The Campbell Report
Hard Chess
with USCF Master Mark Morss

April 1999
Recommendations against the Spanish;
The Modern Defense to the King's Gambit

Some of the players who have sent me mail in response to my contributions here have asked me to recommend some chess opening systems. That's also the sort of question one very frequently finds posted on chess bulletin boards and discussed in chess clubs, and even though it may not be central to the development of anyone's chess skill, it is a question that all players wrestle with. So I would like to take this month's column, before moving on to the explicit chess analysis, to address the very critical question of what to play against the Spanish. On some other occasion, I'll offer some openings recommendations outside the realm of the Spanish.

A player who has reached, say, the 2300 level should have sufficiently definite opinions about how chess games are won to enable him or her to choose between opening systems on the basis of what he or she sees as their objective merits. But I must confess that the 2300-level players aren't the ones who are asking me for my advice. It would flatter me if they did, but in fact, it's the lower rated players who are asking. Here, I think the question of what opening to play merges with that of how a player should strive to get better at chess. I've already expressed in this space my belief that open positions are fundamental, and that open systems should therefore be included in the repertoire of everyone below FIDE Master (that includes me). The improving player who does not have 1...e5 in his repertoire in answer to 1.e4 is missing the opportunity for a very good chess education, and in other settings as well, he or she should generally strive for free and open piece play.

Active pieces are, indeed, the most critical element of a good chess game, the importance of which is not fully appreciated by many players of lower rank (and even some stronger players, if I may judge from my experience). For this reason, I think the choice of openings of players below FIDE Master should be strongly influenced by the attempt to find active piece play. A further reason for this is that positional elements come to the fore only at a high level of play. At lower levels of play, tactics and active pieces are absolutely pre-eminent, so why not pick one's openings accordingly?

Fine, but what to play against the Spanish? The defense that I would recommend first and foremost is the Open, because it combines solidity and activity. Easily the best reference is Mikhail Krasenkov's The Open Spanish, Cadogan 1995, an admirable book that shares a strong player's insights as well as considerable "hard chess." There is also a set of three Informant monographs by Kortchnoi that are well worth having. The most precise way to reach the Open is 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 a6! 6. Ba4 b5. White's alternatives at moves 4, 5 and 6 are not very good, so the recommended move-order neatly avoids the Exchange Variation (though I would not be unwilling to play against that, either). After 7. Bb3 d5 8. dxe5 Be6 9. c3, the player should make some effort to understand all three of Black's major approaches: 9...Bc5, 9...Be7 and 9...Nc5. I would caution the players of the Black pieces that Dilworth's 9...Bc5 10. Nbd2 O-O 11. Bc2 Nxf2!? is not an "attack" but merely a way of reaching a very interesting but also very demanding ending. Instead of 11...Nxf2, the move 11...Bf5 expresses more of common sense. Kasparov scared some Open practitioners with his brilliant use of 9. Nbd2 Nc5 10. c3 d4 11. Ng5!? to smash Anand, but I think Sokolov's 11...Bd5 is an adequate answer, and I suspect that 11...Qxg5!? is also, though it leads, with best play, to a devilishly unclear ending. Also in response to 9. Nbd2, neither 9...Be7 nor 9...Bc5 is bad. In most lines of the Open, Black has genuine winning chances based on his queenside pawn majority. The reverse side of the coin is that White has kingside chances and that Black's potentially backward c-pawn can be troublesome, but on the whole, the game is dynamically equal.

Another excellent and very ambitious anti-Spanish choice for the player seeking active piece play is the Arkangel, 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O b5 6. Bb3 Bb7, or its close relative the Moeller, 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Bc5. (There is also a hybrid Arkangel-Moeller: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O b5 6. Bb3 Bc5.) Concerning this family of systems, I regret that there are no good monographs of the sort that are so useful to us non-GMs in our quest to learn just what are the ideas underlying this or that position, but time spent collecting Arkangel-Moeller information from general openings manuals and data bases will be exceedingly well spent.

