Miniatures to Memorize: French Defense 3: A. Nimzowitsch vs S. Alapin (St. Petersburg 1914)

Miniatures to Memorize is a series of short games (30 moves or fewer) that I highly recommend beginner- and intermediate-level players to commit to memory during their opening preparation. Some games show how to quickly punish your opponent’s natural-looking but inaccurate moves, while others demonstrate how easily you can go wrong and completely blunder your game. Presently, the series covers my favourite openings: the London and Catalan Systems for White and the French, Dutch, and King’s Indian Defenses for Black. I hope you enjoy and learn from these as much as I did.

I strongly urge you to follow along on a physical chess set. In case that is not convenient, and only in that case, use the lichess interface below. In case the interface does not load, you can go directly to the study linked in the appropriate section below.

Nimzowitsch’s Morphyesque Miniature

While in the previous game featured in this series, Nimzowitsch found his French Defense position squeezed by Alekhine’s masterful play, in this game he shows he’s no pushover. Playing with the White pieces, he unleashes his own aggressively positional (yeah, hence Morphyesque) attack, but with time instead of space.

Why should you memorize this game?

As White

This game is a beautiful demonstration of attacking with the most invisible weapon in the chess arsenal: time. It prioritizes development by gaining tempo on the opponent pieces and critical squares, slows down opponent’s development by baiting already developed pieces with juicy material, and finally sacrifices a piece to initiate a deadly attack before Black has an opportunity to castle away to safety.

As Black

By yielding king-side space to White, the French Defense also imposes constraints on development. In many cases, if you’re not precise with the 5-6 opening moves, you’ll find yourself unable to castle. This is why most coaches of the French Defense advise to prioritize development over material if you find yourself out of your preparation. This cautionary tale demonstrates how your greed for material advantage may quickly turn into a checkmate in the center.

Pull out your chess set

If you don’t have one, or it is super-inconvenient right now, you can use the lichess interface below. In case you can’t see it, go directly to the study page.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.exd5 Entering the Delayed Exchange line of the Classical Variation.

4…Nxd5 5.Nf3 c5 This is a key decision in the Delayed Exchange: How do you want to undermine White’s pawn structure? Try to get rid of the central pawns, as is tried here OR trade Knights and double the c-pawns, albeit at the cost of strengthening White’s center. [5…Nxc3 6.bxc3]

6.Nxd5 This is where the fun begins. White trades Knights knowing Black can rebuild the center with exd5. But White gains control of the critical e3 square for its Bishop, which can develop with pressure on c5 pawn.

6…Qxd5 Black takes with Queen to add a defender to the c5 pawn. [6…exd5 7.Bb5+ Bd7 8.Bxd7+ Nxd7 9.O-O Be7 10.dxc5 Nxc5 and white is slightly better (9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.Qxd5 and white is slightly better)]

7.Be3 As planned.

7…cxd4 Black chooses to capture at the cost of losing the option to develop its own Bishop with tempo. In essence, White developed his Bishop with tempo and made Black lose one tempo.

8.Nxd4 White wants to win another tempo by developing its light-squared Bishop with check. So, recapturing the pawn with the Knight protects the critical b5 square while simultaneously pressuring c6 to prevent Black from blocking check by developing the b8 Knight to its most natural square.

8…a6 Almost a forced move to take control of the b5 square.

9.Be2 Preparing for a King-side castle. But what is this? Is that a juicy pawn on g2?

9…Qxg2 Black gets greedy and goes for it. It was in this position that Nimzowitsch writes in his notes, “…the consequences will be dire.” And that is what makes this game so instructive.

10.Bf3 Black has of course calculated that the Queen can escape this harrassment. What he missed is that this too is just a sneaky developing move with tempo. White has no interest in the Queen.

10…Qg6 11.Qd2 Making way for a queen-side castle, which will also line the Rook and Queen into an impressive attacking battery on the open d-file.

11…e5 Black can feel the crisis. All his pieces are on the back rank. So, he tries to solve all his troubles by freeing up the e6 square for his Bishop and by chasing the White Knight away so he can develop his b8 Knight to c6.

12.O-O-O Boss move!! Sacrifices Knight for tempo to set up the Rook-Queen battery.

12…exd4 Black again succumbs to greed. That’s the theme of this game. One player is greedy for time, the other for material.

13.Bxd4 White’s advantage in development is simply too great now. Black is already completely losing.

13…Nc6 Black tries to develop with tempo now, while protecting the d8 square to avoid checkmate. Except it completely misses White’s plan.

14.Bf6 Moving out of the way and protecting the d8 square again. Now it is a Checkmate in 12. Game Over. While the game finishes in fewer moves, find as an exercise the most resilient line from Black that prolongs the inevitable.

14…Qxf6 Uh-oh. Now its Mate in 3. Do you see it? Don’t worry if you don’t. Even Nimzowitsch missed it. But he went for a flashier Mate in 5.

15.Rhe1+ Be7 16.Bxc6+ Kf8 17.Qd8+ Bxd8 18.Re8# 1-0 White wins by checkmate.

From my Chess Preparation Journal, dated 18-April-2020.