Friday, March 18, 2011

Once was enough III : Czech Benoni

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e5 4.e4 d6 5.e4 Be7

Let us enjoy a change from the unsound-sacrificial-nonsense that has previously characterised this series and consider, instead, a rather different approach, which nevertheless resembles its apparent opposites in that I have only ever played it once.

Mind you, that's once more than most people have played it: I don't think that I have ever seen it played, and I suspect most club players aren't even aware that such an opening exists.

Not that I played it in a club game: I played it in a simultaneous, one hosted by St Mary's Junior School in Royston, which was a feeder school for the secondary I was then attending in Stevenage. This being so, I wasn't sure whether it really counted: I'm not including email games (let alone internet games) in this series, if only because one can try any old rubbish in a non-competitive game, but given that the opponent was Bill Hartston, and I was taking him very seriously, I chose to include it. If only because, as I say, you don't get to see a lot of Czech Benonis otherwise.

WHY I PLAYED IT: The offhand answer to this would be, "because I was young and naive": the more mature and considered answer would be, "because I was young and naive".

There's several smaller questions of "why" wrapped into the larger one, anyway. One is ""why did this obscure defence particularly appeal to me?", but we'll leave that one aside for a minute, since we have neglected to enquire where I found it.

WHERE I FOUND IT: A 1977 Batsford book called Benoni, which is incorrectly called The Benoni on Amazon, and which was written by one William Hartston.

This last fact prompts the intermediate question "why did you think it would be a good idea to play this opening against the bloke who wrote the book on it?" which might even have occurred to me at the time. Although I was never good enough to be invited to the simuls, frequent at the time, in which top British juniors took on top overseas grandmasters, I naturally read about them and I can distinctly recall that juniors preparing to take on Lev Alburt were advised not to play the Alekhine, Alburt being then the world authority on that defence.

I do also, however, recall not really understanding that advice. Either way, whether it was given before or after I played Hartston using a defence that he understood and I did not, I didn't take any notice of it.

As to what appealed to me - I think it was the weirdness of the opening. This was the pomp of British weirdness (Skara had happened the previous year, Basman was probably at his best, and Ray had spent much of the previous decade winning with the Modern) but this was a different kind of weirdness, not a provocative, flank-pawn weirdness but a cramped, block-the-centre-and-your-own-pieces weirdness of a sort I'd never come across before.

3...e5. What did that do? As far as I could see it didn't do anything. Then 4...d6, which was necessary, I supposed, but what was it doing for the black-squared bishop? Then next move, 5...Be7, Black actually marches that bishop towards the blockade. It didn't look much like the Benoni I'd seen Fischer play.

After reading Hartston's book for a while, though, I got the idea. Or I got the idea that there was one real idea. It went like this: Black plays ....Nbd7 and then ...Ne8. (I liked that, moving the knight backwards.) He then plays ...g6 to which White replies Bh6 . Then Black replies ...Ng7 and subseqeuntly with ...Kh8, ...Nf6 and ...Ng8 (hurrah!) drives away the Bishop, breaks with ...f5 and attacks. I like it! I've always loved a plan.

A simple plan

Of course there wasn't only one idea. You could also hope that White would play f4, to which you could then reply ...exf4, ...Bg5 exchanging off the bishop and then pick up the outpost with ...Ne5, and win that way.

Which, as it happens, is how a highly-rated junior called Emms had beaten me in a tournament the year before. Taking the opening to be much more significant than the difference in our ratings, I was naturally fascinated by this performance and chose to give it a go myself as soon as I could. Which, given that hardly any juniors, then as now, actually played 1.d4, and few club players at the level (124) at which I was then competing, was not soon. But Bill Hartston played 1.d4. So I played it against him.

WHY I STOPPED PLAYING IT: Because I didn't understand it after all - or that was the impression I got from the game. I didn't understand what happened if the plan never quite happened. I didn't understand why he let me have the b-file and why I then couldn't do anything with it. After the first few moves I didn't really understand anything, except that my pieces never had any good places to go to.

Perhaps the difference in strength between us played, again, less of a role in my thinking than it might have done. In truth, and not for the first time in this series, looking at the game now, I don't think I did so badly. I might have found myself in a passive position without meaningful counterplay, but he was a British Champion and I was just a kid. (I wonder, actually, whether this game didn't give me the powerful fear of having a useless queenside knight in blocked-centre positions, which has often, and helpfully, been on my mind when playing the Ruy Lopez.) White has a quicker win at move 31, and again at 33. But at least I didn't get smashed in twenty moves: I knew enough for that.

That said, as an opening, it probably is too difficult to handle for a teenager with a teenager's normal attacking instincts, one without much positional sophistication and one who isn't much superior to the normal run of his opponents. I can see how the teenage John Emms would have fared well with it, forever being allowed to swap off his bad bishop and put his knight on e5. But it would never have suited me, not at the age of 15.

