21 March 2017

A Greco Miniature

Lesson of the Week

Most of the games of Gioachino Greco (1600-1634) are miniatures (games lasting few moves, 20-25 moves being the longest that might be so labeled). What can a young chess player learn from such games? Are they of any value to players who are no longer beginners?

Greco has been called the first chess master. In his day, players did not record their games while playing. However, Greco undoubtedly could remember his games after they finished. The games that he recorded in his notebooks, and periodically listed in small books that he game as gifts to his patrons may resemble games that he played. They certainly offered instruction in basic tactics to those players who sought instruction from him.

Greco,Gioachino -- Greco's Pupil [C36]
Model Game, 1620

1.e4 e5 2.f4 d5

This game is the oldest one in the ChessBase database with this move. Of course, there are very few games before Greco's, so that is no surprise. Nonetheless, there are two games in said database with White's second move, showing that the King's Gambit is indeed a very old opening. The next two with 2...d5 were played in 1837 by Baron Heydebrand Tassilo von der Lasa, once as White and once as Black. Those two games deviate from this one on White's fifth move.

3.exd5 Qxd5

The first important lesson that a novice chess player might gain from study of this Greco game is the danger of bringing the queen out too early. White gains time kicking the queen around. In ChessBase's PowerBook, which cuts out old games and games between weak players, there is only one instance of 3...Qxd5. White won in 17 moves. See comments at move 5.

3...e4 is better.

Angelo Lewis (Professor Hoffman) classes this Greco game as King's Gambit declined, offering 3...e4 as an improvement, which he calls the Falkbeer Counter-Gambit.* The Oxford Companion to Chess gives 2...d5 as the Falkbeer, and 3...e4 4. Bb5+ as the Nimzowitsch variation. There are other named variations proceeding after 3...e4. Falkbeer's loss to Anderssen in 1851 is the oldest in the database with this move. Howard Staunton also played the move in 1851, winning with Black.

3...exf4 is more popular among masters today.

White to move

4.Nc3 Qe6

Black threatens a discovered check that wins a pawn.


Greco is willing to sacrifice the pawn for rapid mobilization. Who said that Paul Morphy was the first chess player to understand this idea? See "Principle of Development: Early History".

5.fxe5 was played both by and against the Baron 5...Qxe5+ 6.Be2 Bd6 and the Baron won with Black in 52 moves.

6...Bg4 and the Baron won with White in eighteen moves. The only game in PowerBook with 3...Qxd5 continued from this point 7.d4 Qe6 8.Qd3 c6 9.Bf4 Nf6 10.0–0–0 Bxe2 11.Ngxe2 Bd6 12.d5 Nxd5 13.Nxd5 cxd5 14.Qg3 Bxf4+ 15.Nxf4 Qh6 16.Rhe1+ Kf8 17.Qa3+ 1–0 Tolush,A (2496) -- Alatortsev,V (2482), Moscow 1948. The game was played in the Soviet Championship.

5...exf4+ 6.Kf2

6.Be2 would allow White to castle, but Greco has another idea in mind.

Black to move

Whose king is more vulnerable?


The temptation to check the opponent whenever possible is the cause of a great many positional errors that are routine in the games of beginning players. Perhaps this tendency could serve as the definition of a beginner: no matter how long you have played chess, if you play a move that checks the opponent without also having a second purpose, then you are a beginner.

6...Nf6 threatens Ng4+
6...Be7 might be best.


White blocks the check, attacks Black's pawn on f4, and drives the bishop back.


Black moves the bishop to safety and defends the attacked pawn.


This check has a second purpose: now the rook can move to e1, pinning the queen.


Moving the king to get out of check is not required. Often, as in this instance, it is possible to block the check. Sometimes the checking piece can be captured.

8...Kf8 is presented as the move in this game in the ChessBase database. Francis Beale's collection of Greco games offers both Kd8 and Kf8 with the same concluding moves. Angelo Lewis (Hoffman's real name) also offers both.

8...c6 is better, but already Black's position is horrid.  9.Re1 Qxe1+ (9...Be5 10.Rxe5) 10.Qxe1+ Ne7 11.Bd3.

White to move

9.Re1 Qf5

9...Qxe1+ fights on longer. 10.Qxe1 c6 11.Bd3 and White has an overwhelming material advantage.

10.Re8# 1–0

This is the same checkmate pattern that we saw in Morphy's Opera Game.

*The standard print edition of Greco's games remains Professor Hoffman [Angelo Lewis], The Games of Greco (London 1900). This book is the source for the games in David Levy, and Kevin O'Connell, Oxford Encyclopedia of Chess Games, vol. 1 1485-1866 (Oxford 1981). Hoffman's main lines, but not his variations, are the games of Greco that can be found in databases and online. An older text offers many games and variations not found in Hoffman: Francis Beale, The Royall Game of Chesse-Play (London 1656).

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