Usually, we associate beauty in chess with sacrificial attacks and the “triumph of spirit over matter.” There are many examples of this occurrence in chess history and it is not surprising that we have got used to it.
There is, however, beauty in defence, too. I will present here two aspects of this beauty.
The first one is the more recognisable one – an amazing tactical shot that turns the tables and makes the defender the unexpected attacker. This aspect is in a way related to the “attacking” beauty we are so used to seeing, just that the extra edge is added by the fact that the coup de grace comes from the counterattack. Here’s a beautiful example.
The position is from the game Pichot-Cheparinov, played in the Gibraltar Masters in 2018. It appears that White is crashing through with his attack, his last move being 21.Rb1xb7. Black cannot take the rook because he is busted after 22.Rxe6 Kf7 23. Qd7 Kg6 24.f7.
Black’s next is quite logical and astonishing at the same time.
The idea is to either deflect the white rook from the e-file or liberate the g8-square for the king because we saw in the above line that it was badly placed on g6. After
22.Kg1 Qc5 23.Kh1 Bb7 24. Rxe6 Kf7 25 Qd7 Kg8 we see Black’s idea. There is only one more check, f7 after which Black played …Kg7 and won being a piece up with White’s attack dried up.
The second aspect of defensive beauty is much rarer and consequently much more impressive (at least to me). The aspect I am talking about is the beauty of a deep defensive plan.
Thanks to the engines chess has become very concrete and there is less need for deep planning. Yet, when I see a plan as in the following game, it impresses me even more exactly because nowadays it seems nobody is planning anything anymore.
This is the position from the 8th game of the World Championship match between Maria Muzychuk and Hou Yifan in 2016. With her last move 15.c5, Muzychuk closed the queenside and wants to use her central space advantage to build up an attack on the kingside with h4, Re1, Bf1-d3, Nf1-h2-g4 and so on. Realising this, Hou Yifan comes up with an incredible concept.
Usually we are taught not to move the pawns on the wing where we are weaker and this ingrained concept makes the whole plan even more stunning. The idea is first to grab space on the kingside, thus preventing White’s plan of expansion by h4, and secondly, to evacuate the king from the kingside. What follows is no less amazing.
16.h3 Kg7 17.Rfe1 Rh8!! 18.Bf1 Qg8!! 19.Re3 Kf8
Now we see the depth of Black’s plan. By placing the heavy pieces on the h and g-files Black successfully prevented White’s attack on the kingside because if the files are opened Black will be ready.
Additionally, the king escaped to the centre (and queenside if necessary) where due to the blocked character of the position is completely safe. Black can further improve her position by exchanging her bad bishop by …Ba6. Simply phenomenal play, prophylaxis at its best.
Perhaps the most mind-blowing aspect of the whole plan is that even though it appears to be completely human, it is also suggested by the engine!
Defence is often gritty and ugly, but when everything falls into place and it suddenly shows its beauty, it is a marvel to look at and appreciate.