The Towering Defense That Shaped Chess History

The Super Bowls, Stanley Cups, World Cups and World Chess Championships are usually won with good defense. Which defense is going to decide the upcoming world championship match between Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen?
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The Super Bowls, Stanley Cups, World Cups and World Chess Championships are usually won with good defense. Which defense is going to decide the upcoming world championship match between Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen? We shall see soon: the first game starts in the Indian city of Chennai on Saturday, November 9.

Preparation for the match could be extremely elaborate and Anand must do some guesswork concerning Carlsen's choice of defenses with the black pieces since it is Magnus's first title match. Vishy, on the other hand, prefers solid defenses in the closed openings but may come up with something fluid this time. Older players usually seek an early conflict in the middlegame to avoid long tiring endgames.

The Berlin defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6) is always a possibility, hovering over any king-pawn player like a sword of Damocles. Both Carlsen and Anand are capable of using it. It was played already in the first world championship match between William Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort in 1886. In 2000, Vladimir Kramnik played the Berlin and ended Garry Kasparov's world championship reign.

Two Tower Defense

Kasparov became the world champion with a dynamic defense he adopted from my game played at the 1976 Interzonal in Manila. Not only did he win the last game in the match against Anatoly Karpov in December 1985, but the variation he used had a profound influence on subsequent matches. Karpov didn't dare to play the king pawn openings against him again. It was my unintended gift to Kasparov.

The London-based Czech artist Jan Brychta illustrated the duel Kasparov-Karpov on a postal envelope: Kasparov is fighting from the rook.

The rooks played a major role in the variation when it first appeared in the game Balashov-Kavalek, Manila 1976. Despite being strongly endorsed by my opponent and his famous coach Vladimir Yurkov, it was only picked up two years later by other players. Kasparov didn't fare well in his first attempt against Yuri Razuvaev in the Soviet championship in 1978, but he worked on it and eventually got it right. Nearly 1200 games were played with this variation after the inaugural game.

Two consecutive rook moves in the Sicilian Scheveningen define the variation:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.Be2 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7 8.Be3 0-0 9.f4 a6 10.a4 Qc7 11.Kh1 Re8 12.Bf3 Rb8!


The black rooks are placed on the best spots. The first rook move 11...Re8, covering the center, was known. The second rook move was my novelty. I was trying to make the move Ra8-b8 work in other variations of the Sicilian, but here it fits perfectly: it leaves the dangerous diagonal a8-h1 and helps to support the advance b7-b5. Each black rook has a purpose, no Nimzowitsch's mysterious rook moves.

Let's see some of white's main ideas tried so far:


Balashov's original move. White wants to prevent b7-b5, but it turns out to be an illusion. Because of the queen and rook lineup on the diagonal f1-a6, black can solve his task geometrically with 13...Nxd4 14.Bxd4 e5 15.Be3 Be6.
See the game below.

B. 13.Qe1

The queen shuffle can be met by 13... 13...e5 or by 13...Nxd4 14.Bxd4 e5; or 13...Bd7 14.Qf2 Nxd4 15.Bxd4 e5.

C. 13.Bf2

The waiting move was played in the game Razuvaev - Kasparov, USSR championship, Tbilisi 1978. It is best answered with 13...e5.

D. 13.g4

An aggressive attacking attempt brought white some success in the past. The pawn sacrifice 13...d5, a computer's suggestion also played by the Czech GM Laznicka, is a fair answer. So are 13...Nxd4 14.Bxd4 e5; or the backtracking 13...Nd7.

E. 13.Nb3

White threatens to curb black's queenside with 14.a5. It can be met by 13...b6 and after, let's say, 14.Qe2, black can invoke an old Pal Benko's maneuver 14...Na5, since after 15.Nxa5 bxa5 the counterplay on two open files (very much like in the Benko gambit) gives black a nice counterplay.

F. 13.Qd2

Yefim Geller's idea from 1980 was later adopted by Karpov. After 13...Nc6xd4 white can recapture with the queen.

13...Bd7 14.Nb3 b6 and now:

a) 15.Bf2 Bc8 16.Bg3 Nd7 17.Rae1 another Karpov's idea recently tried in the game Hou Yifan-Navara, Prague 2013.

b) 15.g4 Karpov's choice against Kasparov in the memorable last game of the 1985 world championship.

Kasparov commented the game in his book "Kasparov vs Karpov 1975-1985" and again in his new work "Garry Kasparov on Garry Kasparov, Part II: 1985-1993", published by Everyman Chess. It may look repetitive, but he likes to improve his analyses with new computer engines and look at the games from a different angles.


Kasparov's new volume encompasses eight turbulent years, ending with his departure from FIDE. During this time he became the world champion and played four matches for the world title against Karpov. He created the Grandmasters Association (GMA) and won the World Cup - an elite competition of six Grand Prix tournaments. He became the world's best player, triumphing in matches and tournaments. His rating went up and up, reaching peerless heights. It was a fascinated journey with a few dangerous bumps along the way. Garry seemed to succeed in everything he embarked on, and as the Executive Director of the GMA, I was fortunate to witness his achievements first hand.

The Two Tower variation is still going strong after 37 years. Here is the inaugural game:

Balashov,Yuri - Kavalek, Lubomir
Manila Interzonal 1976

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.Be2 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7 8.Be3 0-0 9.f4 a6 10.a4 Qc7 11.Kh1

White prepares a standard maneuver against the Sicilian Scheveningen, bringing the queen to the kingside with Qd1-e1-g3. To play it immediately does not pose black problems:

11.Qe1 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 e5 13.fxe5 dxe5 14.Qg3 Re8! An acrobatic defense, establishing the square e8 as a perfect place for the rook.

