When Grandmasters Disagree

Some of you will be aware that I’m currently writing book reviews for British Chess News. I have two books left in my pile at the moment, both of which discuss the same (famous) position, reaching very different conclusions.

You’ll recognise this as coming from Morphy – Aristocratic Allies, where our hero had to choose his 8th move, to the accompaniment of the opera.

He’s not going to play 8. Bxf7+ Qxf7 9. Qxb7 Bc5 with complications, so his decision is between 8. Qxb7 Qb4+, winning a pawn and trading queens, and 8. Nc3, extending his lead in development and playing for an attack. We all know he made the latter choice and won a miniature which has, ever since, been a favourite of both chess players and teachers. Quite rightly so, as well, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

First up is GM Joel Benjamin (World Champion Chess for Juniors): “I believe that 8. Qxb7 is the best move. Bobby Fischer would have played it. Or, as you kids would say, Magnus would play it.” Well, yes, although it is, of course, a hypothetical question. Would Kasparov play it? Would Tal have played it?

On the other hand, here’s WGM Jana Krivec (Improve your Life by Playing a Game): “(8. Qxb7) is not a good move because it follows the urge for immediate gratification and not the rules of good chess playing. Black could play Qb4(+) and release the pressure with drawing chances.” Well, yes, but if you’re playing a master of endgame technique such as Fischer or Carlsen your drawing chances would be pretty close to zero.

So is Qxb7 the best move or not a good move? In order to resolve the dispute I asked Stockfish 13.

Stockfish tells me that both moves win. Qxb7 is roughly +3 – a simple technical win. It prefers Qxb7 for some time before switching to Nc3 (about +4), but only because, after the forced 8.. c6 it’s going to play 9. Be3 rather than the more obvious Bg5 preferred by Morphy. Why? To prevent the possible defence of Na6 (which Benjamin planned to hack off) followed by Nc5. Then if Black follows the Aristocratic Allies by playing b5, it’s still going to play Nxb5, which is still winning, but not as quickly as it did in the Famous Game.

Stockfish, then disagrees with GM Joel: Qxb7 is winning, but not the objectively best move. It also disagrees with WGM Jana: Qxb7 is a clear win.

It seems to me that both authors missed the opportunity to make a more interesting point. One of the many beauties of chess is that you can express yourself through your choice of moves. You will very often have to decide between keeping a safe advantage into the ending and playing for an attack. Which you choose will depend on all sorts of factors: your style, your personality, your mood at the time. If you enjoy attacking and aren’t confident about your endgame technique you’ll go for the attack, but if you want to play safe and are happy in the ending you’ll trade off.

My own experience is that I’ve drawn many games I could have won over the years by trading into an ending, but, at the same time, I’ve also drawn quite a few games when my opponents have traded.

Richard James

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Richard James

Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website www.minichess.uk, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through www.chessheroes.uk. View all posts by Richard James

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