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The Big Deal About Berlin

In the recent World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand, it became apparent early on that Anand was not willing to allow Carlsen the chance to dominate the contest like he had done in 2013. Instead, Anand employed a complicated opening system against the World Champion called the Berlin Defense (ECO C65-C67). This defense is a variation of the immensely popular Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5…) opening made popular by Spanish priest Ruy L√≥pez de Segura. My serious study of chess has been ongoing for less than a year and it is apparent that there is more chess knowledge and application to be learned than there are hours in a person’s lifetime. Until the 2014 World Championship I had never heard of the Berlin and was intrigued by the way that chess commentators and even amateur players talked about the opening. Was it really as complex and devastating as people were making it out to be? I decided to take a look at the the feared Berlin Wall to get a better understanding of the opening and what makes it such a fearsome response to 3.Bb5.

The Beginnings: A Ruy Lopez Primer

The Ruy Lopez (ECO C60-C99) is the first opening that I learned when I began paying attention to opening theory and chose to focus on improving my chess. I did not realize until later in my chess studies that this opening was preferred by Bobby Fischer in his tournament games. The basic opening moves of the Ruy Lopez are: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5….

Fig 1: A typical Ruy Lopez game after 3.Bb5.

As you can see, White has immediate tactical control of the board and the Bishop’s position forces Black to respond to the 3.Bb5 threat or risk losing tempo to his opponent. This is where the concept of the defense comes into play. Until this point, each of these moves in the Ruy Lopez are standard and any deviation from the moves in this order moves it out of the Ruy Lopez ECO category and into another opening line. According to the Chessbase Fritz Powerbook, in most typical grandmaster games, the Berlin defense results in a 30% win rate for White, 22% for black, and a 48% draw rating. If this is the case, why would a player with the Black pieces even consider playing 3…Nf6? The answer seems to be as complicated as the Berlin Defense itself, but it seems clear that Black’s intention with 3…Nf6 is just to tell his opponent that victory will not be easy, nor will it be assured.

Berlin Defense in WC 2014

Vishy Anand used the Berlin Defense extensively throughout the World Championship match in response to Magnus Carlsen’s Ruy Lopez. For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen to look at Game #11 of the match where I first noticed the intensity in which commentators were referring to the Berlin Defense.

Fig 2: The Berlin Defense to the Ruy Lopez.

As you can see from the diagram above, the Berlin Defense puts immediate pressure on Carlsen’s e4 pawn and challenges him for control of the d5 square. Magnus Carlsen played 4.O-O in response to 3…Nf6, which activated his Rook and put the White King to safety. At first, I recognized that this is not the move that I would have chosen and I am confident that is why I will never get to play Magnus for the title. :) On the surface, it can seem like 4.O-O is not a developing move, but it places White in an exceptional position to defend against Black’s coming assault.

Next, Anand played the Open Variation of the Berlin Defense with 4…Nxe4. In the Berlin Defense, there are three primary options that a player can respond with after 4.O-O:

  • The Open Variation (4…Nxe4).

  • The Classical Variation (4…Bc5).

  • The Rio De Janeiro Variation (4…Be7).

Another option is 4…d6 although the percentage of wins for Black drops considerably in the Powerbook to only 18% out of 78 games recorded. Each of these lines has advantages and disadvantages. Much of the theoretical research on the Berlin defense has focused on finding advantage after the e4 pawn is captured in the Open Variation. In my opinion, the capture of the e4 pawn looks much like a typical aggressive move from an online blitz game; not a world-class tournament. In any case, this was the move that Anand chose and Carlsen responded with the typical 5.d4, which attacks Anand’s e5 pawn and balances the attack on the e5 square with his Knight. Anand gained a slight material advantage by capturing the pawn, but finding the benefit of that material seems to be the challenge that many openings experts continue to debate.

The next move, 5…Nd6 is where things become overtly aggressive. The e5 pawn is left hanging in the center of the board as bait for Carlsen while the Knight on d6 attacks the waiting Bishop. In this case, the Bishop must make some kind of move, whether he chooses to launch an assault on Anand’s Queenside or to retreat back to safety. The most popular move in this position is for White to eliminate one of the Knights by playing 6.Bxc6. The Bishop is lost, but Carlsen gets one of the Knights in return. This also forces Anand to break his Queenside defense to capture the Bishop before it does any more damage.

Fig 3: The Berlin Defense Open Variation after 6.Bxc6.

