09 May

The Greek Gift

Of all chess sacrifices, the ‘Greek Gift’ is surely the most famous. Although this presumably derives from the Trojan Horse and Virgil’s famous warning in his literary epic The Aeneid  “timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” (I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts) it actually involves the sacrifice of not a knight that would represent a horse, but rather a bishop: and specifically by White on h7 in its purist form, or by Black on h2.


I well remember being fascinated by such tales in Classical Studies back at school in the mid-1970s. However here at the chessboard, the exact etymology of the ‘Greek gift’ is unknown, but my ever-reliable Oxford Companion to Chess makes the reasonable assumption that it could well originate from Gioachino Greco, a leading 17th century Italian chess master and writer whose parents were Greek. His games were some of the earliest recorded in chess, and this sacrifice was seen in many of them.

In 2011, there was a 400-page weighty tome by the noted U.S. Correspondence Champion, Jon Edwards, entitled  Sacking the Citadel: The History, Theory and Practice of the Classic Bishop Sacrifice that only dealt with the purist sacrifice, that being Bxh7+. This behemoth chronicles over 400 hundred years of Bxh7+, in what many have come to call the Classical Bishop sacrifice.

And now there’s another example for the author, should he be thinking of a second edition of his anthology, as it features a stunning all-grandmaster twist to it that came about in last week's Russian Team Championship in Sochi, as Ian Nepomniachtchi caught his young compatriot out with a spectacular Bxh7+ in a rare variation of the Petroff’s Defence.

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi - GM Sanan Sjugirov
Russian Team Championship, (5)
Petroff’s Defence, Kaufmann Attack
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.c4 The more common mainline seen is 5.d4 . However 5.c4, the Kaufmann Attack, is something of a rarity, a line that was explored a great deal by Paul Keres. And the rarity value alone should have set off the alarm bells for the young Russian Sanan Sjugirov; a warning that something was perhaps afoot. 5...Be7 6.d4 0-0 7.Bd3 Ng5 Instead, 7...Nf6 8.Nc3 would have seen the game moving in the direction of a more normal Petroff's Defence. However the young Russian sees a chance of an easy life with some exchanges, and decides this is the way to go. He should really have read his Classics at school! 8.Nc3 Bg4 9.Bxg5 Bxg5 10.Bxh7+!! (See Diagram) It would be nice to think that Nepomniachtchi found all of this over the board. But alas, no. This all comes so early in the game that there is no doubt at all that he discovered this at home with his computer engine crunching out all the lines with silicon certainty for him. 10...Kxh7 It doesn't look like a normal 'Greek gift' Bxh7+ sacrifice, as now 11.Nxg5+ fails to 11...Qxg5 protecting the bishop on g4 and White can resign. However, this is a Greek gift with a twist to it. 11.h4! And here's the twist! 11.h4! supports a Ng5+ either picking up the bishop on g4 or, if Black captures the knight, it's now hxg5+ with the check being the subtle difference. 11...Bd2+ The lesser evil. Amazingly, Black doesn't have much of a choice here, since: 11...Bh6 12.Ng5+ Qxg5 13.hxg5 Bxd1 14.Rxd1 Nd7 15.gxh6 and 11...Bxf3 12.hxg5+ Kg8 13.Qxf3 Qxg5 14.Rh5 Re8+ 15.Kf1 Qd2 16.Qh3 are both much worse. 12.Qxd2 Re8+ 13.Kf1 Bxf3 14.Qd3+! The timely queen check avoids the damaging of White's pawn structure after 14.gxf3. Now, White has a clear and easy win. 14...Kg8 15.Qxf3 Nd7 16.Rd1 The dust has settled and White has emerged with a pawn and a nice position. Not only that, but Black now realises that the only option he has now is to exchange queens, as 16...Nf6 will see his kingside ripped apart by h5-h6 etc. 16...Qf6 17.Qxf6 The easy route to victory, as White has a clear endgame advantage. Instead, if 17.Qxb7 Rab8 18.Qf3 (18.Qxc7?? Rxb2 is a table-turner.) 18...Qxf3 19.gxf3 Rxb2 and Black has excellent chances to save the game. 17...Nxf6 18.f3 d5 19.c5 b6 20.cxb6 axb6 21.Kf2 b5 22.a3 b4 23.axb4 Rab8 24.b5 c6 25.Rhe1 cxb5 White has an easily won ending in all variations. If 25...Rxe1 26.Rxe1 cxb5 27.Re7 b4 28.Ne2 Kf8 29.Rc7 the White rook dominates on the seventh, and soon another pawn will fall, as Black can't defend f7, d5 and b4. The rest of the game is therefore a formality. 26.Rxe8+ Rxe8 27.Rc1 Ra8 If 27...Rc8 28.Ne2 and either the rooks are exchanged or White will dominate the c-file and pick off one of the weak pawns on d5 or b5. 28.Nxb5 Ra4 29.Rc8+ Kh7 30.g4 Rb4 31.Nd6 Rxd4 32.Kg3 1-0 If 32...Rb4, White easily wins after 33.Nxf7 Kg6 34.Rc7 Ne8 35.h5+ Kf6 36.g5+ etc.

1 Comments May 9, 2016

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  • […] games on offer at the Russian Team Championship, one of which we witnessed in our previous ‘Greek Gift’ column, with former Russian champion Ian Nepomniachtchi’s new twist to the Bxh7+ Classical Bishop […]