Miniatures to Memorize: French Defense – 2: A. Alekhine vs A. Nimzowitsch (San Remo 1930)

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.

Russian Roulette with Alekhine’s Gun

This game is another cautionary tale for the French player, but this time it’s a serious battle of technique between two positional world champion-level players, Alexander Alekhine and Aaron Nimzowitsch. This game is all about the often-invisible aspects of Chess: space and time. And we get to see a glimpse of the famed Alekhine’s Gun: the Rook-Rook-Queen battery on a file.

Why should you memorize this game?

As White

By choosing the French Defense, Black concedes a minor space advantage to White on move 1 itself. This game is a prime example of how to positionally dominate with that space advantage and to do so in time before Black can gain sufficient counter-play. This game will require White to have some understanding of Black’s middle-game plans arising out of a main line French: the Winawer Variation. However, for the completely uninitiated who does not have much time to study the theory, having this game in memory can drill the importance of acting fast against the French setup.

As Black

A key idea of the Winawer Variation is exchanging the Black dark-squared Bishop for White’s Knight on c3. This game prepares you for when White chooses to preserve the Knight, exchange dark-square Bishops and gain significant queen-side space before you can develop your pieces that side. You will also see how your response to a critical question about trading pieces on move 8 can easily convert a completely equal position into a completely losing one. So, pay close attention to moves 8-12.

Now, let’s jump into the game.

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 to the study page directly.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 Entering the mainline of the Winawer variation.

4.e5 c5 Striking immediately in the center, à la Advance Variation.

5.Bd2 Ne7 6.Nb5 White chooses to preserve the Knight instead of the Bishop. The Knight already has an outpost on d6, as is often the case in positions arising from the central advance-pawn bind.

6…Bxd2+ 7.Qxd2 O-O 8.c3 Maintaining control of the center. White’s dominance is conditional on maintaining the central bind.

8…b6 Black tries to solve the problem of the bad French bishop by making room for its development. Black would enjoy exchanging it for White’s strong light-squared bishop, which can move freely between White’s pawn chain on dark-squares.

9.f4 Attacking immediately on the king-side where White has a significant space advantage. With the Black King castled that way, White has clear targets for a pawn storm. As there is no real activity on the queen-side yet, White may choose to castle that way in the future.

9…Ba6 Continuing with his plan to exchange. An important question to consider: Is Black okay exchanging the Bishop for the Knight, which has potential to become a monster when planted on d6? At this point, the position is completely equal. So, how Black responds to the question will determine the tilt of the game.

10.Nf3 White continues development, leaving Black with the same question.

10…Qd7 Black answers with “All of the above.” by bringing in another attacker to the b5 Knight. If White allows it, why not eliminate both active pieces?

11.a4 Of course, White doesn’t.

11…Nbc6 With all pawns on dark-squares and with the latest a2-a4 move, White has created some gaping holes on his queenside light-squares. Black jumps in with the Knight, aiming for the b3 hole, which would make castling queen-side pretty dangerous.

12.b4 This is the pawn break that makes this game so memorable. White decides to pre-emptively strike and bust open the queen-side before Black can coordinate an attack there.

12…cxb4 13.cxb4 Opening up c-file for his rook.

13…Bb7 Making way for the a-pawn.

14.Nd6 White moves preemptively again, clearing way for its own pawns, gaining a lot of queenside space and smothering the Black pieces in. Combined with the king-side space advantage, White can soon launch several attacking combinations. The Queen and Bishop could line-up on the b1-h7 diagonal, the f3 Knight could jump to g5 and pressure h7 even further. The a1 Rook can lift-slide via a1-a3-g3.

14…f5 Realizing White’s plans, Black shuts down the king-side, blunting the b1-h7 diagonal. The e5 pawn can’t capture en passant, as the d6 Knight would hang.

15.a5 White continues with his queen-side expansion. The pawn can’t be captured as b4-b5 will push the Black Knight to the back rank, disconnecting the rooks and further cramping Black’s pieces. The White Queen can then comfortably move into the position by capturing on a5. [15…bxa5 16. b5 Nb8 or Nd8 17. Qxa5]

15…Nc8 Black tries the seemingly principled move. When cramped, trade pieces. But this immediately weakens his position. And White punishes the inaccuracy. Trying to open up the queen-side to relieve some of the cramp is also not much better. [15…bxa5 16.b5 Nb8 and the a5 pawn is an easy grab.]

16.Nxb7 Letting the c8 Knight capture the d6 Knight would have hung the pawn after it recaptured on d6. But why choose to trade with the bad, lifeless b7 Bishop instead of the c8 Knight, which could potentially be dangerous jumping around the closed center? One, the bishop could find new life via the a6-f1 diagonal, even trading itself off for White’s Bishop, which can be an excellent attacking piece. Two, leaving the Knight on c8 would keep the Rooks disconnected. The c8 Knight does not have any squares to jump to on the queen-side, where White is coordinating his attack, and will have to return the way it came. Three, since the Queen will have to recapture on b7, White can push a6 with tempo.

16…Qxb7 17.a6 Moving with tempo and cramping Black further by taking away the b7 square.

17…Qf7 18.Bb5 Developing with tempo again. The c6 Knight has no forward jumps. It must retreat, or be defended. White can pile up the pressure with Rac1.

18…N8e7 19.O-O Castling, bringing the last piece into the game. Now Alekhine can double up on the c-file.

19…h6 Too slow. White is focused on the queen-side. And though Ng5 would come with tempo on the Queen while pressuring the weak e6 pawn, the Queen can safely defend it on g6. And then the Knight can be kicked out with h6. Best was probably to start doubling on the c-file yourself, before White. This game is all about timing. [19…Rfc820.Rac1Nd821.Bd7Rc4 and White is better.]

20.Rfc1 Rfc8 21.Rc2 Qe8 Overprotecting the Knight in anticipation of Rac1. But now Black’s position is completely lost. White will be able to set up the famed Alekhine’s Gun on the c-file and Black will not have enough defenders. The next few moves is just a professional display of technique by the World Champion. It is said that one of the toughest challenges in chess is winning a winning position. Alekhine shows us how.

22.Rac1 Rab8 Honestly, I don’t understand this move. Even Stockfish says this was the best move in the position. Shows me how much I have to learn. Anyway, the line I’d recommend is not much better or worse in terms of evaluation, but more human to understand. [22…Rc7 23.Rc3 Rac8 24.R1c2 Qd8 25.Qc1 Nxb4 26.Rxc7 Rxc7 27.Rxc7 Na2 28.Qc2 Nb4 29.Qc3 Na2 30.Qc2 Nb4 31.Qd2 Qxc7 32.Qxb4]

23.Qe3 Leaving the option open to shift the queen to the king-side.

23…Rc7 24.Rc3 Qd7 25.R1c2 Kf8 26.Qc1 With the Black king walking to the queen-side, White goes all-in with the queen-side attack.

26…Rbc8 27.Ba4 Making room for the nail in the coffin: the pawn thrust b4-b5.

27…b5 Pushes b5 himself to prevent White.

28.Bxb5 Ke8 29.Ba4 Again making room for b4-b5 at the opportune moment.

29…Kd8 30.h4 1-0 Black resigns. Black is in zugzwang, so White patiently passes the move. [30…Nxd4 31.Bxd7 Rxc3 32.Nxd4 Rxc2 33.Nxc2 Kxd7 34.b5 When the dust settles, Black is down a lot of material.]

From my Chess Preparation Journal, dated 17-May-2020.

One thought on “Miniatures to Memorize: French Defense – 2: A. Alekhine vs A. Nimzowitsch (San Remo 1930)

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