As collectively we slip further into what feels more and more like a really bad dystopian sci-fi B-movie to fight the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, billions of people are now finding that they are faced with the eerie echoes of a world in isolation. Most of us are getting into a routine and trying to make the best of the enforced rest that is associated with our new life full of lockdowns, social distancing and isolation.
Rather than endlessly binge-viewing the latest collection of box sets, some of you may well wish to use the enforced isolation period by further studying chess to become better players. And as much as I hate to say it, even here there’s just no escaping the harsh realities of isolation, as this is a very important principle in chess.
In chess, we often speak of an isolated pawn as though they were also a kind of illness. But recall that Siegbert Tarrasch looked on them as a blessing because they gave a superiority of space control. But world champions Capablanca and Karpov scoffed at them, seeing them as nothing more than a structural weakness by winning game after game to prove it.
An isolated pawn is a pawn which has no friendly pawn on an adjacent file. The most common isolated pawn is the queen’s pawn, often called an isolani – a term that was coined by that arch-blockader of them himself, World Chess Hall of Famer Aron Nimzowitsch, and comes from Italian isolano (“islander”). Most grandmasters these days follow the principle that you do not take on the isolani unless you have the wherewithal to smash through with a brilliant attack – but when you go all passive and not generate the counter-play with active piece-play, then the isolani will just become a headache to have to deal with.
And when I was a young chess student, one of the classic examples of just how to play against the isolani features in today’s game, as another World Chess Hall of Famer in Mikhail Botvinnik, dubbed “the Patriarch of the Soviet School of Chess”, displays the very fundamentals needed to play against them.
Photo: Three-time World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik knew how to battle the isolation!
Mikhail Botvinnik – Evgeny Zagorjansky
1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 e6 3.b3 Nf6 4.Bb2 Be7 5.e3 0-0 6.Nc3 c5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.Nxd5 exd5 9.d4 With this central thrust from Botvinnik, we’re destined for two types of positions: the IQP position, or Zagorjansky could opt for the ‘hanging pawns’ on d5 and c5 by playing 9…b6 and then …Bb7. 9…cxd4?! Capturing far too early – and this is a common mistake that most club players often make. If you want to play with the IQP, then don’t lose a tempo by rushing into it – wait till White plays Qd2 and then capture. 10.Qxd4 Bf6 11.Qd2 Nc6 12.Be2 Be6 Another small error. When you have the IQP, then you have to place your pieces as actively as you can to allow free-flowing piece-play – and here the correct move was 12…Bf5 – the point is that now 13.Rd1 Be4! and Black is doing OK. 13.0-0 Bxb2 14.Qxb2 This is something of a nightmare for any IQP devotee, as all of White’s focus is concentrated on blockading the vital d4 square, in front of the IQP, which now can’t move. The rest is a pure masterclass from Botvinnik of how to keep building up that pressure, and when Black’s attention is concentrated fully on defending the pawn, he sublimely switches to a surprise all-out kingside attack. 14…Qa5 15.Rfd1 White’s strategy is just to ratchet up the pressure on the vulnerable IQP with Rd2 and Rad1, and doing so draws all of Black’s pieces out of the game. 15…Rfd8 16.Rd2 Rd7 17.Rad1 Rad8 18.h3 Better to be safe than sorry, and both sides just make sure they leave a little escape square for their kings in case of a back-rank mate. 18…h6 19.Ne5! This is nice little twofer: Exchanging pieces just makes Black’s task of defending the IQP even harder heading into the endgame, and, more importantly, it vacates the f3 square for the bishop to attack d5. 19…Nxe5 20.Qxe5 Qc5 21.Bf3 b6 Black just mitigates his long-term problems, with the only weakness he now has to worry about being the IQP on d5. If he can solve that problem, he’s safe – but Botvinnik also has a cunning plan that present Black with an unexpected problem. 22.Qb2 Rc8 23.Qe5 Rcd8 It is obvious White has the advantage with his more active pieces and the easy target on d5 – but there’s no clear way to capture the pawn. But fear not, this is all part of Botvinnik’s cunning plan: with Black’s pieces all passively placed defending d5, the soon-to-be world champion makes a sudden switch of direction to a kingside attack, and Black doesn’t have the time to react to it. 24.Rd4 a5 One of the reasons why this game is often quoted in the anthologies as a masterclass on how to exploit the passive set-up defending the IQP, is that with all of Black’s focus firmly fixed on defending d5, Botvinnik was well aware he couldn’t pick-off the pawn, but instead he was using its weakness as a decoy for springing a sudden, violent attack on his opponent’s king. 25.g4! Admittedly some may well think that this is creating an unnecessary weakness in White’s position – but that it (possibly) wins by force now is just a mere detail! 25…Qc6 26.g5 Not bad per se, but the consensus from other commentators’ in those aforementioned anthologies, is that the more accurate and natural way to continue the attack was with 26.h4!. 26…hxg5 27.Qxg5 f6 28.Qg6 Bf7 29.Qg3 f5?! Black was admittedly in a difficult position – but to stay in the game he had to find the best move, and that was 29…Qc2! 30.R1d2 Qc1+ 31.Kg2 Re7 and there’s not much in the game anymore, though White does still hold the edge – but wether there’s enough here to covert for the full point is debatable. 30.Qg5 Qe6 31.Kh1 Qe5 32.Rg1 Rf8?! There’s just too many ‘loose’ moves now coming from Zagorjansky – and they all build-up to a big advantage for Botvinnik. He had to stay active and positive with 32…Rd6! and make Botvinnik do all the hard work to convert any possible win. 33.Qh6 Rb8? The pressure is telling for Zagorjansky, and one further bad move sees Botvinnik ruthlessly cashing in now. The only chance to stay in the game was with the very obvious 33…Rc8 34.Rh4 (If 34.Qxb6 Rc2 35.Qxa5 Rxf2 36.Qa8+ Be8 37.Bxd5+ Kf8! 38.Bg2 Re7 and Black is now the one with the active pieces and will easily hold for a draw.) 34…Kf8 35.Qxb6 Rc2 where Black at least has activity for his pieces, and White is more or less forced now into 36.Rh8+ Ke7 37.Kg2 Rxa2 38.Ra8 Qd6! 39.Qd4 Qf6 and White likely still has good winning chances, but there’s still a lot of work needing doing to convert the win. 34.Rh4! Now the attack is just crashing through. 34…Kf8 35.Qh8+ Bg8 36.Rf4! Rbb7 37.Rg5 [see diagram] Botvinnik was the master of knowing how to carefully build up a winning attack. Nothing with the ‘Patriarch’ was ever speculative or rushed into, there was never any ‘flashy attacks’, just hard graft and very instructive, carefully constructed winning attacks, such as this game. 37…Rf7 38.Qh5 More clinical was 38.Bh5! but the text is a typical Botvinnik-like move, and also wins. The rest of the game is just a technicality now. 38…Qa1+ 39.Kg2 g6 40.Qxg6 Bh7 41.Qd6+ Rbe7 42.Qd8+ 1-0 Zagorjansky throws in the towel, faced with 42…Re8 43.Qd6+ Ree7 44.Rd4! Qc3 45.Qh6+ Ke8 46.Bxd5 and not only does the IQP fall, Black’s position collapses with it.