14 September 2013

Activating the Corner Queen

The family of chess960 start positions (SPs) with a Queen in the corner is among the most challenging to play. There is no applicable principle from the traditional SP (RNBQKBNR) to serve as a guideline, so the players are on their own. Since 25% of all SPs (240 out of 960) have the Queen in the corner, the positions are seen frequently.

I touched on the topic of the corner Queen a few years ago in 'Fianchetto the Light Squared Bishop', where I quoted GM Seirawan saying, 'Unfortunately, because the Queens are buried in the corner, I don't see real tactics breaking out in the first dozen moves or so.' I don't believe that such positions are 'unfortunate'. There is no reason why fireworks need to occur immediately and good results often come to the player who is patient.

My previous post, Opening Queen Swap in the Corner, discussed a treatment of the corner Queen which doesn't happen often. I recently played another game which had a more normal treatment. It started with SP180 NBBRNKRQ and I had the Black pieces. Note that castling O-O is possible on the first move.

The first moves were 1.c4 c5 2.Nb3 Nb6 3.Nxc5 Nxc4 4.b3, reaching the position in the top diagram. Retreating the Knight didn't appeal to me, so I decided to play 4...b6, continuing the symmetry and offering a Pawn sacrifice. In my notes to the game, I wrote, 'Not sure if this is sound, but it's interesting!', a sentiment which arises frequently when I evaluate chess960 opening moves.

The critical line is the desperado continuation 5.Nxd7+ Bxd7 6.bxc4 Nd6 7.d3 Bc6, threatening the c-Pawn and keeping the initiative with Black. My opponent played instead 5.bxc4, and the game continued 5...bxc5 6.Bc2 O-O 7.Bb2 Bb7 8.O-O, reaching the bottom diagram.

In this position I felt that Black had a slight initiative. How is this possible? In fact, the move 6.Bc2 wasted a tempo because the Bishop is not posted any better on c2 than on b1. The b1-h7 diagonal is far more important than the a4-d1 diagonal. This observation helped to answer the key question: how should I develop the Queen. Since the Queen has no aggressive prospects on the a1-h8 diagonal, it can only come into immediate play via h6.

With this in mind I played 8...h5, reasoning that if White played similarly, Black's activity would occur first. The weakening of Black's Kingside (h-side for the purists) is secondary, because the h-Pawn can't be attacked. It might even play an aggressive role by advancing to h4.

Instead of 9.h4, White shielded the Queen on the long diagonal with 9.Nf3. I continued with the plan from the previous move and played 9...Qh6. After 10.d3, the time was right for 10...d5, opening the game. Black's Queen can transfer in one move to the Queenside (a-side), thereby supporting any tactical variations with the most powerful piece on the board. Meanwhile, White's Queen will languish in the corner.

Although the game lasted another 50 moves, Black was always in command and eventually won. The early activation of Black's Queen was the deciding factor.

No comments: