Fear and trembling on the chessboard

by ChessBase
12/23/2006 – In the decades after WWII 1.d4 players were torn out of their peaceful lives and forced to confront the dangerous King's Indian Defence, as practiced by Bronstein, Tal, Fischer and Kasparov. Then Kasparov stopped playing it and the fashion-conscious chess world stopped playing it – an unjustified decision, as a former world champion explains.

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King's Indian: Fear and trembling
on the chessboard

By Steve Giddins

There are certain chess openings, which have to be classified as truly “great” openings, in the sense of their overall importance to the development of chess. One of these is certainly the King’s Indian Defence. Prior to its real development, in the decade or so after the Second World War, playing Black against 1 d4 was a fairly tedious thing. One either defended some sort of Queen’s Gambit line, or else ventured the Nimzo/Queen’s Indian complex, but in almost all cases, the result was a fairly quiet position, where moderately accurate play was usually enough to ensure White a small edge in a quiet position. Those Black players with a lust for the blood of the enemy king were pretty much prevented from pursuing their dream in the early stages, unless they were prepared to take risks, with a dubious gambit, such as the Budapest, or a positionally suspect Dutch Defence.

All that changed, when the new generation of Soviet stars demonstrated the effectiveness of the King’s Indian. In the hands of such players as Bronstein, Boleslavsky and Geller, the King’s Indian suddenly became quite a fearsome weapon, one in which routine, natural-looking play by White could result in the unthinkable happening – his king being summarily mated. Such things had hardly ever occurred in the staid old Queen’s Gambit or Nimzoindian, nor even in such hypermodern specials as the Grunfeld. All of a sudden, 1 d4 players the world over were finding that their hopes of a quiet life had evaporated, and the King’s Indian soon acquired legions of fans, including world champions, such as Tal, Fischer and Kasparov.

In recent years, however, the popularity of the defence at top level has waned sharply. If one thinks back a while, KID adherents amongst the super-tournament regulars included Kasparov, Gelfand, Judit Polgar, van Wely, Svidler and Topalov, yet if you search your database, you will be hard pressed to find a single KID game, featuring one of these players as Black, in the last five years. Fashion being what it is, this decline in popularity has been reflected as lower levels. Looking around the UK club circuit, I see at least five Slav defences to every one King’s Indian.

So why the sudden loss of popularity? If you look through the theory books, you will not find much in the way of objective justification. There are no major KID lines which have been refuted, and its results in those games where it is played, are still at least as good as those achieved with quieter, supposedly “sounder” openings. The truth is that Kasparov stopped playing it, because he lost a couple of games to Kramnik, and once Kasparov gave it up, the rest of the fashion-conscious chess world rushed to follow suit. Just as no dedicated follower of fashion would be seen dead wearing flared trousers, so no chess player wants to be caught playing an unfashionable opening.

However, there is a small handful of GMs, who remain in love with their flares, and are not ashamed to be seen wearing them on the chessboard. One of the very strongest of these is former FIDE world champion Rustam Kazimdzhanov, and on this DVD, he sets out to convince you that not only is there nothing wrong with the King’s Indian, but it remains one of the most dangerous defences for the 1 d4 player to face.

As he explains, when one plays the King’s Indian, and gets to the point in the middlegame, where Black’s f-pawn starts marching down the board towards the White King, most White players “start to tremble with fear”. Indeed, the cynical GM even goes so far as to suggest that all these rumours of the King’s Indian not being fully correct are being encouraged by 1 d4 players, seeking to put their opponents off playing it – and he is right! As a 1 d4 player myself, I can testify to this – I would much rather face the Slav or QGA, and be able to exchange down to a small endgame edge, in a quiet position, than have to face a King’s Indian, where I am far more likely to end up playing for three results, rather than two.

Just as with any opening, understanding the key ideas and strategies of the King’s Indian is much more important than knowing reams of variations by heart. On this DVD, Kazimdzhanov illustrates the main ideas of the opening, by demonstrating a selection of his own games with it. The striking thing about these games is the apparent ease with which Black is able to obtain such dangerous counterplay. Just as in the late 1940s, the King’s Indian still offers Black an extremely strong and dangerous attack on the kingside, if White plays in even slightly stereotyped fashion. Of course, some anti-KID lines are quieter than others, and the White player who is keen on a quiet life can always duck the more dangerous Classical lines, in favour of the g3 variations. However, even here, Black has ways of drumming up dangerous counterplay, as the game Neverov-Kazimdzhanov, analysed in detail on the DVD, shows.

What you will not get from this DVD is a detailed theoretical survey of the KID, nor a full repertoire of lines against each White system. Instead, the former world champion covers the most popular White set-ups (Classical with 9 Ne1, the Bayonet Attack with 9 b4, the Be3 lines, g3-lines and Samisch), explaining the various options for Black, the main positional ideas for the two sides, and illustrating a particular strategy for Black in each line. The clarity of his explanations make the DVD one of the most instructive that I have seen for a long time, whilst his impeccable English and ironic humour contribute great entertainment to the experience. Most of all, Kazimdzhanov’s enthusiasm for the opening comes across, and makes one realise that here is one of the great chess openings, and one which deserves to seen much more, at all levels of chess.

Steve Giddins, 45, is a FIDE Master from England who learnt the moves at 11 and has been an active player in English and international events ever since. Some of his best tournament results came in the now-defunct Lost Boys tournaments in Antwerp, in 1996 and 1998, where he scored an IM norm and won his "Evergreen" game against GM Rafael Vaganian. As a chartered accountant Steve has worked in London, Hong Kong and Moscow (five years). He speaks Russian fluently and has translated chess books and articles from Russian. He is also a prolific chess author, with four best-selling books for Gambit Publications, including the highly-acclaimed "How to Build your Chess Opening Repertoire". His latest book, "101 Chess Endgame Tips", was published by Gambit in December 2006. He is a regular contributor to the British Chess Magazine, for which he also helps out part-time in an editorial capacity. He does regular round-by-round Internet reports from major chess tournaments, such as Wijk aan Zee, Hastings, Gibraltar and the Staunton Memorial. A keen historian and chess book collector, Steve lives in Rochester, the city of his birth, in South-East England.

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