Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Universal systems

Sometimes I receive the question from a less experienced player what could be a good opening for black. It is clear to me when I get such question that the player doesn't expect a complicated answer based on complex lines with a lot of study-work but rather an easy recipe which can be quickly implemented everywhere. Answering the question from whites perspective is rather easy. The Colle system or also often called businessman-opening, can be learned in a minimum amount of time and can be used against most normal setups. A few enjoyable video's can be viewed on the chessimprover. However for black it is much harder to find a universal system.

As discussed in my article to open with the f-pawn I built my black-repertoire by answering almost every first move (except e4 and g4) with f5. Well we can't really speak about creating a repertoire as I only learned the Dutch modern stonewall and to minimize my lag of theoretical knowledge, I always tried to get the same type of structure on the board. So unconsciously I used the Dutch modern stonewall as a universal system. Of course it didn't take long before the first cracks popped up in this concept. My opponents quickly found setups which guaranteed them an opening-advantage so forcing me to make some adaptations. In my article Dutch steps in the English opening I discuss one of those painful journeys.

An additional disadvantage of the Dutch modern stonewall, is that the opponents can prepare very easily something dangerous. A funny anecdote in this context is my game in 2006 against the Dutch IM Koen Leenhouts. Before the game Koen warned me not to prepare as he would play something that I never could foresee. I partly followed his advice as I also noticed from his repertoire that he is not afraid of experimenting/ varying. Besides at that time I loved too much hanging around with my girlfriend (and future wife).
[Event "Brugs meestertornooi 9de ronde"] [Date "2006"] [White "Leenhouts, K."] [Black "Brabo"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A00"] [WhiteElo "2405"] [BlackElo "2311"] [PlyCount "49"] {(Koen warned me before the game that preparing was useless as he had something special devised for this game. Thanks to this bizarre game I started to question some systems like 1. Nc3, f5 ?!)} 1. a3 (1. Nc3 f5 $6 2. e4 $1 fxe4 3. d3 exd3 (3... Nf6 4. dxe4 e5 5. Bc4 Nc6 6. a3 {(This transposes to the game so I certainly learned something from this defeat.)} ) 4. Bxd3 Nf6 5. Nf3 {(Also Bg5 looks sufficient for some advantage.)} Nc6 6. Ng5 g6 7. h4 $40) 1... f5 2. e4 {(In 2000 I already encountered Nf3 in my game against the Dutch FM Michel De Wit after which I made an easy draw. However with e4 Koen has a much more cunning plan. He knew that I did not play 1.f4 so that I did not have any experience with the From-gambit. With the extra a3 move he manages to get a reversed From-gambit on the board in which I have to find the moves completely independently in this dangerous gambit.)} fxe4 3. d3 Nf6 4. Nc3 $5 { (The direct dxe4 looks a bit more precise as now black gets more options. )} (4. dxe4 $5 Nxe4 5. Bd3 Nf6 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Nc3 e6 $44) 4... Nc6 $6 { (Just like in my older games with this type of positions, I do not dare to accept the offered pawn. 10 years ago I managed to draw in a simul against GM Motwani in almost the same setup but the move a3 quickly shows that white has the better chances. So necessary was here exd3 which gives white compensation for the gambit but probably nothing more.)} (4... exd3 $1 5. Bxd3 e5 6. Qe2 Be7 7. g4 $1 (7. Qxe5 $6 Nc6 8. Qe2 d5 9. Bf4 Nd4 10. Qd2 O-O $15) 7... e4 $1 8. Nxe4 $13) 5. dxe4 e5 6. Bc4 $5 {(Be3 is also possible to thwart Bc5.)