Understanding  Greco's Sacrifice

The Classic Bishop Sacrifice

A wealthy old man was about to die. He stipulated in his will that his sons would receive their inheritance only after they had made a correct Bishop Sacrifice on h7.

The 'Greek gift' Sacrifice goes back about 400 years, but it is still relevant today. It claims victims somewhere in the world every day. It can be found in all books on attack.

This sacrifice deserves a separate section all to itself, because it is the oldest and most explored of all the sacrifices involved in the attack of the castled king and also because it provides particularly good illustrations of the role of h7 and f7 as mating and secondary focal points. And as you will see it also clearly illustrates why mastering the basics is so necessary before any attack can succeed. And finally for its excellent training in its ability to sharpen your calculating skills.

The earliest instance of the sacrifice of the bishop on h7 followed by Ng5+ occurs in Gioacchino Greco's handbook of 1619, but the first systematic review of it was made by E. Voellmy in his article "On attacking the castled king" in the Schweizerischen SchachZeitung in 1911. Some writers give it the name of Greco's sacrifice, for which there are some grounds. Others feel that the term of the classic bishop sacrifice is more appropriate, since this indicates both its early origins and also the basic simplicity of the idea underlying it.

We can best illustrate its importance to an attack on the castled king by breaking it down into its basic components. To do this we will show through examples and games its devastating power over a castled king position. We will dissect its main variations arising from the sacrifice. We will also give the criterion necessary for its success and show what pieces are necessary on which squares, and the necessary other supporting pieces needed to sustain this attack, and how to plan for the positions needed to use it.

In our first example, Classic Game 1 we show the basic classical Bishop Sacrifice in all its glory! A simple straight to the throat unstoppable killing machine strategy.

Note: In each example, to play through the variation, just click on the first move of the beginning of the variation, and then use the VCR control to play through it.

Classic Game 1

Don't we wish all of our mates could be this easy and simple? Now that we have seen how the basic setup can work, we will now go to a more natural position where again the Classic Bishop Sacrifice is again successful

Classic Game 2

One could now produce a series of examples, pursuing different variations according to the various elements in each position, but it is more to the point at once to pose the question as to how to judge the correctness of the sacrifice, first with reference to White's position and then to Black's.

Necessary conditions for the classic bishop sacrifice

White must firstly have a Queen, a bishop and a Knight. The light squared bishop must be able to reach h7 in order to force the tempo of the attack, through it is not essential that it should put Black in check or take a pawn in so doing. The knight should be within easy and safe reach of the square g5, and the Queen within reach of h5, though in some cases it is enough for it to be able to get some other square on the h-file.

As far as Black's position is concerned, there should be two pawns standing intact at f7 and g7, (g7 may on rare occasions be occupied by a bishop instead of a pawn), the h-pawn should be on h7 (on h5 in exceptional cases), but it may be that is no h-pawn at all. The position of Black's Queen on d8 and a rook on f8 points to, but does not absolutely guarantee, the correctness of the sacrifice. What is more important is that Black's knight should not be able to reach f6 and that neither his Queen nor bishop should be able to occupy the h7-b1 diagonal unharmed.

These are the basic conditions, which need to be taken into account. In the examples which follow we shall examine to what extent each of these conditions is fulfilled; the positions are chosen in such a way as to show which is the critical continuation in each example, the one that is in doubt because a certain condition is apparently unfulfilled.

The variation with ...Kg8 is critical.

Classic Game 3

The Importance of Learning the Basics Well

We must stop here and reflect on some basic principles of attack and defense. Willhelm Steinitz, (1836-1900) Austria, tells us that an attack will not succeed unless we try to use all of our pieces using some coordinated plan (See Making Plans) that allows the pieces to give support to each other. Using our heavy pieces against some major focal point can not succeed unless some imbalance exists. (Cat 4, Creating Weaknesses and Imbalances) In this case the castled king's h7 is only protected by the king.

If Black applies Aron Nimzovich's theory of using a systematic prophylactic approach to over-protect a position, the Greco sacrifice attack will fail. (See Positional Play and Cat 4, The Art of Attack and The Art of Defense) The whole point here is to emphasize the importance of mastering the basics.

In the course of going through the examples and text, your going to see how important is understanding the basic principles of Defense to thwart a attack. Which I expound on in my, The Art of Defense. You will see how any attack can not succeed or will succeed and can find out a lot more about these basics in my, The Art of Attack. You will see why planning in the openings instead of memorization of openings is much more valuable for a successful attack on the castled king. You will find out why that my Making Plans page places so much emphases on creating an imbalance or weakness before an attack can succeed. You will find that using structured thinking from my page, The Secrets of Calculation is necessary to use before any Bishop Sacrifice on the castled king can succeed. You will see why so many people fail to succeed in their attacks because they just dont pay attention to the fundamental basics.

Basic principles as simply as Steintz's enlightening, astonishing revelations. He thought, may be there is some form of superiority in the hands of the attacker before the first attacking move. After much thought, he finally concluded, an attack against a solidly positioned opponent cannot succeed! A successful attack is nothing more than the correct exploitation of an exploitable weakness. He also concluded that an attack cannot succeed unless you plan an attack such as to use as many of your pieces against your opponent as you can all at the same time. Just as in Grecos Sacrifice.

Over and over again and again we see that these simple basics are fundamental building blocks to more advanced concepts. And unless you spend the time mastering them to the point that they are secondary to your chess thinking and playing you will never be able to master how to use more advanced chess concepts like this Greco's Sacrifice.

Take another look at this sacrifice from the standpoint of using the basics and you will find a whole new approach to how to study new and old ideas like this one. How many of the basic ideas in our club's training materials can you find here?

