Robert Byrne and the English Attack

4/5/2007 – He has chalked up wins over Bronstein, Reshevsky, Smyslov and Fischer. But NYT chess columnist Robert Byrne is probably best known for his contributions to openings theory. Like the English Attack, which he introduced into tournament play long before Nunn, Short, and Chandler were hammering people to bits with it. Tonight our Playchess trainer Dennis Monokroussos tells the story.

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Dennis Monokroussos writes:

Most players who have heard of Robert Byrne probably think of him as the recently retired New York Times chess columnist. And so he was, of course, but that’s probably the least of his accomplishments! He’s a grandmaster, a former U.S. chess champion, a Candidate in 1973-4 who came up half a point short of repeating in 1976, and a 2600 player at a time when that was equivalent to 2700 today. He has to his credit wins over Bronstein, Reshevsky, Smyslov, and Fischer (his tournament record against Fischer was a very impressive +1 –2 =6); and draws with Fine, Botvinnik, Geller, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky and Karpov, to name just a few of his successes against super-elite players. (Strangely, his record against his brother Donald was a terrible –3 = 3!)

Byrne has also contributed to opening theory. In the Nimzo-Indian, the line 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 b6 5.Ne2 Ba6 is named for him (and also for Bronstein). In the Pirc, Byrne contributed the variation 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg5. There’s a Byrne line in the Saemisch King’s Indian: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3 0-0 6.Be3 c6 7.Bd3 a6. But Byrne’s most enduring theoretical contribution no longer has his name attached to it – though it used to. It’s nothing less than the (arguably) most popular line in all of chess: the Byrne Variation, aka the English Attack, of the Najdorf Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 followed by f3, Qd2, g4, 0-0-0 in some order or other).

Long before Nunn, Short, and Chandler were hammering people to bits with this plan, Byrne introduced it to major tournament play in the early 1970s. In 1971, the line made its tournament debut against the strong Soviet GM Yuri Balashov in the 1971 super-tournament in Moscow. (Technically, it debuted a few months before against an even stronger opponent – Bobby Fischer! – but in a 5-minute game. Byrne gained a big advantage from the opening, but went on to lose.) Balashov responded reasonably, developed his pieces and the traditional queenside initiative, and was demolished in 29 moves. Byrne’s idea was a complete success, and he finished with a flourish.

It’s a very nice game, and by tuning in to this week’s show (Thursday night at 9 pm ET, as always), you’ll enjoy not only the game, but a primer on the English Attack as well. Those of you who have been terrified by its complexity (most of us) will be pleased to learn that it’s easier than you might think to have a grip on what’s going on there. It’s a must-see program!

Dennis Monokroussos' Radio ChessBase lectures begin on Thursdays at 9 p.m. EDT, which translates to 01:00h GMT, 02:00 Paris/Berlin, 12:00h Sydney (on Friday). Other time zones can be found at the bottom of this page. You can use Fritz or any Fritz-compatible program (Shredder, Junior, Tiger, Hiarcs) to follow the lectures, or download a free trial client.

You can find the exact times for different locations in the world at World Time and Date. Exact times for most larger cities are here. And you can watch older lectures by Dennis Monokroussos offline in the Chess Media System room of Playchess:

Enter the above archive room and click on "Games" to see the lectures. The lectures, which can go for an hour or more, will cost you between one and two ducats. That is the equivalent of 10-20 Euro cents (14-28 US cents).

Dennis Monokroussos is 40, lives in South Bend, IN, and is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

He is fairly inactive as a player right now, spending most of his non-philosophy time being a husband and teaching chess. At one time he was one of the strongest juniors in the U.S., but quit for about eight years starting in his early 20s. His highest rating was 2434 USCF, but he has now fallen to the low-mid 2300s – "too much blitz, too little tournament chess", he says.

Dennis has been working as a chess teacher for seven years now, giving lessons to adults and kids both in person and on the internet, worked for a number of years for New York’s Chess In The Schools program, where he was one of the coaches of the 1997-8 US K-8 championship team from the Bronx, and was very active in working with many of CITS’s most talented juniors.

When Dennis Monokroussos presents a game, there are usually two main areas of focus: the opening-to-middlegame transition and the key moments of the middlegame (or endgame, when applicable). With respect to the latter, he attempts to present some serious analysis culled from his best sources (both text and database), which he has checked with his own efforts and then double-checked with his chess software.

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