Behold the hippopotamus!
We laugh at how he looks to us,
And yet in moments dank and grim,
I wonder how we look to him.
Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus!
We really look all right to us,
As you no doubt delight the eye
Of other hippopotami.
– Ogden Nash (1902-1971)
So observed the famous humorist, whose short pithy poems – such as ‘The Hippopotamus’ above – entered the realm as an American Literature treasure. But today we’re more interested in another Hippopotamus that comes from an entertaining and instructive new book from the top Dutch chess publishing stable of New in Chess, The Hippopotamus Defence, by the Italian author and FIDE Master, Alessio De Santis.
The concept of the Hippopotamus is widely believed to have been the creation of the eccentric English amateur club player J.C. Thompson. In the post World War II years, visiting Grandmasters often had to face his irregular “proto-Hippo” set-up in simultaneous exhibitions, which he used to defeat GMs such as Tolush and Janosevic – but the real breakthrough pioneering work came in the late 1950s and 60s from Slovakian International Master Maximilian Ujtelky.
The idea with the “Hippo” is that Black develops within his first three ranks at the beginning of the game a ‘core set-up’. With it, he constructs a solid, stable yet flexible position, deceptively laying in wait just below the surface – much like a Hippopotamus in the water, hence the naming of the opening – to see what White does and then reacts accordingly.
Few chess players, however, took any notice of the Hippo. It only really took off as being “respectable” after Boris Spassky – who took to it after getting nothing against it when he faced Ujtelky’s Hippo at Sochi 1964 – stunned the chess world by successfully deploying it twice (in the 12th and 16th games) for the better side of draws with Tigran Petrosian during their 1966 World Championship Match in Moscow.
De Santis’s book is a very honest and refreshing assessment of the Hippo – which, to my mind, is still a very underrated and underestimated opening for club and tournament players that this book is clearly aimed at. This isn’t an opening book from a player looking to make a quick buck with a ‘computer-dump’ print-out. Instead, this is a thoughtful and clearly laid-out book crammed with invaluable insights and nuggets from the author through the sweat and toil of practical examples from his own games in praxis.
The author used this opening – which he describes as being a ‘universal’ defence for Black – exclusively in the period when he achieved three IM norms. And from that experience, he’s now laid out a complete system for the Hippopotamus and his semi-Hippopotamus, that covers all the bases of the opening possibilities: 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.f4, Colle, London, Trompowski, Réti and others.
And De Santis also brought a smile to the writer of this column by bringing back floods of memories of being a 12-year-old newcomer to chess in the aftermath of the famous Fischer-Spassky title match in 1972!
He annotates in full the clash between two of Scotland’s best young players of the period, David Levy and Roddy McKay, held during the first Glasgow Congress International in 1973 (won by GM Robert Hübner) – my very first “Hippo” encounter that I witnessed first-hand, standing there transfixed in the venerable Langside Halls playing venue, as McKay worked his ol’ black magic.
IM David Levy – FM Roddy McKay
Glasgow Congress International, 1973
1.e4 b6 2.d4 Bb7 3.Nc3 e6 4.Nf3 g6 5.Be2 Bg7 6.Bg5 The Hippo wasn’t so well-known at the time of this game; and despite this looking a good move (in conjunction with Qd2), it just loses a tempo as …Ne7 and ..h6 is just part of the core-plan of Black’s ‘under-the-water’ set-up. 6…Ne7 7.Qd2 h6 8.Be3 d6 9.0-0-0 a6 10.Bd3 Nd7 Here we now have the ‘universal’ Hippo set-up, where, for experienced exponents of the Black side, this becomes almost ten moves of near automatic development. 11.Ne1 b5 Levy has wasted a couple of tempi with his Bg5-e3 and now Ne1 – but his aggressive intentions to go for an Austrian Attack f4 can’t be taken lightly, so McKay counters quickly with his queenside offensive. 12.f4 c5! This fits in well with the queenside offensive. 13.dxc5 b4! 14.Ne2 dxc5 15.f5! We’ve now reached the critical moment in the game – attacks on both wings and the game could go any way now. 15…gxf5?! More accurate was 15…exf5 16.exf5 Qa5. 16.exf5 Qa5 Both sides have gone ‘all-in’ now – whoever blinks first is likely to lose. 17.Kb1? And Levy blinks first, but understandable when you start to fear your king could fall. He had to stay firm with 17.fxe6! Ne5 (Black has nothing with 17…Qxa2? 18.exd7+ Kd8 19.c3! where the extra piece and the raging central attack will easily win the day.) 18.exf7+ Kf8 19.Kb1 c4!? and a double-edged game where, frankly, either side can win. 17…Bd5 18.Nc1 0-0-0 19.Qe2 Nb6 McKay was never one to to pass up the chance of a raging attack for the mere bagatelle of a couple of pawns. 20.Bxa6+ Kb8 21.Nf3 Amazingly, Levy’s position has collapsed in the space of a few moves, and now all the natural moves lose. Obviously he’d love to see the queen’s being traded, but alas 21.Qb5? walks right into 21…Bxa2+! 22.Nxa2 Rxd1+ easily winning. And the only other alternative of 21.fxe6 is another minefield with 21…Bxb2! 22.Kxb2 Na4+ 23.Ka1 Nc3 and White either loses his king or his queen. 21…Nxf5 22.Bf4+ Ka7 23.Bd3 Bxb2! [see diagram] And McKay was also never one to hold back when he had a spectacular game-winning piece sacrifice. And with it, I still vividly remember the moment watching this Hippo experience! 24.Nb3 If 24.Kxb2 Qa3+ 25.Ka1 c4 26.Bxf5 c3 soon wins. 24…Qa3 The winning threat is …Nb6-a4-c3 mate. 25.Bb5 Bc4! 26.Qxc4 More or less an admission of resignation. The alternative is 26.Bxc4 Na4! 27.Rd3 Rxd3 28.Qxd3 Nc3+ 29.Qxc3 Bxc3 30.Bc1 Qa4 and Black will soon be following up with …Kb6 and …Ra8 mating down the a-file. 26…Nxc4 27.Bxc4 Kb6 28.Be5 Bc3 0-1