Review: The Tarrasch Defence
The Tarrasch Defence is a great opening. It is both solid and active, it has a rich history and it has been endorsed by numerous world class players, including Garry Kasparov. Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch himself gave the good example when he wrote, more than a hundred years ago, of ‘his’ 3…c5: “All along I instinctively recognized this move as the right antidote to the Queen’s Gambit.”
I’ve played the Tarrasch myself for over 10 years, and with tremendous results. It’s fair to say that if FIDE had only counted my games with this opening for their rating calculation, I would have had 200 points more than I have now. The only reason I recently stopped playing it is because I believe (stupidly, no doubt) that it’s necessary to vary one’s openings from time to time for fear of getting utterly bored with chess.
Another interesting fact is that despite my excellent results, I’ve never felt the slightest need to read an opening book on the Tarrasch Defence – often Black’s moves are so natural that there really seems no point. This is a huge difference with other openings, such as the King’s Indian or the Benoni Defence, where a lack of theoretical knowledge is likely to result in an endless bunch of duck-eggs.
But a new book by Jacob Aagaard and Nikolaos Ntirlis, The Tarrasch Defence, published by Quality Chess, has made me change my mind. The two authors (though I got the impression Ntirlis did most of the original work) present so many fresh and fascinating ideas in this old opening that it’s impossible to put down. It’s also a very objective and sensible book, in which the old opening is both treated with respect and is challenged to defend itself against computer-age scrutiny and rigour.
Although The Tarrasch Defence is extremely useful for White players (I’ll tell you why further down), it is mainly aimed at players who want to employ this opening with Black. Thus, the old main line with 9…cxd4 is only mentioned as part of the introduction, and in general the authors waste no time analyzing black alternatives that they regard as inferior to the ones they’re suggesting.
Instead, Aagaard and Ntirlis spend most of the book on what they call the ‘Modern Treatment’:
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Bg5 c4! 10.Ne5 Be6
11.b3 h6! The “early h6”-theme recurs time and again in this book. Here, the authors confidently write:
The classical reply here is 11…Qa5, but extensive analysis has convinced us that the text is the best move, giving Black an active position with good expectations of equalizing.
In fact the only attention the move gets is in the introduction, where the authors mention German IM Blauert’s well-known shock novelty 12.Qd2! Rad8 13.bxc4 Nxd4!!N (Pedersen-Blauert, Gausdal 2004) and amazingly, Black seems fine in all lines. However, after the more prudent 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.Rfd1 Bb4 15.Rfc1! (as mentioned by Schandorf in his 2009 book Playing the Queen’s Gambit) Black, according to Aagaard and Ntirlis,
has no realistic chance of achieving equality.
12.Bxf6 Bxf6 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.bxc4 dxc4 15.e3 Qa5
A big tabiya in the Modern lines of the Tarrasch Defence. White has an impeccable pawn structure and a strong bishop on g2; Black has the two bishops, a passed pawn on c4 and the hope of breaking in the centre with …c5. The static features of the position suggest that White should be better, but Black has excellent dynamic possibilities at his disposal.
The authors don’t stop here but go on to analyze the subsequent positions in great detail. The same is true for other cases where 11…h6! proves to be surprisingly strong (such as after 11.f4, 11.e3 and 11.Rc1). Although this gives the book it’s a very ‘personal’ touch, I also found it somewhat disappointing that all these lines I came to love so much, like 11.e3 Nd7 (which is also not bad for Black) and 11.f4 Ng4!? (very exciting as well), are hardly looked at in this book.
But then again: tough luck for me! If Black has more promising ways to play – and Aagaard and Ntirlis make a convincing case for it – then I should be prepared to kill my darlings and start looking at the new kids on the block. No boring old theory, but exciting new territory!
And I soon discovered I might actually be better off after all. What to think of the following crazy and almost completely unknown line?
11.f4 h6! 12.Bxf6 Bxf6 13.f5 Bxe5! 14.dxe5 Qb6+ 15.Kh1 Qxb2!
Every true Tarrasch player should just love this stuff, which gets its own chapter. The only problem, of course, is that there’s so much new material here that improvements are probably just around the corner (although my Rybka and me couldn’t find them so far). That’s only natural, but it does require a little soberness from the reader from time to time.
So unless you’re a pro, my advice is to just sort of browse through these pages and then simply go play the position – much more fun than trying to memorize all these unlikely moves that Tarrasch himself wouldn’t have found behind the board either…
Despite such spectacular outbursts, I felt the book’s real asset is its excellent treatment of various endgames where Black can or cannot achieve perfect equality. Playing the Tarrasch has taught me to try and correctly evaluate certain highly typical endgames, for instance with an isolated d-pawn or with doubled c-pawns. These endgames are often not as bad as they look, and they are always very difficult to play for both sides. Despite this, the authors are very clear about what’s at stake:
Let’s be honest about one thing. There are few openings in which it is easy to prove equality for Black. And the Tarrasch Defence is not known as one of them! Black has to work hard for equality (…).
