A Queen’s Gambit story

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Bobby Ang

Chess Piece

In the latest New in Chess Yearbook (no. 129), Grandmaster (GM) Peter Lukacs and IM Laszlo Hazai wrote a theoretical update on the Queen’s Gambit Declined Blackburne Variation, which they dubbed “The most complicated line in the QGD.”

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bf4 0–0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Qc2 Nc6 9.a3 Qa5 10.0–0–0

They said that the line is becoming popular again and is playable for both sides, but theoretical knowledge is very important.

Before we get into that, the specific variation under discussion figured in two important games 31 years ago, during the 55th Championship of the USSR and the Candidates’ match between Nigel Short and Jonathan Speelman. I’d like to share them with the BW reader.

One name tied up with the Blackburne Variation is that of GM Andrey Sokolov (born March 20, 1963, in Vorkuta, Russia). We don’t hear much about him now but back in the second half of the 80s he was the new star that burned the brightest.

Sokolov was World Junior Champion in 1982 ahead of a strong field that included Joel Benjamin, Ivan Morovic and Nigel Short. Everybody predicted a great future for him but no one expected such a giant leap for just two years later, in 1984, he shocked the chess world by winning the USSR Championship at the first attempt.

In the Championship we witnessed a quality which will become Sokolov’s trademark: the art of provocation followed by coolness under fire and a tremendous counterattack.

Sokolov, Andrei (2495) — Tukmakov, Vladimir B (2550) [B89]
URS-ch51 Final Lvov (6), 09.04.1984

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bc4

The 80s was the age of the wild and exciting Sicilian tactical slugfests.

6…e6 7.Be3 a6 8.Qe2 Qc7 9.0–0–0 Na5

Let us not forget the Velimirovic Attack with 9…Be7 10.Bb3 Na5 11.g4 b5 12.g5 Nxb3+ (Black wants to avoid the thematic piece sacrifice on e6 which will happen after 12…Nd7?! 13.Bxe6!? fxe6 14.Nxe6) 13.axb3 Nd7 14.Nf5!? exf5 15.Nd5 Qd8 16.exf5 Bb7 17.f6 gxf6 18.Rhe1! Bxd5 19.Rxd5 Rg8 20.gxf6 Nxf6 21.Rf5 Rb8 22.Ba7 Rb7 23.Bd4 Ng4 24.Qf3 Rd7? [This is where Black errs. 24…Qc8! 25.Rxf7 Ne5 26.Bxe5 dxe5 27.Kb1 (27.Rxe5 Rg1+ 28.Kd2 Rd7+ wins for Black) 27…Qg4 28.Qxb7 Kxf7 the attack is at an end] 25.Qh3 Ne5 26.f4 Bh4 27.Re2 Re7 28.fxe5 dxe5 29.Bc5 Bg5+ 30.Kb1 f6 31.Qh5+ Rg6 32.h4 Qc8 33.Bxe7 Qxf5 34.Bb4 Qf4 35.Qxh7 Rh6 36.Qe7# 1–0 Velimirovic, D-Popovic, P Novi Sad 1976. An incredible game!

10.Bd3 b5 11.Bg5 Be7 12.a3 Rb8 13.Qe1 Nc4 14.f4 Bb7 15.Rf1 Rc8 16.Bxc4 Qxc4 17.e5 dxe5 18.fxe5 Ne4

Better is 18…Nd5 precisely to avoid White’s next move.


Tukmakov’s idea is that 19.Nxe4 Bxe4 20.Qxe4 Bxg5+ 21.Kb1 0–0 Black’s king is in the safety zone and it is he who has prospects of a deadly attack on the king.

19…Nxc3 20.Qf2! f5

[20…Ne2+ 21.Kb1! White wins]

21.exf6 Nxd1 22.Rxd1 g6 23.Bb4 Kf7 24.b3 Qc7 25.Nxe6! 1–0

[25.Nxe6 Kxe6 26.Re1+ Kd5 (26…Kf7 27.Re7+) 27.Qf3+ Kd4 28.Qd3#]

This made it impossible for him not to be included in the Soviet Team to the Chess Olympiad, and Sokolov performed creditably in the 1984 Thessaloniki and 1986 Dubai chess Olympiads, contributing to two team gold medals.

1986 was to be GM Andrei Sokolov’s best year. After qualifying through the zonal and interzonals there came the Candidates Matches. In the quarter-finals he defeated Rafael Vaganian (6-2) and followed-up by heavily upsetting Arthur Yusupov 7.5-6.5 to qualify for the Candidates’ Finals, the last step to a world championship match vs. Garry Kasparov. Indeed, the way he overcame his opponent became part of the legend — It was a 14-game match but Yusupov won two of the first three games and seemed to have a lock on the match. Sokolov fought back very hard but it was only by game seven that he managed his first win. Yusupov struck back immediately with a win on the 9th and a draw to maintain the two-point lead with four games to go. Insurmountable? Well maybe to most people, but Sokolov drew on all his inner reserves and won three straight (games 11-13) to overhaul the lead and claim match victory.

At this stage Sokolov was already ranked no. 3 in the world behind Kasparov and Karpov. Sokolov was within one step of the world title, but it proved to be a mountain that he could not climb, for between him and the crown was one of the world’s greatest chess players of all time — Anatoly Karpov. Their 1987 match in Linares was a one-sided affair — it was scheduled for 14 games but Karpov already had a four-game lead after 11 and so the match was called early.

What happened next? Being a Candidates’ Finalist Sokolov was seeded straight to the Candidates’ matches in 1988 without need of qualifying through the zonals and interzonals. For the first time ever, all seven Candidates’ first-round matches were played simultaneously, in St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada. As a concession for hosting all the matches Canada was allowed to directly insert one player into the candidates’ field and that was GM Kevin Spraggett, a strong enough player but perhaps many would say not world championship material. As luck would have it Sokolov was matched against Spraggett and everybody expected a massacre. Instead we got a gripping fight to the death where both protagonists fought on even terms. The two of them dueled to a 4-4 tie in the match and had to go into tie-breaks. Then two more draws in the 60-minute games meant a new tie-break of two 15-minutes games, the second of which saw a shocking ending when Sokolov allowed Spraggett’s knight to fork his king and queen.

This was the beginning of the end for Andrei Sokolov. Next was the 1988 USSR Championship. GM Andrei tried hard but then fell to the Blackburne Variation in spectacular fashion.

Gurevich, Mikhail (2630) — Sokolov, Andrei (2600) [D37]
URS-ch55 Moscow (8), 07.1988

1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.Bf4 Be7 5.e3 0–0 6.Nc3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Qc2 Nc6 9.a3 Qa5 10.0–0–0

I actually do not understand why they call this the Blackburne Variation — despite the most diligent research there does not seem to be any game by Blackburne using this weapon. More logical is to call it the “Gurevich Variation.” GM Mikhail Gurevich was around this time one of the top 10 players in the world. He developed this Queen’s Gambit Line with 10.0–0–0 (previously either 10.Rd1 or 10.Nd2 were played almost exclusively) specially for this Soviet Championship. He used it twice — won this game and draw vs. Kharitonov. Anyway, after this sensational victory the popularity of queenside castling here grew exponentially.


The most natural move here is 10…Rd8 but then 11.Nb5! threatening Bc7 is a bit awkward to meet.

Nowadays the main line is 10…Be7, removing all future b2–b4 threats and also protecting the d5–pawn with the queen. There may follow 11.h4 (11.g4 right away is not so effective. After 11…dxc4 12.Bxc4 e5 13.g5 exf4 14.gxf6 Bxf6 15.Nd5 Ne7! Black is doing ok) 11…Rd8 12.Nd2 dxc4

(Important note: Black cannot relax. A slow move like 12…a6?! gives the first player the opportunity to strike hard with 13.g4! dxc4 14.Nxc4 Rxd1+ 15.Qxd1 Qd8 16.Qxd8+ Bxd8 17.Bg2 e5 18.Nxe5 Nxe5 19.Bxe5 Nxg4 20.Bg3 Kf8 21.Rd1 Ke8 22.Na4 we reach a similar position as in the Topalov vs. Kramnik game, but this time Black’s pieces are awkwardly placed. 1–0 Nielsen,P (2625)-Glud, J (2486) Silkeborg 2008 1–0 40)

13.Nxc4 Rxd1+ 14.Qxd1 Qd8 15.Qxd8+ Nxd8 16.Be2 Bd7 17.e4 Bc6 18.f3 Nh5 19.Bc7 Rc8 20.Be5 Bf6 21.Nd6 Ra8 22.Bxf6 Nxf6 23.Rd1 Kf8 24.Kd2 Ne8 25.Nc4 f6 26.Ke3 b6 27.f4 Nf7 28.g4 h6 White has an impressive pawn formation but Black should be able to hold. Topalov, V (2783)-Kramnik, V. (2766) Wijk aan Zee 2007 1/2 49.

11.Bxc4 Be7 12.g4!

This move is exactly what Gurevich prepared against Sokolov.


Facing this position for the first time there was basically zero chance that Sokolov would take the g-pawn. Indeed, after 12…Nxg4 13.Rhg1 Qh5 (13…Qf5 14.Bd3; 13…Nf6? 14.Rg5 Qb6 15.Na4 surprisingly, the black queen ha snowhere to go) 14.h3 Nf6 (14…Qxh3?? 15.Rh1) 15.Be2! Black is in an extremely dangerous situation.

13.Bxb5 Bb7

Black with his usual coolness under fire has the idea of …Nd5 and ….Rfc8.


With the idea of Nc4, snaring the queen.


After deep reflection Sokolov realizes that his original intention of 14…Nd5 15.Nc4 Qd8 16.e4! Bg5! is actually better for White after 17.exd5 Bxf4+ 18.Kb1 exd5 19.Nxd5 the first player has too many threats all over the board and it looks unavoidable that Black is going to lose some material. That is why Sokolov instead went for the text move, which unfortunately has a flaw.

15.axb4 Bxb4 16.Nc4 Qa1+ 17.Kd2!


17.Nb1? Be4! it is Black who is winning;

17.Qb1 Qxb1+ 18.Nxb1 (18.Kxb1? Bxh1 19.Rxh1 Rab8 20.Bxb8 Rxb8 21.Rc1 Bxc3 22.Rxc3 Rxb5 is equal) 18…Bxh1 19.Rxh1 Nxg4 20.Bg3 White has two pieces for the rook and pawn but nothing decisive yet.

17…Bxc3+ 18.Ke2!

Both 18.Kxc3 and 18.bxc3 likewise lead to an advantage for White but this move, obviously overlooked by Sokolov, is clearly winning. The Black queen is in trouble.

18…Qa2 19.Ra1 Be4 20.Rxa2

[20.Qd1! is even stronger]

20…Bxc2 21.bxc3 1–0

Gurevich is now a full piece up. Still in a state of shock from Gurevich’s opening preparation, Sokolov resigns.

After this defeat Sokolov lost his fighting spirit and finished with 1 win 2 losses and 14 draws (many of them before the 20th move). He finished in the bottom half of the tournament crosstable in a dispirited performance. His star was never to rise again.

We will continue this Queen’s Gambit Declined story on Thursday.


Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.