While researching a previous blog article on the plan of …c5-c4 in Queen’s Gambit Declined positions, I came across the game Botvinnik-Capablanca AVRO 1938. None other than Garry Kasparov dedicates great attention to this wonderful game both in Chessbase and in his book “My Great Predecessors Volume II”. His comment to Capablanca’s 14th move (14…c4) made me stop and think:
“This serious positional mistake has a clear historical background. The 50-year-old Capablanca in his long chess career never dealt with hidden dynamic factors. His unique intuition and rich experience didn’t send any danger signals here. Instead he counted on using his opponent’s light squares with the long manoeuvre Na6-b8-c6-a5-b3. Capablanca simply underestimated the explosive power of White’s position.”
As I understand it, Kasparov is suggesting that Capablanca was being faced with a new type of chess that was outside his experience: all that Capablanca had learned and understood about chess was insufficient to deal with the challenge Botvinnik presented him with. I understand the argument, but I only agree with part of it. It’s true that Capablanca did not manage to demonstrate a solution to the problems Botvinnik set him in this game, but is this really a sign of a “changing of the guard” or did Capablanca just have a lesser day?
Let’s start off by taking an overview of the whole game:
Botvinnik,Mikhail – Capablanca,Jose Raul
AVRO Holland 1938
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Bd3 0–0 9.Ne2 b6 10.0–0 Ba6 11.Bxa6 Nxa6 12.Bb2 Qd7 13.a4 Rfe8 14.Qd3 c4 15.Qc2 Nb8 16.Rae1 Nc6 17.Ng3
17…Na5 18.f3 Nb3 19.e4 Qxa4 20.e5 Nd7
21.Qf2 g6 22.f4 f5 23.exf6 Nxf6 24.f5 Rxe1 25.Rxe1 Re8 26.Re6
26…Rxe6 27.fxe6 Kg7 28.Qf4 Qe8 29.Qe5
30…Qxa3 31.Nh5+ gxh5 32.Qg5+ Kf8 33.Qxf6+ Kg8 34.e7 Qc1+ 35.Kf2 Qc2+ 36.Kg3 Qd3+ 37.Kh4 Qe4+ 38.Kxh5 Qe2+ 39.Kh4 Qe4+ 40.g4 Qe1+ 41.Kh5
How does the game strike you? The first point I want to make is that the shape of the game feels pretty classical. Black grabbed a queenside pawn, and White exploited the time Black wasted to launch a devastating kingside attack. This type of game was extremely familiar to Capablanca!
Capablanca,Jose Raul – Bernstein,Ossip
San Sebastian 1911
22.Ne2 Qxa2 23.Neg3 Qxc2 24.Rc1 Qb2 25.Nh5
25…Rh8 26.Re2 Qe5 27.f4 Qb5 28.Nfxg7
28…Nc5 29.Nxe8 Bxe8 30.Qc3 f6 31.Nxf6+ Kg6 32.Nh5 Rg8 33.f5+ Kg5 34.Qe3+
The mechanism of using a strong pawn centre to clear the Black pieces from the defence of the kingside is also classical and well-known.
Secondly, I have severe doubts about whether Capablanca really planned the manoeuvre …Na6-b8-c6-a5-b3 winning a pawn when he played 14…c4. It doesn’t match at all with the way he normally played. My opinion is that Capablanca was more likely looking at a plan with …a6 & …b5 but started getting worried around this point…
16.Rae1 Nc6 17.Ng3
…when he realised that f3 and e4 was coming quickly and that e4-e5 would be surprisingly difficult to deal with, as his king, rook and queen all take away retreat squares from the knight on f6. His reaction to this was to go for a pawn grab that both freed the d7 square for the knight, while the incidental threat of …Nc5 would also slow White down for a tempo and give Black a little extra breathing space.
