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Nunc Dimittis

The Bird

On chess openings.


Recently I decided, with a group of friends, that I would spend a month in focus, trying to boost my chess ratings as much as possible. I am now, on paper, the best I have ever been. Ratings online are somewhat inflated relative to real world, over-the-board ratings, but I should be roughly good enough to try and become titled—a lengthy, arduous, and formal process that would involve spending several weekends playing tournaments in high school gyms.

I say this not to toot my own horn, but to preface the following: with the White pieces, I’ve been playing an opening that is quite bad. Chess players adopt an opening repertoire that steers the game into positions they like. It tells a lot about a player. White moves first, and presses for a small but enduring advantage in the middlegame. Black tries either to achieve equality or to create imbalances in the position that give both sides chances. At the highest levels of play, one is often advised to try and win with White and draw with Black. The one thing you are not supposed to do with White is to accept a worse position.

But in a spirit of liberality, I would like to tell you about an opening that is objectively worse for White, which leads to bad positions if countered correctly, but which I consider to be massively underrated, perhaps the most underrated opening weapon available to the hobbyist today. I am talking, of course, about the Bird-Larsen Attack.

The Bird violates several cardinal rules of opening play. Coaches say, “Never push the f pawn.” The Bird does. The Bird wastes time with multiple slow maneuvers (the travels of the b1 knight, whether c3-e2-g3-h5 or d2-f3-e5, are culpable here). These travels leave White’s king vulnerable to being attacked with tempo. And the Bird gives away White’s light-squared bishop, an essential attacking piece in many variations.

The Bird, however, has some remarkable features. First, it provokes very bad chess behavior in response. Players below a 2000 rating are typically advised not to spend too much time learning funky openings and responses. As a result, these club players tend to pick up a simple response to weird openings. The standard response to the Bird is called From’s Gambit, and From’s Gambit is abysmal. It aims to immediately punish White’s loosening move, but in practice Black gives up a pawn for an attack that is underpowered and completely theoretically unsound.

If the Bird player is not so lucky as to face From’s, he’ll tend to build up a powerful kingside attack: knights rampant in the center of the board, a bishop and the queen targeting vulnerable squares from separate lines of attack, rooks lying in wait. At its best the Bird presents White with a constant flow of puzzle-like positions: White to mate in four, White to mate in three, White to mate in two.

The Bird can be critiqued as a strain of “hope chess”: playing suboptimal moves in the hopes that they will fool your opponent into his own suboptimal moves. The opposite of hope chess might be playing “like a Russian schoolboy”: that is, choosing at every stage the advantageous simplification, the concretely calculated line, the technically pure approach. If Black responds to the Bird like a good Russian schoolboy, he will be better, much better. But the Bird is so alien, in its pawn structures and piece imbalances, that this almost never happens. Even when it does, the experienced White player will find much to like about these positions. Rather than a spiky tactical flurry, he can often steer the game into careful positional maneuvering, in which Black’s queenside pawns are a constant weakness.

I have been trying to break through to a 2300 rating, which I have never achieved. My attachment to the Bird is beginning to cost me. At 2200, one can still swindle some wins with the Bird, but at this level the players are too booked up, too literate; they don’t play From’s.

Sticking to my pledge may require further study of the Bird’s intricacies. I’ve been working from a thirty-year-old book on the Bird, which suggests some clearly suboptimal moves. But if I put the opening through a meticulous computer analysis, it may unfold itself, revealing an exquisite little trap, something that can truly rehabilitate it. It’s a romantic dream, one I hold to, especially in an age when chess openings have been optimized to death.

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Santi Ruiz is the senior editor of the Institute for Progress. He is based in New York.