The Campbell Report
Hard Chess
with USCF Master Mark Morss

May 1999
The Classical Defense to the Spanish - Part 1

This month's column and the next will present, in serial parts, a complete monograph on the Classical Defense to the Spanish. The material is too extensive to fit into a single month's column. The defense will be presented in heavily annotated variations linked to this page (or next month's), much as I usually present here my annotated games. Five variations will be presented in all, three this month, and two next. I will present not all variations in great depth, but only those that I consider worthy of Black's consideration.

The Classical Defense begins with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Bc5, which is found under C65 in the ECO classification scheme.

Diagram z
Position after 4...Bc5

The order of Black's third and fourth moves is often inverted, but that permits 4. c3, which is quite good for White. Therefore ...Bc5 on Black's third move is not a very precise way to reach the lines that I will be considering. The move 3...Bc5 is more consistent if one intends to answer 4. O-O with 4...Nd4, a line, beyond my scope here, that concedes a slight advantage in return for a dull position.

Also outside the scope of my investigations are White's alternatives at move four, which are generally believed to be less strong than 4. O-O, and satisfactory for Black. Players of the Black pieces should be prepared to play against the "Center Attack" variation, since after 4. d4 exd4 (4...Nxe4 5. dxe5 d5 is refuted by 6. c4!) 5. O-O, Black has nothing better than 5...a6 6. Ba4, with a Center Attack. They should also be prepared for 4. d3, when an interesting redeployment is 4...Ne7!? having in mind such moves as ...Ng6, ...c6 and ...d5. As the reader will be able to see, this strange move does not hang the e-pawn. Of course, 4. Nc3 is the Four Knights Game, when 4...Bc5 is a viable defense whose main line is also a line of the Classical Defense to the Spanish.

In the Classical Defense, the Italian bishop is counterposed to the Spanish one, and Black bets that active piece play alone will be sufficient to counter White's positional pressure. There is no point in pretending that there are any deeper "ideas behind" this defense than that Black will put his pieces on good squares, try to maintain his center, and seek tactical opportunities. As in all positions with an Italian bishop, pressure against KB2 is an important theme. The preeminence of tactics in this system, and its emphasis on piece activity, make it an excellent weapon for young chess players, and indeed for all players whose customary opposition is rated below, say, 2000. While the defense is viable against stronger opposition, it is not among the objectively best defenses to the Spanish, because of certain positional indignities to which Black is subjected in White's better lines. But I believe that a Black player who knows what he is doing can, even then, expect tolerable results with this system.

White in reaction to the Classical Defense, as often in the Spanish, seeks to demolish Black's e-pawn. The theory of this defense divides naturally according to whether White tries to accomplish that with an early Nxe4, based on what Kmoch called the "fork trick," or opts for longterm pressure with 5. c3 O-O 6. d4 Bb6 7. Bg5, seeking eventually to compel either ...exd4 or Black's acceptance of some structural weakness. An intermediate idea is 5. c3 O-O 6. d4 Bb6 7. dxe5.

It is worthy of note that an early d2-d3 is no way for White to get an advantage against this defense. White thus establishes no play at all against the e-pawn, and Black solidifies his center. The Italian bishop then looks better than the Spanish one, though White keeps reasonable play based on his extra tempo. Note that 5. Nc3 O-O 6. d3 d6 is a Vienna Game with colors reversed: 1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Bc4 Nc6 4. d3 Bb4 5. Nf3 (a move that Larsen has used with success) 5...O-O 6. O-O d6.

This month I will treat various ideas for quickly eliminating Black's e-pawn; next month I will treat what could be called the main line: 5. c3 O-O 6. d4 Bb6 7. Bg5 h6 8. Bh4 d6, when White builds up longterm pressure.

The immediate fork trick 5. Nxe5 (Variation 1) is best answered with 5...Nxe5 6. d4 a6! . Then both 7. Ba4 b5 and 7. dxe5 bxa5 8. exf6 Qxf6 lead to positions rich in possibility for Black. More critical is 7. Be2 when both 7...Nxe5 and 7...Ba7 are worthy of consideration. White has strong resources either way, but Black appears able to hold the balance.

The deferred fork trick is 5. Nc3 O-O (weak is 5...d6 6. d4) 6. Nxe5 (Variation 2). In the chess openings literature, these lines are generally treated under the Four Knights Game: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bb5 Bc5 5. O-O! (the immediate 5. Nxe5 is not very challenging) 5...O-O 6. Nxe5. After the necessary 6...Nxe5 7. d4 Bd6, the sequence 8. dxe5 Bxe5 leaves the Spanish bishop rather poorly placed, and gives Black little trouble. Instead, the main line is 8. f4 Nc6 9. e5 Be7 10. d5 Nb4 11. exf6 Bxf6. Then 12. a3, 12. Ne4 and the heretofore unbooked 12. Be3 all lead to interesting play with relatively equal chances.

During the 1960s, Spassky often played the Classical Defense, and an early antidote was 5. c3 O-O 6. d4 Bb6 7. dxe5 (Variation 3). The idea is that White scores a gain in space after the compulsory 7...Nxe5 8. Qd5 Nc5. But after 9. Na3 a6 10. Be2 Ne7 11. Qd1 Ne6, or 9. b4 Ne7 10. Qd1 Ne4 11. Bd3 d5 or, probably best, 9. Bg5 Ne7 10. Qd1 Ne4 11. Bh4 d5, Black regroups and, with due caution, eventually frees his position. Once ...d5 has been played, the position compares to an Open Defense where Black has not had to weaken his queenside pawns. While that much is favorable, the risk to Black's kingside, with the Spanish bishop operating on the b1-h7 diagonal and White's e5 pawn inhibiting the defense, is just as real as it is in the Open.

Variation 1. 5. Nxe5

Variation 2. 5. Nc3 O-O 6. Nxe5

Variation 3. 5. c3 O-O 6. d4 Bb6 7. dxe5

Go to Part 2

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Next month: The Classical Defense to the Spanish - Part 2.

Copyright © 1999 by Mark F. Morss

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