As it happened, shortly afterwards, I discovered another Benoni with a simple plan, the Benko Gambit, and that kept me going for a few years - rather longer than a single game, though I never really worked out what to do against 2.Nf3. (That annoying move-order is my normal choice as White today, though not especially because it avoids the Czech Benoni.) Until I eventually I gave it up, and resumed the search for the perfect defence to 1.d4. Which search, I assume, will never come to an end.

CHANCES OF MY PLAYING IT AGAIN: But isn't this a silly question? Isn't the whole point of "once was enough" to say that once was enough, that you know you'll never play it again?

That's what I thought. I gave it up all right: years and decades passed and I never considered taking it up, even though, at one time or another, I seem to have tried almost everything else.

But I never forgot the plan. And there was a game in Worcester, in 1998, a Nimzo-Indian in the Leningrad Variation, in which I found myself playing ...Nf6-e8 and ...g6, then ...Ng7 in response to Bh6, then ...Nd7-f6, ...Kh8 and ...Ng8 followed by ...f5.

Isn't that great? I wish I could play all my games that way. I lost in the end, but never mind. It's the plan that gets me. I think it was the first real plan I ever came across, and sometimes it needles me, reminds me of its existence, tempts me to give it another go. It wouldn't have suited at the age of 15...but might it suit me more at the age of 45?

It needles me. It bugs me. I recall punting 1.d4 c5 2.d5 e5 in an email game that I wrongly, and expensively, thought was unrated. That was three or four years ago. Then, about a year ago, just to see, I played 1...Nf6 in a club game, with the idle thought of giving the proper Czech a whirl against 2.c4. Alas, there came 2.Nf3 and something stodgy (if anybody planning to play the Czech Benoni can complain about stodge). And just a few months ago, I was shopping on Amazon and came upon Richard Palliser's book on the Czech. I Looked Inside. I read the pdf. I put it into my shopping basket.

And then I put it back.

I'm tempted. I shouldn't be tempted, but I'm tempted. But I don't know that I'm tempted quite enough.

[Once was enough I,II]


Anonymous said...

Hartston's play gives the impression of someone whose position is slightly better, just trying to improve it marginally and waiting for a chance of a tactical shot. In other words, he didn't have a clear cut concrete idea of how to win. At about 10-30 seconds a move in a simul that's not suprising.

It's one of those games where, had I played it, I would be looking to carefully identify with a chess engine where it really "went wrong" as opposed to "got difficult". Kg8 at the end sets up his f6 trick, but were you nearly OK if you don't allow this?

Anonymous said...

If you had Kmoch's book on Pawn Power in chess in a school or local library, you would have met Benoni ideas even if they were masked in jargon.

Hartston didn't use any of Kmoch's vocabulary which was disappointing if you were a fan of some of the more obscure terms.

ed g. said...

Ah, yes. An earlier (about 1971?) edition of Hartston's book was the first chess book I bought with my own money. I was 11. (I think that edition was actually called _The Benoni_). I wanted to play the Modern Benoni, like my heros Tal and Fischer, but I got sucked into the Czech by Hartston's very clear explanation of the ideas. Ideas in a chess opening; who knew?

I had pretty decent results with it for a couple of years; gave it when I started getting regularly smashed by the fianchetto line against it. I couldn't work out how to get any play at all, there.

Years later, I played the Old Indian for a while, with similar ideas to the Czech (and sometimes even transpositions).

ejh said...

were you nearly OK if you don't allow this?

That late on - I really don't think so. Looking at it a little this evening, though, I wonder whether I could have had a pop at 21...g6, rather than trying to find a square for the knight that didn't exist.

I agree that it might be difficult for the player giving the simul to find a safe winning plan. If I find the most solid defence it's quite likely going to require a pawn storm or a sacrifice, either of which risks losing the game if it goes wrong: and there's not the time to calculate these. On the other hand, there isn't much time for Black, either, to calculate that he's not lobbing the game away with any given move.

I do think that one of the things that appeals about the Czech Benoni (and similar openings) is the idea of making the other player work hard for their win, if they're going to get it. I know there's a theory (expounded most notably by Simon Webb) that against a strong player you really want a melée,and I've meant for a long time to write something about it, because my approach is in one way the opposite, but in another, not. It's almost like saying "all right, if you want to win - you have to create the melée". Although of course, in this particular game, that's not how it worked out.

Jonathan B said...

Well, you got N-R1 in. You sure you don't want to give it another go?

Anonymous said...

Funny, i played a blitz game not much diferent from this game( me as white
) after my club's league match with a member of the oponent team, to fill in the time as we had both finished our respective games...and also won... Funny both the benoni and kings indian i tend to score quite well...Not as much as the dutch where my score is almost perfect !! eh eh
Thanks for sharing your games

Anonymous said...

I always play the Queen's Knight d7-f8-g6. It may look like a bad square but from there it watches e5 in case White does go f4, and also you can delay castling and if White castles you have the 'plan' of h5, h6 Nf6-h5 and then one of the Knights into f5. These are Andrew Martin's suggestions from some games of Nisipeanu.

ejh said...

Not sure I follow that plan of yours. Would you like to have another go?