Anand immediately recaptures with 6…dxc6, but the capture also enables Carlsen to regain the one pawn material advantage from the earlier 4…Nxe4. By playing 7.dxe5, Carlsen creates a dangerous passed pawn and aims straight for Anand’s territory. Anand has several options to choose from, but 7…Nf5 makes the most sense as it takes control of squares in Carlsen’s territory and opens up his Queen for attack. However, this move is one of three accepted variations in which two result in a Queen sacrifice. Either 7…Nf4 or 7…Ne4 result in a sacrifice with 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8. Carlsen responded to the move with 8.Qxd8 and Anand recaptured with his King 8…Kxd8. At this point in the game, Carlsen’s pieces are much more active than Anand’s and his King remains safely castled while Vishy has lost the ability to castle due to the forced 8…Kxd8. I have read in many chess books and heard from instructors that one of the priorities of an opening is to force the opponent to move his or her King before they are able to castle. This ensures that the King remains in the center of the board and is far more vulnerable.

9.h3 comes next although the Powerbook prefers 9.Nc3 as it gives White a slightly smaller chance of forcing a win. At this point in the Berlin Defense, it is worth noting that the Powerbook indicates that only 15% of grandmasters playing with the Black pieces have successfully forced a win from this position. However, in contrast, only 21% of grandmasters have managed a win with the White pieces. Therefore, the position is none too pleasant for either side given that the remaining 66% of games in this position have ended in a draw.

Fig 4: The most perilous position of the Berlin Defense?

The main line in this situation is 9…Ke8, but Anand deviates and plays 9…Bd7, which restores some sense of balance to the game. Carlsen and Nakamura seem to be among the top grandmasters that prefer 10.Nc3 in this position while most others play 10.Rd1 to pin the Bishop to Black’s King. Carlsen plays 10.Nc3 to which Anand follows up by developing his h-file pawn with 10…h6. This prevents Carlsen from attacking Black’s vulnerable King with 11.Bg5+ and also gives Black a little breathing room to advance his f and g pawns if necessary.

11.b3 Kc8 gets Black’s King out of danger. 12.Bb2 builds a tremendous fortress on White’s Queenside and gives additional protection to the powerful e5 pawn by moving the Knight on c3. Although White has strong counter-play against almost anything that Black can come up with, the Powerbook shows the game as already drawn with Anand’s reply of 12…c5??. As the most amateur of amateur chess players, it is difficult for me to see the real intention behind this move. There appears to be no strategic value to White’s advance of the c3 Knight to any of the squares now controlled by the c5 pawn although maybe there is some secret grandmaster handshake that must be known before this particular move can be fully understood. With the follow-on 13.Rd1, Carlsen targets the lonely Bishop guarding the Black King. 13…b6 develops another pawn on the Queenside, but it is too little too late. Carlsen played 14.Re1 and the game effectively left the book. The remaining moves were 14…Be6 15. Nd5 g5 16. c4 Kb7 17. Kh2 a5 18. a4 Ne7 19. g4 Ng6 20. Kg3 Be7 21. Nd2 Rhd8 22. Ne4 Bf8 23. Nef6 b5 24. Bc3 bxa4 25. bxa4 Kc6 26. Kf3 Rdb8 27. Ke4 Rb4 28. Bxb4 cxb4 29. Nh5 Kb7 30. f4 gxf4 31. Nhxf4 Nxf4 32. Nxf4 Bxc4 33. Rd7 Ra6 34. Nd5 Rc6 35. Rxf7 Bc5 36. Rxc7+ Rxc7 37. Nxc7 Kc6 38. Nb5 Bxb5 39. axb5+ Kxb5 40. e6 b3 41. Kd3 Be7 42. h4 a4 43. g5 hxg5 44. hxg5 a3 45. Kc3 1-0

Peering Over the Wall

The conclusion of game 11 solidified Carlsen’s win and he retained his title as World Chess Champion. Even now, chess periodicals and magazines are being published that analyze the psychology, strategy, tactics, and political overtones of the match. My February edition of Chess Life arrived yesterday and the Carlsen-Anand match is the issue’s highlighted event. I am normally fascinated with the sociological and psychological aspects of the game, but this was the first match that ever turned my attention to the nuances of a particular opening. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy playing the Ruy Lopez and after careful analysis of the Berlin Defense I can honestly say that it is a complicated position to play. There is little to no room for error in order for one side to find a way over the Berlin Wall. As I continue struggle through online blitz games and gaze endlessly at configurations from magazines and periodicals, I take solace in knowing that Vishy and Magnus are out there winning the big ones for me.

Play through the entire game below: