Initiating fission

by Jonathan Speelman
8/15/2021 – In this week’s column, Jon Speelman looks at the dichotomy between energy and matter in chess. While some players choose material, others go for dynamism. To illustrate his points, Speelman analyses two recent wins by Magnus Carlsen and an early game by Mikhail Tal, in which he was able to recover and win from a material disadvantage “of a mere two knights”! | Pictured: Tal at the 1964 Amsterdam Interzonal | Photo: Harry Pot / Anefo

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Energy and matter

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

Robert HubnerWhen I was one of Nigel Short’s seconds at his world championship match against Garry Kasparov in London 1993, my main sparring partner was Robert Hubner [pictured / photo by Rob Bogaerts]. Nigel had bravely decided to take Garry on in one of the sharpest responses to the Najdorf — 6.Bc4. And in those far off days, when chess computers were still in their infancy, my job was to attempt to batter the Najdorf with vast injections of energy while Robert upheld the power of matter to resist.

Sadly, I have no memory of the specifics, but he’s a superb defender, and I was often surprised and awed as my efforts foundered and I was unable to initiate fission. I remain though in my own games very much in the camp of energy rather than matter. For instance, I would normally much rather have an intact position with no material advantage but some positional plus than an extra piece in a position which “should” be defensible if not winning but gives excellent scope for the defender to go astray (though of course if the attack is ridiculous then you do have to take the piece and suffer mildly for a short while).

The value of chess pieces of course varies wildly according to position, and in the days of Alpha Zero, energy is very much in fashion (even if Stockfish beat LCZero decisively by 56-44 in their latest 100-game match).

After he loses a match, the present world champion often dissipates the negative energy with a ferocious series of blitz or bullet. After losing to Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the semi-final of the recent World Cup, however, Magnus Carlsen still had another opponent to face in the 3rd/4th play-off — Vladimir Fedoseev. And Carlsen pumped his ire into two superb games in which he showed the destruction that exchange sacrifices can sometimes generate, with total  domination in both cases. The games have appeared here and elsewhere, but I’m quickly reprising them anyway.


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Tal’s queen

Although the queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard, she too varies greatly in her effectiveness depending on what targets are available. Her forte (apart from enthusiastically marshalling mating attacks) is in forking loose pieces, and if they are available then she can be utterly deadly. But if all the enemy forces are battened down then she can be fairly useless. Take a black bishop on c6 say. By itself this is a potential tasty morsel for a marauding queen, but if you add a black pawn on b7 then they protect each other perfectly and the prelate is off the menu.

Like all great attacking players, Misha Tal loved to use his queen. I whinged here a while ago about not being able to find the book I had on him when I was a kid, which is by Peter Clarke. Happily, while looking for something entirely different, I found it on my shelves. Of course, the analysis is often wrong when checked by modern-day software, but the spirit of Tal’s play shines through. I began putting the games in a database, though I’ve only thus far done a few. In an early game, he was able to recover and win from a material disadvantage of a mere two knights.   

To finish, I’ve got a very recent game from the Smyslov Memorial in Moscow. When I first saw it online, the position looked almost like a construction task. Later, Black's queen went on the rampage.


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Master Class Vol.2: Mihail Tal

On this DVD Dorian Rogozenco, Mihail Marin, Oliver Reeh and Karsten Müller present the 8. World Chess Champion in video lessons: his openings, his understanding of chess strategy, his artful endgame play, and finally his immortal combinations.


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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