Najdorf Poisoned Pawn

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Bobby Ang

Chess Piece

7th Altibox Norway Chess
Stavanger, Norway
June 3–14, 2019

Final Standings

1. Magnus Carlsen NOR 2875, 13.5/18

2–3. Yu Yangyi CHN 2730, Levon Aronian ARM 2752, 10.5/18

4–5. Fabiano Caruana USA 2819, Wesley So USA 2754, 10.0/18

6. Ding Liren CHN 2805, 8.5/18

7–8. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave FRA 2779, Viswanathan Anand IND 2767, 8.0/18

9–10. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov AZE 2774, Alexander Grischuk RUS 2775, 5.0/18

You remember back in June there was this Altibox Norway Chess tournament where all games must be decisive? It went this way:

Players receive two hours for each classical game, with a 10-second increment only after move 40. No draw offers are allowed until move 30. Classical games are worth two points for a win, but in case of a draw players get half a point and play an Armageddon game for the remaining point.

In the Armageddon game White has 10 minutes to Black’s 7, with a 3-second increment from move 61. In case of a draw the player with Black gets the full point.

Magnus Carlsen won this tournament with 13.5/10, three points ahead of the two players tied for second place, Yu Yangyi and Levon Aronian.

There was an exciting game played in the Najdorf Poisoned Pawn which I forgot to show to our readers. I am sure that BW readers who like me were brought up during the Bobby Fischer days would just love to see how the theory has evolved and so, albeit a bit late, I am presenting it now to you.

Caruana, Fabiano (2819) — Vachier Lagrave, Maxime (2779) [B97]
Norway Chess 7th Stavanger (2), 05.06.2019

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6

Pulses start pounding and excitement rises in anticipation of a cutthroat battle, we have a Najdorf Poisoned Pawn Variation on the board! The two protagonists have had great experience in the line — Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with Black (MVL is known to play the Sicilian Najdorf every chance he gets) and Caruana with White, and they have faced off against each other in this very line several times.


There are some killjoys who play 8.a3 here with the trap 8…Qxb2? 9.Na4 in mind, winning the black queen. In response, Black can either play 8…Nc6 or 8…Nbd7, both of which should be studied in case you want to play the Poisoned Pawn.

Caruana has also played 8.Qd3 There is a case for calling this the “Azerbaijan Variation” as it was popularized by the late Vugar Gashimov and other young player from that country. Although it blocks her own bishop the queen controls the 3rd rank and in some cases is better placed to support the e5 push. Nowadays the main line seems to be 8…Qxb2 9.Rb1 Qa3 10.f5 Be7 11.fxe6 fxe6 12.Be2 Qa5 13.Bd2 Qc7 14.g4 h6 with chances for both sides. This is Caruana versus Nakamura from the 2017 Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger which the Italian-American won in 59 moves. This is also Gashimov, V. (2759)-Grischuk, A. (2736) Bursa TUR 2010 0–1 41. The reason I bring up this second game is because Grischuk considers it his best game ever and one of these days I will show it to you in full.

8…Qxb2 9.Rb1 Qa3 10.f5

Back when the Poisoned Pawn Variation began to appear in tournament practice (this is more than 60 years ago) White’s main idea was the central break 10.e5, blasting open the position to utilize his lead in development. However soon Black found several antidotes, and to every new White attack a counter was found, so much so that in the 1970s White started playing 10.f5. There was a resurgence in interest in 10.e4–e5 in the period 2005–2007 but nowadays the f-pawn push has returned as the main line.


MVL’s surprise. The main line is 10…Nc6 11.fxe6 fxe6 12.Nxc6 bxc6 and now either 13.e5 or 13.Be2, with tons of theory in either case.

11.fxe6 Bxe6

Much better than 11…fxe6, which just gives White a target after 12.Bc4. Now Black is forced to give back the sacrificed pawn as 12…d5 does not work: 13.exd5 Qc5 (13…exd5 14.Nxd5 Nxd5 15.Bxd5 Bxg5 16.Qxg5 Qe7+ 17.Qxe7+ Kxe7 18.Bxb7 White is clearly better) 14.Bb3 exd5 15.Na4 Ne4 16.Nxc5 Nxd2 17.Kxd2 Bxg5+ 18.Kd3 Black is temporarily a pawn up but hopelessly behind in development.

12.Nxe6 fxe6 13.Bc4 Nbd7 14.Bxe6 Nc5 15.Bc4!?

Even in this rare line Caruana has a novelty. Instead of defending his e4 pawn he instantly put his bishop on c4. By way of background, this exact same position after Black’s 14th move came up in Wei Yi versus Nepomniachtchi in the Moscow Grand Prix 2019. There Wei Yi played the obvious 15.Bf5 g6 16.Bh3 Ncxe4 17.Nxe4 Nxe4 18.Qd4 Qc3+ 19.Qxc3 Nxc3 20.Bxe7 Kxe7 (20…Nxb1 21.Bf6 Rf8 22.Bb2 the knight is caught) 21.Rb3 Ne4 22.Rxb7+ Kf6 23.0–0+ Kg5 24.g3 Rab8 25.Ra7 Rb2 26.Bg2 Black is under pressure but he should be able to hold. Wei Yi (2736)-Nepomniachtchi, I. (2773) Moscow Grand Prix 2019 1/2 70.