Thirdly, the move that started it all – 14…c4 – is not typical Capablanca. I would understand Kasparov’s argument better if Capablanca had consistently released the pressure in such situations but always got away with it against players of his generation. However, of the 46 examples (out of 363 Black games) in Capablanca’s career when the move …c5-c4 was played (including all endgames and middlegames) there are only 6 relevant cases where a different move than …c5-c4 would have been my first reaction (though …c5-c4 was pretty reasonable too in all those cases). For example, take this game against Marshall in 1909:
Marshall,Frank James – Capablanca,Jose Raul
USA m 1909
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.Nf3 Nbd7 6.e3 Ne4 7.Bxe7 Qxe7 8.cxd5 Nxc3 9.bxc3 exd5 10.Qb3 c6 11.Bd3 0–0 12.0–0 Nf6 13.Rab1 b6 14.Ne5 c5 15.Qa3
15…Be6 or 15…Bb7 are very reasonable moves. Capablanca sets a little trap with his next move.
16.Rxb6 c4 wins a piece
That’s our move!
17.Qa4 Rf8 18.Bc6 Bb7 19.Qc2 Bxc6 20.Nxc6 Qd6 21.Ne5 a6 22.a4 Rfb8 23.Rb4 b5 24.axb5 Rxb5 25.Rxb5 axb5 26.Rb1 Ra5 27.f3 Qa6 28.Qb2 Qd6 29.Qc2 g6 30.h3 Kg7 31.e4 Qa6 32.Ng4 Ra2 33.Qc1 Nxg4 34.hxg4 dxe4 35.fxe4 Re2 36.Qf4 Rxg2+
I’m not necessarily sure that …c5-c4 would have been my chosen plan, but then again, take a look at what Vishy has done twice in these types of structures:
Laznicka,Viktor – Anand,Viswanathan
Wch Rapid Dubai 2014
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 0–0 7.e3 Ne4 8.Bxe7 Qxe7 9.cxd5 Nxc3 10.bxc3 exd5 11.Qb3 Rd8 12.a4 c5 13.Qa3 Be6 14.Bd3 Kf8 15.a5 c4
16.Bc2 Qxa3 17.Rxa3 Nc6 18.Kd2 b5 19.axb6 axb6 20.Rha1 Rxa3 21.Rxa3 Ke7
with a later draw
Aronian,Levon – Anand,Viswanathan
London Classic 2015
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.Bd2 0–0 6.e3 c5 7.a3 Bxc3 8.Bxc3 Ne4 9.Qc2 Nxc3 10.bxc3 Nd7 11.Bd3 h6 12.cxd5 exd5 13.Qb2 Qe7 14.0–0 Nf6 15.Rfb1 c4
16.Bc2 Ne4 17.a4 Re8 18.a5 Nd6 19.Qb4 Be6 20.Re1 Bf5 21.Bxf5 Nxf5 22.Qxe7 Rxe7
again with a comfortable draw
Fourthly, the move 14…c4 is not an unmitigated positional disaster. It releases the tension in the centre and frees White considerably in his quest to break in the centre with e3-e4, but it does gain space and shut off the a1-h8 diagonal for White’s dark-squared bishop. There are even some pretty good modern players applying similar plans to this day…
Anand,Viswanathan – Carlsen,Magnus
World Championship 2013
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.cxd5 exd5 8.e3 c4
9.Ne2 Nc6 10.g4 0–0 11.Bg2 Na5 12.0–0 Nb3 13.Ra2 b5 14.Ng3 a5 15.g5 Ne8 16.e4 Nxc1 17.Qxc1 Ra6 18.e5 Nc7 19.f4 b4 20.axb4 axb4 21.Rxa6 Nxa6 22.f5 b3
23.Qf4 Nc7 24.f6 g6 25.Qh4 Ne8 26.Qh6 b2 27.Rf4 b1Q+ 28.Nf1 Qe1
What is beyond a doubt is that the …c5-c4 plan is extremely risky for Black and undoubtedly easier for White to play. Take a look at these 2 games played 10 years later in the same variation. Black was actually virtually winning in both of them at some stage but White always pulled through in the end!
