In the 19th century, the life of a pawn was cheap and bishops and knights were sacrificed with bravado, but since Wilhelm Steinitz taught us the art of defence, chess-players have lived in a materialistic age. Pawn, knight (or bishop), rook and queen were valued at 1, 3, 5 and 9 respectively and allowed to float around those prices only between very narrow limits.
The first devaluation came in the early 1960s when Sicilian Defence practitioners began to sacrifice rooks for knights with a pawn-structure shattering Rxc3. Even greater, however, was the effect of the Benko Gambit in the 1970s, which seemed to call into doubt the value of the most fundamental unit of all - the pawn.
After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5!? 4.cxb5 a6 Black apparently gives up his b-pawn for nothing more than an open file. But losing a pawn is always liable to gain an open file. Are pawns really nothing more than ballast, to be gladly thrown overboard to makeway for rooks?
The true justification for the sacrifice is far more subtle: while Black's rooks on the Q-side files restrain and put pressure on White's pawn majority, Black has in reserve the powerful positional idea of undermining the centre with e6 and creating his own mobile pawn majority there.
The following game, won by the young Bulgarian grand-master Veselin Topalov in the Pamplona tournament last week, is a fine demonstration of the ideal Benko strategy. When 13...Qa8 was played, White's attention was probably on the a-file rather than the long white diagonal, but with 15...e6, the plan became clear. When the centre was further loosened by 19...e5, White had no good way to save his e-pawn.
20...Qxd5! was the best move of the game, exchanging bishop for knight and leaving White's bishop, looking threatening, but in reality totally out of the game on h6. White's 27.Rxd6!? hoping for 27...Nxd6 28.Rxe8+ with at least a draw, was coolly met by 27...Rxb2!! and the sickly bishop expired soon after.
White: L. Comas Black: V. Topalov 1 d4 Nf6 20 Rd1 h6
2 c4 c5 21 Nf3 exf4
3 d5 b5 22 gxf4 Nxe4
4 cxb5 a6 23 Nd5 Qb7
5 bxa6 g6 24 Bd4 Qxd5
6 Nc3 Bxa6 25 Bxg7 Qf5
7 e4 Bxf1 26 Bxh6 Rxa2
8 Kxf1 d6 27 Rxd6 Rxb2
9 g3 Bg7 28 Rxb2 Nxd6
10 Kg2 Nbd7 29 Qc3 Qf6
11 Nf3 0-0 30 Qxf6 Nxf6
12 h3 Ra6 31 Ne5 Nfe4
13 Re1 Qa8 32 h4 c3
14 Re2 Rb8 33 Rc2 Nf5
15 Qe1 e6 34 Kf3 Nd2+ 16 dxe6 fxe6 35 Kf2 Nxh6
17 Ng5 Re8 36 Ke2 Nc4
18 f4 c4 White resigns 19 Be3 e5Reuse content