Understand The Position 1: Kasparov’s Nightmare
The Berlin endgame arises after: 1.e4 e5 2.Jf3 Jc6 3.Sb5 Jf6
4.0-0 Jxe4 5.d4 Jd6 6.Sxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Jf5 8.Dxd8+ Kxd8
Translated by: Dušan Turcer
All stronger players are familiar with this position, which furthermore went down in history. Also, thanks to the Berlin Defence, Kramnik managed to defeat Kasparov in the World Championship match. However, I dare to say, that the most of non-professional chess players have only a dim idea about what’s going on on the board.
White has a pawn majority on the kingside and black has a bishop pair instead. The position is a little similar to Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6). However, as compared to Ruy Lopez, Black has one important advantage and disadvantage as well. Both facts that the white pawn is placed on e5 and White’s light-squared bishop is not on the board anymore favour Black. He can effectively stop the advancing of White’s pawns along c8-h3 diagonal. The disadvantage of Black’s position in comparison with Ruy Lopez rests in the fact that his king remains in the centre and it is not very well placed. Therefore, Black needs more time so as to achieve better coordination of his pieces.
The following middlegame has these characteristics: Black has problems with a coordination of his rooks and therefore, any rook exchange is in his favour. If all rooks were removed from the position on the diagram, black would stand already better. It happens very often, that black rooks are being developed with help of the a and h pawns; on the contrary, White develops his rooks into the centre, on d1 and e1. That’s also the reason why 9. Rd1+ is not accurate, because the rook a1 should go to this square instead. The black King often becomes to be an attacking target and needs to be hidden somewhere. Typically, it is being hidden on e8 or b7. B7 square is farther, but safer.
Any bishop exchange favours White. Therefore, Black doesn’t develop his bishops to e7 or e6 very quickly, so as to prevent Bg5 or Ng5. White bishop usually ends on b2, where it controls the centre and enjoys the safe position. If the exchange on e6 still happens and Black is ending up with e, g and h pawn structure, he would get much relief as soon as he manages to exchange the second white knight. This piece is very dangerous when standing on e4.
White queenside pawns usually end up on light squares, in order to be in a good cooperation with the bishop. Then the pawn structure is as follows: a2-b3-c4, a4-b3-c2 or a4-b3-c4. Thus, during the endgame, these pawns become easy targets for black light-squared bishop which attacks them for the back.
It is not clear which side benefits from this opening. Strategic theorems say that Black is better because of a bishop pair. However, if White manages to open the centre before the black king finds a safe place, he usually gets a strong attack.
White has two plans in the Berlin Defence: either to break the centre by playing e5-e6, or to cross the kingside barrier along the c8-h3 diagonal by playing h2-h3, g2-g4 and f2-f4-f5.
For a non-professional chess player it is easier to play the Berlin Defence as White. Black suffers from bad piece coordination at the beginning and he needs to play very carefully. Typically, there are a lot of manoeuvres in the Berlin Defence, the play has inconcrete and a little vague character. It is also the reason why such a positional player as Kramnik has overplayed the master of tactics – Kasparov. The combination “engine” of Kasparov was missing the material to work with, because there is not a lot of calculation in the Berlin Defence. What counts is the understanding.
The Berlin Defence is strategically very complicated opening. It is understandable, that a lot of players rather avoid it. However, this opening is very “steady”. If you play it as Black against a stronger player, you have (according to the statistics, see my article) considerably higher chance to success than in other variations.
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