara,David (2730) [C65]
78th Tata Steel GpA Wijk aan Zee NED (9.3), 26.01.2016

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3

I saw this move in Hou -- So in round two and immediately became excited, recalling that I had seen an article in Chess Informant 126 concerning the d3 Spanish. I checked the journal that morning, however, and discovered the article focused on 6.d3 after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7. Here, it is a little different. Even so, the intent may be similar.
[I]t's a very practical move for White as it assures easy development and stability in the centre. Thus many sharp lines, including the popular Marshall Attack are avoided.
Emanuel Berg, "Mirroring, The d3 Ruy Lopez: A Test of Patience," Chess Informant 126 (2015), 75.
Against the Berlin, it avoids the Berlin Wall. The move was played as early as 1836 but is a distant second in popularity to 4.O-O.

4...Bc5 5.Bxc6

This move first appears in my database in a game played in 1982. There are 567 games with more than 200 played in 2014 and 2015.

5...dxc6 6.Nbd2

Wei mentioned Anand while discussing this line. According to my database. Anand played this move in 2012 and again in 2013 against Kramnik. He won the second game and then drew Magnus Carlsen when he played it in their World Championship.

6...0–0 7.Nc4

Six games 2009-2011 and then quite a few more in 2012. Anand played it in his win against Kramnik.


White to move


8.O-O has been played at least 26 times. As near as I can discover from my database, 8.Qe2 was first played in 2010. There are three games that reached this position in my database, two from 2015. After Black's next move, however, a fourth game joins the selection, Anand -- Giri, Grand Slam Masters 2015.

8...Re8 9.Bd2 Bd6 10.h4N

The novelty played in two games today!


Karjakin played 10...Nf8, which Wei said in his postgame interview was the correct move.

11.h5 h6

This sensible looking move creates a weakness that might be exploitable by a pawn storm. As White planned to castle queenside anyway, it might be deemed an error.

12.0–0–0 Nb8

Black's knight maneuver is too slow. Even relative beginners can observe that White has a significant lead in development having completed the essential opening tasks of mobilizing minor pieces, advancing the center pawns, lifting the queen from the back rank and castling to connect the rooks. In addition, Wei has already thrust forward one of his kingside pawns.

With opposite side castling, both players should storm the castled kings with pawns. Black, however is not prepared to support his pawn storm, while White's pieces are well-coordinated. White, thus, has a substantial strategic advantage, but how will he break through tactically?

White to move 

13.Rdg1 Nc6 14.g4 f6 15.g5 fxg5 

White to move


It is much easier to sacrifice a piece when part of the opponent's forces remain in the bleachers. Black's queenside cannot be mobilized in time to protect the king. In this position, the knight sacrifice appears the only way to continue the attack. The attack is coming fast. Even White's other knight--the piece furthest from the action--is mobilized for the assault on Black's king.


A zwischenzug before capturing the knight.

17.Qd1 hxg5

The computer prefers 17...b5

18.Bxg5 Be7 19.Be3

Yasser Seirawan asked whether 19.Bh6 could be played here. Wei thought it might be as good, but Stockfish 7 finds Wei's move vastly superior to 19.Bh6.


White to move

20.h6 Re7 

20...g5 was considered during the commentary and again in Wei's postgame analysis. A possible continuation might be 21.Bxg5 Bxg5+ 22.f4 Ne6 23.fxg5 Nxg5 24.Qh5+-.


21.Qh5 is strong.

21...Rxg7 22.Qh5 Be6

White to move


I would probably take a more direct approach if I had such a nice position.

23.Qh8+ Kf7 24.Rxg7+ Bxg7 25.Nxe5+ Bxe5 These moves would have been easy to calculate, but White is ahead two pieces and there is not a checkmate in sight. Even so, with some time to think, it should be possible to see that White can win the bishop with a small tactical maneuver. 26.Rh7+ Kg6 27.Rh6+ Kf7 28.Qxe5 when White has two pawns for the knight. In addition, Black's king remains vulnerable to attack and his rook is still sitting in the stands watching the battle.

Wei's practical decision to exchange pieces into an endgame with a decisive material advantage is good enough.


23...Qe8 leads to a similar position. 24.Bxg7 Qxh5 25.Bxf6+

This discovery and the same move in the position reached in the game offers an instructive lesson for my young students. 25...Kf7 26.Rxh5 Ne2 27.Kd2 Nxg1 28.Bxe5 Nf3+ 29.Ke3 Kg6 30.Rh1 and White is ahead two pawns, but at least Black's rook can come out to play.

24.Bxg7 Bxh5 

White to move

25.Bxf6+ Kf8 26.Bxd8 Ne2+ 27.Kb1 Nxg1 28.Bxc7 1–0

This game will be my lesson of the week for my advanced students. My beginning students this afternoon saw the two instructive positions that Navara offered in his postgame analysis of Sunday's win (see "Navara -- Caruana, Tata Steel 2016").

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