If you look at chess literature, you can find entire libraries devoted to the art of attack … and almost nothing on the art of defence. Defending is much harder than attacking. Often a defender only had one move to save the position, whereas the attacker can just throw pieces at the King and hope for the best.
I believe defence is at least twice as hard as attacking, if not more. It is probably my weakest link, but I’ve still won a few games with accurate defence. In general, the opponent will overreach himself, usually with an incorrect sacrifice, and then an accurate series of moves proves my advantage.
In what follows, I present three games in which I refute my opponent’s aggressive overtures. Again, I’m not Petrosian, so my defending skills aren’t 100%, but they do the job for my level.
Example One: Castaneda – Smithy, 2003
This game is noteworthy for two reasons: my opponent was rated just over 2000, while I was 1800ish. This was one of the first times I ever beat a 2000+ player. My opponent sacrifices a piece for a speculative attack, and I waste no time pushing him back.
1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nxd5 4.Nxd5 Qxd5 5.d4 Bf5 6.c4 Qd7
This opening is somewhat strange. Black has a lead in development, but White has huge control over the center. If White completes his development than he should have a good advantage. Black, for his part, should try to chip away at that centre. I should note here that I had no idea about the theory of this position, if there even is any, so I just made it up on the spot.
7.Nf3 Nc6 8.Be3 e6 9.a3 Be7 10.Be2 O-O-O 11.O-O Bf6 12.Qa4
The position remains about level. White’s d4-pawn appears to be the biggest weakness on the board, as Black is setting all of his pieces against it. Of course, if White can get in d5 himself, he probably wins quickly. I better not let him do that.
12… Kb8 13.Rad1 Be4 14.b4 Rhe8
Here White feels the pressure. His center appears more liability than strength, and he won’t be getting in a central break anytime soon. He comes up with an interesting piece sacrifice, but it’s fairly obvious that it doesn’t work … though when someone rated 200+ points higher than you sacrifices a piece, you justifiably get a little nervous!
15.Ne5?! Nxe5 16.b5 Ng6 17.c5
We can see White’s idea more clearly here. Black’s minor pieces have been pushed far away, and White has a pawn storm coming. If he can trade all the pawns and open lines, his superior number of attackers will overwhelm my defenders. That’s not good.
That said, I correctly assessed White’s threat here: it’s b6. That move rips everything open and makes things unclear. If I can stop or blunt that strike, then I’m fine.
17…c6 18.Qb4 cxb5 19.Bxb5 Bc6 20.Bxc6 Qxc6 21.Rb1 Rd7!
White managed to open the b-file, but it’s actually not that useful. My last move, Rd7, adds an extra defender, and it’s not easy for White to add more attackers. His Bishop in particular isn’t very useful, as it’s blocked by his pawns and has no Kingside targets. White brings his final Rook into the attack, and so I add my Knight back to the defence.
22.Rb2 Ne7 23.Rfb1 Nd5 24.Qa5 e5!
I’m well defended and White cannot increase the pressure any more, so I start my own active play. White now self-destructs, starting a desperate series of moves that don’t work. His position is already losing, but this definitely makes it go faster.
25.dxe5 Bxe5 26.Rb5 Nc3 27.Rb6 axb6 28.cxb6 Nxb1 0-1
White missed that after 29.Qa7+ Kc8 30.Qa8+ that Black has 31… Bb8, blocking the check and saving the game.
This whole game was pretty simple, though I had to calculate a lot of variations to emerge with the full point. At the same time, when you have a good position, it makes calculating easier. White never really had any threats. The next game is a bit more complex, but only a bit.
Example Two: Timesup – Smithy, 2010
White sacrifices a piece for two Kingside pawns, but he doesn’t have enough development to do anything with it. I counter-attack immediately, and this surprises White, causing more mistakes on the way to a losing position.
1.c4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.g3 Nf6 5.Bg2 e6 6.O-O Bd6 7.Nc3 O-O 8.d3
White’s position looks like the Sicilian Dragon, whereas Black has a super-solid structure more along the lines of the Semi-Slav. I didn’t want his Bishop on g2 to do anything this game, which is why I placed both central pawns on the light-squares. Black already has more central control, so the game is about level.
8… Nc6 9.Bg5 h6 10.Bd2 a6 11.a3 e5 12.b4 Be6 13.Qc1?!
White has refused to play in the center, and now Black is definitely for choice. White’s last move, though, contains an obvious threat: he wants to sacrifice on h6, either next move or after some more preparation. Indeed, if White doesn’t play such an idea, his last move doesn’t make any sense.
I now needed to ask a question: how dangerous is White’s idea? A little, a lot, not at all? Do I use a tempo to stop this threat, or do I just continue with my own plans? In the end, I decided that White’s sacrifice could not be correct, and so the best punishment would be active play.
13… Rc8 14.Bxh6 gxh6 15.Qxh6 Nxb4!
Rather than defend, I counter-attack right away. If White takes my Knight, I take his undefended one on c3. White would then have only a single pawn for his piece, and his b4-pawn would surely fall soon. White’s only attacking with his Queen and Knight, so he shouldn’t be able to make any threats.
