An unexamined life is not worth living.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sacrificing a Pawn for Having ‘No Bad Pieces’ – Marshall Gambit

My only tournament game against a grandmaster was played in 2004, during Canadian Closed Championship in Toronto. In the first round I got this position as Black against Kevin Spraggett, after the slightly unusual opening moves: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Na5 6. O-O Bb7 7. Nxe5 Nxb3 8.axb3 Nf6 9. Re1 Be7 10. d3 d5 11. exd5 Nxd5

image White to move. Is Black’s compensation sufficient?
In my preparation, I had analysed forcing moves like 12. Qf3 and 12. Qh5. The grandmaster thought for a little bit, and played the simple 12. d3-d4. He won fairly easily after I made a judgement/tactical error at some point and my compensation went astray (I ended up down a pawn, with a bad bishop to boot). After the game he made a comment that made an impression on me; it was along the lines of “This gambit looks reasonable, Black has no bad pieces and it will be very hard for White to win. It can be a 100 moves game”. He also mentioned that similar gambits were appearing in other lines of the Spanish around the same time. I was, of course, thrilled not only to have played a game against a famous player, but also to be a given a free lecture afterwards.

image  Kevin Spraggett, photo by Federació d'Escacs Valls d'Andorra

There was a lot of truth to the Grandmaster’s observations. Not surprisingly, one of the recently popular lines of the Marshall Gambit carries strong resemblance with my home grown gambit (it was really invented by my coach back in Russia who strongly believed in Black’s solid compensation in the form of two bishops and sound structure).

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. h3 Bb7 9. d3 d5 10. exd5 Nxd5 11. Nxe5 Nd4 12. Nc3 Nxb3 13. axb3

image Black to move. Two bishops and better pawn structure provide Black with compensation that grandmasters have been willing to bet on. Below is a sample game where Black’s initiative got out of hand. The two diagrams have only slight differences (the Marshall Gambit version is better for Black since he already castled and White committed to a relatively useless h2-h3 – maybe this tempo makes all the difference?). John Watson’s Mastering Chess Openings is full of such examples, where a healthy opening strategy appears in similar variations, benefiting a player with a rich opening repertoire.

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