Volume 14, Number 5, May 1946
As their wives look on tensely, the challenger and the champion indulge in some skittles play by way of preparation for the ten-game match. Sitting on the sidelines during an important game can often be more nerve-wracking than playing the game itself. (Photo by Nancy Roos)
Denker Retains United States Title
For the second time in less than a year, California was the scene of a major chess event, as U. S. Champion Arnold S. Denker successfully defended his title against Challenger Herman Steiner by the score of 6-4. The outcome of the ten-game match was decided with the completion of the first nine games, after Denker had already scored 5½ points - which made his victory mathematically certain. The tenth game ended in a draw, which of course did not affect the final result.
The match was one which had been eagerly welcomed by both players - by Denker because of his disappointing performances in the recent tournaments at Hastings and London, and by Steiner because of his splendid victory at London. Hence the match was a real head-on clash.
Curiously enough the contest, despite its brevity, fell into two sharply demarcated stages. The first, consisting of the initial four games, was catastrophic for Steiner. Playing in top form, Denker hammered out three wins and a draw in these first four games. Everyone thought it was all over but the shouting - and even that isn't permitted at a chess match!
In such situations, the man on the losing end is usually so crushed that he is unable to offer any respectable resistance. But Steiner deserves high praise for his play from this point on. Seizing the initiative, he actually forced Denker on the defensive and mad a plus score in the remaining games by winning one and drawing five games. All the games, regardless of result, were hard-fought; the draws were not of the kid-glove variety. Both players deserve great credit for having produced interesting, fighting chess all the way.
Denker is one of the few first-rate players I know who still takes a naïve pleasure in producing a beautiful combination. Most players are interested in beautiful chess for its own sake at the beginning of their careers; but as time goes on, the need for playing safe in order to pile up tournament points, dwarfs all other considerations.
Not only that; the more experienced player gradually becomes jaded with brilliant chess. When the beautiful becomes predominantly technical, the artist makes way for the glorified wood-shifter. In the case of many masters, this development is as inevitable as it is tragic. But such players as Denker and Horowitz will always seek interesting complications, no matter what the cost in practical terms. Sometimes that cost is heavy indeed. In the following game, Denker's enterprising play proves profitable.
U. S. Championship Match, 1946
H. Steiner A. S. Denker
1 P-Q4 P-Q4
In modern chess, especially in very important games, it is more usual to play 1…N-KB3, preserving freedom of choice among a great number of defensive possibilities. But Denker has apparently made up his mind that he is going to decline the gambit.
2 N-KB3 N-KB3
3 P-B4 P-B3
The Slav Defense - although, as we shall see, it may still turn into many other opening variations.
4 N-B3 . . . .
If Steiner were a great psychologist of opening play, he might well have followed the example of Botvinnik here by playing 4 PxP. Last year the Russian Grandmaster scored two of his most important victories with this move: against Smyslov in the USSR Championship (CHESS REVIEW, June-July, 1945, P. 11) and against Denker in the Radio Match (CHESS REVIEW, November, 1945, P. 13).
The chief merit of 4 PxP (with the likely continuation 4…PxP; 5 N-B3, N-B3; 6 B-B4) is that it preserves a slight initiative for White and at the same time dampens an aggressive opponent's hopes of winning. It is well suited to the tense atmosphere of a first match-game.
4 . . . . P-K3
Turning down the opportunity of playing the main variation of the Slav Defense: 4…PxP; 5 P-QR4, B-B4 etc. Denker has never cared much for that variation.
5 B-N5 . . . .
Giving Black the opportunity of playing, if he is so inclined, the famous variation which Botvinnik adopted so successfully against Denker himself in the USA-USSR Radio Match.
5 . . . . QN-Q2
Denker declines the invitation. How much midnight oil must have gone into all these variations which are mentally offered and declined! Both players were doubtless well primed with some surprise analysis on the complicated variation 5…PxP; 6 P-K4, P-N4; 7 P-K5, P-KR3; 8 B-R4, P-N4; 9 NxKNP etc. (CHESS REVIEW, November, 1945, P. 12).
6 PxP . . . .
Adopting a favorite variation of Sammy Reshevsky's. The early exchange of Pawns frees Black's game by removing the chief obstacle to the development of his Queen's Bishop.
