The Cockroach’s Carapace (and other opening disasters)

by Jonathan Speelman
7/19/2020 – Remembrances of his first chess books, analysis of a World Championship game, backstories from a Candidates Match and a ‘squashed’ Caro-Kann are all part of the latest column by Jonathan Speelman. The former world number four confesses: “Opening theory has never been my thing, and I was perhaps lucky to be active at a time when it was much less essential”. | Photo: David Llada

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A squashed tarakan

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

When I was little, I had a row of chess books on a shelf above my bed. Of course I can’t remember all of them, but several are very clear.

After learning the moves of chess from my cousin on Boxing Day (December 26th) 1962, my first chess book was Chess for Children by Bott and Morrison, which gave me the basics.

My first-ever serious chess book though was Bob Wade’s account of the 1963 World Championship match between Mikhail Botvinnik and Tigran Petrosian. My mum bought it for me in Edgware Road presumably — the match ran from March to May — in the summer of 1963. With a distinctive dark red cover once it lost its jacket (I can see it on a shelf now)  I’ve enjoyed re-reading and dipping into it ever since. Some of the games — especially Petrosian's epic king march in game 5 — are truly memorable.


Later, I got Euwe and Kramer’s two-volume work on the middlegame, Bent Larsen’s Selected Games 1948-69 and Peter Clarke’s book on Mikhail Tal (which annoyingly, although I can see at least five other books on Tal, I can’t at the moment bring to hand).  

And a couple of years later, I beat some 200ish ECF (2200ish) player in a simultaneous display at Foyles (the famous book shop on Tottenham Court Road) and won a whole selection of books from Pergamon Press, including Vladimir Vukovic’s wonderful The Art of Attack in Chess and a book on Petrosian by Alberic O’Kelly de Galway — the Belgian count who as an arbiter at some team competition in the 1970s once attempted to get the England team captain David Anderton to “order” myself and Jonathan Mestel to get our hair cut!

The Pergamon Tranche also included A Complete Defence to 1.P-K4, a study of the then backwater, the Petroff, by Bernard Caffery and David Hooper. Though our main opening bible in the English speaking world at that time was Modern Chess Openings.

I had the tenth edition (1965, completely revised by Larry Evans under the editorship of Walter Korn). Chess theory was then still very rudimentary compared to today, and there was a wonderfully whooly quote about the Yugoslav Attack against the Dragon which went, “Black must react  promptly and vigorously — just how is not quite clear”. I also found the 8th, 11th and 13th editions on my shelves. By the 11th (Walter Korn, 1972), defences had been found against the Yugoslav.

Opening theory has never been my thing, and I was perhaps lucky to be active at a time when it was much less essential. But of course I know lots of general information and in a few lines I was either a trail blazer (quite possibly losing track of the line later) or one of the main protagonists.

As White, these tended to be sneakily wimpy ways to try to get the advantage without having to learn the complexities of the then main lines. For instance, 6.a3 in the Symmetrical English, while it wasn't of course a novelty, was new to me when I played it against Jan Timman in the Reykjavik World Cup in 1988 and has since become the main line, slightly surpassing 6.g3 in number in recent games.


But perhaps the best known instance was against Nigel Short in our first Candidates Match. When a couple of weeks after Mikhail Gurevich introduced it on the Russian Championship, I was lucky enough to be able to play 10.0-0-0 in the Bf4 Queen's Gambit  

This had been published in a Norwegain newspaper which Marianne, my second Jonathan Tisdall's then girlfriend (and now ex-wife), had bought on the way here. And I was able to play it before Nigel or his second John Nunn were able to see it in Schachwokke.


As Black I tend to like to maintain my pawn structure, and have for many years had a love/hate relationship with the Caro-Kann or “Cockroach” (a mild joke — the  Russian for cockroach is tarakan). It’s an opening which works splendidly if White gives any quarter, since your position is intrinsically sound and eventually, once you’re developed, then the extra centre pawn on e6 may come to the fore.

However, if White is suitably dismissive — and able to back up his or her scepticism with sufficient kinetic energy — then even the cockroach may get squashed as in this game against the great Misha Tal: the only one I lost while qualifying from the Subotica Interzonal in 1987.


The Fashionable Caro-Kann Vol.1 and 2

The Caro Kann is a very tricky opening. Black’s play is based on controlling and fighting for key light squares. It is a line which was very fashionable in late 90s and early 2000s due to the successes of greats like Karpov, Anand, Dreev etc. Recently due to strong engines lot of key developments have been made and some new lines have been introduced, while others have been refuted altogether. I have analyzed the new trends carefully and found some new ideas for Black.


Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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