} d6 $6 {(Here I already realized that something went wrong in my opening. As I was scared of the pin Bg5, I decided to keep the bishop at e7 but this is too passive and just enlarges the problems.)} (6... Bc5 $1 7. Nf3 d6 8. Bg5 Rf8 9. O-O Bg4 10. h3 Bxf3 11. Qxf3 $14) 7. Nf3 Bg4 8. h3 Bxf3 9. Qxf3 Qd7 10. Be3 Be7 11. O-O O-O-O 12. b4 h6 13. a4 g5 $6 {(Black has already huge problems and chooses to gamble. Objectively Kb8 is better but those type of moves are no fun to play.)} (13... Kb8 $1 14. b5 Nb4 15. Qe2 d5 16. exd5 Nfxd5 17. Nxd5 Nxd5 18. Bxd5 Qxd5 19. Rfd1 $16) 14. a5 g4 15. hxg4 Nd4 16. Bxd4 exd4 17. Nb5 Nxg4 18. a6 b6 19. Nxa7 Kb8 20. Nc6 Qxc6 21. Bd5 Qxd5 22. exd5 Ne5 23. Qb3 Rdg8 24. f4 Ng4 25. a7 1-0
Now it is not because the Dutch is not a universal system for black that no such setups are existing. The success-rate for a universal system depends mainly on the degree of contact between both forces. In other words the lesser the contact, the more moves can be played irrespective of the opponents chosen setup. Chess played from the baseline is born. A few months ago the Amercian grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek wrote a nice article about this subject in the Huffington Post which was copied by chessbase. In this article he correctly states that the hyper-modern player Richard Reti was 1 of the pioneers to appreciate the strengths of this strategy. In his follow-up article he shows that this strategy was developed further by the Serbian grandmaster Ljubojevic Ljubomir beginning of the 70 ties in deploying the Hedgehog. This modern setup is still today popular which I encountered e.g. in one of my games of Open Leuven 2011.
[Event "Open Leuven 6de ronde"] [Date "2011"] [White "Brabo"] [Black "Akesson, R."] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B41"] [WhiteElo "2284"] [BlackElo "2421"] [PlyCount "91"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. c4 Nf6 6. Nc3 Qc7 7. a3 b6 8. Be3 Bb7 9. f3 d6 {(In 2009 Ralf chose in our mutual game for Nc6 but naturally he was not interested in finding out the amelioration which I prepared.)} 10. Be2 Nbd7 11. O-O Be7 12. Rc1 O-O 13. b4 {(In 2006 I played against the French IM Lamoureux the less critical Qe1. This time I choose the mainline as I wanted to avoid any preparations on that earlier played game. )} Rac8 14. Qd2 Rfe8 15. Rc2 Qb8 16. Rb1 $5 {(Despite this move fits in this system, I believe the optimal move-order starts with Kh1 instead of Rb1 due to the extra possibility at move 18. Also Na4 fits normally in this setup but here it is not well timed due to the answer d5 which was played with success in practice by the famous GM Korneev.)} Bd8 17. Kh1 $5 {(This is the standard reply on Bd8 as after Na4 black can answer with Bc7 followed up with d5.)} Ne5 18. Na4 d5 $6 {(Ryka’s sacrifice on e4 looks more consequent with a very unclear position. It is also the reason why I criticized earlier 16. Rb1)} 19. exd5 exd5 20. c5 b5 21. Nc3 Nc4 $146 {(I still found an older game in the database with Bc7 but after a4 white also keeps an advantage.)} 22. Bxc4 dxc4 $6 {(Probably the less natural bxc4 is a bit stronger. )} 23. Bf4 $2 {(Whites positions remains nicer after Bf4 but much stronger is a4 with a serious advantage. The power of that idea will be underestimated in the rest of the game.)} Bc7 24. Bxc7 Rxc7 25. Nf5 Re6 $2 { (Necessary was h6 to avoid whites next aggressive move. Maybe white is still a bit better but it is not so clear anymore as the engines show. )} 26. Qg5 Qf8 27. Rd2 Rc8 28. Rbd1 Rce8 29. h3 Kh8 $6 {(More stubborn is Bc6 which is recommended by Rybka and Fritz.)} 30. Rd6 $6 {(I assumed the win would be trivial but that was seriously wrong. Rd6 is superficial. Good winning chances are given by Qh4.)} h6 31. Qh4 Bc8 $6 {(More exact is Kh7 but I admit this is not easy to play.)} 32. Rxe6 Rxe6 33. Qd4 $6 {(I keep waiting for the mistake which does not come. Here white should act with a4 and obtain excellent winning chances. )} Kh7 $6 {(Understandable to free the rook from e6 but more important is Bd7 to discourage a4.)} 34. Qd2 $2 {(Again the same comments as whites previous move but with the difference that the damage this time is a bit larger. Of course a4 is still appropriate)} Re5 $6 { (A better version is g6 which limits blacks disadvantage. )} (34... g6 $1 35. Nd6 $1 Bd7 36. Kg1 $1 Qe7 37. Kf2 $1 Bc6 38. Qf4 Kg7 $14) 35. Nd6 Bd7 36. Re1 $6 { (Well I do not appreciate a4 which causes that the advantage starts to vaporize. )} Re7 37. Re3 Kg8 38. Qe1 Rxe3 39. Qxe3 Qd8 40. Kg1 Kf8 41. Qe5 $6 {(Keeping the queens on the board, still holds some small advantage for white. I assumed the endgame still gave some small chances but the computer and my opponent show that the worst is behind.)} Qe7 42. Qxe7 Kxe7 43. Kf2 Ke6 44. Ke3 Ne8 45. Nxe8 Bxe8 46. h4 { (Whites advantage of good knight against bad bishop is purely symbolic. I had seen enough and my opponent accepted relieved my proposal. Besides after this game I immediately had to play round 7 so I still wanted to have some time to eat my lunch.)} 1/2-1/2
The hedgehog may present itself as an excellent example of chess from the baseline, a good example of a universal system it is not as you still need c4/c5. To really create a universal system for black, one must avoid early pawn-moves on the 5th row. Some of those setups have been discussed already lightly on this blog. I am thinking at the Pirc or the Czech Defence. This time I want to cover maybe one of the most universal systems I've ever seen: the Hippopotamus Defence. There exist discussions about what exactly is permitted or should be part of such setup but everybody at least agrees that black should play as long as possible on only 3 rows. Personally I always thought that this can only be good for blitz but recently the German international master Haub Thorsten Michael used it against me in an official game.
Hippo specialist Haub Thorsten Michael  (photo: Fabrice Wantiez)
I had noticed during the preparation that TM used the hippo before but I didn't spend much attention to it as Haub was only 1 of the many possible opponents and obviously much more critical systems needed my limited available time. It is no surprise probably that I quickly got worse with white.
[Event "Interclub Deurne - Fontaine"] [Date "2014"] [White "Brabo"] [Black "Haub, T."] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B06"] [WhiteElo "2336"] [BlackElo "2450"] [PlyCount "134"] 1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nf3 d6 4. Nc3 a6 5. Be2 Nd7 {(In my 5 earlier official games, I always met b5 but Nd7 was not a surprise as my opponent already tried this less known continuation in an earlier game.)} 6. O-O {(I found this more logical than Be3 which TM met last year.)} e6 {(With b5 black could transpose to my game of 2008 played in Open Gent 2008 against De Vogelaere Robin which I won smoothly.)} 7. Re1 $5 {(In the system with b5 I recently recommended this move, see my article the "fake truth" but here I doubt this is the most exact. Leaving the square e1 open for the knight is certainly useful which TMs opponent Anderson Bjorn proved. More critical are to me here Be3, Bf4 or a4. In any case I was out book which proves that I was not seriously prepared for the hippo.)} b6 $5 {(Ne7 or b5 are interesting alternatives.)} 8. Bf4 $5 {(Probably Be3 is a bit more precise as the bishop is more stable on e3. )} Ne7 9. Qd2 h6 10. h3 g5 { (Finally black make a first step on the 5th row and immediately white must make an important decision. )} 11. Bg3 $6 {(I prepare a concrete plan but i have a strong supposition that Be3 is anyway a bit stronger with better chances for some small advantage.)