This old move, favored by Steinitz although it did not bring him success in his famous 1891 cable match against Chigorin, is a rare guest on top level games. The Steinitz Variation was mostly forgotten until Fischer revived it in the 1960s. English GM Nigel Short, a former world chess challenger, led a second revival of 9.Nh3 in the 1990s, and today it is thought to be about equal in strength to the more common 9.Nf3.
White is not afraid of worsening his pawn structure, after 9… Bxh3 10.gxh3, because he gets the bishop-pair and control of the half-open g-file.
On 9...Bf5, Steinitz gave the continuation 10.0–0 Qd7 11.Re1 Bxh3 12.gxh3 Qxh3 13.Bf1 Qg4+? 14.Qxg4 Nxg4 15.h3, winning for White.
Against 9... g5, White gets the advantage, according to English GM John Nunn, after 10.d3 g4 11.Ng1 Bc5 12.Nc3 Qb6 13.Na4!
Black’s standard choices 9… Bc5 and 9… Bd6 have been busted in practice—the former move by Fischer and the latter by Short. Here is how they did it.
Black continues with 9… Bc5
Against Radoicic, Poughkeepsie 1963, Fischer continued with 10.d3! 0–0 11.Nc3 Re8 12.0–0 Bxh3 13.gxh3 Qd7 14.Bg4 Nxg4 15.hxg4, with the advantage for White.
After 10... g5 11.Kh1 g4 12.Ng1 Ne4 13.Bxg4! Nxf2+ 14.Rxf2 Bxf2, White has a slight edge according to H. Gottschall.
If 11... Nd5, then 12.c4 Ne7 13.Kh1 Bxh3 14.gxh3 Nf5 15.f4 exf4 16.Bxf4 Ne3 17.Bxe3 Bxe3 18.Nc3, White is winning as in Steinitz-Chigorin, Habana WCH(6) 1892.
12.gxh3 Qd7 13.Bf3
13.Bg4?! Nxg4 14.hxg4 f5, with the initiative to Black; 13.Kg2 needs to be tried in practice.
13... Qxh3 14.Nd2
The careless 14.Bg2 is met by 14… Qh4! 15.Qe1 Rfe8! 16.Qxa5 Ng4 17.h3 Bxf2+ 18.Rxf2 Qxf2+ 19.Kh1 e4! 20.hxg4 exd3, wins for Black.
14...Rad8 15.Bg2 Qf5 16.Qe1 Rfe8 17.Ne4 Bb6 18.Nxf6+Qxf6 19.Kh1 c5 20.Qc3! Nc6 21.f4 Nd4 22.Qc4! Qg6 23.c3 Nf5 24.fxe5 Rxe5 25.Bf4.
Here instead of 25… Re2, as in the game Fischer-Bisguier, Poughskeepie 1963, won by White in 29 moves, Black should continue with 25… Ne3 26.Bxe3 Rxe3, with equal chances due to opposite colored bishop. Still Fischer, known for his dogged determination to win and capacity to obtain the maximum from any position, he will certainly pursue a win because all major pieces are still on the board.
Black continues with 9… Bd6
The move suggested by Steinitz himself.
This is Short’s preferred move since Chigorin’s 10.d4 is effectively countered by Fischer’s 10...e4, when Black is okay.
10… 0–0 11.Nc3 Nd5
Against 11... Rb8?! Short has tried two different continuations:
a) 12.Bf3 Qc7 13.Ng1 (The important factor is time, if White can finish his development he is a healthy pawn up and the knight on a5 is out of play.) 13... c5 14.Nge2 c4 15.Ng3 Rd8 16.0–0 Bf8 17.Qe2 cxd3 18.cxd3 Ba6 19.Rd1 Nc6 20.Bxc6 Qxc6 21.Qxe5 Bd6 22.Qe2 Re8 23.Be3 Bb7 24.Nge4, White is clearly ahead as in Short-Mitkov, EU-chT Batumi 1999; and
b) 12.0–0 Rb4 13.Kh1! Bxh3 14.gxh3 Rh4 15.Rg1 Rxh3 16.Rg3 (Short-P.Nikolic, Skelleftea 1989) 16... Rxg3 17.hxg3, with a slight advantage to White.
There are more thickets of variations here.
