I’ll be playing again in the US Chess League this fall, and partly because I want to avoid the debacle that was my play last year, and partly because I have some time now, I cracked open a chess book again. (It’s really mostly because I want to try and do better, but having time also helps.)
I had bought How Karpov Wins a few years back from Moe’s Books in Berkeley for $6. Towards the end of my time on the fellowship, I began studying the games in this book, but I didn’t make it too far.
Now, about 3 years since I last seriously studied, I decided to try again with the book. The games aren’t annotated too deeply, eschewing most variations for pretty general remarks, many of which add nothing in my view. As an example, here’s a game between Estevez and Karpov from 1972 (full game is here, if you want):
White didn’t do too much in the opening and Mednis lets the position go by without any remarks. But playing through the game, I was wondering, can’t Black just play 13…d5 here? I thought maybe there’s something between the Rc1 and Qc7, but there are simply too many pieces in the way. The computer agrees as well, giving …d5 as objectively best with clear equality.
Instead, Karpov played 13…Bd7 and maneuvered behind his pawns for a while. It’s not hard to note …d5 as an option, and Mednis could even have worked it into his pre-built narrative because Karpov avoided straight equalizers on a couple occasions to keep more pieces on the board. Objectively, that shouldn’t have worked out as by move 25 or so, he was much worse, but his weaker opponent didn’t quite handle the position properly and he escaped to rough equality.
This time, Mednis does make some comments, but the substance of them seems totally off. Instead, they’re tailored to fit the general narrative. White played 31.Rf2 here, which Mednis gives a question mark to, but it actually isn’t terrible. What was bad was the follow-up after 31…b4 32.Nb5 Bxb5 33.cxb5 Re7, when White passively played 34.Be2 Qa8 35.Bd3 Nxd3 36.Qxd3 e5. Then Black dominated White’s bishop and the b5-pawn. But if he left the e-file open for a rook, his position wouldn’t have been so bad. Meanwhile, 31.cxb5 is also pretty decent and equal.
Still, Karpov is Karpov and the games themselves have a lot of content. The title of this post is from a subsequent game against Tukmakov. In the notes to the opening (a Ruy Lopez – Breyer Variation), Mednis mentions a variation with 12.c5 Qc7 13.cxd6 Bxd6 14.Bg5. What struck me then was that the structure resembled a typical Semi-Slav structure that can be seen after some 6.Bd3 Merans and the 6.Qc2 Anti-Meran (a6/b5/c6, Bd6, Qc7, Nf6, Nd7, e5, etc).
In fact, after Mednis’s continuation of 14…exd4 15.Bxf6 gxf6 16.Qxd4 Ne5, we get the following position:
This has apparently been tested in a bunch of games, with Fischer amongst others playing the White side. The evaluation, according to Mednis, was dynamic equality. But I was reminded of another theoretical Meran position from around 2008 – 2010 in a line that had caused Black troubles:
Black’s arrangement is virtually the same in both cases! White’s setup is different to be sure, but not ridiculously so. And the position a few moves before (before …exd4) is a very plausible Semi-Slav.
This connection completely blew my mind.
Again, here’s the initial Breyer position:
And here’s the initial Meran position:
And here’s that Breyer Lopez just 6 moves later, from a variation that began being tested at the top 50 years ago:
I knew about the Ruy Lopez leading to some Benoni- and King’s Indian-like structures, but the Semi-Slav? C’mon man!
I never felt comfortable in Semi-Slav line that leads to this possibility, so I was always looking for ways to avoid it but still fight for equality. Had I known that there were a lot of model games to be had from a Breyer Ruy Lopez, I would definitely have checked this out!
Amusingly, when I excitedly mentioned this to a GM friend who plays the Breyer and some 1.d4, as I was rattling off the moves and before I could get to saying “it’s really a Meran!”, he beat me to the punch. So clearly the experts know what’s up, and I’m a bit late to the party.
Either way, this is still pretty amazing in my book.