THE FORGOTTEN MODERN BENONI
by Craig Mar, Fide Master
Nowadays, the Modern Benoni defense is a rare bird. The Benoni is characterized by the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.6 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5. In the 1970's, thanks to Mikhail Tal and Fischer, this opening was at the height of its popularity. It gave Black very active play where he voluntarily gave up the center to achieve a sort of aggressive chaos. It became the favorite weapon of deFirmian Browne, Shirazi, and myself. Black always seemed to have active counterplay in the main lines.
But young Gary Kasparov practically refuted the Modern Benoni when he introduced 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.f4! into practice. A series of crushing losses helped to batter its reputati on in the 1980's. It became apparent to the black players that the above mentioned move order was simply unplayable. Apparently this cooled tire ardour of even the most devout fanatics of the line, as even Kasparov gave up the black side. The chess world followed suit.
Is the Modern Benoni refuted? The answer is a definite no! It is still playable via a Nimzo - Indian move order, 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6! 3.Nf3 c5 4.d5 exd5 5.cxd5. The subtle reason it is playable is that white's 3rd move blocked the f pawn and the 3 pawns attack cannot be played. But surprisingly few of the top players play it. Is it unsound? No, the Modern Benoni is simply out of fashion, and will someday make a comeback. That is my prediction, but time will tell.
The following Benoni features two West Coast titans, 6 time U.S. champion Waiter Browne, and Grandmaster Nick deFirmian. A double - edged struggle results in a rollercoaster like endgame.
White: GM Walter Browne
The Queen's pawn openings contain more positional subtlety than do the King's pawn openings, in that white does not seek to win so much by opening lines, but seeks to cramp black with his space advantage. They often leads to a more strategical type of game, and are preferred by the majority of world class players.
White can, if he so desires, prevent the Modern Benoni with 3.Nc3 which would lead to a Nimzo - Indian defense after 3...Bb4.
Here it is, an invitation to the Benoni. White can also
decline it at this point with the solid 4.e3 or 4.g3. Browne is not one to
avoid a challenge, and plays the sharpest line. The Benoni can be safely
played with the move order in this game. Kasparov - Nunn, (Lucerne, 1982)
was one of the early games which demonstrated the drawbacks to the old main
line. It went 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3! c5 4.0 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.f4 Bg7
8.Bb5ch Nfd7 9.a4 Na6 10.Nf3 Nb4 11.0-0 a6 12.Bxd7 Bxd7 1315! 0-0 14.Bg5 f6
15.Bf4 gxf5 16.Bxd6 Bxa4 17.Rxa4 Qxd6 18.Nh4 fxe4 l9.Nf5 Qd7 20.Nxe4 Kh8
2l.Nxc5 Black resigns.
Both players are experts in this line, and one could
imagine them both "blitzing" (means to move very quickly) out their
The first surprise. This move order is novel, and has
gained many scalps.
It took Benoni devotees a long time to find the correct
way to counter white's move order. Now if l O.Nxb5 then ....Nxe4 11.Bxe4 Re8
regains the piece. If IO.Bxb5 then ....Nxe4 1l.Nxe4 Qa5ch 12.Nc3 Bxc3ch
regains the piece with good activity. Browne wisely decides not to capture
the B pawn which would destroy his center.
It is impossible to surprise deFirmian or Browne in the opening, as they are both well prepared in that phase.
White continues the logical buildup of his forces. The theme of the Benoni is that black must stop white from expanding with an eventual e5, while white must stop black's queen side majority from advancing. White has a minute edge, with King -side attacking chances.
Typical aggressive development by black.
Anxious to trade bishops in order to get Qd4 in, but keeping the bishops was also possible. The text forces a weakening of black's king position.
It is clear now that white holds the trump cards in this
position. White can operate in the center or play for a king side attack with
he. - h5, as black's queen is absent from that area Browne's election to
play for the e5 break is a reasonable choice.