A. 15.Qxe5? Qxe5 16.Bxe5 Bc5+ wins.

B. 15.Kh1 Bd8 16.Be3 Kh8 covering all threats.

C. 15.a5 Bc5 16.Bxc5 Qxc5+ 17.Kh1 Kh8 18.Rxf6 gxf6 19.Qh4 Rg8 20.Qxf6+ Rg7 21.Qd8+ ½-½ Spassky-Kavalek, game 1 of the match in Solingen in 1977.

11...Re8 12.Bf3

White doesn't want to allow any surprises in the center.



This novelty is not only a waiting move. The rook leaves the dangerous diagonal a8-h1 and helps to support the advance b7-b5. Black also keeps the square d7 free for his knight, if white decides to advance his g-pawn.


White wants to prevent b7-b5, but it allows black to equalize by striking in the center. Because of the queen and rook lineup on the diagonal f1-a6, black can solve his task geometrically.

13...Nxd4 14.Bxd4 e5 15.Be3

Balashov thought he should have included 15.Ba7!? Ra8 16.Be3, but after 16...Be6 17.Rfe1 exf4 18.Bxf4 Rac8 black is fine.


Just in time! Threatening 16...Bc4 prevents 16.a5. Black can now strike on the queenside with b7-b5.

16.Rfd1 Bc4 17.Qf2 b5!?

The advance of the b-pawn was the original intention behind 12...Rb8.

18.axb5 axb5 19.Ra7

Balashov didn't want to go into 19.fxe5 dxe5 20.Nd5 Bxd5 21.exd5 e4 although he has a good play for the pawn after 22.Be2 Qxc2 23.d6 Bf8 24.b4.

19...Rb7 20.Rxb7 Qxb7 21.b3 b4!?

Exchanging punches seemed like the best idea. After 21...Be6 22.f5 Bd7 23.Bg5 white controls the square d5, although there is no need for despair since after 23...Rc8 24.Qd2 b4 25.Na2 Rb8 26.Bxf6 Bxf6 27.Qxd6 Be8 the bishop pair gives black compensation for the pawn.

22.bxc4 bxc3 23.c5!


The c-pawn was doomed anyway and Balashov shifts the pressure. After 23.fxe5 dxe5 24.Qe1 Qb4 25.Rd3 Ra8 26.h3 Ra3 black has no problem to hold.


Ignoring the pawn sacrifice was better: 23...Qb4!? 24.fxe5 dxe5 25.Qf1 Bxc5 26.Rb1 Qa3 (26...Qxb1 27.Qxb1 Bxe3 is possible.) 27.Ra1 Qb4 28.Rb1 draws by repetition.

24.fxe5 Nxe4

A gambling move, but I was not in the mood to play the careful 24...Nd7.

25.Qe2 Qb4

Getting away from the pin makes more sense than 25...Bf8 26.Bf4 f5 27.exf6 gxf6 28.Kg1 with white's edge.

26.Qd3 Ng5?

This optimistic move lands black in trouble. I had to go with 26...Nd2!? 27.e6! f6 and although it may not look particularly great, it is playable.


Trying to destroy harmony among the black pieces. Black holds after 27.Qd7 Qb8 28.Bd5 Qc8.

27...Rf8 28.Qd7 c4 29.Bd5 Rd8 30.Qc6 Qb8



Balashov played well, but he got carried away by an interesting bishop sacrifice. He could have used both bishops to get a big advantage: 31.Bb6 Rc8 32.Qd7 Re8 33.Bc6! Rf8 34.Bc7 Qc8 35.Qxe7 Ne6 36.Bd6 Qxc6 37.Rf1!, threatening 38.Qa7 and the pawn on f7 falls.

31...Bxg5 32.Bxf7+?!

We were short of time and Balashov wanted a way out. But the sacrifice is not correct and other moves don't promise much either, for example 32.e6 fxe6 33.Qxe6+ Kh8 34.Rf1 g6 35.Bxc4 Qd6=; or 32.Rf1 Qxe5=.

32...Kxf7 33.Qxc4+ Kg6!

A winning try since 33...Ke7 34.Qc5+ Kf7 35.Qc4+ only repeats the position.

34.Qe6+ Kh5 35.Qh3+



It didn't occur to me to play for a win by locking in my bishop: 35...Bh4 36.Qf3+ (36.Qf5+ Kh6-+) 36...Kh6 37.Qe3+ g5! The point! White has problems, for example:

A. 38.Rg1 Kg7 39.Qf3 (39.Qxc3 g4) 39...Qxe5 40.g3 Bxg3 41.Rxg3 Kg6 -+

B. 38.Rxd8 Qxd8 39.g3 Qd1+ 40.Kg2 Qxc2+ 41.Kh3 Qf5+ 42.Kg2 c2 43.gxh4 Qg4+ 44.Kh1 (44.Kf2 Qf4+-+) 44...Qd1+ 45.Kg2 c1Q-+

36.Qe6+ Kh5 37.Qh3+ Kg6 38.Qe6+ Draw

Note that in the replay windows below you can click either on the arrows under the diagram or on the notation to follow the game.

Image by Jan Brychta

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