In his famous book (50 selected games), the great Danish GM Bent Larsen points out that backward moves on diagonals are especially difficult to see. And indeed, as we will see, even strong players are prone to miss or have difficulties with this unusual maneuver.
Why is it so? Well, the explanation seems to be relatively simple. When playing chess, players are usually trying to move forward, to press, and to attack. But in contrast with most other sports, backward moves can often be much stronger than the forward ones, and in some cases, can even force immediate resignation.
Only two pieces are capable of such backward diagonal moves: the Queen and the Bishops. And it’s about this topic; we’ll talk today.
In this famous theoretical position, Black was deciding between 11... Bc5 and 11...Qb8. I happened to be at the board when Karpov took a long thought. "What is he thinking about?" I wondered. "Probably 11...Bd6? But then 12.Qd1 wins on the spot!" At this exact moment, Karpov played 11...Bd6 and resigned after 12.Qd1! as Black can’t defend the double attack on the Bishop and the Knight.
In this game between Carlsen and Topalov, White threatens 1.Qh7+ Kf8 2.Qh8 winning the Knight. If Black plays 1...Kf8 then after 2.Nh7 Kg8 3.Nf6 they lose the Queen.
If 1...Qd5 2.f3 Qd2 3.Kh3, then Black has no more checks.
Not finding a defense, Topalov resigned.
But he could have played 1...Qd5 2.f3 e5! 3.Qh7 Kf8 4. Qh8 Qg8!
A move that Topalov missed.
Black is a Pawn up, and the logical continuation of the game would be 5.Nh7 Kf7 6.Ng5 with perpetual checks.
Here Carlsen played 1.Bf4 trying to trap the opponent’s Rook on f3.
If Black takes 1...R8f4 2.gf4 Nf4 it looks like there is no defense against 3...Qg2
If 3.Rg1 then 3...Qh2!! with 4.Kh2 Rh3 checkmate.
However, White has 3.Ra8+ and after 3...Kh7 of 3...Kf7 follows 4.Ng5+, winning the Queen.
What did Carlsen miss?
The backward move with the Bishop!
After 3...Bf8 White can resign.
However, Aronian also missed 3...Bf8 in his calculations and played 1...Bc3 instead of the winning move 1...R8f4!
This position happened in the World Championship match when Alekhine missed a chance to win the game instantly.
After 1.Qf1!! suddenly there is no defense against 2.g3 Qh5 3.g4 Qh4 4.Nf3, and the Queen is trapped.
If 1...Nh5, with the plan to save the Queen by retreating along the d8-h4 diagonal, then after 2.g4! White wins the Knight, as Black can’t play 2...Nf6 because of 3.Nf3, and the Black Queen leaves the board.
It’s very tough to think about mysterious moves like these, and there are many examples when they were completely missed during games.
However, with good focus, it’s perfectly possible to find such moves.
It may seem that Black is a Pawn up, and is doing fine, but Tal, as always, comes up with a genius plan…
Tal uses the opponent’s back-rank weakness to win the Bishop.
If Black plays 1...Bc3 then after 2. Rb8 Rb8 3.Bg5!
A two-fold threat. Black loses the Queen, and soon Tal won the game.
After 1.Qe2 Black could take the c3 pawn and the Queen as well - 1...Qc3.
But then comes another tricky backward move...
2.Bc1!! and Black loses the Bishop because after 2...Bc1 3.Rb8 Rb8 they will get checkmated after 4.Qe8!
Black’s Knight on h6 is almost trapped at the corner of the board, but if they play 1...Kh8 and then 2...Ng8, they’ll be okay.
However, Timman found an excellent move that wins the game.
1.Qc1!! - a backward move with the Queen.
Now White is threatening 2.Bd2 and 2.Ne6!
Black played 1...e5 2.Bd2 ed4. Now White can’t win the Knight on h6, because at the end of the variation, the c5 Knight hangs.
In the game followed another nice backward move 3.Nd3!!
Now Black can’t defend their Knight on h6.
Three nice backward moves 1.Qc1! 2.Bd2! and 3.Nd3! – Black resigned.
In this game, Knaak noticed a nice tactic.
1.Qh6! Rd3 2.Qd6! and both threats 3.Qxb8 and 3.Qg3+ are not possible to rebuff.
White has a significant advantage due to its two Bishop advantage. But can they win the game instantly?
1.Qe7 would be a cool move, if not 1...Qc1 and Black checkmates.
1. Qc4!? is another option. It looks like White wins, but Black has a nice defense 1...Nd5!
The only winning move in the position above is a very strange backward move - 1.Bb2!!
White defends their Bishop and the c1 square. Now what’s following is 1.Qe7 or 1.Qc4 and Black has no defense. If 1...Ne8 then 2.Qe8! Qe8 3.Bf6 – checkmate.
Now for the finale, I’ll show you an example from my game.
If I play 1.Nc2, trying to win a Pawn by using the pinned Knight, my opponent would play 1...Na2 and my Queen would also hang. If I make a move with my Queen he can play 2...Nb4 back.
But then I noticed 1. Nc2 Na2 3.Qa1!!
The killing retreat! Black loses a piece, because after 3...Nb4 4.Bb4 ab4 I can take the Bishop on a6.
Psychologically, it’s not very easy to consider backward moves even though they can be the difference between winning and losing games. If you want to improve your play, keep them in mind when calculating tricky positions.
P.S. Have you noticed this when analyzing any of your own games? Be sure to share your thoughts and takeaways from this article in our forum.