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On the importance of pattern recognition in attacking chess

The number of possible moves and move orders in a chess game is so large that it is impossible for a human being to simply learn them all. Chess skill, therefore, relies on pattern recognition to compensate for the inability to memorize. That means that chess players who are referred to as “good”, or “better” than others, most likely simply have a larger library of chess patterns stored in their conscious or subconscious memory, which they are then able to call upon when a familiar situation arises on the board.

That is why analyzing games or solving tactics makes us better. Not because we will solve that exact checkmate next time, but because we will be able to recognize the pattern we’ve used to solve it, a part of it, or we will simply be able to subconsciously think of a similar idea because the piece constellation resembles something we’ve encountered before, the pawn structure around the opponent’s king is weak in the same way, or something else our minds have decided to store.

That is why we need to program our brain to be able to tell the important from the less important, or useless information. A great book has been written in which the topic of learning and “unlearning” in chess is discussed in an eye-opening fashion – “Chess for Zebras” by Jonathan Rowson. I would advise anyone interested in the topic to look it up.

The Greek Gift sacrifice is a pattern which is easily recognizable. The features of the position which make it possible are easily spotted or even arranged, and it occurs very frequently. It is therefore vital that we force our brain to store it somewhere where we will be able to find it in seconds if the need for it arises during a game.

Numerous attacking, defensive, endgame, and even opening patterns should be treated in the same fashion, and it is very useful to be able to tell which ones are important and which are not. I hope that you will be able to apply what I wrote below to different patterns in your own games or in the games you analyze. I believe that is the fastest way to improve at chess.

Stjepan Tomić is a strong player and famous youtuber with his Hanging Pawns channel. His goal is to become a Grandmaster and to share his new Chess knowledge with the community.

What is the Greek Gift ?

“Timeo danaos et dona ferentes.” – Aeneid II.49

Sacrificing a piece with Bxh7 (or Bxh2 for black), is a game changing move – most often it wins, loses, or leads to a forced draw. In any case, after it’s played, you are not playing a normal game anymore. It is one of the most famous attacking patterns, and often leads to short, brilliant wins.

In this article, I will go over the features of the position in which these sacrifices are possible and efficient, the pieces which must be involved in order for them to work, the common attacking plans after the sacrifice is accepted or declined, as well as the defensive resources at the defender’s disposal.

There will be four articles. The first one (this one !) goes over each crucial protagonist in the Greek gift, explaining its role and duties, and the defensive resources at the defender’s disposal. In it, I have used a very basic position with “ideal” conditions for the sacrifice to work.

In the second article, more complex examples and patterns follow – those more likely to occur in real games with Bxh7+. While you go over part two, set up a board and follow the game moves and annotations yourself. That will benefit you most. The third one will detail advanced Bxh7+ patterns.

Finally, in the last article you can find a series of practical exercises about Bxh7+ which you can solve and analyze to practice what you’ve learned !

Setting up the Greek gift

We will use it to describe how and why the sacrifice works, and which pieces take part in a successful attack. In the diagram, after black has castled, white’s best move is to take on h7 with check ! The reason why giving up a piece works is very simple: black will be unable to defend against a deadly attack if he accepts it, and he will be checkmated or have to lose the queen, and if he declines, he will be forced to give up a decisive amount of material and lose anyway. To explain why that is so, we will look at each piece that takes part in this operation separately.

There are other setups in which the sacrifice is possible, albeit far less often, most commonly involving a white knight on e5 instead of the pawn. We will discuss them later on.

The pieces used are, therefore, essential elements required to perform the Greek gift. When the below described constellation is on the board, look for Bxh7! There are differently positioned pieces that can take part in the Greek gift, can make it more powerful, or create patterns similar to it, but the ones described below are used in the majority of such sacrifices.

Features in the White Position

The d3 bishop

More importantly, it serves to drag the king out into the open where it can be harassed by white’s remaining forces. The same idea will, of course, work even if the bishop is on c2, b1, or (unlikely) e4, f5 or g6. What’s important is that it can reach h7.

The f3 knight

Restricting the defender’s king is essential, and the knight is the one piece that does most work !

The c1 bishop

This bishop, even though it seldom has an active role in the attack, is an essential part of the clockwork.

The queen

The whole thing would be worthless without your strongest piece coming in to deliver the deadly blow. Once the bishop is taken and the knight has come to g5, either dragging the king out to g6, or forcing it back to h8 or g8, the queen is deployed to the kingside.

