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Mysterious Backward Moves with Knights

Article by GM Avetik Grigoryan
Mysterious Backward Moves with Knights

Have you ever watched a historical movie, where two armies line up in front of each other on the battlefield, and the King suddenly shouts... 

 

“Retreat!” 

 

Then, while everyone else stays completely still, the calvary turns around, charges backward, and maneuvers itself into a better position.

 

The answer is probably not laugh

Why? Because in our life, we’re always told to “go forward” – including in historical movies where the King always shouts “Charge!” and a bloody battle follows.

 

 

However, regardless of what Hollywood tells us, sometimes the best thing to do in order to make progress is to take a step backward, regroup, and reposition.

 

The same is in chess.

 

When we start to play chess, we’re always yelled at by our coach if we make a backward move. But there will be moments in chess, when a strategic retreat is the best move, as it can be in life, or in war.

 

In his brilliant article, “Mysterious Backward Moves on Diagonals,” GM Akopian already spoke about why it’s easy to miss backward moves.

 

In this article, we’ll follow on from this by looking at mysterious backward moves with Knights.

 

I’ve prepared many interesting examples, keeping the most mysterious one until the end. But if you read the article and are hungry to learn even more about this topic, make sure to check out our Commented Classical Games and Happy Pieces courses.

 

For now, we’ll start with some examples from two World Chess Champions, Anatoly Karpov and Tigran Petrosian.

 

Karpov A. - Spassky B.  1974

 

Above is a famous example, and if you haven’t seen it before, then pause for a few minutes to think about what you’d do as White before you read on.  

 

Have you got a move in mind?

 

Remember, when you’re not sure what to do in a position, it’s important to think about how you could improve the team-play between your pieces, to recognize which pieces are not contributing much, and to find a way to bring them to better positions.

 

Karpov was very very good at this. And in the position above, he played 24.Nb1!! 

 

 

Why would Karpov make such a strange-looking move?

 

The thing is that the Knight was very limited by the pawns on e4, a4, and c6. So Karpov decided the best thing to do was to reposition it to a better place. The Knight is planning to go from d2 to c4, or from d2-f3-g5 putting pressure on the f7 pawn.
Additionally, after 24.Nb1!! White can play c3, and ask the active Knight on b4 to retreat.  

 

In the end, the game was over after 11 moves! 

 

Petrosian T. - Sax G. 1979
 

Let’s take a look at another game, this time from the great, Tigran Petrosian. 

In this position, White and Black have an equal number of pawns on either side of the board, however, White has a two Bishop advantage.

 

Take a few minutes to think about what you would play here...

 

...Iron Tigran played 16.Nb1!! 

 

 

What’s the idea? Black was planning to play 16...Rd8 and then 17...Nd4!

 

With 16.Nb1 Petrosian is going to play c3 and limit the opponent’s Knight on c6.
Why didn’t he retreat to e2? The Knight is going to c4, where it will support the pawn storm on the queenside.

 

 

Later, Petrosian masterfully converted the advantage, using his Bishops.

 

Fischer R. - Ibrahimoglu I. 1970 

 

The next example is a game from the famous, Bobby Fischer. Black has problems because the d5 and b5 squares are very weak. Also White has a two bishop advantage. 

But how can White convert these advantages into a win?  

 

I bet you already guessed the move smiley 

 

Yeah, 16.Nd2!! 

 

 

Fischer transfers his Knight to c3, after which Black’s weak squares cry from their helpless situation.

 

Okay, enough with “Nb1” examples smiley Let’s see some other mysterious backward moves with Knights...

 

 Feigins. M - Flohr S. 1937
 

Earlier, Black played f5 in order to prevent White from playing e4.

However, f5 is a very risky move, as it weakens the kingside and Black should be very careful not to allow White to play e4 in the future. 

 

If Black doesn’t allow it, the f5 pawn may become a strength and help Black to create an attack on the kingside, with a typical plan being g5 - Rf6 - Rh6. 

 

Flohr played 16...Nc6

 

 

At first glance, the b4 Knight was very active, and it was the only piece that was in the opponent’s half of the board. But now Flohr brings him back. Why?

 

As we talked about already, there’s going to be a fight for the critical e4 square.

