MUG: Two tactical geniuses do battle in what could arguably be called the most complex opening ever – The Semi Slav, Botvinnik Variation.
Why this game is amazing is obvious, but many may not be aware that, behind the moves, an interesting theoretical duel was also taking place.
It all started back in 1981.
The main line of the Botvinnik (as in this game) runs as follows:
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 e6 5.Bg5 dxc4 <The Botvinnik variation> 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 <10…Be7!?> 11.exf6 Bb7 12.g3 c5 13.d5 Qb6 14.Bg2 0-0-0 15.0-0 b4 16.Na4 Qb5 17.a3! …
Although we are 17 moves in, this position has been reached in literally hundreds of games. Before the eighties, however, 17.a3 was practically unexplored. Refering to a game played by Dorfman in 1980, Kasparov writes at about that time: <confronted by this novelty, Dorfman did not react in the best way. He played 17…exd5, and after 18.axb4 cxb4 19.Be3! escaped disaster only through inaccurate play of his opponent.>
So it was clear that an improvement could be found, and in 1981 Sveshnikov and Timoshchenko together worked on the novel reply 17…Nb8. It was not long before it would receive its toughest test:
Kasparov vs G Timoshchenko, 1981
Not disheartened by its failure, Dorfman also gave the new move a try against the World Champion just a few days later:
Kasparov vs Dorfman, 1981
So it appeared that Kasparov had 17…Nb8 pretty much sussed and had practically refuted this novelty straight off the bat!
End of story? Of course not. Enter Tal, and our current game! The Latvian magician led Kasparov once again down the main lines, and once again into 17…Nb8. Of course Tal was well aware of Kasparovs crushing victories against this move, so what had he discovered? What cunning new novelty had he cooked up at home? One can imagine Kasparovs trepidation as he continued with the moves that had served him so well two years previous and had indeed now become approved by theory as best for White:
18.axb4 cxb4 19.Be3 Bxd5 20.Bxd5 Rxd5 21.Qe2 Nc6 22.Rfc1 …
And now Tal uncorked 22…Ne5. To quote Kasparov: <Both Dorfman and Timoshchenko had continued 22…Na5 keeping the knight for defence of the queenside and hopeful of an opportunity for …Nb3. However, on a5 the knight turned out to be misplaced and it became a convenient target for Whites forces. On e5 it is actively placed, fulfilling attacking as well as defensive roles. – Kasparov in ‘Fighting Chess’ Batsford 1995>
Kasparov admits to being a little perplexed by the new move, but decides to <set off along the beaten track (as in the other games) although I felt dangers radiating from the knight at e5.>. The result is the exciting, and mind-bogglingly complex game we see above which pulled the 17…Nb8 line back out of the doldrums.
Kasparov must also have been more then a little impressed as he even tried the 17…Nb8 line out for himself a few years later:
H J Cordes vs Kasparov, 1986
Perhaps hoping to play and improve upon Tals novelty? He never got the chance! Cordes unleashed a new move of his own (18.Qg4) and managed to beat the World Champ.
These days 18.Qg4 and 18.Qd4 are now considered to be a convincing way for White to keep the advantage, and so now 17…Nb8 has been superseded as the most critical line of the Botvinnik Variation by, guess what, 17…exd5!!, so perhaps Dorfman was right all along!!