6 . . . . KPxP
… And now we can see another benefit for Black from the exchange of Pawns: he has a half-open King file. Later on, after proper preparation (by means of …B-K2 followed by …0-0 and …R-K1) he will be able to play …N-K5 and free his game nicely.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Black is quite out of his troubles. The customary procedure for White in this variation is one that can be very troublesome for his opponent; for the explanation of its mechanics, see the note to White's 14th move.
7 P-K3 B-K2
8 B-Q3 . . . .
An obvious developing move, and yet it is inexact. The right way is 8 Q-B2, 0-0 (not 8…N-K5?; 10 NxN and Black loses a Pawn); 9 B-Q3 and …N-K5 is prevented for some time to come.
8 . . . . N-K5
Black's declaration of independence. Very rarely is he able to obtain such a comfortable, free game at an early stage in this opening.
9 B-KB4 . . . .
If 9 BxN (not 9 NxN?? PxN winning a piece!), BxB or 9 BxB, QxB and in either case Black stands well.
The text is preferred by Steiner in accordance with his well known bent for complications. But Denker also has a hankering for complications!
9 . . . . QN-B3
10 Q-B2 . . . .
An ultimatum to the advanced Knight: exchange or retreat!
10 . . . . 0-0!?
Black doesn't answer the challenge: he ignores it! But this impudence is in turn a challenge to Steiner: should he accept the Pawn or not?! This is a much more complex problem than the average player might think. White must of course ask himself: is the Pawn sacrifice sound or unsound? But that is by no means the only question; there are many others. For example: assuming that the sacrifice is unsound, will I run the danger of losing too much time on my clock during the resulting complications? Am I letting myself in for more trouble than the Pawn is worth? Will I "lose face" if I refuse the Pawn offer? On the other hand, should I accept it just as a matter of pride? But then, if I accept it, I will be allowing Denker just the kind of tactical chances which represent the strongest side of his play.
Just to put these questions to oneself takes time, pondering them takes more time. Whichever way one decides, there is always a feeling of regret, of nagging dissatisfaction … so Denker achieves his object whether the Pawn is taken or refused.
11 0-0!? . . . .
He declines the challenge. Why? The plodding annotator must probe diligently where the player of genius makes lightening-like intuitive decisions. However, the grounds for rejecting the Pawn sacrifice might be something like the following: 11 BxN, PxB; 12 NxP NxN; 13 QxN, Q-R4ch; 14 N-Q2 (King moves are not inviting), B-QN5; 15 Q-B2, P-QB4; 16 PxP, P-QN3! (Horowitz's move) and White is in very serious difficulties. He is menaced by such possibilities as …R-Q1 and …B-R3. His King is tied to the center, and P-QR3 has no value for relieving the pin. Even if one could eke out some laborious defense, such a line of play has no attractions for over-the-board struggle.
At all events, White has castled and his King is safe. This brings us back to the question of Black's advanced Knight which is again confronted with the alternative: exchange or retreat!
11 . . . . B-Q3!
Another surprise move which illustrates Denker's mastery of sly tactical jests! At first sight the Pawn sacrifice which this move involves, seems impenetrable, the consequences to this: 12 BxN, NxB; 13 NxN, BxB!; 14 PxB, PxN; 15 QxKP, R-K1; 16 Q-Q3, Q-B3 or NxN, PxN; 13 BxP forced, BxB; 14 PxB, NxB; 15 QxN, R-K1. In each of these variations, Black is a Pawn down; what does he have to show for it? At first sight, his compensation for the Pawn seems inadequate, but the more one studies the position, the more favorable Black's prospects appear. He has the better development; he has lasting pressure against the isolated Queen Pawn and King Bishop Pawn; his Bishop (which can be posted very effectively at Q4) is much stronger than White's Knight; White may be forced to play P-KN3, which would create a well-nigh fatal weakness on his King-side; White will have a permanent chore defending his isolated Pawn.
From the practical player's point of view, there can be little doubt, that Black would have all the chances. The odds are almost overwhelming that in the further course of the game, White could hardly avoid giving back the extra Pawn, and even then he might well remain with the inferior position!
