After looking at the basic setup making Bxh7+ possible in the introduction to the Bxh7+ Greek Gift, we can look at more advanced examples of Bxh7 sacrifices.
The simplest and most common positions in which it’s possible to give up a bishop are those with a white pawn on e5.
They will most often come from the French Defense, but can occur from most openings in which the e pawn is not exchanged. The important thing is that by advancing the pawn to e5, white has forced the black knight away from f6, and restricted the c8 bishop.
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.
A first example
Here is a blitz game of mine, for the first example. It was played in the Exchange variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined (albeit a weird one since my opponent took on d5 with the knight). I wanted to show it to emphasize the difference between ideal positions and what actually happens in games most of the time.
The moves following the Bxh7+ sacrifice are explained in my introduction to the Bxh7+ Greek Gift.
I am playing white here. This position should be very familiar by now. I played a very normal continuation after Bxh7, and my opponent played the best defensive moves. But. This position is equal ! White is not winning here! I knew that before giving up the bishop, but I knew that I had ample compensation for the piece and I have a lot of experience in such positions, so anything could happen. What is different to the ideal position we have seen before ?
These three major differences make this position much easier to defend. Normal plans of h4-h5 simply don’t work here. Black should simply continue with Rh8, challenging the open h file, accepting a harmless check with Nxe6. The queen is not on d8, so white doesn’t win decisive material.
So why go for the Greek gift if the two factors mentioned above are in black’s favor (connected rooks and no white bishop on c1) ? Tricks ! Often these positions will not be possible to calculate until a certain win. The defender is human, so most often they will make mistakes. It is much easier to attack than to defend !
In the above game, my opponent went badly wrong and lost quickly. Here is how. Instead of Rh8, he played Kh6??, trying to escape a discovered check. That was a losing blunder. White is now winning by force. It is checkmate in six moves.
Was the decision to sacrifice on h7 incorrect then ? That is a philosophical question really. I knew that I don’t have a forced win, but I also knew that it is very likely that my opponent will make a mistake.
Miguel A Quinteros vs Yasser Seirawan, 1985 Biel Interzonal
This game was played in 1985, in one of the most important tournaments, the World Championship cycle. The stakes were high, and it surely wasn’t an easy decision to give up a piece !
We will start in the position after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 Bb4+ 4. Bd2 c5 5. Bxb4 cxb4 6. Nbd2 O-O 7. e4 d6 8. Bd3 Qc7 9. O-O Nbd7 10. c5 dxc5 11. e5 Nd5.
Conditions for the sacrifice
All things considered, the only difference to a “perfect” Greek gift position is the absence of the c1 bishop. Is that enough for black to defend?
TIP: Count the pros and cons before sacrificing ! Always consider these:
- Does white have a bishop on the b1-h7 diagonal, a queen able to come to d3/g4/h5/f3 once the f3 knight moves, and can the knight come to g5? This one is a must!
- Does white have a pawn on e5, or is the black knight just away from f6? If it can come back, the defense is simpler!
- Is the c8 bishop cut off from the black kingside? This is easiest to see by looking at whether black has a pawn on e6 or not.
- is the black queen unable to defend h7 on the next move?
- Are the black rooks disconnected?
- Does white have a dark squared bishop controlling the c1-h6 diagonal?
TIP: If all of the above is true, then the sacrifice works by force ! If one of the above is false, then things get complicated and calculation is required. Whether Bxh7 works will depend on numerous factors, but this is still the simplest way to try and determine that without actual calculation.
White took. I would bet that he couldn’t see all the way until a forced win, but he went for it anyway, knowing that white will be equal at least with correct play by black, but that black is the one who can go wrong and lose in a couple of moves.
How the game went
Black played f4! Everything else loses on the spot.
The idea behind f5-f4 is to simply take the queen if Nxe6, so white had to adjust and change plans.
Let us assess the resulting position. It is clear that white can soon win the piece back with exf6. But it is also visible that black has been through the worst. He is neither getting checkmated nor losing his queen.
Where did White go wrong ?
It is still unclear, and good defense will have to be employed, but black has definitely refuted the sacrifice. Why is that ? What has gone wrong ? Was the sacrifice unsound ?
To answer that, I will try to highlight the importance of this game as a perfect example of an “unclear” Greek gift, the type of Bxh7 sacrifice that occurs most often. The sacrifice was sound. It was the best move, but not by much ! With perfect play, white could have held on to a +2-3 advantage. But with only one slipup, he could have blundered it away.
Luckily for Mr. Seirawan, the latter happened.
Solution: The mistake was 19. Nxf6??, releasing the tension in the position and trading off one of his attacking pieces.
In the game, black went on to win with his extra material without too much trouble.
Even though the Greek gift was refuted in this game, we can conclude that the sacrifice was sound nonetheless! Quinteros made the right choice and went for it. He must have known that he is better if he takes, but he surely risked because he can’t have known whether it will work or not !
So the conclusion here is very “useless” in a way: If you can’t calculate until a forced win, you will have to risk. If only one of the things is missing from the prerequisites list, you can be almost certain that the sacrifice is sound and you should go for it even if you haven’t gone three moves deep in your calculation. If two or more are missing, think three times before taking. It may be better to play a safe move first in that case !
Could Seirawan have prevented the Greek gift ?
Let us go back a few moves before Bxh7 was played. White’s previous move was e5, chasing the knight away from f6. That fact made the sacrifice possible. So let us try and find an alternative.
So what should black have done ?
So after 9. O-O, was Nbd7 already the losing move? I think it was ! There was no salvation against the Greek gift after it.
There are in fact several acceptable moves here.
This was a real example of the Greek Gift, not in an Internet Blitz game, but in a real top-level game. Just to show you that this sacrifice remains relevant at any level and that there is no easy recipe to play it correctly. You have to check the conditions and start calculating !
In the next article, we will see some advanced patterns that can appear in the Bxh7+ Greek gift. You will learn new ways to use your Knight, Rook, Bishop and pawns to support the attack. Use your fresh knowledge to test yourself on the Bxh7+ sacrifice !