Secondly, white is preparing to use his last attacker, the deadly h pawn ! I will not describe the pawn in this introduction as it’s not essential for the Greek gift to work, but note that the h pawn is often the decisive factor in such positions.

There are of course numerous nuances to this attacking pattern, and some of them we will go over in the rest of the article, but the four attacking pieces described above are the essential forces used in a Bxh7 sacrifice.

Now let’s look at the features in the black position which are a necessary prerequisite for a Greek gift. Having your four attackers in perfect positions will not be enough. You will need black’s help to hand him a Trojan horse !

Features in the Black Position

Black has castled kingside

This may seem redundant, but keep in mind that the sacrifices don’t work if the king is still in the center.

Undefended h7 square

The usual defender of h7 is a knight on f6.

Indefensible h7 square and the b1-h7 diagonal

This may seem like the same thing, but it’s not. The defender must be unable to defend the light squared diagonal in order for the Greek gift to work. This is easily visible in the example position below which comes from a French Defense.

No control over the f6 square

Black may seem foolish to allow this, but it’s a sound concession in many openings. The fact that black is unable to come to f6 is key because otherwise a simple move like Nf6 would defend against all white threats.

Now let’s have a look at how the Greek gift works in practice. We will again use the above position as an example. After black makes a crucial mistake and castles, white is winning. Here is how to perform the sacrifice.

We will be considering black’s good and bad defensive resources, because various resources will work in different types of positions and it’s important to remember them when defending, and when attacking.

The Steps of the Attack

Step 1: Bxh7

Below I will show you what happens if the bishop is not taken.

Step 2: Ng5+

Black has four options. Let us refute the three immediately losing moves first.

King to g8 or h8

King to h6

King to g6

This is the most resistant move. As we are going to see, in less ideal circumstances for a Greek gift, this is often the move that gives black a winning position !

White has two ways to attack. Other moves are, of course possible, even here, but more so in different but similar positions. The two described below are the most common.

Step 3: Queen to g4 or pawn to h4

First possibility: Queen to g4

Continuing with Qg4 is the most straightforward way.

There are two defenses for black. The simple but losing one is to give up the queen on g5. That avoids a checkmate but is a losing material disadvantage.

By playing f5, black is simply threatening to win the queen if the knight moves. Secondly, and more importantly, once the g5 knight moves, the king will have access to the f7 square, often a safe haven.

Black really has no good options against h4.

Second possibility: h4

Continuing with h4 instead of Qg4 is more precise in this exact position, but is a less common continuation in the majority of Greek gifts.

That being said, there is no real defense to h4 even with perfect play.

Now let’s look at what happens if black refuses the sacrifice. Note that in some positions that will be the only way to avoid a forced mate or the loss of the queen, so always take it into consideration when contemplating Bxh7.

Black plays King to h8

The only other sensible defense is g6. If you don’t know how to deal with this defense, black could easily get out of this mess alive! So let’s see how white should proceed.

This example was the perfect scenario for a Bxh7 sacrifice. In most games, black will not be this helpful, and white will have to work much harder to win. Here are some additional examples of the Bxh7+ sacrifice.

Here there are two very important things to highlight. Remember both tips and keep them in mind during your games.

Tip 1: Patterns like h4 and h5 for white, or f5 and g6-Kg7 as a defense for black will always be useful resources in Greek gift sacrifice positions, even if the position is not identical. Always consider them as candidate moves. The same goes for every other pattern I will mention in the rest of the article. I would advise you to make a shortlist of them to make them more memorable.

Tip 2: A Greek gift will always have to be calculated. NEVER capture on h7 just because you have a bishop on d3, a knight on f3, and a pawn on e5 (or any other combination of pieces mentioned above). Even if everything seems perfect, every position is unique, and there may be specific uncommon defenses black could surprise you with. Exact calculation is, therefore, necessary before committing to giving up a piece.

Conclusion

This overview should give you already a good feeling of the Greek Gift positions. You have seen the main typical ideas for both sides:

  • With White, the move Ng5+, the Queen move to h5, g4, or d3, and the pawn push h2-h4-h5 are standard moves to be calculated every time.
  • With Black, firstly you have to decide to capture on h7 or not. Then the King move to g6 or g7, and especially the pawn push f7-f5 are thematic defensive resources.

Now you are ready to check more advanced resources:

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