Miniatures to Memorize: French Defense – 5: J. Polgar vs F. Berkes (Budapest 2003)


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.



Judith’s Queen Trap

In the final cautionary tale in this series, we have a rather modern game, featuring arguably the best female Chess player in history. It is particularly memorable because her opponent tries to trap her Queen by dangling a poisoned Rook, but completely misses the counter-trap Judith has been laying all along.


Why should you memorize this game?

As White

This game enters the Burn Variation of the Classical French, and Black achieves early equality. Because of Black’s solid structure, finding middlegame plans will depend primarily on the imbalances White chooses to introduce. Giving up the Bishop-pair for a Knight is hardly a favourable trade in most French positions. However, in this particular case, White demonstrates how it can force Black to spend two important tempi to regain solidity. White uses those tempi to accelerate development and start an attack.

Even more instructive are two points in the middlegame where White could have suffered heavy material loss after petered out attacks, resulting in completely losing positions. Each give two important lessons:

Positional Awareness: With the White King castled queenside on c1 and the Queen on d2, Black has several menacing threats along the h6-c1 diagonal. So, remaining mindful enough not to get your Queen trapped is critical.

Attacking Move Order: After sacrificing material for opening lines, you might not always have the luxury to follow-up with a natural-looking but slow attack. You have to find the deepest move-tree of forcing lines that maintain advantage.

As Black

This game traces the thin line between a solid and a passive position. Aiming for solidity at the cost of piece-activity may restrict your underdeveloped pieces from joining the defense against a quick attack. It is better to develop all pieces to non-ideal squares than to spend important tempi getting the already-developed pieces to their “ideal” squares.

The game is also a caution against “plan blindness”. Don’t get so caught up in your own plan that you don’t look for the best moves your opponent can play. Remember the advice? “When you find a good move, look for a better one.” Do that for your opponent’s moves as well.

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.Bg5 Entering the Burn Variation.

4…dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 The first imbalance in the opening. Bishop for a Knight.

6…Bxf6 Black chooses to preserve the pawn structure, since he has plans of castling kingside. This does give White to rebalance by taking the Bishop with the Knight.

7.Nf3 White prefers to keep the piece-imbalance and prioritize development. Though the Bishop for Knight trade is not favourable in most French positions, here White argues that Black’s Bishop is misplaced.

7…O-O 8.Qd2 Nd7 Preparing to place the Knight on f6, it’s most natural defensive post for the castled King. Also, with White preparing to castle queenside, Blacks a-b-c pawns are left unobstructed to storm ahead.

9.O-O-O Be7 Preserving the Bishop and making way for the Knight. This was Black’s first positional mistake. Black should have prioritized development of the other pieces, especially “bad” light-squared “French Bishop.”

10.Bd3 While Black spends important tempi developing his pieces to their natural squares, White finishes her development with four active attackers eyeing the kingside. However, though passive, Black’s position is solid after Nf6.

10…b6 Now it is a move too late to develop the light-squared Bishop. White’s Bishop is already eyeing that h7 square. Black has to move Nf6 here to shut down kingside play. Instead he suddenly woke up to the passive “French Bishop” on the queenside. White will not let him get away with this tardiness.

11.Neg5 First shot fired.

11…h6 Black defends with an active move, which removes the pawn from the targeted square and establishes a grip on the critical g5 square essential to White’s attacks. Alternatively, capturing the Knight may have been a more solid defense, but it is unclear if Black is in time to defend against a White h-pawn running up the file. [11…Bxg5 12.Nxg5 Nf6 13.h4 and White has an attack.]

12.Bh7+ In a far-seeing critical move, Polgar forces the King to the h-file, which might open up with check after a h2-h4 thrust to recapture on g5 if Black captures the Knight.

12…Kh8 13.Be4 Retreating with tempo on the a8 Rook. The next move is critical for Black.

13…hxg5 Disregarding the hanging a8 Rook, Black takes the Knight. With a strong attack brewing on the kingside, Black signals that he is okay being an exchange down so long as it permanently removes one of White’s menacing attackers (the Knight) and temporarily misplaces another (the Bishop) on the opposite corner of the board.

14.g4 Say what?! Polgar calls Black’s bluff and refuses to take the hanging Rook, though she’s already down a piece. This is the move we memorize the game for. Let’s explore what could have happened had she captured the “poisoned Rook”. [14.Bxa8 g4 If you move the Knight, you lose the Queen after Bg5. If you move the Queen out of the way, you’ll lose the Knight and White will lose her attack. It is precisely to prevent this g5-g4 pawn thrust that White played g4 herself, fixing the Black pawn on g5.]

14…Rb8 With the Queen Trap foiled, now the Rook is indeed hanging.

15.h4 Ready to shred open the h-file with check.

15…g6 Creating a dark-coloured escape square for the King to elude checks from White’s light-squared Bishop. Also, it will make way for the f8 Rook to counter White’s heavy pieces on the h-file. The alternative, taking on h4, leads to a losing position even with best play. [15…gxh4 16.g5 f5 17.Qf4 fxe4 18.Qxh4+ Kg8 19.Qh7+ Kf7 20.Qh5+ g6 21.Qh7+ Ke8 22.Qxg6+ Rf7 23.Rh7 Bxg5+ 24.Nxg5 Qxg5+ 25.Qxg5 Rxh7 26.Qg6+ Rf7 27.Qxe6+ Kf8 and White has the more active position]

16.hxg5+ Kg7 17.Qf4 Eyeing the h2 square.

17…Bb7 Trying to exchange at least one attacker, either the e4 Bishop or the f3 Knight to blunt White’s attack. Alternatively, Black could have tried to fight for the h-file, but it isn’t much better. [17…Rh8 18.Rxh8 Qxh8 19.Ne5 and the Bishop protects h1. Rook can come in and regain control of the open file.]

18.Rh7+ White sacrifices more material to bring the King back to the h-file. Black has to accept the Rook, as Kg8 walks into a Mate in 7. Find it as an exercise.

18…Kxh7 19.Qh2+ Brilliant move. Extremely instructional moment: pay attention to move order. The more natural-looking Rh1 doesn’t work as there is no continuation of the attack after Kg7. In fact, Rh1 is completely losing. [19.Rh1+ Kg7 20.Qh2 Bxg5+ 21.Nxg5 Qxg5+ 22.f4 Qxg4 23.Bxb7 Rxb7 and White is down too much material.]

19…Kg8 Kg7 would have walked into a more forcing line. [19…Kg7 20.Qh6+ Kg8 21.Bxg6 21.Rh1 Bxg5+ 22.Nxg5 Qxg5+ 23.Qxg5 Bxe4 Bxg5+ 22.Nxg5 Qxg5+ 23.Qxg5 Rfe8 24.Be4+ Kf8 25.Rh1 f6 26.Rh8+ Ke7 27.Rh7+ Kd6 28.Qg7 Rbd8 29.Bxb7 and White is up material with overwhelming attack.]

20.Rh1 Bxg5+ Prolonging the inevitable.

21. Nxg5 Qxg5+ 22.f4 Qxf4+ 23.Qxf4 Bxe4 24.Qxe4 1-0 Black resigns.


From my Chess Preparation Journal, dated 19-December-2020.