Euwe,Max – Denker,Arnold
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Bd3 0–0 9.Ne2 b6 10.a4 Ba6 11.Ba3 Bxd3 12.Qxd3 c4 13.Qc2 Re8 14.0–0 Nc6 15.Ng3 Qd7 16.Rae1 Na5 17.f3 Nb3 18.e4 Qxa4 19.Qb2 g6 20.e5 Nd7 21.f4 f5 22.exf6 Nxf6 23.f5 Rxe1 24.Rxe1 Re8 25.Re6 Rxe6 26.fxe6 Nd2
27.Qc1 Nde4 28.Nxe4 Nxe4 29.h3 Kg7 30.e7 Nf6 31.Bd6 Qd7 32.Qf4 Kf7 33.g4 g5 34.Qg3 a5 35.Ba3 Qa4 36.Qd6 Qd1+ 37.Kg2 Qe2+ 38.Kg1 Qe3+ 39.Kg2 Qe4+ 40.Kg1 b5 41.Qd8 b4 42.Qf8+ Kg6 43.cxb4 Qxd4+ 44.Kg2 Qe4+ 45.Kg1 axb4 46.Bxb4 d4 47.Ba5 c3 48.Bd8 c2 49.Qxf6+ Kxf6 50.e8Q+ Kg7 51.Qxe4 c1Q+ 52.Kf2 Qd2+
Botvinnik,Mikhail – C.H.O’D. Alexander \
ENG-URS radio 1946
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Bd3 0–0 9.Ne2 b6 10.a4 Ba6 11.Bxa6 Nxa6 12.Ba3 Re8 13.Qd3 c4 14.Qc2 Qd7 15.0–0 Nb8 16.Rae1 Nc6 17.Ng3 Na5 18.f3 Nb3 19.e4 Qxa4 20.Qb2 a5 21.e5 b5 22.Bd6 Re6 23.exf6 Rxd6 24.fxg7 b4
25.Re5 Re8 26.f4 Qd7 27.Qe2 Rde6 28.f5 Rxe5 29.dxe5 bxc3 30.f6 Qa7+ 31.Kh1 Nd4 32.Qe3 Ra8 33.Qxc3 a4 34.Qxd4 Qxd4 35.Nf5 h5 36.Nxd4 Re8 37.Nf5 d4 38.e6
My personal feeling is that Capablanca was unimpressed with Botvinnik’s handling of the opening (it wasn’t perfect by any means) and that led to the very ambitious 14…c4. Once he realised that he’d overdone things, he took a practical – and very modern(!) decision – to grab a pawn for his pains and defend himself by “computer means”, using cunning tactics (25…Re8!) to defend his king with minimal means. It might have succeeded but Botvinnik was up to the task culminating in the fabulous 30.Ba3.
In conclusion, I don’t think that Capablanca was overwhelmed by a new type of chess, but rather by a new practical challenge: Botvinnik applied familiar classical concepts (establishment of a central pawn mass, sacrifice of material on one flank in return for an attack on the opposite flank) with a frightening concentration and unity of purpose that was definitely not the norm at that time! His strategic concepts in the middlegame flowed naturally from his development scheme in the opening and that increased the speed with which he could achieve them: for example, by developing his knight to e2 rather than f3 (a fairly new plan at the time), White substantially increases his chances of rapidly establishing a strong pawn centre with f3 and e4. Even Capablanca’s unparalleled defensive skill was not always sufficient to keep Botvinnik at bay: he held out and defeated him in Nottingham 1936, but this time Botvinnik came through!
If you’re looking for a new type of chess in the 1930’s, then it’s not Botvinnik you have to look to but Alekhine. The concepts he brought out at the very highest level, for example…
Alekhine,Alexander – Euwe,Max
World Championship 1935
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nge2 dxe4 5.a3 Be7 6.Nxe4 Nc6 7.g4
…and the success he enjoyed with them were years ahead of their time! He was the most modern of them all!