Sunday, January 20, 2019

Game of the Month: Everything you ever wanted to know about the Stonewall

Hello and welcome everybody! This is the inaugural edition of a new series where people may submit their games to me and each month, I will select the one game that stood out to me as the best and analyze it in detail. For this first one, I've combined October, November and December together but at the end of January I'll pick a new game from just that month.

Anybody of any rating level can submit a game! To find out how, feel free to see Mike Lionti at the CCCR on Wednesdays.

I picked the following game for its high instructive value in one of the more common openings seen at the club level which is often badly misplayed.

Birmingham, Gerry (1300) - Strazzabosco, John (1513)
CCCR Club Championship 2018, Round 5

1.d4 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.f4!? e6!?

White has quickly taken to setting up the Stonewall formation; however, he has done so via an imprecise move order. As a result, black had a much more desirable option on his third move in 3. ... Bf5!, taking advantage of the fact that white hasn't yet posted his bishop on this critical diagonal. Without the strong bishop on d3 to attack h7, white's future kingside attacking chances will be greatly diminished.

4.Nd2 c5! 

White's plan is to attack on the kingside, so black must be prepared to seek counterplay on the queenside!

5.c3 cxd4!?

Not necessarily a bad move, but there is absolutely no harm in maintaining the tension, so I would instead prefer to continue development right away with 5. ... Bd6.

It is important however, that black decided not to close the position with 5. ... c4? This would be a huge positional mistake because then he would never be able to open the c-file later! Without an open c-file, black's queenside counterplay will be both weaker and slower.


Yes, as a rule you should recapture towards the center whenever possible, but as with all rules in chess, there are exceptions. In this instance, white should prefer 6.exd4! because it keeps the c-file blocked and opens the e-file for a future white rook on e1.

6. ... Nc6 7.a3 (D)

Birmingham's last move was played prophylactically to prevent ...Nc6-b4 after Bf1-d3. White has an iron-clad grip on e5 but at the same time has made six of his first seven moves with pawns. Black has a slight lead in development and already has managed to open the c-file (with a little help from his opponent). All of this combines to give black a comfortable advantage here. However, it will require precision over the next few moves to maintain that advantage!

7. ... Be7!? 8.Bd3 Bd7!?

Black's last two moves were routine development but important inaccuracies, and are the source of his upcoming difficulties. Far more effective development would be Bf8-d6 and b6-Bb7. That way, black would be well-prepared to occupy the e4 square and shut down white's strong attacking bishop on d3. For example, instead of 7. ... Be7!?, after 7. ... Bd6! 8.Bd3 0-0 9.Ngf3 b6! 10.0-0 Bb7 11.Ne5 Ne7! 12.Qf3 Nf5! black may continue further with Be7 and Nf5-d6-e4 after which white will have a tough time generating an attack without the services of his light-squared bishop. Black's last two moves are suboptimal because he can no longer complete such a maneuver.

9.Ngf3 0-0 10.0-0 Rc8 11.Ne5 (D)

Despite his earlier mistakes, white now has everything he wanted from the opening while black is visibly struggling to find a good plan. There may not be anything better for black than to play defensive moves like g7-g6 and Bd7-Be8, awaiting events.

11. ... Nxe5?!

I suspect this was played with a good plan in mind, but for tactical reasons it only exacerbates black's difficulties. After white's next move the Rf1 gets extended scope and the Nf6 is forced to retreat from its good defensive position.

12.fxe5 Ne8 13.Rf3 f6!? 14.Rh3 g6? (D)

In theory, if black can get away with this f7-f6 break and open the f-file, then he can quickly activate his pieces and get a large initiative. At the same time, it's risky business to push pawns in front of your king like that! It would have been better instead to close things with 14. ... f5! to avoid what could have been a devastating tactical shot.


Unfortunately, this is the wrong sacrifice. Instead, the thematic 15.Rxh7!! would put black's king in dire peril, as 15. ... Kxh7? gets mated after 16.Qh5+ Kg8 17.Qxg6+ Ng7 18.Qh7+ Kf7 19.Bg6#

15. ... hxg6 16.Qg4 (D)

Now it is black's turn to find an accurate defense.

16. ... g5?

Unfortunately this allows white to get back into the game. As an exercise, try to find the best defense for black! The answer will be at the end.

17.Qh5 Threatening immediate mate. There's only one defense. 17. ... Ng7 18.Qg6!? Creating the crushing threat of 19.Rh7 Rf7 20.Qh6 with unstoppable mate, but black can parry this easily with his next move. 18. ... Qe8 (D) offering a queen trade which white cannot accept.

This is the last critical moment of the game. White is down a piece but can in fact force a draw here. This will be the second exercise, with the answer at the end.

19.Qd3? f5 After this, black is just up a piece and has a better position, while white's attack is nonexistent. The rest is trivial conversion. 20.Rf3 Bb5 21.Qb3 g4 22.Rg3 Bh4 23.e4 Desperation. 23. ... Bxg3 24.Qxg3 dxe4 25.Nb3 Qd8 26.Qf2 b6 27.a4 Bc4 28.Nd2 Bd3 29.b3 Rc2 At last black takes advantage of the open c-file! Soon it is white's king that will come under attack. Also we're at move 30 and white's queenside rook and bishop have yet to move. 30.Ba3 Re8 31.Bd6 Qg5 32.Rd1 Rec8 33.Bb4 a5 34.Nxe4 Bxe4 35.Qe1 0-1

There are a couple important takeaways from this game.

1) When white sets up the Stonewall formation, one of the most essential strategies for black is to occupy the e4 square with a knight to block white's light-squared bishop. To do this, black needs to have his own light-squared bishop fianchettoed on b7 and may need to come up with some lengthy knight maneuvers (for instance c6-e7-f5-d6-e4). If black can successfully execute such a maneuver, typically he will be better.

2) The c-file is one of the most important files to pay attention to. If it becomes open, black can quickly double or even triple major pieces there to threaten infiltration into white's camp. If black closes it by playing c5-c4, then he loses the ability to get that kind of quick counterplay and makes white's game much easier.

Now, the answer to the exercises:

Exercise 1: Instead of 16. ... g5?, 16. ... Kf7! would transfer the king out of the danger zone. For example after 17.Rh7+ Ng7 18.Rh6 g5! black's king can always run away to e8 and white does not have compensation for a piece. Nor does 17.Rh6 Rg8! accomplish anything for white either.

Exercise 2: Instead of 19.Qd3?, after 19.Qh7+ Kf7 20.Rh6! black has to accept a perpetual after something like 20. ... f5 21.Qg6+ Kg8 22.Qh7+ Kf7 23.Qg6+. The attempt to avoid it with 20. ... Rg8? fails to 21.exf6! Bxf6 22.Qg6+ when white regains his piece with a big advantage.


  1. Thanks for the analysis Lev! You went over the ideas for black in the Stonewall, but what are some good attacking plans for white in this formation? How should he coordinate his pieces, with Ngf3 Bd3 Nf1 Ng3 and h4, or is white going to try this plan with h4 first, or is he going to develop with Nf3 Bd3 Rg1 and play g4 g5 as soon as black castles, or is white planning something completely else, and at what point should white castle in this system if at all?

    1. Hello TJ! One common idea for white is to quickly set up Bd3, Ngf3, 0-0 and Qf3 to dominate the e4 square before black can establish a knight there; after that g2-g4-g5 or Qh3 can quickly build a dangerous kingside attack. It is risky for white to attempt this without castling though; the king on e1 will be completely stranded with nowhere to hide if black invades on the c-file.

    2. Thanks a ton Lev! I'll be sure to try this out in Blitz sometime!