16.Qg5+ Kh8 17.Qh6+ Nh7 18.h4 Rxc3 19.Ng5 Bf5
Black has twice as many potential defenders as White has attackers. He can only make the simplest of threats. That said, 18…Qf6! would have been even better, chasing the Queen away and completely stopping any White threats. That said, the game continuation is pretty nice as well.
20.axb4 Bxb4 21.e4 f6!
At the time, I was worried about 21…Bg6 22.h5, decoying my Bishop away from h7, but then I’d have 22…Qxg5, as suddenly the Knight isn’t protected. Still, 21.f6 is the most accurate, as it chases the Knight away, and with it any hints of attack. If White was given time to play exd5 and then Be4, for instance, he might have some threats. My move stops that plan cold.
22.Nf3 dxe4 23.dxe4 Bg4 24.Nh2 Be6 25.Rab1 a5
At this point it’s pretty obvious that White has nothing for his sacrificed piece. My Queenside counterattack won his pawns, and now they threaten to start rolling. White still tries to throw his pieces at me, but my counter-attack again sweeps him aside.
26.Bf3 Bh3 27.Rfd1 Qb6 28. Ng4 Bxg4! 29.Bxg4 Rxg3+ 0-1
It seems fitting that the final move is again a counter-attack, this time exploiting a pin and finishing the game in style. In this game, I feel as if White made an intuitive sacrifice. He didn’t so much calculate variations as ‘feel’ that it was time to attack. Perhaps he calculated nothing, as my counter-attack completely floored him.
Example Three: Castaneda – Smithy, 2003
This game shows the same themes in a different way: White plays a gambit, and I then defuse his initiative and counter-attack. Indeed, the counter-attack has been the main theme of all these defence games. My opponent was the same as the first game, played a few weeks earlier in fact, and it’s one of my best games.
1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 d6 5.Nf3 e6
So far, so Morra gambit. White’s sacrificed a pawn for open lines, extra space and easy development. Black needs to keep things under wraps until his own development catches up. If Black can do that, he should be fine. White, therefore, needs to play energetically to justify his pawn investment.
6.Bb5+ Nc6 7.O-O a6 8.Ba4 b5 9.Bb3 Be7 10.Bf4 Nf6 11.Qe2 e5
White remains ahead in development, but Black is catching up. 6.Bb5+?! was a strange decision, as it just let Black expand with a6 and b5. With my last move I give up control of the d5-square, but it also blocks the center and slows White down. I like my position here.
12.Bg3 Be6 13.Bxe6 fxe6 14.Rfd1 Qb6 15. Rac1 O-O 16.Kh1 Rac8 17.a3
Has White made any mistakes? On the one hand, no, not really. He certainly hasn’t blundered … but his play has still been incorrect. He played the Morra gambit but hasn’t done much of anything active. Sure, he’s fully developed and has open lines, but what is he doing with it? His last two moves were moving his King and playing a3 … for some reason.
White needed to play actively to justify his gambit, and he hasn’t done that. Black has completed his development and can now start playing actively. Really, it’s no longer a gambit: Black is simply a pawn up.
17… Nh5 18.Bh4 Bxh4 19.Nxh4 Nf4
Black’s pieces are now more active than White’s. In particular, look at the Knights. White’s Knights don’t do much, and they have no good squares. Black has an excellent Knight on an excellent square, and his other Knight is ready to jump to d4 at a moment’s notice.
White feels desperate and tries to start something on the Kingside, but his position doesn’t allow for this, and he falls apart quickly.
20.Qg4? Qxf2 21.Rxd6 Qxb2 22.Rdd1 Nd4
Black has twin octopi occupying the center, and his Rooks also sit on open files. White’s c3-Knight is attacked, and if it moves the Rook behind it is vulnerable. White is defenceless to Black’s greater activity.
23.Qg3 Nfe2 24.Nxe2 Nxe2 25.Qg5 Rxc1 0-1
White is down a piece for nothing. He resigns. White played a gambit, sacrificing a pawn for attacking chances, but he then never really took advantage. He played meekly, and so I took up the charge and played aggressively instead. The result is one of my better games, especially against a higher-rated opponent.
I’ll be honest, at the time I thought I ‘refuted’ the Morra gambit with my play, but in reality White beat himself. Had White played more aggressively, for instance trying Bc4 instead of Bb5+ or using Ng5 to attack my pawns, preparing f4 strikes potentially, the game would have been much different. White didn’t, though, and my defence easily held.
I called this section ‘winning via defence,’ but every game featured counter-attacks. In my experience, whenever I’ve tried a pure passive defence, I either lose or only get a draw, even if my opponent’s sacrifice was completely unsound. It seems that the best way to refute a sacrifice is to attack against it, forcing the other side back rather than passively waiting for the knock-out blow.
I should add here that, among all my victory types, defence ranks as by far the lowest. It just happens very rarely, and honestly, it’s not a skill I’m particularly good at. I learned a lot from GM Smirnov’s webinar on the topic, which I have linked below. It’s definitely worth a look.