Miniatures to Memorize: French Defense – 4: George Henry Mackenzie vs George Mason (Paris 1878)

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.

Mackenzie’s Immortal Game

I know, I know. Yet another cautionary tale? Yeah. Perhaps it is the tragedy of the French Defense that it gives rise to some of the most beautiful miniatures, albeit for White. This game, universally recognized as Mackenzie’s Immortal is sometimes also known as “The Lure of the Lady,” because it features a rather strange-looking move. Black allows White to ruin the pawn structure in front of his castled King, and then the King, instead of retreating to a safe corner, actually steps forward in anticipation of the White Queen. But what really steals the show is the picturesque checkmating combination at the end.

Why should you memorize this game?

As White

Exchange Variations of the French are notorious for early equality. Which is probably why French Defense players become quite happy when they see it on the board. White has only a handful of ways to poke into the position and elicit an inaccuracy. This game demonstrates one such. Though it will be rare for a prepared player today to fall for this, it is nonetheless a masterclass in punishing Black’s complacency after gaining early equality.

As Black

You might be familiar with positions arising from the Lputian Variation or the Burn Variation that call for getting the g-pawn out of the way and using your Rooks on the semi-open g-file to attack White’s castled king on g1. However, in most of those positions, your own king is either chilling (rather precariously) in the center on d7 or is castled queenside on c8 or b8. Opening up the g-file with the King castled on g8 is on-the-face an extremely dangerous proposition. You might not get enough time to scoot over to h8. So, your aggressive play on the kingside to create an imbalance and gain advantage might backfire.

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 Nf6 4.exd5 The Delayed Exchange. Players of the Classical variation are familiar with this line, though the often played continuations result in equal positions. But we wouldn’t be memorizing this game if it was a boring draw, would we?

4…exd5 5.Nf3 Bd6 6.Bd3 O-O 7.O-O Nc6 8.Bg5 Ne7 Blunder. White can now capture on f6 and ruin Black’s pawn structure in front of the castled king. It is unclear if Mason considered this and allowed it, hoping to shut in the position with Ng6 in the short-run and then using the semi-open g-file later for his rooks to attack White’s castled King. Bold man, if he did. Better would have been counter-pinning the white knight on f3, constraining White’s kingside mobility. The critical line here also opens up the king’s position, but White cannot immediately take advantage of it until it dislodges the pin. With Black’s own queen centralized, the position would have been roughly equal. [8…Bg4 9.Nxd5 Bxh2+ 10.Kxh2 Qxd5 11.Bxf6 gxf6 12.c3 and equal.]

9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Nh4 Clearing the path for the Queen to enter the attack. Also, should Knight on e7 jump to g6 to glue in the position, White can exchange his own Knight. With the light-squared bishop eyeing the h7 square, several checkmate threats may emerge.

10…Kg7 Anticipating that the White Queen would soon enter the party, the King steps forward to extend a welcoming hand. “The Lure of the Lady”, remember? This is the critical move. Black is probably just clearing the path for the rook (or both rooks), which can possibly be a strong counter-attack, while the King escapes via f8 to the relatively safer center. Alternatively, Black could have scooted over to h8 and play the game a pawn down with a damaged kingside pawn structure. [10…Kh8 11.Qh5 f5 12.Nxf5 Nxf5 13.Bxf5 Bxf5 14.Qxf5 c6 15.g3 and White is slightly better]

11.Qh5 Rh8 Black probably wants to bring both rooks into play, hence keeping g8 free.

12.f4 Clearing the path for a rook lift-and-slide: f1-f3-g3

12…c6 Adding a defender to the weak central pawn. Perhaps, best would have been to stick to the original plan, if it was so, of Ng6 [12…Ng6 13.Nxd5 Bxf4 14.Nxf4 Qxd4+ 15.Kh1 Nxf4 16.Nf5+ Bxf5 17.Qxf5 Nxd3 18.cxd3 and equal]

13. Rf3 Ng6 14.Raf1 Qc7 Pressuring the b8-h2 diagonal, but also clearing the back rank to connect rooks after the bishop is developed.

15.Ne2 With all play shut on the queen-side, White brings in his last piece also into the attack.

15…Bd7 16.Ng3 Rag8 And this is the moment we memorize this game for. Black probably played this move to let the king run without disconnecting his rooks. But now he’s completely lost. Mate in 6, with the White Queen leading the charge. Can you find the complete combination?

17.Qh6+ Kxh6 18.Nhf5+ Bxf5 19.Nxf5+ Kh5 20.g4+ Kxg4 21.Rg3+ Kh5 22.Be2# 1-0 White wins by checkmate.

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

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