Friday, October 19, 2012

Once was enough - or maybe it wasn't : The Berlin Wall

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6

Writing the Once Was Enough sequence is not, I should say, a pledge that I will never again play any of the openings it features. A man is not on oath in a trivial internet chess series.

Still, I'm happier including nonsense like the Portuguese Gambit than something like the Chebanenko Slav which I can easily imagine myself picking up again, even if only by transposition. That's why I've havered about including the Berlin Wall, and why in the end - in the spirit of being unable to make up my own mind - I both have, and haven't. Look at this column as an interlude in the series rather than an addition to it.

I've played the Berlin only once - obviously - the occasion being a game at the Aragón Individual Championsip in 2009. I lost. I was glad I'd given it a try, though. I've long been interested in the Spanish without ....a6, having, as mentioned here, picked up Mikhail Yudovich's 1986 book of that title, albeit secondhand and some years after it was published.

I was as surprised as anyone, though, when it turned up in the first game of the 2000 World Championship match: of all the Spanish-without-a6 lines available, it wouldn't have been the first I expected to be rehabilitated. Even then, it didn't particularly attract me. Not because it was boring - I don't care - but because I didn't expect it to be long-lived. Kasparov beat Kramnik the following year, in Astana, and I thought it would go away again. But it didn't.

Even so, I wasn't enthused enough to follow developments in the variation, and it was not long after that I settled down with the Breyer. It wasn't until almost the end of the decade that had opened with the Berlin Wall's revival that I found myself taking an interest again. It featured in Larry Kaufman's well-received The Chess Advantage In Black And White

but I didn't take much notice of that section, having mostly bought the book for its coverage of White alternatives to the Spanish.

The main culprit was my collegaue Jonathan who began to enthuse about the Berlin. Jonathan, like any good convert, decided to spread the gospel himself, so he took it upon himself to send me, absolutely free, a copy of John Cox's 2008 book. I believe he now leaves copies of it in hotel rooms.

What a good book, I thought, disastrous production notwithstanding, and having read through it, I was immersed sufficiently to give it a pop on what I hoped was the right occasion. (I also, to be honest, thought I ought to play it at least once out of gratitude to Jonathan.)

I was disappointed: as my opponent clearly hadn't been at all sure what to do, I wasn't happy that I had been even less sure, especially when the computer showed me about a thousand alternatives, many of them improvements, that I had available to me over moves 11-13. Not a disaster by any means (a bigger disaster was that I lost when I never should have, after 27.Kf3? Nxf4!) but it bothered me that I'd not found it easier to play after 10.Bf4, a move I couldn't find in Cox's book and one that didn't strike me as particularly strong.

When you're playing a new opening, the result of your first game can influence you too much, I realise. But it's not just the result - sometimes you just decide that you don't have a feel for the opening, and I didn't think I'd got a feel for this one.

There were two other considerations. One was that I didn't particularly feel the need for a change, as I was happy with the Breyer (I believe I have equalised every time I have played the Breyer, which includes several games against titled opponents).

Another was the pain-in.the-backside line that occurs if White continues, from our diagram at the head of the piece, 6.dxe5 Nxb5 7.a4.

This doesn't look so dull - or, conversely - so risky - from the diagram, but it transpires that Black has a choice between a variety of exceeedingly drawish positions and the punt 7...d6!? 8.e6 fxe6 9.axb5 Ne7

which isn't lost for Black, but is the kind of position that you could lose to anybody. Which isn't why I would choose to play the Berlin Wall.

Of course, such lines exist in any Black opening you might care to name, and it's just a question of whether you think the main lines are too dull and the alternatives too risky. I thought they probably were. I also started thinking "what would I do if I took up the Berlin, then every average club player learned you could play this?" and so I put the Berlin aside and reserved a slot for it in this series.

I maintained an interest, though, partly because Jonathan remains an enthusiast, and I had a little look at the Chess Stars book by Lysyj and Ovetchkin when he brought it to Penarth. It even mentions 9...Ke8 10.Bf4. Hurrah!

It didn't change anything, though. But then - just last Saturday - I was watching the last round of the Bilbao tournament, and then the blitz play-off. A play-off in which Carlsen absolutely wasted Caruana in both games, the first of them a Berlin Wall.

Being so influenced by one game you see - a blitz game or any other - is probably just as silly as being influenced by a single loss in one of your own games. Doesn't matter, I can't always help it. It doesn't happen every day. It doesn't even happen every decade - last time was the Polgar-Illescas game mentioned here, and that was 1999.

But I was watching this game, and following the commentary with Leontxo García and Gilberto Milos, which I have enough Spanish to sort-of-do. It makes a difference if you're watching the game live.

I think Caruana was spooked, but so was I: it just looked like a how-to-win-with-the-Berlin demonstration game. By the time Black got his king to b7 I was already sure he was going to win - never mind the objective evaluation, which is no doubt that White is at least equal, or, for that matter, what the computers say. It was just obvious to me what was going to happen.

A few moves later, Black's knight appeared on d4. On the commentary, García and Milos were saying it was looking about equal. One should be fair about this, and point out that

(a) they were still looking at a position a few moves behind
(b) they were right even in the game position, as long as White plays his knight to e2 and not e4.

But that was never going to happen, because this was a demonstration game. This was the game where the Berlin Wall walks all over White. I just looked at the position and thought "Equal? Surely Black is laughing here?".

So he was. And I knew, right then, with great certainty, that I shall have to play the Berlin Wall again.

[Once was enough index]


Jonathan B said...

"... he took it upon himself to send me, absolutely free, a copy of John Cox's 2008 book"

It was a wedding present, as I recall. I do hope Ruth's enjoyed it.

Jonathan Rogers said...

after 7 a4 Nbd4 8 Nd4 Nd4 9 Qd4 d5! Black is safe, at least equal and with some play left. (A Jon Parker game in the ECC 2003)

John Cox said...

My goodness, no wonder this is my favourite blog.

I think the point is, Jonathan, that 10 exd6 Qxd6 11 Qe4+ is virtually an immediate draw.

Jonathan B said...

I know from past discussions that EJH tends towards JC's view of the 7 a4 line rather than JR's.

It's never really bothered me, I have to say. I'm happy to play 9 ... d5 and the equalising. I *would* be happy to play it, that is. Nobody's ever punted 7 a4 against me in a real game.

Actually in the last 18 months or so only 7 of 23 games that I've had on the Black side of 1 e4 e5 went

1 e4 e5, 2 Nf3 Nc6, 3 Bb5 Nf6, 4 0-0 Nxe4

and in only 3 of those 7 did White play

5 d4

My feeling is that while it's theoretically true that club players could all suddenly start going 5 d4 Nd6 6 dxe5 Nxb5 7 a4 in practice they almost certainly won't.

I played the Zaitsev for many years and nobody ever played the ... Re8/Ng5 Rf8/Nf3 Re8 draw against me either.

Of course, playing at a slightly lower level than EJH I can afford to be less worried about the possibility of that sort of thing.

Jonathan B said...

One day I'll do a post on why defending 1 d4 with the Classical Dutch and 1 e4 with the Berlin is a perfectly sensible thing to do.