Szymon Abramowicz Winawer (1853-1919) was a 19th-century Polish master and for a period one of the world’s top players. He secured brilliant results at the famous tournaments of Paris 1878, Vienna 1882 and Nuremberg 1883 – but after showing such promise, he became disillusioned with chess following some bad results, giving the game up for nearly a decade, and then only to make what proved to be an ill-fated comeback in the 1890s.
Later this month, we mark the centenary of his death in Warsaw. And while we may not be overly familiar with his games, he did leave to us a lasting legacy with the invention of his very popular Winawer variation in the super-solid French Defence that still continues to excite and enthrall us today – and only this week, we witnessed a truly amazing battle from both sides of the Winawer that proved to be one of the standout games at the recent 35th European Club Cup in Montenegro.
The clash was between the experienced top Croatian grandmaster, Ivan Saric, and his young opponent, 14-year-old IM Aydin Suleymanli, the new Azerbaijan rising star. Saric’s Italian team of Obiettivo Risarcimento Padova went on to clinch the title for the first time – but his encounter with teen Suleymanli won the plaudits from their fellow players, commentators and fans alike for the fighting spirit shown by both players in the team tournament.
The game also came with a Winawer variation famous for having no name – but one with a remarkable backstory to it. The move 7…Qa4 was a big, big favourite of US Virgin Island amateur Bill Hook, and he caught many victims out with it, notably GM Vladimir Liberzon at the 1974 Nice Olympiad – and he almost also caught the formidable Bobby Fischer out with his pet-line during their memorable encounter (see game by clicking here) at the 1970 Chess Olympiad in Siegen, West Germany.
While this variation might well have no name attached to it, if anything, it fully deserves to be called ‘the Portisch Winawer’. The ‘Hungarian Botvinnik’, Lajos Portisch was the first to pioneer this annoying, deflecting queen move in the mid 1950s; he also went on to write chapter 4 – “Developing an Opening Repertoire” – of the influential 1974 multi-authored RHM Press book, How to Open a Chess Game, where he extolled the virtues behind 7…Qa4.
The idea behind the queen sortie is to stop White playing a4 and Ba3 – Portisch’s only concern with it, he noted, was: “The only question is: How dangerous will White’s initiative on the Kingside be?”
Photo: The victorious Italian team Obiettivo Risarcimento Padova | © 35th European Club Cup
GM Ivan Saric – IM Aydin Suleymanli
35th ECC Open, (5)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qa5 7.Bd2 Qa4 8.Qg4 Kf8 The idea behind White’s previous move is to force Black into the text move. The alternative is 8…g6 that weakens the dark squares on the kingside, and allows White to bash on with his rapid development with 9.Nf3 as 9…Qxc2 10.Rc1 Qf5 (If 10…Qa4 White is just going to “get on with it” and 11.Bd3 followed by h4-h5 etc.) 11.Qxf5 gxf5 12.c4! and the game is being ripped open for White’s active pieces to take a big advantage. 9.Qd1 Job done with the king denied castling rights, the queen comes back to defend c2, and the game becomes an intriguing positional battle. 9…Ne7 In the above mentioned Fischer-Hook Olympiad game, Hook opted for his favourite 9…b6. 10.Qb1 Stopping Black playing …Bd7 and threatening Bb5 and c4 crashing open the position. 10…c4 11.Ne2 Nbc6 12.Nf4 b6 13.Nh5 Bd7 14.Qc1 Rg8 15.h4 A common thrust for White in the Winawer, the idea being to gain space on the kingside and threatening the rook lift Rh1-h3-f3 (or g3) – and this directly addresses Portisch’s main concern: “How dangerous will White’s initiative on the Kingside be?” 15…Ke8 16.Rh3 Kd8 17.Rf3 Kc7 The king runs to a safe haven on the queenside, and now the battle changes to who emerges with an advantage when the kingside opens. 18.g3 Of course, 18.Rxf7? Be8! wins on the spot. 18…Raf8 19.Bh3 Be8 20.Nf4 Bd7 21.Kf1 Kb7 22.Kg1 Nf5 23.Rb1 It looks like White can win a pawn with 23.Bxf5 but after 23…exf5 24.Nxd5 Be6 Black has excellent strategic compensation for the pawn, with …Nc6-e7 and the idea of commanding the d5 outpost after defending f5. 