Saturday, May 31, 2014

Beating Inferior Openings: The First Installment of an Occasional Series (Meeting 4.Bc4 in the Four Knights)

Cyrus Lakdawala writes in his book The Four Knights: Move by Move that black players who open with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 are likely to be poorly versed in Four Knights theory because they encounter the Ruy Lopez (that begins with 3.Bb5) more often than the Four Knights that white invites with 3.Nc3. This is simply wrong!

To be more precise, although Lakdawala may be right for master-level games, he is wrong when it comes to rank amateurs (rated 2000 USCF and below). Amateurs often lack either the time or inclination to study opening theory in detail, and when they do it is often because they obsess about one system. (Just think of all the Najdorf and Dragon Sicilian fanatics.) They take shortcuts, and taking shortcuts means deviating early from main lines to cut down the amount of theory that you need to learn. The Four Knights is precisely such an opening. Instead of learning the reams of theory in the Ruy Lopez (not to mention the Petroff), you can just learn the Four Knights. Even better, you can focus your efforts on one variation such as the Scotch Four Knights, and your opening study problems are solved! I don't play the Ruy Lopez (at least not yet!). Instead, I play the Petroff, and in my last thirteen over the board USCF rated games that began 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 white only played the Petroff main nine continuations of 3.Ne5 and 3.d4 three times. White in two of the three games was a class A player, showing that perhaps real attention to opening theory begins in class A. 3.d4 was played only once, and I had seen it so infrequently that I had forgotten the opening theory and lost because of an error in the opening. Five of the thirteen games continued 3.Nc3, inviting a Four Knights, which I played. Four of the games continued with the modest 3.d3, and one continued with 3.Bc4, playing in the style of the Italian Game.

If my experience is at all typical, then the class player needs to focus his opening study on learning how to beat inferior openings. Why focus on the main lines played by the GMs of the world when you are more likely to encounter inferior openings? Learn to beat inferior openings and dubious lines first, and tackle the GM lines when you begin to see them over the board. This way you will learn why inferior openings are inferior and better appreciate and understand the main lines when you encounter them. Note that this is not an argument in favor of playing inferior openings yourself. You should try to play openings that are used on the highest level as more than surprise weapons in the occasional blitz game. The Scotch, which I play with white, is arguably in this category. To be sure, it is not as mainstream as the Ruy Lopez and does cut down on opening study, but it is a serious opening played by the chess elite. Players rated 2700+ who have already played it in 2014 in slow games include Sergei Rublevsky, Wang Hao, David Navarra, Vassily Ivanchuk, David Navarra, and Ian Nepomniachtchi. By contrast, only one 2700+ player has ventured the Four Knights in a slow game in 2014: Yuriy Kryvoruchko. Regardless of how you evaluate the Scotch, one thing is clear, you will not find hardly any elite games that begin with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d3. In 2014, there are only two games in which white players rated over 2500 played this, and both games were against significantly lower rated opponents--a sign that those playing 3.d3 thought they could simply outplay their opponents without engaging in an opening theory contest.

So, before you learn the umpteenth move of a main line, try to learn why early deviations from it are bad. Let's take the example of the Four Knights. I often encounter the following in rapid internet games: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.Bc4. It is a line that gets little coverage in repertoire books and books on the Four Knights because the titled players who write chess books don't face it and it poses no threat to them. Why don't masters play this? What is wrong with Bc4? It does not lose on the spot, but it is rather poor, throwing away white's opening advantage. It is important to know why Bc4 is no good and to learn how to play against it because although the initial tactic that makes it bad is rather straightforward (4...Nxe4 5.Nxe4 d5), the moves after 4...Nxe4 can be somewhat tricky and white does have some half decent continuations. Masters can figure all this out over the board, but amateurs will struggle to find the right moves as the clock is ticking. It pays to know one's way through this variation, and it is not that hard to remember the moves and ideas once you have figured them out. So let's get right to it.

After 4...Nxe4 (fig 1) white has three reasonable options. Can you figure out what they are?

Fig 1. After 4...Nxe4, White to Play. What are the Candidate Moves?