} Ng6 12. e5 dxe5 13. dxe5 $5 { (Engines choose to play in gambit-style with d5 or Bd3. White surely gets compensation but it remains all very unclear so certainly not fitting my playing-style.)} Bb7 14. Qe3 Qe7 15. Bd3 Nc5 16. Ne4 Nxd3 17. Qxd3 Qd7 18. Qe3 Qc6 19. Nd4 Qxe4 20. Qxe4 Bxe4 21. Rxe4 O-O-O 22. a4 Kb7 23. a5 $6 {(Whites position is already for some time bleak but only now I am really getting into troubles. The passive but more solid Nf3 is better.)} b5 24. c4 c5 25. Nb3 $6 {(I try to solve the problems via tactic but this only makes things worse.)} (25. Nf3 $1 Rd3 26. h4 gxh4 27. Bxh4 Kc6 $1 $15) 25... Bf8 $6 {(Immediately Ke6 puts quicker pressure. )} 26. Kf1 Rd3 27. Ra3 Kc6 28. Ke2 Rd7 29. Nd2 Bg7 30. Rd3 Rhd8 31. Rxd7 Rxd7 32. b3 Bf8 $6 {(This gives white the chance to restore the balance. Stronger was the more direct bxc4.)} 33. h4 $6 {(This is logical but engines have no issue to play the more positional risky and likely stronger f4. They show white can keep everything under control.)} (33. f4 $1 Be7 34. fxg5 Bxg5 35. Nf3 bxc4 36. bxc4 Bc1 37. h4 $1 h5 38. Bh2 $1 $13 {(Wit prepares g4 !)}) 33... bxc4 $6 {(Wrong timing as now white gets active. The more exact Ne7 is stronger.)} 34. Nxc4 gxh4 35. Bxh4 Rb7 36. Nb6 Kb5 37. Bd8 Kxa5 38. Ra4 Kb5 39. Nc4 Rd7 40. Ba5 Nf4 41. Kf3 $2 {(I insufficiently deepened myself in the position to understand what exactly was needed. I did notice quickly after releasing the king that on f3 I created difficulties for myself. )} (41. Kf1 $1 Rd1 {(Naturally this move scared me. Black has also other interesting moves which neither give any advantage. )} 42. Be1 Nxg2 43. Ra5 Kc6 44. Rxa6 Kb7 45. Rb6 Kc7 46. Kxg2 Rxe1 47. Ra6 $13 {(More than a unrolling to perpetual check does not exist. )}) 41... Nd5 $2 {(Here I was surprised that black despite a long think, did not choose for Rd3.)} (41... Rd3 $1 42. Ne3 $1 {(The best if we trust the engines but the question is of course what happens if the knight is captured. )} (42. Kxf4 $6 Rxb3 43. Nb6 Rb4 $1 {(A fantastic move which I also missed in the game.)} (43... Be7 $2 44. Ra2 Bd8 45. Nc8 {(Nc4 is answered by Bg5 which wins.)} Bxa5 {(Till here I had calculated during the game.)} 46. Na7 Kb6 47. Nc8 Kc7 48. Rxa5 Kxc8 49. Rxa6 $15 {(This endgame is better for black but white still has reasonable drawing chances as he is very active. )}) 44. Bxb4 cxb4 45. Ke4 Kxb6 46. Kd3 Kb5 47. Ra1 a5 $19 {(White is not having a chance against the marching pawns. )}) 42... Ng6 $5 43. Ra3 Nxe5 44. Ke2 Rd7 45. Bc3 $1 Nc6 46. Nc4 $17) 42. Bd2 Ra7 43. Ra5 Kc6 44. Ke4 Nb6 45. Nb2 h5 46. Ra1 Rd7 47. Bc3 Nd5 48. Be1 Kb7 49. Nc4 Nb6 50. Na5 Kc7 51. Bc3 Nd5 52. Be1 f5 53. exf6 Nxf6 54. Ke5 $6 {(I miss completely blacks next move which prevents me from capturing e6 otherwise I would surely have selected the more solid Kf3.)} Nd5 55. Ke4 Rg7 $6 {(More critical is Bg7 and white must be careful.)} (55... Bg7 $1 56. Rc1 Kb6 57. Nc4 Kb5 58. Na3 Kc6 59. Nc4 $15) 56. g3 h4 57. gxh4 Rg4 58. Kd3 Rxh4 59. Nc4 Kb7 60. Bd2 Rh3 61. Be3 Bh6 62. Rg1 Kc6 63. Rg8 Bxe3 64. fxe3 Rh4 65. Rc8 Nc7 66. Rd8 Nb5 67. Rc8 Nc7 {(Pfff and white saved a half point.)} 1/2-1/2
So I escaped with a big blue eye but even after analyzing the game I was amazed to how flexible and solid the hippo really is. The fact that a +2400 player regularly employs it, already says sufficient about the qualities.  Players having little time to study openings or consider openings more as a necessary evil or rather prefer to be lazy than tired, shall maybe after this article finally have the universal system which they can use for years to come on their level.