How theory gets developed…
How opening ideas are developed
I got a kick out of following Kramnik’s post-morten comments vis a vis his brilliant victory against Gelfand at the recently concluded Tal Memorial. The game featured one of the very few times that Kramnik started with 1.e4 and Gelfand played his childhood favourite Najdorf Variation, to which Kramnik played the super-sharp Bg5 and Qe2 line:
You can see the whole game below if you want, but what most interested me is that at one point in the post-mortem Kramnik discussed his opening preparation the morning of the game and remarked that Gelfand– at one point– must have forgotten ‘the theory’:https://youtube.com/watch?v=6aBINS7SMeA%3Fstart%3D06%26end%3D37
Infact, Kramnik several times concretely referred to ‘the theory’ of this line. I made a mental note of this so as to afterwards try to find out where ‘the theory’ is. The thing is that had I worked extensively on this line some ten years ago or so–I was even planning at the time to write a book on the 6.Bg5 Najdorf–and I remembered that at the time there was no formal theory at all on the 8.Qe2 line.
John Nunn devoted barely 2 pages to it in his otherwise excellent book on the Najdorf ( Najdorf for the Tournament Player, 1988), while the 2002 edition of the ‘B’-ECO had even less: one little column and a foot-note or two…
When I finally got around to it, it turned out that Kramnik must have been referring to an excellent opening work (2015) by the talented Indian grandmaster P. Negi:
Negi has an entire chapter dedicated to a line that he called the ‘Gelfand Variation’ (6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Nbd7) and the only move he considers for White is 8.Qe2, which ten years ago or so –as I just pointed out–was little more than a footnote. The move 8.Qf3 was the mainline for some 40 years or so…
Tal Memorial 2016
Curiously, Negi’s treatment of the Gelfand Variation is entirely based on some work that I did (along with my brother in law, Portuguese master Antonio Ferreira) many years ago! We decided to create a formal theory of the Qe2 lines in the Najdorf (because it did not really have a proper treatment in the theoretical texts), and when finished (2008), I gave a copy of this file to my friend Alexi Shirov (who had previously toyed with a minor sideline of the Qe2 system) as well as to Arthur Kogan (who was working at the time with Radjabov).
Soon all of the top 1.e4 players in the world must have got a copy of this file, as Qe2 really took off almost immediately.
My brother in law and I are very pleased to see that our joint work today is considered the mainline (even more pleased to see that the great Kramnik himself plays it!)
Antonio Ferreira, when he was a young law student at Coimbra University in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s, was a passionate chess player and loved sharp lines in the Sicilian. He played (and continues to play to this day) the Dragon with Black, and when White against the Najdorf he played to the virtual exclusion of everything else the Qe2 line, even before playing f4:
Apparently, in those days Antonio did not have many opening books (there were few chess books available in Portugal at the time) but he had managed to get hold of a smallish pamphlet on the Najdorf written by some English player (whose name I unfortunately do not remember now) and this Qe2 treatment was suggested as a good way to play and at the same time avoid ‘theory’…Antonio quickly realized its potential and over the next decade played it hundreds of times in games of all time controls. His score was CRUSHING!
Anyway, fortunately Antonio kept all of his games and even wrote down his ideas in some notebooks. When I first went to Portugal in the late 1980’s Antonio showed me this Qe2 line, though I recall not being too impressed. However, in the spring of 2003–right before the USA lead invasion of Iraque–I decided to take a closer look at it.
Many were worried in 2003 of a terrorist lead backlash in Europe because of the Iraque war, and so I decided not to do much travelling abroad in 2003 until things died down. So I stayed home. This was the perfect opportunity to plough through Antonio’s notes and games in the Qe2 line. And we did a lot of analysis and brainstorming.
In 2004 I finally got the opportunity to play it and I enjoyed excellent results. I beat convincingly a number of grandmasters , including Najer. I think that , in all, I probably have a dozen or so games in this line between 2004 and 2008.
Cappelle La Grande, 2004
Around 2006 I began to realize that the Qe2 line could be a potentially dangerous weapon against the so called ‘Gelfand Variation’, but in order to ‘catch’ these players it was necessary to first play 7.f4 and only if then 7…Nbd7 8.Qe2!, so I started to play first 7.f4 (and only then 8.Qe2).
Our analytic work lead to some important discoveries about the most precise move order, and from the theoretical point of view is very significant because up to that time the Gelfand Variation was considered one of the best and most reliable lines in the Najdorf and nobody could really find anything especially dangerous against it.
San Sebastian 2007
I also played this way against grandmaster Cheparinov (Topalov’s second) at the Spanish Team Championship in 2008, quickly got an almost crushing position, but started to squander my advantage and in the end had to play inventively just to hold a draw. (I think this game is published in the big databases).
(Topalov and Cheparinov have collaborated for many years)
Anyway, the funny thing is that later that evening during dinner I was sitting alongside Alexi Shirov, chatting, when Cheparinov–who was also having dinner not far away from us– received a telephone call from Topalov who wanted to know how Ivan’s game had gone. They spoke in Bulgarian (which I don’t understand) but Shirov was able to make out quite a bit, and he told me that Cheparinov had told Topalov that they needed to do some theoretical work on the Najdorf because he realized that his opening against me was inadequate!
Before the end of the tournament I gave Alexi the opening file that I had on the Qe2 lines, and the rest is history. Now I want to make it clear that neither Antonio Ferreira nor I claim to have been the authors of this Qe2 treatment against the Najdorf. While never very popular up until that time, and often criticized in the theoretical texts, the truth is that there were several dozen games (some by transposition) in the databases. Even Alexi Shirov, for example, has a game or two (1995 or so) with Qe2, though the plan he played (g3, instead of g4) was not very successful. As well, other strong grandmasters such as Ljubojevic and Tukmakov had tried it once or twice…
But the plan that I proposed in the theoretical file that I wrote, and that later became the subject of Negi’s book, had not been sufficiently researched up to that point, and was considered just a footnote really. This plan was essentially two parts: to react to b5 with a3; and to quickly follow up with g4 and then Bxf6(!). Most of the games up to that time had seen g4 and then ideas such as Bh4 and then g5.
If I remember corrrectly, there were two old important games that encapsulated all of the essential ideas of how to play the modern Qe2 line. It was only necessary to combine (steal) these ideas. The games are Bronstein,D–Gheorghiu,F (1973) and Spassky,B–Tatarinzev (1960 !):
Petropolis Izt 1973
Kislovodsk (Russia) 1960