If the above reasoning is correct, then Denker deserves great credit for his rapid and courageous appraisal of the position.
12 BxB . . . .
Again he declines the challenge - the proper course, if followed up correctly.
12 . . . . NxB
13 N-K5 P-KN3
A good idea: he neutralizes the attack against his KR2, and he also prepares an exchange of Bishops by means of . . .B-B4. This exchange is of real value to Black because his Bishop is far less effective than his White colleague.
White is now confronted with the necessity for one of those disagreeably portentous decisions which determine the whole future course of a game.
14 QR-K1? . . . .
Steiner makes a crucial decision: he orients his pieces for King-side play, where Black is solidly entrenched.
If Black is vulnerable at all, it is on the Queen's wing where he might be seriously inconvenience by a "minority attack." This operates in the following way: White uses his two Queen-side Pawns (Queen Rook Pawn and Queen Knight Pawn) as a battering ram against Black's three Queen-side Pawns (Queen Rook Pawn, Queen Knight Pawn and Queen Bishop Pawn). Thus White should continue 14 P-QN4, PQR3 (to stop P-N5); 15 P-QR4.
Sooner or later White would succeed in forcing P-N5, followed by some sort of Pawn exchange initiated by either player. These Pawn exchanges would leave Black with an isolated Queen Pawn or a backward Queen Bishop Pawn. The main value of this procedure for White is that it gives him a lasting initiative with no risk whatever. As Steiner plays, he has an ephemeral initiative with plenty of risk.
14 . . . . B-B4
15 N-K2 BxB
16 QxB N-Q2
17 N-N3 R-K1
Having sown his wild oats in this game, Denker has settled down to quiet position play.
18 P-B4? . . . .
A decisive positional mistake. So far Steiner has been carrying out a faulty plan with his pieces. That is to say, he still had the option of regrouping his pieces; but once a Pawn move has been made, whether good or bad, it is irrevocable. The text leaves White's King Pawn permanently backward.
18 . . . . P-KB4
Blocking White's attacking plans. Naturally he is not obliging enough to play 18 … NxN? For after 19 BPxN White has a strong attack via the KB file.
19 Q-N3 K-N2
He does not permit 20 P-K4.
20 R-K2 N-B3
21 R-B3? . . . .
Played with some vague idea of attack, but the Rook soon finds itself in a blind alley.
21 . . . . Q-N3!
22 Q-B3 . . . .
It may well be that White's best chance was to swap Queens and fight it out in an inferior ending. Certainly he can expect nothing good in the middle game.
22 . . . . KR-QB1!
With one of the White Rooks out of play, Denker rightly aims for the opening of a file.
23 R-QB2 . . . .
Steiner stubbornly keeps the Queens on the board. 23 Q-B5 seems to be a better try.
23 . . . . P-QR4
24 N-B1? . . . .
It would be better to retreat R-KB1. Now the unfortunate Rook is out of play for quite a while.
24 . . . . N(Q3)-K5
25 Q-K1 P-B4!
The opening of the file gives Black a winning initiative.
26 PxP RxP
27 RxR . . . .
Of course, if 27 Q-B1, then simply 27 …QR-QB1 etc.
27 . . . . QxR
28 Q-R4 P-Q5!
Opening up a new line of attack. White has no good counter.
29 PxP QxPch
30 K-R1 R-QB1!
White's game is now hopeless, for example 31 P-KR3, R-B8; 32 K-R2, N-Q7; 33 NxN, Q-N8ch; 34 K-N3, N-R4ch etc.
31 N-Q3 R-B7
Threatening 32…N-Q7 with decisive effect.
32 Q-K1 N-N5
33 P-KR3 N(N5)-B7ch
34 NxN RxN
If now 35 RxR, NxRch; 36 K-R2, QxPch; 37 P-N3, Q-B6; 38 Q-K7ch, K-R3, and White has nothing better than 39 Q-K3ch losing in the ending.
35 R-QN3 P-N3
36 Q-B1 P-R5
37 R-R3 P-QN4
Black can win pretty much as he pleases.
38 K-R2 QxP
39 Q-B7ch K-R3
40 Q-K7 RxPch
41 K-R1 Q-KB7
White resigns. A very well played game by Denker.