The Winning Academy 28: How to Defend Against a Minority Attack?

by Jan Markos
1/6/2024 – Some topics in chess strategy are more fashionable than others. This can happen for various reasons. For example, some topics may be easy to explain and understand. This is the case with the "good and bad bishop" theory. Or it might happen that some strategic phenomenon becomes a favourite topic of a famous chess writer. This happened, for example, with Nimzowitsch and the art of blocking passed pawns. In the following article we will look at a very striking example of this phenomenon. | Photo: Tigran Petrosian 1973, Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Algemeen Nederlandsch Fotobureau (Anefo)

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Almost everyone knows what a minority attack is and how to play it. On the contrary, almost no one knows how to defend against it. This is amusing because we are all talking about the same thing, just from different perspectives. Why is that? Well, the reason is simple: the minority attack is a very schematic strategy. It always looks more or less the same. On the contrary, the defenders can respond in several different ways, and it is a difficult art to decide which response is the best.

In this article I would like to help those of you who play the Carlsbad from Black's perspective and show you how to defend it.

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Let us start with an example from the game of the great Armenian player Tigran Petrosian, World Champion from 1963 to 1969.

Bobotsov-Petrosian, Chess Olympiad 1968, White to move:

In the previous course of the game, White has tried to play it safe, exchanging as many light pieces as possible. But Petrosian knew better and navigated the game into the diagrammed position.

It is a little-known fact that in similar positions with a knight on d6 and other light pieces exchanged, Black is already slightly better. Why? Firstly, for White it is almost impossible to organize a minority attack. Black safely guards the b5-square with the knight, so White would need to re-route his knight back to c3. And after he does that and plays b2-b4, Black has the b7-b5 resource available, securing a strong outpost on c4 (and at the same time restricting the knight on c3).

On the contrary, Black has all the chances to organize a successful attack against White´s monarch. His pieces can flow to the kingside freely, whereas the movement of White´s pieces is restricted by the f2-e3-d4 pawn barrier. Please, have a look at the entire game, Petrosian had shown the positives of Black´s position in a very elegant manner.

And please, remember the defensive method no.1: Exchange three pairs of minor pieces and transfer your knight to the best available square, to d6. Then White´s minority attack is usually prevented.

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Now we will have a look at three defensive methods Black can opt for after White plays b4-b5. Let us start with Miron-Berkes, Romanian Team Championship 2013, Black to move:

After White has achieved b4-b5, it seems that Black is unable to keep his structure intact. But which weakening should he accept? Should he let White to take on c6, play …c6xb5, or play …c6-c5?

Berkes chose 15…c5! and his decision was fully justified. Yes, after 16.dxc5 Nxc5 his isolated d5-pawn and the square in front of it are rather weak. But the same applies to White´s queenside pawns, and especially to squares along the c-file: c3, c4, c5. White would prefer to have the pawn on b2 instead of b5.

So, this is our defensive method no.2: Black reacts to b4-b5 with …c6-c5 and then plays along the c-file, making full use of weak squares on White´s queenside. Please note that this method works better if Black has a pair of bishops, as Black´s dark-squared bishop works better unopposed in the resulting position.

Here's the complete game:

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Our third defensive method is quite similar to the second one.

Bu-Malachov, Match Russia-China 2010, Black to move:

Again, White has already achieved the b4-b5 break. Again, Black enjoys his pair of bishops. And again, he can probably play 16…axb5 17.axb5 c5, with equal chances. However, he can do even better.

Best for Black is 16...cxb5! 17.axb5 a5!, creating a dangerous passed pawn on the queenside. Please note that the d5-pawn can easily be protected with the light-squared bishop and that White has no intrusion squares on the queenside. In fact, Black is already slightly better here.

It is therefore inexplicable why Malakhov chose 16...a5? only to find out that after 17.bxc6 bxc6 18.e4! his position is already rather difficult.

Anyway, here is the defensive method no.3: Reacting to b4-b5, you might take with the c-pawn and create a passed pawn on the a-file. Just make sure that your d-pawn would not become too vulnerable.

Here's the complete game:

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When worst comes to the worst, there are still worse yet defensible endgames. This is how Black saved himself in our last example:

Navara-Magalashvili, European Championship 2005, Black to move:

Black´s position seems to be hopeless. White has executed the minority attack, and attacks Black´s queenside with all his pieces. And yet, Black can hold approximate equality. Magalashvili did not lose his spirits and played the cold-blooded 25…Bxc5!.

Please, remember that knights are especially strong in the Carlsbad structure. Often in a N vs B position (but – take care - not in NB vs 2B position) the side with the knight has the upper hand.

In the resulting heavy pieces endgame Black only has one weakness, on c6. That is usually too little for White to break through. The only thing you should know about this endgame is that often it is better to defend the c6-pawn from the side, and not from behind. A rook on e6 is usually better than a rook on c8. Please, have a look at the entire game. Navara played it very well, but so did Magalashvili, and the result is an almost perfect game that shows nicely the plans of both sides.

So, the defensive method no.4 is: Transpose into a heavy pieces endgame, or at least an endgame where White does not have a knight, and hope for the best. Often these positions with the only weakness on c6 are drawn.

Here's the complete game:

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I hope I have shown that Black is not helpless in the Carlsbad structure. In fact, he has several interesting and dangerous plans. The only problem is that these plans are not that well-known as the minority attack.

However, you can turn this fact into your secret weapon. Why not play the Carlsbad structure from Black´s perspective and amaze your less-educated opponents?

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Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.
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