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The Campbell Report
Hard Chess
with USCF Senior Master Mark Morss
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June 1999
The Classical Defense to the Spanish -- Part 2

This month's column continues with the second, and last, part of an original monograph on the Classical Defense to the Spanish, which begins with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Bc5.

Diagram 1
Position after 4...Bc5

I recommend this system particularly to young and developing players, and indeed to all players whose customary opposition is below Elo 2000. Their chess education will greatly benefit from steering the game into channels, such as this one, where open piece play predominates. The Classical Defense is unsophisticated, requiring no very deep understanding of positional themes. It merely opposes the Spanish bishop with an Italian one and asks White the question, "How much can you hurt me if I just put my pieces on good squares and then play actively?" On the other hand, a fairly high degree of sophistication is demanded of White if he is to make use of the advantage he obtains, with best play, against this defense.

There is no such thing, of course, as a defense that fully equalizes against either 1. e4 or 1.d4, if White plays well.

In last month's column I discussed lines involving White's early capture of Black's e-pawn: 5. Nxe5 in Variation 1, 5. Nc3 O-O 6. Nxe5 in Variation 2, and 5. c3 O-O 6. d4 Bb6 7. dxe5 in Variation 3. These lead to complicated piece play where Black can fairly well maintain the balance. This month I treat White's more positional approach: 5. c3 O-O 6. d4 Bb6 7. Bg5, to which Black should answer 7...h6 8. Bh4 d6.

Diagram 2
Position after 8...d6

Here Black is under some pressure, but it is not obvious how White can realize a definite advantage. Because the many possibilities treated in the linked variations can be rather confusing, I will spend some time here to provide a global perspective.

White essentially always exchanges soon on c6, undermining the e-pawn and saddling Black with a weak c-pawn, but also conceding the two bishops. A strategic decision for White after the c6 exchange is whether to play dxe5, which fixes the e-pawn as a target but increases the scope of Black's pieces, or to increase the pressure and force Black to play ...exd4. Either way, closely related ideas come up either with, or without, the moves 9. a4 a5 thrown in. It is useful to keep this a-pawn distinction, to which Variations 4 and 5 here correspond, in mind.

Variation 4 treats the immediate 9. Bxc6 bxc6, which I regard as White's strongest. White foregoes the expansive 9. a4, but retains a4 as a possible post for his queen. Now it appears that Black just loses his e-pawn, but he has tactical resources: 10. dxe5 dxe5 11. Qxd8 (11. Nxe5 Qxd1 12. Rxd1 g5 13. Bg3 Nxe5 and the threat of ...f7-f5-f4 is very strong) 11...Rxd8 12. Nxe5 (12. Re1 is nothing special) 12...g5 13. Bg3 Nxe4 14. Nxc6.

Diagram 3
Position after 14. Nxc6

Here, surprisingly enough, Black can afford 14...Ba6!, sacrificing the exchange for excellent compensation, which includes the threat of the f-pawn's advance -- a kingside version of the "Noah's Ark." Incidentally, even the less brilliant 14...Re8 gives Black sufficient compensation for his lost pawn.

It is much more challenging for White to refrain from 11. Qxd8 and the immediate grab of the e-pawn, and play instead 11. Nbd2. After all, why hurry? The e-pawn remains an object of attack, and Black has a permanent weakness in his doubled c-pawns. Though the Italian bishop bears down menacingly on f2, it lacks mobility, and it may be subject to harassment after an eventual c3-c4.

Diagram 4
Position after 11. Nbd2

Here a safe and straightforward idea for Black is 11...Qd6, planning to meet 12. Nc4 with 12...Qxd1 13. Rfxd1 (or 13. Raxd1) 13...g5 14. Bg3 Nxe5, and planning to meet White's other moves with ...Nd7, ...f6 and, if necessary, ...Qe6. For example, 12. Qa4 Nd7 13. Nc4 Qe6 14. Nfd2 Nc5 15. Qc2 Ba6 16. b3 f6. Having thus solidified his e-pawn, Black will find that his weak c-pawn is manageable, since it is comparatively easy to defend a single weakness. Also, the two bishops offer some compensation.