23…Nce7 24.Rb4 Qc6 25.Ng2 h5 26.Nf4 f6 27.Qe1 g5 We’re now set for a fascinating middlegame battle – and one that is so double-edged that the result could go either way. 28.Nxh5 g4 29.Rxf5! Saric’s big idea is that the exchange sacrifice will open up the game for his bishops. And now we the game becomes a battle of complexities on both sides of the board; and a credit has to go to the fighting spirit shown by both players. 29…Nxf5 30.Bg2 fxe5 31.dxe5 a5 32.Rb1 Qc5 33.Nf6 Rg7 34.Be3!? Saric is so convinced that his powerful Nf6 (combined with the long-term threat of pushing the h-pawn up the board) is a big game-winner, that he is willing to trade queens. 34…Nxe3 35.Qxe3 Qxe3 36.fxe3 Ba4 37.Rc1 b5 Another plan was running the king over to the kingside with 37…Kc7 and out of the way of the pin down the h1-a8 diagonal. 38.e4! In hindsight, Suleymanli probably realises there’s now a danger with the pin on the long diagonal. 38…d4 Both player have now gone “all-in” with their rivalling pawn-push plans. 39.cxd4 b4 40.axb4 axb4 41.Bf1 Rc8 42.Rb1 b3 43.c3 Kb6 44.h5 Truth told, both sides are probably convinced they are winning here – but it is all so unclear, very double-edged, and any three results is quite possible. 44…Bb5 45.h6 Ra7 46.h7 Rh8 47.Be2 Ra2 Played very much in the spirit in which this engrossing battle between these two players – but hindsight is always 20/20, and now was probably the time for Black to bail-out of the coming study-like complications with 47…Rhxh7! 48.Nxh7 Rxh7 49.Bxg4 Rg7 50.Bf3 Rxg3+ 51.Kf2 Rh3 52.Kg2 Rh8 53.Kg3 Ra8 54.d5 and a likely draw as both sides have to be wary of the opposing passed pawns, and not able to fully commit their pieces to trying to force a win. But then again, without the spirit of adventure shown by both players, we wouldn’t get to enjoy the rest of this game! 48.Bxg4 Rc2 Unfortunately 48…b2 doesn’t work, as White simply plays 49.Kf2 and now Black is caught in a bind as his …Ra2 is out of the game defending the b2-pawn – and if that falls, White will easily win. 49.Bxe6 b2 With Kg2 now stopped, White has no other choice but to sacrifice the rook for the b-pawn. 50.Rxb2 Rxb2 51.Bg8! Amazingly, in a very dramatic live game that had captured the imagination of the online chess fans following it, we have emerged with a position and finale to the game that resembles a study-like solution. 51…Rc2 52.Nd5+ Ka5 53.e6 Bc6 Nerves was probably creeping in now for the young Azeri – his best hope to save the game looks like 53…Ka4 54.g4 Re2! 55.g5 Rxe4 56.Nf6 Rf4 57.e7 Rf5! 58.Ne4 Be8 and Black is saving the game. But then again, so much is happening here, I could well have missed something better for White! 54.e7 Ka4 55.Nb6+ Kb3 56.d5 A little more accurate looked 56.Nxc4!? Kxc3 57.d5 Be8 58.Nd6 Bg6 59.e8Q Bxe8 60.Nxe8 Kd4 61.Nd6 and with one rook entombed in h8, the threat of a Nf7 will always be looming large, and White still has a number of passed pawns. 56…Bb5 57.d6 Rd2 58.Nxc4 Rd1+ 59.Kf2 Kxc3 60.Na3 Quicker was 60.e5! Rxh7 61.Bxh7 Kxc4 62.Bf5 Be8 63.Kf3 with a plan of Kf3-f4-g5-f6 and then pushing the g-pawn all looks convincing enough. 60…Be8 61.e5 Kd4 62.e6 Ke5 63.Nc4+? [see diagram] The only real misstep from Saric, who looks to take the scenic route to victory – but the clean, clinical kill was the direct 63.d7! Rxd7 64.exd7 Bxd7 65.Nc4+ Kf6 66.Nb6 Be8 (If 66…Kxe7 67.Nxd7 Kxd7 68.Kf3 there’s not enough time for Black to march his king over and then sacrifice the entombed rook for the bishop and pawn, as White will gain the opposition for the coming king and pawn ending, similarly to the note at the end of the game.) 67.Nd5+ Kg7 68.Nc7 and White wins, as the only way to stop the e-pawn is to sacrifice the bishop, leaving a hopelessly lost B, N + 2 vs entombed R. 63…Kf6 64.g4 Rd5 65.d7 Rxd7? The final, fatal error. After 65…Kxe7! 66.dxe8Q+ Kxe8 67.Ne3 Rg5 68.Kf3 Rgxg8! 69.hxg8Q+ Rxg8 Black will still have to play with some care due to any knight forks, but this position should just be a draw. A pity, because a draw would have been a very fitting result. 66.exd7 Bxd7 67.Nb6 Kxe7 68.Nxd7 Kxd7 69.Kg3 Ke7 70.Kh4 Kf6 71.Kh5 1-0 Black resigns, as after 71…Kg7 72.Kg5 Rxh7 73.Bxh7 Kxh7 74.Kf6 Kh8 75.g5 Kg8 76.Kg6 White will gain the opposition to control the g8 queening square.