A glorious queen sac can be irresistible and fans will always applaud it. But winning the game is even better – a lesson I learned the hard way in this totemic position from early in my playing career
An instructive position! Context later, but what would you, as White, do here? Do you long for the security of exchanged queens? Qxb8, Ne4, Rhe1 or maybe even f4 straightening out the doubled pawns? White is after all a pawn up; the rest, as they always say, should be a matter of technique.
Should White keep the queens on with Qg5, then point everybody at g7? Surely Black’s kingside couldn’t survive the firepower of White’s entire army? Or is this a mirage?
Is Rd6 your choice, preventing the queen exchange with an awkward self-pin? Dominating Black like a sumo wrestler sat on a cat?
Or is there something else – something which makes your heart beat faster, dreaming of glory. A taste of immortality. A portal in time to the great chess romantics of the past. To be included in great tomes of tactics books and legendary sacrifices. A kiss from Caissa herself? Can White play Qxf6?!?!
Let’s split the options into four:
- The Dull – f4
- The Daring – Qg5
- The Dominating – Rd6
- The Dramatic – Qxf6
Bet bet bet now! (Obligatory Banzai! music). Betting ends.
Now for some background.
A long time ago, I had started work as a chess teacher. In an effort to test this new-found professionalism, having spent most of my chess life up to this point hacking and worshipping the g5 square, I entered a proper chess tournament (as did future team-mate FM Julian Way). The tournament went bizarrely well. I finished joint fourth with IM Chris Baker in a very strong field. GM Keith Arkell came first, netting the princely first prize of £100.
In round seven I was paired with White against FM (and future GM) Michal Matuszewski, the pre-tournament dark horse. I had been having a strange tournament, scoring my first ever win against an IM, but also suffering in a couple of terrible games. I was very, very nervous, and then shocked to find myself in the above position having played some offbeat nonsense and invested very little time. Here I sank into thought. What to do?
Thanks to my friend and chess history devotee Kevin Henbest, I was thoroughly familiar with the game Nezhmetdinov-Chernikov, surely one of the most beautiful queen sacrifices ever played:
Now, back to my game. Somehow I was a pawn up against an FM, but here I was with a chance to emulate the great SuperNezh himself. My usual calculation was failing me completely; the sacrifice was like a black hole drawing my thoughts away from every other line. Qg5 and Rd6 looked good, then dangerous, then drawish and seemingly dissipating my advantage, then a blur of lines I couldn’t concentrate on because THEY WEREN’T THE GLORIOUS QUEEN SAC!
After attempting to consider the alternatives I returned to stare longingly at Qxf6. I couldn’t see the win, but felt it must be there. Surely only a coward would shy away from such a move? Having taken nearly an hour, I punted.
The game went as follows:
A few months later, proudly showing this game to my friend, FM Thanasis Tsanas, he responded with utter disgust. “You were winning! Why would you play this? Karpov would never play such a move!”
I had been fully expecting praise, maybe even light applause, for my bravery. Yet here was an FM telling me off! Something in me, a crazed romantic, got a lesson that day. Rare and entrancing as a queen sacrifice is, it should not come at the expense of the position. Chess wins are not the result of hit and hope.
What would I do today? Well, older and wiser, I now realise many games between strong players are decided not by tactics or queen exchanges, but by domination – controlling the board and not allowing your opponent’s pieces space to breathe. Rd6 is the key move, and the computer agrees. While the other moves should win with perfect play, Rd6 is the truly brave move – self-pinning, calculating to see that everything is working tactically, and having faith in one’s pieces (and scorn for your opponent’s prospects).
Rd6! What a move!! Who needs queen sacs?!