Although many would disagree with me, I think that the Schliemann, 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 f5, is not only viable but constitutes a dynamic winning try. It is a particularly nice choice because it is reached already on the third move (Marshall Gambit specialists, who so rarely have the opportunity to play their line because White almost always deviates early, should take note of this). After White's stronger responses, positional considerations more or less vanish and tactics becomes everything. The better prepared player will most likely win. There are those who think that 4. d3 is an easy way to get a slight advantage against the Schliemann, but I disagree. After 4...fxe4 5. dxe4 Nf6 the half-open f-file (which sometimes becomes a half-open g-file when Black is forced, after White's Bg5, Nc3-d5 and Nxf6, to recapture ...gxf6) compensates for White's somewhat more efficient development. But Black must be ready to gambit his e-pawn after 6. O-O Bc5! The best Schliemann reference, by far, is V. L. Ivanov's and A. Kulagin's Play the Schliemann Defense, Olbrich 1994 (available from http://www.chessdigest.com). The line 4. Nc3! fxe4 5. Nxe4 Nf6?! has lately been called into question, so that Black, if he plays the Schliemann, should go in for 5...d5! 6. Nxe5 dxe4 7. Nxc6 Qg5! -- a complicated line treated at great length by Ivanov and Kulagin. But let me take this opportunity to warn the reader away from Eric Schiller's confusing and uninsightful books on the subject of the Schliemann, and for that matter, on every other subject having to do with the chess openings.

For many players rated below 1600, I think the Arkangel and the Schliemann may be a little too sophisticated. These systems are like Ferrari sports cars: they are formidable, but they are not all that easy to handle. The Open is more like a Toyota Camry, but it requires some positional feel that not all lower-rated players may possess. I would recommend that these players take a look at the Classical Defense: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Bc5 (this move-order is more precise than 3...Bc5, which gives White some favorable options at move 4). The Classical is the quintessential "active pieces" defense to the Ruy, relying on that element alone to counter White's positional pressure. As such it is an anti-Spanish system rather like my son's dual-overhead-cam Dodge Neon, racy enough for having fun with, but making no exceptional demands on the skill of the driver. But there is a dearth of good references. To assist players who may want to try this system, I will set forth next month some rather extensive analytical discussions of the Classical Defense to the Spanish, which I myself have lately been investigating. Watch this space!

The Modern Defense to the King's Gambit, 1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 d5 relies, like many of the anti-Spanish systems that I have been recommending, on active piece play to counter White's positional advantages. I have found that one encounters the King's Gambit, both over the board and in postal chess, with a frequency that is out of all proportion to the objective merits of this opening. There are, likewise, an altogether disproportionate number of books about this gambit, which no doubt attests to its romantic appeal. But I have had such good success with the Modern Defense that I positively rejoice when a card comes back marked with "2. f4."

3...d5 is a common-sense move that blasts away at the center and prepares for active development. The motivation of Black's strategy is the dark-square weakness of the White kingside, where Black almost always seeks his play. I recall that I first adopted 3...d5 when I was in school at William and Mary. Our team traveled to Knoxville for a tournament, and my first opponent, a University of Tennessee player, essayed the King's Gambit. I had been studying some 19th-Century chess books in the William and Mary library, all of which recommended 3...g5, and the game continued 2...exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. Bc4 g4 5. O-O gxf3 6. Qxf3. For the next three hours, I was subjected to a furious and truly frightening attack. By some combination of my own determination and my opponent's mistakes, I was finally able to win. But I would sooner be whipped with dry blackberry canes around the Seventh Circle of Hell than repeat such an experience. I converted then to 3...d5 and I have never looked back. 3...g5 may be acceptable theoretically, but to me, it just does not look like good chess. It gives the White player too much of what he wants and, unlike 3...d5, it neglects development. I will continue to play 3...d5 with full confidence of a dynamically equal game and good hope of the full point.

Game 1. Martinovsky-Morss, King's Island, 1994.

Game 2. Shaw-Morss, US12P01.

Download Games for a zipped file of all games (with commentary)
in new ChessBase (CBH) format.

Next month: Next month: The Classical Defense to the Spanish, Extensively Treated.

Copyright © 1999 by Mark F. Morss

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