So which of Black’s pieces is not contributing to the fight? Obviously the Queen and the Rooks – but how can they fight it? It’s simply not possible smiley

 

The question becomes, who can fight for it? The d5 Bishop and f5 Pawn are fighting, but if White mobilizes their pieces to push e4, Black will definitely need help.

 

What was the b4 Knight doing? Not much right!

Flohr didn’t just retreat the Knight from b4 to c6, but is planning to take him to b8!

And then… 

 

 

Now it becomes clear smiley All of a sudden, instead of playing a normal move like 16...Qe7, which many of us would do, Flohr found this spectacular Knight maneuver. 

Later he managed to stop White’s e4 push and created an attack on the kingside which brought him victory.

 

Konstantinopolsky A. - Zaitsev A. 1963

 

White has a two Bishop advantage and a strong center. However, they also have doubled pawns on the “c” line, and the c4 pawn is particularly weak.

What’s the move you should play? 

 

I bet, knowing the topic of the article, you’ve already guessed the move.
17.Na1!! 

 

 

The Knight is looking to transfer to the dream square of e3 where it’ll not only defend the weak pawn on c4, but also help to control White’s weak square on d5. At the same time, the Knight from e3 is ready to join the attack on the kingside if needed.

 

Now let’s look at some modern examples. 

 

Topalov V. - Ivanchuk V. 2008

In this game, there’s a French pawn structure with doubled pawns on the b line.

From one point of view, the b5 pawn is weak, but it also makes the opponent’s a3 pawn weak as well, as it prevents White’s a4 move.

 

Black can’t take on c2 because the b6 Knight hangs. And the next move White wants to play is Bb5 or Bd3, defending the c2 pawn. What should Black do?
19...Nd7! 

 


Black uses, that White can’t take the b5 pawn because of 20...Qa5+ check. 

19.Ra2 was played in the game. 
(Not 19.Bd3 because of 19...Nc5) 

 

What should be played next? 

 

 

20...Nb8!! 

 

The Knight goes to c6, asking White’s Queen on d4, who was doing a fantastic job, to retreat. Additionally White should be careful of 21...Nb4! 

 

21. 0-0 Nc6  

 

For example if here 21.Qf2, Black has 21...Nb4! 
21.Qd2 Qb6! 

 

Before proposing the exchange of Queens, it is useful to drive the White King far away from the center. 

 

22.Kh1  Qa5! 

 

 

White is almost forced to exchange Queens under unfavorable circumstances.

 

If White plays 24.Qd3, 24.Qd1 or 24.Qe3, in all the cases, 24...Nb4! is coming.

 

24.Qa5 Ra5 was played in the game, after which White had big problems with their a3 pawn (Rca8 is coming) and their c2 pawn.

Later, Ivanchuk converted the advantage into a win.  

 

Bologan V. (2732) - Wang Hao (2739) 2012
 

Another example from the game Bologan vs Wang Hao.

16.Na1!!

 

White prepares 17.b4 with the idea of Nb3 and then c5. 

16...a5 

 

Black tries to prevent White’s plan. But they pay a price – they weaken the b5 square. 

17.Nc2!

 

 

The Knight changes its route. It goes to b5, where it’ll be untouchable and will put big pressure on Black’s d6 weak pawn.

Later, Bologan won a nice game on move 49.

 

Minasian A. - Mateo R. 2000
 

On the board is a “French” pawn structure. Black couldn’t manage to solve the problem of the “bad French Bishop”, while White managed to block the important d4 square.

 

How would you continue? What plan would you choose?  

 

In our Happy Pieces course, I always say that whenever you’re not sure what to do next, think about which of your pieces is not very happy. In this case, it’s easy to notice, that our Knight is limited by Black’’s pawns. 

 

So, let’s transfer it to a better place. But where? 
Where Black has a weak square of course – to f6! 

 

Okay, the first question is answered. Now the 2nd one. How? smiley

 24.Nh1!! 

 

 

The Knight transfers to a dream square, after which Black’s h8 rook should stay in order to defend the h7 pawn, which will give White a big advantage on the other side of the board. 

 

GM Minasian won the game after 18 moves. 

 

Anand V. - Morozevich A. 2007

White has weaknesses on the kingside and Black has a weakness in the center – the d5 square.