The problem with this idea is that White could have avoided it by playing, instead of 10. dxe5, the move 10. Nbd2. Now it seems that Black must play 10...Re8 (though perhaps 10...exd4 is playable -- a question that I will leave to the reader), when 11. dxe5 dxe5 brings up a position as if Black had played 11...Re8 in the diagram. Therefore I treat 11...Re8 from the diagram as the main line in Variation 4. Then 12. Qc2 (other moves are less challenging) 12...Bg4 introduces complicated piece play which I cover at length in the variation. I believe that White can keep some advantage with best play, but Black has interesting and unclear counterplay. Instead of 12...Bg4, Black can accept an inferior but defensible position with 12...g5 13. Bg3 Nh5 14. c4 Nxg3 15. hxg3 (Almasi-Gulko, Pamplona 1997) 15...Bc5 16. Nb3 Bf8.

A further option for White after 10. Nbd2 Re8 is 11. Re1. Black can't maintain his e-pawn any longer, since 11...Bg4 is strongly met by 12. dxe5 (also 12. Qa4 immediately is troublesome) 12...dxe5 13. Qa4. Therefore, he should play 11...exd4 12. Nxd4 (12. cxd4 g5 13. Bg3 g4) and now, I think 12...Bd7 and 12...g5 13. Bg3 Bg4 are both sufficient.

Variation 5 treats White's alternatives to 9. Bxc6 (and also 8. Bxf6, and some minor alternatives on move seven) and chiefly concerns the line 9. a4 a5 10. Bxc6 (there is no benefit in delaying this any further) 10...bxc6.

Diagram 5
Position after 10...bxc6

White again has to decide whether to capture on e4. The pawn-grab idea 11. dxe5 dxe5 12. Qxd8 is no better with the a-pawns advanced than it was without, and 11. dxe5 dxe5 12. Nbd2 Re8 13. Qc2 Bg4 is better for Black than without the a-pawns advanced, since White will not have a4 for his queen. (In both cases, the reader should compare with the analogous line in Variation 4.) White therefore does best to refrain from exchanging: 11. Re1! and this compels 11...exd4, since 11...Bg4!? 12. dxe5 dxe5 13. Qxd8 Raxd8 14. Nxe5 g5 15. Bg3 Nxe5 16. Nxg4 f5 is a spectacular idea that does not quite work.

Diagram 6
Position after 16...f5

The reason is 17. Ne5! (Black has surprisingly strong counterplay after 17. Na3 Nxg3 18. Nxh6+ Kg7) 17...f4 18. Na3 fxg3 (Jovochenko-Ovod, Russia 1997 continued instead 18Nd2 19. Bh4 gxh4 20. Nac4 f3 21. Nxb6 cxb6 22. Nxc6 Rd6 23. Nd4 fxg2 but now instead of 24. Kxg2 Rg6+ with equality, White should have played 24. Rad1!) 20. Rxe4 Rxf2 21. Ng4! and White can maintain a substantial material plus, for example 21...Ra2 22. Ree1.

So that brings us (see diagram of position after 10...bxc6) to 11. Re1 exd4 12. Nxd4 Re8! 13. Nbd2 (13. Nxc6 Qd7 is fine for Black).

Diagram 7
Position after 13. Nbd2

Here Black has two tolerable continuations. One is 13g5 14. Bg3 Bg4, which is also a playable idea in the analogous position without the advances of the respective a-pawns. The other is 13c5!, when White's most challenging response is 13. Nf5 Bxf5 14. exf5. The pin is troublesome, but Black stands well enough after 14Rxe1+ 15. Qxe1 d5 16. Qe5 c4!

This and the variations linked below conclude my discussion of the Classical Defense to the Spanish. I hope this little monograph will be useful or, at least, interesting to visitors here. I encourage readers to contact me concerning any observations they may have on this subject, and particularly when they find that I have made a mistake or an error in judgement. My object in this column is not to masquerade as a great theoretician, but merely to share my ideas and evaluations, however mistaken they may sometimes be, with my fellow-players, and to solicit their reaction.

Variation 4. 9. Bxc6

Variation 5. 9. a4

Go to Part 1

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Copyright © 1999 by Mark F. Morss

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