For those of a certain age, the title Hungry Hungry Hippos conjures up images of the late 1970s Christmas craze of the marble-chomping, hippo-feeding game from Hasbro. Hours and hours of endless entertainment no doubt, but for chess-players out there, the fun is to be had with another sort of ‘Hippo’ that became a craze.
The concept of the Hippopotamus Defence is widely believed to have been the creation of the eccentric English amateur club player, John Crittenden Thompson (1889-1971). In the post World War II years through the 1950s, visiting Grandmasters of the era often had to face Thompson’s irregular “proto-Hippo” set-up in simultaneous exhibitions, which he notably sprung on an unsuspecting Alexander Tolush to beat the Soviet GM (he also used it to beat Dragoljub Janošević, but lost with it against Paul Keres).
As White, Thompson also played the mirror-image of his provocative opening and advocated the outline of his system in his short pamphlet Hippopotamus Chess Opening, published in 1957 – but the real pioneering work only came after its publication, with the system being honed for top praxis-play by the Slovakian International Master Maximilian Ujtelky, who was subsequently dubbed the “Hero of the Hippo”.
The idea with the Hippo is that Black develops within his first three ranks at the beginning of the game with a ‘core set-up’. The plan is to construct a solid, stable, yet flexible position, deceptively laying in wait just below the surface – which to Thompson’s eyes, the pawn structure resembled a sleeping hippo, hence its naming – to see what White does, and then react accordingly.
Few players though took notice of the avant-garde Hippo. But it became an overnight craze after Boris Spassky – who took to it after getting nothing against it when he faced Ujtelky, at Sochi 1964 – stunned the chess world by deploying it at the highest level, for two entertaining draws (in games 12 and 16) against Tigran Petrosian, during the 1966 World Championship Match in Moscow.
It’s always nice to see a Hippo emerging from the tournament waters, but even more so when it is adopted by a rising new star, Carissa Yip, especially as she used it in a critical game, with it becoming a very potent weapon in her penultimate round clash against 2016 U.S. champion Nazi Paikidze, with the win securing the Boston teenager her first U.S. Women’s Championship title at the Saint Louis Chess Club recently.
Photo: A smiling Carissa Yip lifts her first US Women’s Championship title trophy | © Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club
IM Nazi Paikidze – IM Carissa Yip
2021 US Women’s Ch., (10)
1.d4 g6 2.e4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Nf3 a6 5.a4 Nd7 6.Bc4 e6 7.Bg5 Ne7 8.Qd2 h6 9.Be3 b6 10.h3 Bb7 Here we now have the universal Hippo core set-up, where, for experienced exponents of the Black side, this ‘laying in wait, just below the surface’ approach becomes almost ten moves of near automatic development regardless of what White plays. 11.0-0 Nf6 Hitting e4 and forcing White to do something about the undefended pawn. A conventional approach, but I always admired the chutzpah of Boris Spassky with his “castling by hand” approach of …Kf8, …Kg8 and …Kh7 just to defend h6. 12.d5 e5 13.Nh2 Nh5 A common theme in the Hippo when it surfaces, as given a free hand, Black will follow up with …g5 and …Ng6 and then swing the h5 knight into f4 for a ready-made attack. 14.Rfe1 White has to be careful here, as lashing out with 14.g4 is strongly met by 14…Nf4! 15.Bxf4 exf4 16.Qxf4 g5 17.Qe3 Ng6 and with the knight securing outposts on f4 and e5, Black will be looking to play …h5 to quickly burst the kingside open. 14…g5 15.g3 Ng6 16.Qd1 Too tame. A better plan was 16.Qe2 as now 16…Nf6 can be strongly met now by 17.a5! bxa5 (Not 17…b5? 18.Bxb5+! axb5 19.Qxb5+ Qd7 20.Qxb7 0-0 21.a6 winning.) 18.Rxa5 Bc8 with a complex battle ahead – White has the a6 weakness to lock on to, while Black has excellent counterplay with …Rb8 and/or …Qd7 to hit h3. 16…Nf6 17.Bf1 Bc8 With Yip’s light-squared bishop locked out of the game, she rightly switches it to the kingside. 18.a5?! All this does is succeed in locking the queenside, something that only helps Black, as now Yip can concentrate fully on her kingside attack. 18…b5 19.Bg2 Bd7 20.Nf1 Qc8 21.Kh2 h5! We’re now at ‘critical mass’ for the position, and one where Yip rightly gambles that her opponent daren’t risk capturing on g5. 22.f4? It just gets all “messy” after 22.Bxg5 h4! 23.g4 where you can imagine White being worried about 23…Bxg4! 24.hxg4 Nxg4+ 25.Kg1 h3 with enormous complications, and for this reason Paikidze didn’t want to entertain this – but what she opts for instead proves to be instant suicide, as all it does is voluntarily open lines towards her own king! 22…gxf4 23.gxf4 exf4 24.e5 Ng4+! Yip’s winning attack now hits like a tsunami. 25.hxg4 hxg4+ 26.Kg1 dxe5 27.Bc5 Qd8 Now …Qh4 is a major threat. 28.Ne4 f5! 29.d6 c6 30.Bb6 Qh4! [see diagram] What a picture! The phalanx of Black pawns is just the cherry in the cake now, as White can’t deal with both the mating threats and the pawns marching up the board. 31.Bf2 The game is effectively lost now, but the bishop retreat only serves to cut off escape squares for the White king – but then again, no better was 31.Ned2 f3 32.Nxf3 gxf3 33.Qxf3 e4 34.Bf2 Qh7 35.Rad1 Be5 36.Qe3 Nf4 with a crushing attack. 31…Qh5 32.Qd3 fxe4 33.Bxe4 Nf8 34.Bd4 f3! Yip is moving in for the kill now, with …Qh1+, …Qg2+ and …Bh6 mate threatened. 35.Bxf3 gxf3 0-1 Paikidze throws in the towel with a hopeless position, and no way to stop the imaginative and picturesque forced mate after 36.Qd2 Qg4+ 37.Kf2 Rh2+!! 38.Nxh2 Qg2+ 39.Ke3 Bh6+ 40.Ke4 f2+ 41.Kd3 fxe1Q 42.Rxe1 Bf5+ 43.Kc3 Qxd2+ 44.Kb3 Bxc2+ 45.Ka2 Qxa5#