12.Bf3?! Nxc3! 13.bxc3 Qh4
12.Ne4 Bc7 13.c4 13.0–0?! allows Black a direct assault against the white king.
a) 14.0–0!? Bxh3 15.gxh3 Qxh3 16.Bg2 Qh4, wins back the material with some attacking chances, although the knight on a5 remains pitiable to look at;
b) 14.Ng1 is already too slow.
b1) 14...f5 15.g3 Qf6 16.Ne2 e4 17.Bg2 Ba6 18.0–0 Rad8 19.Be3 c5, with compensation as in Tringov-Geller, Capablanca memorial Havana 1971;
b2) 14...Rb8 15.g3 Qa4 16.Bg2 f5 17.Nf3? e4 18.Nd4 c5 19.Ne2 Ba6, with the advantage to Black as in Paoli-Matanovic, Zagreb 1964. Better was 17.Ne2.
a) 13... f5 14.Ng3 Qh4 15.Kh1 Be6 16.Bd2 Nb7 17.Bf3 Rad8 18.Qe1 g5! 19.Ng1 g4, Black has the advantage as in Paoli-Lengyel, Kecskemet 1972;
b) 13... Ne7 14.0–0 f5!? 15.Nc3, as in Kamsky-Jussupow, Tilburg 1992. Here Beliavsky suggested 15... f4!?, giving up the vital square e4 but continuing the attack on the kingside. After 16.Kh1 Nf5 17.Ng1 Nd4 18.Nf3 Bf5, Black has compensation.
a) 13.Qc1 Bxh3 14.gxh3 Nf4 15.Rg1 f5 16.Bf1 c5 White's king is still in the middle. 17.Bg2 Nxg2+ 18.Rxg2, is unclear as in Bobkov-Korelov, corr 1975;
b) 13.Rb1!? Nb7 14.Ng1 Both players improve their knight's position.
b1) 14... Nf4 15.Bxf4 exf4 16.Bf3 Bb4 17.Nge2 Qa5 The pin on the a5-e8 diagonal is rather nasty. 18.Qd2 Re8 19.0–0 Bd7! 20.a3 Rxe2 21.axb4 Rxd2 22.bxa5 Rxc2 23.Ne2 Nc5, is unclear according to Beliavsky;
b2) 14... f5!? 15.Nf3 Qe7 Black has an active position and a strong center for the pawn. 16.d4 e4 17.Ne5 Bxe5 18.dxe5 Qxe5 19.Nxd5 cxd5 20.Be3 f4 21.Bd4 Qe7, with an attack.
b3) 14... Nc5 Ivanchuk-Beliavsky, Dortmund 1998.
12... Qh4!? wins back the material but gives up the bishop-pair for a very passive knight. 13.Kh1 Bxh3 14.gxh3 Qxh3 15.Rg1 e4 16.Rg2 exd3 17.Qxd3 Qxd3 18.Bxd3 Nf4 19.Bxf4 Bxf4 20.Ne4 Be5 21.Rb1 Nb7 22.b4, as in Lalic-Jonkman, Ubeda open 2001. Now Black should play 22... Nd6, with equality.
13.Kh1 Nxc3 14.bxc3 Be6 15.f4 Bxh3 16.gxh3 exf4 17.Bxf4 c5 18.Qd2 Rb6? 19.Be3! Qh4 20.Bg4 Kh7 21.Rf5.
White has excellent attacking chances on the kingside on account of his active bishop-pair and the g-file. Short –Wedberg, Malmo 2002 concluded as follows: 21... Qe7 22.Rg1 Re8 23.Bxh6! Black is kaput! 23... g6 24.Bg5 Qb7+ 25.Bf3 Qd7 26.Rd5 Qe6 27.h4! Reb8 28.h5! Rb1 29.hxg6+ fxg6 30.Be3 Nc6 31.Rdg5 Rxg1+ 32.Rxg1 Ne5 33.Be4 Qh3 34.Qe2 Rf8 35.d4 Qh4 36.Bg5 Rf2 37.Bxh4 Rxe2 38.dxe5 Bxe5 39.Bxg6+ Kh6 40.Bg3 Bxg3 41.Rxg3 1–0
Black, if he wants more than equality, has to look elsewhere on move 5. The line arising from 5… Na5 may be good enough at club level but not at the top level.
The Chess Connoisseur hastens to add that the second player must also be ready against a White divergence on move four, like 4.d4.
We hope this series provides direction to serious players in preparing for and against the Two Knights Defense. The analyses of the particular lines featured in this series are not meant to be exhaustive.
The general idea enunciated here may be applied in other chess openings as well.
The Chess Connoisseur acknowledges and appreciates the various sources used in the preparation of this series.