They go on to discuss the endgame with doubled c-pawns. The following fragment is worth quoting in full:
11.b3 h6 12.Bxf6 Bxf6 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.bxc4 dxc4 15.e3 Qa5 16.Rc1! Rac8 17.Qa4! Qxa4 18.Nxa4 Be7 19.Nb2! Ba3 20.Rc2 Bxb2 21.Rxb2 Rc7!
(…) Although the White pawn structure is more solid, it does not hold a lot of dynamic potential. The black pawns have both the weakness of a solitary existence and the freedom of no one relying on them. It is surely a blessing and a curse at the same time.
The front c-pawn is passed, and though hard to support, you can easily imagine a situation where it moves one square forward and forces White to rapidly retrace his steps to control the first rank. Likewise with the pawn on c6; weak certainly, but also able to break up the white centre with …c5 at some point – but only if the d5-square is under control. White would love to answer d4-d5 and get his own passed pawn.
White does not have similar freedom. At the moment the pawns on f2 and h2 offer full protection for the entire family, but this is also a limitation. If White plays e3-e4, the most obvious active pawn move, the d4-pawn becomes an immediate target. This is very relevant, as Black will often try to play …Bd5 in order to provoke this advance.
Black can challenge the soundness of this structure in the long term with …f5, …g5 and …f4 but the time this takes must be taken into consideration. This type of long-term plan requires a rather solid foundation in the centre and good coordination to achieve.
A final idea for Black is to activate the rook from f8 via b8; here it may go to b6 or b4 (or maybe even b2) and then switch to the a-file. This is seen over and over again, and is in line with the endgame principle of activating your strongest pieces first (the rooks being stronger than the king, whose value in the ending is generally rated as 4 points).
White does have one pawn advance that makes sense. If he manages to advance his a-pawn to the 6th rank, it can be used in a future invasion of the 7th. White’s advantage is of a static nature, long term and based on the quality of his pawn structure. He wants to neutralize the black activity based on the c-pawns, and advance his central pawns once all counterplay has been neutralized. (…)
I find such fragments irresistible, and in fact this is only the beginning of the discussion of this particular endgame, which goes on for no less than 6 more pages.
I could go on and on about the many beautiful variations in this book, but the truth is that it is crammed with fantastic stuff - really too much to mention in one review. So let me just say that the authors treat the ever-important Timman Variation (9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.Bg5 d4 11.Bxf6 Qxf6 12.Nd5) with due adoration and skepticism (I’ve always felt the line to be both overestimated and underestimated at the same time!). Here, too, they improve existing theory as they go along in many crucial lines.
Even more interesting is the authors’ “big discovery” that a ‘minor’ deviation in this opening turns out to be so dangerous it’s worth two separate chapters:
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.dxc5!
This is one of those simple-looking lines I myself have never dared to look at closely (and has fortunately never been played against me!). The problem for Black, which is of course well-known, is that after 6…d4 7.Na4 Bxc5 8.Nxc5 Qa5+ Black will regain the piece but White will have the two bishops. Yes, you’ll say, but isn’t Black terribly active now?
Well, that’s what I always thought too, but the authors forced me to evaluate the endgame that Black gets after:
9.Bd2 Qxc5 10.Rc1 Qb6 11.e3 Nf6 12.Bc4 dxe3 13.Bxe3 Qb4+ 14.Qd2 Qxd2+ 15.Kxd2 Be6 16.Bxe6 fxe6
We think that Black looks okay, but things are never that easy of course. In our opinion Black has improved chances in the ending when a set of knights has not yet been exchanged, so that the bishop is less able to roam the board uncontested. (…) The endgame is ever so slightly better for White, but to call it a significant advantage is maybe a bit much.
As so often in the Tarrasch, Black is comfortably within the drawing zone in the ending. People take on less attractive positions in the Petroff, Berlin, Queen’s Gambit Declined and other openings on a daily basis. If you are a technical player, this is possibly something you want to consider as part of your repertoire against weaker players, but probably not against your peers.
Jacob Aagaard and Nikolaos Ntirlis invite their readers to think about these positions for themselves, rather than to just memorize what they prescribe. Would you mind playing this position as Black? If you don’t, then you’ve got what it takes to become a real Tarrasch player – not scared of isolated pawns, bishops or your engine indicating +0.41. The Tarrasch Defence invites you to be scared of nothing.
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