MVL of course realized that he was facing some preparation by Caruana and took 12 minutes before capturing the central pawn. A better move though is 15…Rc8! putting pressure on the pieces along the c-file. If now White plays 16.0–0 Ncd7! 17.Rf5! (17.Bb3? Qc5+ wins a piece) 17…Ne5 (17…Rxc4 18.Rb3 the black queen is unexpectedly trapped) 18.Rxb7 Qc5+ 19.Kh1 Qxc4 Black is at least equal.

16.Nxe4 Nxe4 <D>



Would you believe this is the idea behind his 15th move?

17…Kxf7 18.Qd5+ Ke8 19.Qxe4 Qa5+ 20.Kd1!

Caruana has studied the position well. He gets his king out of the e-file so that Black cannot exchange queens after 20.Bd2 Qe5 21.Qxe5 dxe5 22.Rxb7 Rf8 the pressure has already been relieved and Black is ok now.


Did Caruana overlook this?


No! By the way, an important nuance of the position is that Black cannot castle because the King has already moved to f7 and back.


[21…Qe5? 22.Re1! Kd8 23.Qc6 Black’s checks will run out: 23…Qd4+ 24.Ke2 Qg4+ 25.Kf1 (25.Kd3 is another way but it looks so risky) 25…Qf5+ 26.Kg1 Qc5+ 27.Qxc5 dxc5 28.Rexe7 the two rooks on the 7th rank ensure the win]


[22.Rxe7+? Qxe7 23.Qxa8+ Kd7 24.Qb7+ Kd8 25.Qxa6 Qe5 throws away the win]

22…Rf7 23.Rxe7+ Rxe7 24.Qxa8+ Kf7 25.Rf1+ Kg6 26.Qxa6 Qe5! 27.Qd3+ Kh6 28.c3?!

Fabiano gives up a pawn for no reason. There was nothing wrong with 28.g3.

28…Qxh2! 29.Qd2+ Kg6 30.Rf4 Re6 31.Qc2+ Kh6 32.Qf2 Qh5+! 33.Kd2

Not 33.Kc1? Re2 and it is Black who has the upper hand.

33…Qd5+ 34.Kc1 g6 35.a4 Qe5 36.Kc2 g5?!

With his pieces centralized MVL decides to play for a win. He could have had the draw with 36…Qe2+ would be quite an easy draw: 37.Qxe2 Rxe2+ 38.Kb3 Rxg2 39.a5 Re2 40.a6 Re8 41.Rd4 Kh5 42.Rxd6 g5 the two connected kingside passed pawns for Black should counterbalance White’s a6–pawn.

37.Rd4 Kg6 38.Qf3 h5 39.Rd5 Qe2+ 40.Qxe2 Rxe2+ 41.Rd2 Re6?

This very logical move, defending his d6–pawn, is actually a big mistake as Caruana will demonstrate. Correct was 41…Re5! 42.Rxd6+ Kf5 43.Kb3 h4 44.Rd2 g4 This is a draw. Let’s play through it a few more moves: 45.Kb4 Kf4 46.a5 h3 47.Rd4+ Kg3 48.gxh3 gxh3 49.a6 Kg2 50.Rh4 h2 51.a7 Re8 52.Rxh2+ Kxh2 53.c4 Kg3 54.c5 Kf4 55.c6 Ke5 56.Kc5 Ke6 57.Kb6 Kd6 58.Kb7 Re7+ 59.c7 Rxc7+ 60.Kb8 draw.


I think White is already winning here.

42…h4 43.Kb3 g4 44.Kb4 Re1 45.Ra2!

Preventing the black rook from getting behind his passed pawn.

45…Rb1+ 46.Kc4 h3 47.gxh3 gxh3 48.a6 Rb8 49.Kd5 Ra8 50.Kxd6

The difference between this and the previous line is the position of the kings.

50…h2 51.Rxh2 Rxa6+ 52.Kd5 Kf7 53.Re2!

Cutting off the black king, a standard maneuver in rook and pawn endings.

53…Ra8 54.c4 Rd8+ 55.Kc6 Rc8+ 56.Kb5 Rb8+ 57.Ka6 Rc8 58.Re4 Kf6 59.Kb7 Kf5 60.Rd4 1–0

[60.Rd4 Rc5 61.Rd5+! Rxd5 62.cxd5 Ke5 63.Kc6 there are no more unanswered questions]

An epic battle in the opening, middle game, and endgame!


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 (UST) for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.