Finding new Solutions

In the last position a important condition regarding the …Kg8 variation was not fulfilled, since the diagonal from c8 to h3 is not open to Black's light square Bishop. Also White had the possibility of Qe4+ as well as other active factors in his favor, and therefore the sacrifice was more likely to succeed.

In this position we will open up the diagonal to Black's light square Bishop. Black now has more possibilities to defend himself. We now are presented with the problem of how to make White's position so strong that in spite of this handicap White will find a way to over come this disadvantage.

Classic Game 4

In this position Black has an extra tempo in which to defend himself after Kg8 because his rook is already on e8, but White's position is so strong in other respects that his sacrifice still leads to a successful breakthrough. Remember this in your games. Often if you first prepare for your attack with a solid and strong position, any minor setback will not deter you from succeeding in your plans.

Classic Game 5

These three last examples represent only a small section of a large number of possible cases in which the crucial continuation is …Kg8. How large the variety of these positions is and how sensitive they are to minute changes can be illustrated by the following observation: if, in any of the previous three diagrams, White's h-pawn is moved to h4, the bishop sacrifice is no longer correct. In the first two diagrams this is because the queen is prevented from getting to h4, while in the last diagram it is because White's rook can no longer create threats along the h-file. Having the pawn on h4 rather than h2 is an obstacle in the variation with …Kg8: on the other hand (No, not that hand, the other hand), we shall see how it assists White in the variation with …Kg6.

The variation with ...Kg6 is critical.

Here the critical continuation is …Kg6, while that with …Kg8 involves less difficulty.

Classic Game 6

In the next case White has no pawn on e5, but the presence of his rook on the open e-file ensures success against …Kg8. In the variation with …Kg6 White is made to work for victory.

Classic Game 7

Classic Game 8

The position of Classical Example 9 differs fundamentally from those considered so far and touches on some new aspects of the sacrificial combination.

Classic Game 9

The variation with ...Kh6 is critical.

This continuation is usually difficult for that attacker if he does not have a second bishop and has his h-pawn at h4, and is consequently without the possibility of Qg4 and Qh4+. Here is an example to study.

Classic Game 10

Declining the Sacrifice

One of the necessary conditions for the success of the classic bishop sacrifice, as of any sacrifice at all, is for the opponent to accept the sacrifice. The opponent has the ability to obtain an advantage by chickening out (Squawk!) and rejecting the sacrifice altogether! The attacker must be prepared and therefore consider what will happen if his opponent plays …Kh8 and does not take the bishop. The following diagram Classic Example 11 shows an example of this.

Classic Game 11

A Practical Criterion For The Sacrifice

We shall now attempt to establish practical rules for positions of the type given in our classical examples, a means by which players can orientate themselves quickly and fairly accurately. It should be remembered that in the positions in Classical Examples 2 through 10 the basic condition that the defender should not be able to reject the sacrifice unscathed. It should further be added that the arrangement of Black's pieces in those positions did not depart greatly from the normal, while White, in addition to the essential light-squared bishop, the queen, and the knight on f3, had at his disposal a number of other supporting pieces to sustain his attack.

White Pawn at e5 and bishop at c1 in example 2 and example 3 and example 5
White Pawn at e5 and bishop at f4 in example 6
White Pawn at e5 and knight at d2 in example 8
White Pawn at e5 and knight at c3 in example 9
White Pawn at e5 and h4 in example 10
Rook at e1 and bishop at f4 in example 3
Rook at e1 and bishop at c1 in example 7

As can be seen, the principle supporting pieces are the pawn at e5 and the bishop on the diagonal c1-f4, followed by the knight on d2 or c3 and the rook on the open e-file. There may be few other such supporting pieces (e.g. a rook on f1, if the f-file is open) which have not been provided with examples, but the reader will already have seen the basic idea - as a rule at least two active supporting pieces are necessary, if the classic bishop sacrifice is to bring the attacker success.

This is a simple practical criterion and should help the player to get his approximate bearings. To make this survey of the sacrifice and the structure of its necessary conditions as clear as possible, White has been made the attacker in all the examples; if Black carries out a sacrificial attack on h2, naturally all that has been said applies analogously.

The Games

Here are three games that show what can go wrong if Black is not prepared to meet this Classic Greco's Sacrifice.

To provide further material on the classical bishop sacrifice we shall examine the game of the young Jose Raul Capablanca's sacrifice on h7, (then only 23) but the analysis shows the existence of a loophole in the variation with …Kg6, which his opponent failed to notice.

Capablanca -Molina

In this game Edgar Colle, from Belgium (1805 - 1932) plays John O'Hanion from Ireland (1874 - 1960). In this game Colle plays his famous Colle System opening. Colle was a great lover of this Classic Sacrifice, but is unable to control his temperamental penchant for sacrifice. A quick glance shows that the black knight on d7 is a danger in both the main variations, however Colle sacrifices and wins both the game and the Brilliancy Prize, even though in fact two of the variations are unsound!

Colle - O'Hanlon

Here in the Kottnaur - Kotov game, is an example of the Classic Bishop Sacrifice on h7 in a position, which differ from those examined before. In this game there is a good opportunity for you to sharpen your calculating skills.

Kottnaur - Kotov

In this Kottnaur - Kotov Fritz Ending, don't just move through the last 12 moves to the end, instead, before each move try to guess the next best move for White.
Even the famous strong (ELO 2470) Grand Master Russian Alexander Kotov succumbs to The Classic Greco's Sacrifice against the lessor rated (ELO 2402) International Master, English born. Cenek Kottnauer. This should give you some idea just how powerful this Classic Sacrifice can be.

Kottnaur - Kotov Fritz Ending