The three moves are Bxf7+, Nxe4, and 0-0. The first option is analyzed below. Nxe4 and 0-0 will be analyzed in a later blog posting.

First Option: 5.Bxf7+

After this, 5...Kxf7 6.Nxe4 d5 are obvious. At this point (fig 2) white has three options: 7. Nc3, 7. Neg5+, and Ng3.

Fig 2. Position after 6...d5


Before discussing concrete lines, the general characteristics of the position need consideration. Material is even. Black controls the center with his pawns and can use them to push black white's knights. He also has open lines for the development of his bishops. His one negative is king safety. Although my ICC blitz score in this variation is an excellent 69.6%, I have lost a few games, and whenever I lose it is because of king safety. Having said that, on to the lines:

1.A. 7.Nc3

This is not objectively worse than the others, but it does not challenge black, who solves his problems easily: 7...e4 8.Ng1. (Going backwards is the only option, showing the power of black's pawns). White is threatening 9.Qh5+ followed by Qxd5. This is addressed by 8...Bf5 (fig 3), after which black is much better due to his central control and better development.

Fig 3. Position after 8...Bf5

1.B. 7.Ng3

The line I am giving may not be that preferred by the computers, but it is safer, easier to play, and gives black a modest, but real advantage. 7...e4 8.Ng1 Bc5 9. N1e2 (9.Qh5+ g6 10.Qh6 Qf6 leads nowhere for white) Rf8 10.0-0 Kg8 (fig 4). Black is better developed, controls the center, and has pressure down the half open f-file.

Fig 4. Position after 10...Kg8

1.C. 7. Neg5+

This is the most challenging continuation and objectively the best. 7...Kg8. White has two reasonable continuations after this. 8.d3 and 8.d4, which is best. Other tempting continuations lose. 8.0-0? loses to 8...h6 because white will lose material after 9.Nh3 Bg4 with the threats of ...e4 and ...Nd4 to which there is not satisfactory response. Less obvious is how 8.Qe2 loses: 8.Qe2? h6 9.Nh3 Bxh3 10.gxh3 e4 11.Ng1 Nd4 12.Qd1 Qg5 (fig 5) and white is busted. After 13. Ne2 Qg2 14. Rf1 and Rg1 both lose to Nf3# so white's best continuation is 14. Nxe4, Qxh1+, which is hopeless as he is down an exchange with no compensation.

Fig 5. Position after 12...Qg5

After 8. d4 black needs to remember to kick back the Ng5 with 8...h6. Black is in the driver's seat after 9.Nh3 Bg4 (threatening e4) 10.dxe5 Nxe5 11.Nhg1 Qd6 when Re8 and c5 are threatened (fig 6).

Fig 6. Position after 11...Qd6

In the following game, black, rated nearly 250 points below white, won easily from this position: Severiukhina, Zoja (2313) - Ainutdinova, Yekaterina (2077) 0-1.

The following simul loss by world champion Emmanuel Lasker shows that black can lose in this 4.Bc4 Nxe4 5.Bxf7+ line of the Four Knights if he is not careful: Ditlevson – Lasker, Emanuel 1–0.

For more complete analysis of the 5.Bxf7+ line click on the following: Four Knights 4.Bc4 Nxe4 5.Bxf7+.

Next up: the analysis of the 5.Nxe4 variation. For analysis of another inferior line, check out my study of  the "Fort Knox" variation of the French.

1 comment:

  1. I recently discovered your blog thanks to some research I was doing for one of my correspondence-type games. It reached your topic position by transposition. I agree with your assertion in another post that beating inferior openings is very important for low-level players like myself.

    In this post I think you overlooked a couple of responses by White in the line 7.Neg5+ Kg8 8.Qe2. After 12...Qg5, the move 13.Kf1 seemed like an obvious way to stop the queen from invading, and indeed my engines tell me that move and even 13.c3 are better than 13.Ne2 which you analyze. White is still in a bad way but it isn't as easy as in the line given.

    This series is a great concept and I look forward to more of your articles.