Classic Game – Who you calling a ‘minor’ piece?

Classic Game - Who you calling a 'minor' piece!

Anatoly Karpov - Boris Gulko, Spain 1996

This game is included in our classic game section for many reasons:

  • Anatoly Karpov has a somewhat unfair reputation for being quite a dry, solid positional player. This game goes a long way to de-bunking this myth.

    Despite a calm start, once white had completed his development faster than his opponent, black doesn't get a moment's rest, starting with a spectacular rook sacrifice!

  • Karpov's tactical management of the resulting position is superb, uncorking pins aplenty!
  • Karpov was world champion for 10 years and is often overlooked for brilliancies, many preferring a Tal or Kasparov masterpiece but we think this deserves to be talked about!

Karpov co-ordinated his attacking forces beautifully in the middlegame

[Event "Spain 1996"] [White "Karpov, Anatoly"] [Black "Gulko, Boris"] [Site "Spain 1996"] [Result "1-0"] [Date "1996"] 1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 {The Queen's Gambit - white temporarily gives up a pawn for compensation in development and central control} 3.Nf3 a6 4.e3 e6 (4...b5 5. b3 {and white undermines black's queenside control} 5...cxb3 6. axb3 {and white gambles the material for significant lead in development and many open lines!}) 5.Bxc4 c5 {black realises white's major asset, aside from development lead is his solid centre so aims to strike it immediately} 6.O-O Nf6 7.Bb3 {A curious retreat but the move ...b5 was coming gaining time} (7. Nc3 b5 8. Be2 {passive} (8. Bb3? c4!)) 7... Nc6 8.Nc3 Be7 9.dxc5 {curious choice but white realises that he will gain the d-file by force with a small lead in development} Qxd1 10.Rxd1 Bxc5 11.Bd2 Bd7 12.Rac1 Ba7 {similarly black realises the rook on c1 will soon become active after a knight move from c3, so pre-emptively moves the bishop out of the way!} 13.Be1 {Karpov is brilliant in these kind of poisitions. A move like } (13. Ne2 {suggests itself but} 0-0 {soon equalises. Black is fully developed and will occupy the c and d files soon enough. With no pawns staking a claim in the centre, the position will fizzle out.}) Ke7 14.Na4 {threatening the bishop pair} b6 {black wants to keep that pesky knight out! This is the critical moment; a move later and black has consolidated...} 15.Rxd7+! Kxd7 (15...Nxd7 16. Rxc6 {and white has two minor pieces for the rook and a development edge}) 16.Nxb6+!! {Bang! white gives up a second piece but this erodes black's defences. A small side point is that it also creates a queenside advantage; provided that c6-knight will drop, white will have a bishop, knight and b-pawn for the rook and knight, together with owning the bishop pair and better development, Karpov shows this is a winning position!} Bxb6 17.Ba4 Kc8 {it's amazing how much peril black is in here by clinging on to the knight!} (17...Rac8 {is a natural response but falls afoul of} 18.Ne5 {utilising the pin on the c6-knight to full effect!} 18...Kd6 (18...Ke7 19. Nc6 Kd6? 20. Bb4 Kd5? (20...Kd7 21. Ne5 Kd8 22. Nf7 {is very pretty}) 21. Rd1 Ke4 22. Bc2 {is mate!})19. Nf7 Ke7 20. Nh8 {with material advantage}) 18.Ne5 {exploiting another pin! So the knight is doomed} Kb8 19.Nxc6+ Kb7 {the material is about even so Karpov now concentrates on the next phase, allowing his pieces to have optimal control, starting with an octopus!} 20.Ne5 Rac8 {Should white trade rooks? No! The point is that with reduced material, black's task is easier. With all the remaining material in play, black continues to be controlled} 21.Bc6+ Ka7 22.Nxf7 {creating a swiss cheese of pawns - Karpov knows the more endgame advantages he creates, the easier it will be to convert to the full point!} Rhf8 23.Ne5 Nd5 24.Rd1 Rfd8 25.Ba4 Ne7 26.Nd7 {How unwelcome do you think Gulko felt that knight was? It closes a file for the rook and exerts pressure in the defensive position.} Nd5 27.Kf1 Bxe3 {trying to simplify..} 28.Rxd5! (28. fxe3 Nxe3 29. Ke2 Nxd1 30. Kxd1 Rd7! 31. Bd7 Rd8 {and black is winning}) exd5 {with the knight gone the tactic doesn't work and white nets two minor pieces for a rook and a pawn, whilst maintaining control} 29.fxe3 Rc4 30.b4! {Excellent! Development and restricting the rook} Re4 31.Bc3 a5 32.a3 axb4 33.axb4 Re7 34.Ne5 {threats everywhere!} Rf8+ 35.Ke2 Kb7 36.Bc6+ Kc7 37.b5 Rf5 38.Nf3 Re4 39.h3 Ra4 40.g4 Ra2+ 41.Nd2 d4 42.Bxd4 {there's just too much control. White will march the b-pawn up the board in quick order, winning material:} (42 Bd4 Rf7 43. Bd5) (42 Bd4 Rf8 43. Bg7 Rd8 (43...Rg8 44. Bd5) 44. Bd4 {with the b-pawn advancing})
Karpov's play in this game shows a world-champions level of understanding of the value of the pieces.

Key Lessons from the Game?

We would like to focus on three particular ideas from this game which are quite instructive:
  1. Development is so important in chess!
  2. Minor pieces often outweigh a rook if they're active
  3. Pawn structure


One can understand Gulko's hesitation to let a knight into c5, this would lead to either a bishop retreat or losing the bishop pair.
Clearly Karpov didn't want him to keep the one on d7! After 14...b6, there is an unfortunate weakening of the c6 knight which makes the tactic work on d7.

After 14...Rac8 or 14...Rhd8, black develops another piece and whilst 15. Nc5 annoyingly entices 15...Bxc5 16. Rxc5, black is still very much in the game and should draw without too much difficulty.

A player of Karpov's calibre no doubt sensed the "now or never" about the position and seeing the LPDO (Loose piece dropping off) on c6, investigated the tactic repercussions of 15. Rxd7! A stunning sight and a great combination!!

Development advantages may only last 1-2 moves. No doubt Gulko planned to follow with a rook to d8 and reaching equality. This must have knocked his socks off!!

Minor Pieces having a great time!

Why has white invested a whole rook and a knight in return for a measly pawn and a light squared bishop that wasn't doing much; a loss of 4 pawns?

Karpov has brilliantly noticed that the future potential of his bishop pair and the vulnerability of the c6 knight will more than make up for his short term material loss.

The bishop pair work so well in this game and, significantly, the minor pieces prevent any decent control of the ranks and files. It's well worth going through the game to see how Karpov never allows Gulko to control even a single file with any effect!

Pawn Structure

Despite this being a technically brilliant example of tactics in full-flow, one of the key factors influencing Gulko's resignation was Karpov's pawns which could be nicely shepherded to the end of the board.

Unlike a rook v rook ending, the minor pieces are perfectly able to help support the b and e pawns to victory. The knight and two bishops cover everything.
Despite being worth only 9 points, they are completely dominant over the 10 points owned by the rook.

Normally isolated pawns are a hassle but the bishops and knight in close co-operation with the king ensure they are well guarded and a real threat.

In the final position, white's knight is eventually heading for c4 to support a b6 advance whilst the bishops can work in tandem to guard the b7-b8 march. The white king is perfectly safe.

A model game.