White has many choices here. Also possible is
20.Qd2? a5 and black has already seized the initiative because his pawns get
rolling before white's do. Browne's move is both offensive and defensive.
He wants to prevent the advance of black's queen side pawns. He also wants
to get f4 in.
Preparing the big buildup.
DeFirmian makes the right choice by bailing out into what
looks like an even endgame. But is it?
After much analysis, one must conclude that white is
slightly better, since his pawns have greater mobility, and his play is
more apparent. He has the long range threat of Nd4 - 5 - Ne6ch burying
the knight into black's position. It is not clear what black can do about
such a plan.
Stops 26...g5 and prepares either the e5 break or the long
range Nd4 - Ne6 plan.
Black elects a kamikaze style move, which will lead to a
decisive result. Right or wrong, it's probably better than getting squeezed
to death: It now becomes a pawn race.
White is also better in this "race" endgame,
because his king can blockade Black's passed pawns easier. But a single
tempo may decide the game. I usually prefer to avoid this type of
endgame because of the danger involved.
Probably best. 34...gxf5? 35.Nf5ch wins a pawn and the
game as well.
Black does not have to give up his G pawn. After 35...Kh6!
white is still somewhat better, but white's dangerous passed pawns have been
stopped. DeFirmian probably didn't have time to see that after 35...Kh6 3614
gh 37.g5ch Kh5 38.86 Be8 39.87 Bf7 the pawns go no farther, and it's black's
turn to push pawns. The rest of the game indicates that black has burned his
bridges and can no longer avoid a do or die game.
The race is on. The next few moves will be forced.
Browne is very accurate in time pressure. This is white's
A single mistake and it's all over. Black simply cannot
afford this loss of time. This must have been a time pressure error. Black
had to play 39...Nxb2! White cannot avoid the draw. 40.h4?! d5 4115 Nd1 is
suicide for white. Thus, 40.Nxf7 Kxf7 41.Kc3 Ndlch 42.Kxc4 NO draws. So the
game was equal after all!
Both sides are on an unalterable course. If it's any
consolation, black's play could not have been improved upon the rest of
this game. Now both players have time to think, as the 2nd time control
comes into play.
Black's king is a target for a mating attack! The pawns
advance with threats. The king should try never to become a target in a race
situation. The king doesn't help to stop the pawns, it becomes an object of
attack. Surprisingly, black started out ahead in the race, but white gains
tempos back by advancing pawns with threat of mate. It's lost for black with
Not so much to grab a pawn, as to swing the knight around
for an attack. Both sides realize that the move d5 by black doesn't help at
all, and white would have simply played his knight to d6 gaining a tempo
for the race. The race is decided by a single tempo.
At this point, white is actually winning, even though his
pawns are two tempi behind in the race because black's king is a target.
New endgame principles can be gleaned from a study of this fascinating
43....Kh8 loses in a different way, 44.86 c2 45.Nf7ch!
Bxf7 46.gxf7 cxb1(Q) 47.f8(Q) Kh7 48.Qg7 mate!
Threatening mate with 45.g7ch! Black must move his
As good as any. All bishop moves lose for black! Other
tricky tries are 44...Bf7!? but 45.g7ch Kg8 46.Nxf7 Kxf7 47.Bh7 is
curtains. 44....Be6 looks better than the text, but 45.g7ch Kg8 46.Bf5!
cooks black's goose also. It's lost.
The only move, but a winner. White has a trick up his
sleave. On the obvious 46 ....c2 47.Nc8! threatens mate via 48.Ne7ch.
There is no defense.
Trying to prevent the threatened 47.Nc8 and Ne7mate.
The threat is 48.Ne7 mate! Black's only try is 47 ....Bxf5
48.Bxf5 c2 49.Be6ch Kh7 50.g8ch (Q) Kh6 51.Bf7ch Kh4 52.Qg4 mate!
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