However, White’s Knight has more potential than Black’s Bishop.  

Potential? Good word. It means right now, on b3 it’s not doing much. 

 

What did Anand play here?
23.Nc1!! 

 

 

The Knight goes to its dream square of d5. 
23...Rcf8 24.a3! Kh8 25.Na2 Qh3 26. Rg3 Qh5 27.Qg2! Rh4 28.h3 Qh6

 

 

Now it seems that, finally, it’s time to bring the Knight to d5 from c3 or b4. 

However, Black’s Queen left her position and went to the kingside, which Anand immediately uses! 
29.Rb3! 

 

 

Now it’s unclear how Black can defend the queenside. 

 

If 29...Rb8 then after 30.Nb4 White is going to exploit the pin, taking on a6, and none of Black’s pieces can defend the b8 rook as there are not moves like Rf8 or Qf8.  
29...b5 30.Nb4! 

 

 

Now the Knight transfers to d5, while at the same time, attacking the a6 pawn.

How can you defend it? If 30...a5 31.Nd5 then both – the Bishop on e7 and the b5 Pawn are hanging. 

If 30...Ra8 31.Nd5 Bf8 32.Rc3 then Rc7 will give White a big advantage! 

 

Unsurprisingly, White won the game on move 56.  

 

 

Now for the finalé, I want to show you the most mysterious backward move with the knight I have ever seen. 

 

The position could occur in the game Piket J. - Kasparov G.  

Kasparov is all-in. He’s a Rook and a piece down. If he doesn’t manage to find a checkmate, he’ll lose.  

 

Kasparov, in his book, shows a move that is unbelievable – one that even modern engines can’t find. 

Before reading further, try to guess the move. 

 

You have 10 chances. Write down 10 different moves, and see if you can guess the correct one. 

 

Kasparov plays 30...Nh8!! 

 

 

What?! Myself, I was very confused when I saw this move for the first time. 

Black is all-in, their only chance is to attack, and now the attacking piece goes backward? The idea of this move is that Black prepares 31...Rf6 with Rh6 and then goes for checkmate with Qh2 or Qh1. 

 

 

Suddenly White has no satisfactory defense against this idea. If 31.g5 – not allowing Rf6, then 31...Rg7 with Rg5. 

White’s only way to survive after 30...Nh8!! is to give their Queen. 

 

31.Qd2 Rf6 32.Qf4 ef4 33.Ng2 (The knight on f4 was not allowing this move.)  Rh6 

34.Be1 Qh2 35.Kf2 

 

 

White still has a material advantage. They have 3 pieces against the Queen.

But now follows another strong move. 
35...Nf7!  

 

 

The Knight goes to h3, and White’s kingside is collapsing. 
That’s why, in order to have at the end of variation 35...Nf7!!, Black played 30...Nh8!! earlier and not 30...Nf8 in the initial position. 

 

Also, let me mention that Black couldn’t play 30...Rf6 too, because of 31.g5! 

So it was 30...Nh8!! – an incredible move, which Kasparov shows this in his book. 


***
 

I remember as a kid when I was analyzing this game, that the best engine at the time was “Fritz6”! smiley I turned on the engine at move 30...Nh8, because I couldn’t believe my eyes. However, the engine also couldn’t believe its eyes! laugh

It was just showing, that White is winning in many ways. But it’s not just Fritz 6, even modern engines go crazy. 

 

Here it is on my computer:

 

 

If you leave it to think for a while, nowadays, engines will eventually understand that Black is winning. But it still takes an advanced cloud engine a while to figure it out.

 

So, how could Kasparov find such a mysterious move? I don’t know… 

 

The book, where I found this 30...Nh8 move is written in 1985!  It’s called “The Test Of Time”.
I highly recommend you to read it if your rating is 2,000+

 

 

Summary 

 

Sometimes the best way to move forward is to go backward first. 

But given everything you’ve been taught in chess, and in life, it’s often very hard to realize.

 

For more examples about maneuvering your pieces to the best squares, be sure to check out our course, Happy Pieces.

 

 

P.S. Feel free to share your thoughts about this article in our forum and don’t hide your amazement of Kasparov’s Nh8 move!  

 

Article by GM Avetik Grigoryan