Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2007 arrow September arrow How Wojo Won: The Sicilian
How Wojo Won: The Sicilian Print E-mail
By Jonathan Hilton   
September 27, 2007
    As we discussed in the preceding three articles, with the White pieces Wojtkiewicz would systematically outplay his opponents.  What was his strategy, however, with the Black pieces?  As it turns out, Wojo – a seasoned Swiss System player – understood that the second player has considerably more trouble trying to gain that slight pull out of the opening that Wojo so loved.  In order to score the full point with the Black pieces, Wojo followed a doctrine diametrically opposed to his accumulation-of-small-advantages approach with White: create imbalances, strive for dynamic “coiled” piece placements, and engage in all-out tactical warfare!  Thus his opening of choice was the Sicilian Defense, Scheveningen Variation, 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6 – though usually Wojo played the more flexible move order 5. … a6, playing …e6 on his next move.  With the Scheveningen, Wojo would aim for setups that allowed him to make full use of his pieces to influence the center in typical hypermodern style.  He allowed White to gain a large space advantage early on so long as he was ensured the compensation of a crazy tactical duel in the middlegame.  Often he would find himself in worse or even losing positions, only to swindle or simply out-calculate his opponents!  Here is a typical example of Wojo’s ferocious, passionate fighting style:


1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6

This flexible move order prevents the Keres Attack, which can occur after 5. ... e6 6. g4.
6.Be2 e6 7.0–0 Be7 8.f4 0–0 9.a4 Qc7 10.Kh1 Nc6 11.Be3

Position after 11.Be3

This position is a standard tabia for the Scheveningen.  There are two main themes for White to choose from here.  First, he can attempt a bold pawn storm on Black's position, as he does in this game.  Alternatively, he can play solid maneuvers to consolidate his space advantage.  Once his position is secure he can try for a well-timed break in the center with e4-e5 or f4-f5.  In this game White chooses the former option, but in the second game he attempts the latter.  Note that these are only two broad categories, and there is some overlap between them.  The various systems for White here - which are extremely numerous and varied - are made up of the different methods he can use to implement either approach.
Black's moves may appear mysterious to someone unacquainted with Black's style of play, but in actuality, moves such as this one are very purposeful.  White normally targets Black's e6 pawn with threats of f4-f5; he also often targets Black's g7 pawn with ideas such as Qd1–e1–g3.  Black, by playing ...Re8 now and ...Bf8 later, safeguards against White's threats, while also expanding the possibilities of his own pieces: Black's liberating ...e6-e5 strike is made more potent by the Rook's presence on e8.
12.Bf3 Bd7 13.Nb3 b6 14.g4
White has dutifully preserved his space advantage by shoring up his center and by avoiding trades with Nd4-b3.  He now seeks to attack.  Black's method of defense is particularly ingenious, combining defense with counter-strikes against White's center.

 Clearing d7 for the knight.
Position after 14...Bc8

15.g5 Nd7 16.Bg2
White makes way for his queen's entry into the kingside.
 Black reorganizes his pieces to pressure e4.  Now, before the action begins, is an appropriate time to discuss the characteristics of this position.  First, it is clear that White seeks to attack Black's two weak pawns on the kingside, f7 and h7.  He has accumulated a tremendous space advantage in that sector and hopes the presence of a major piece on an aggressive square – for instance, via the rook maneuver Rf1-f3-h3 – will be enough to force Black to weaken his defenses further with …g7-g6.  White's 14. g4 left his king somewhat exposed, however.  Black's trumps lie in the fact that he has chances to organize a counter against White's center.  Should he succeed – and in this game he eventually does so – White's king will begin to feel very uncomfortable.  Black's next several moves are focused not only on shoring up his kingside but also on untangling the crowdedness his central pieces feel due to their lack of space.  After he has arranged them so that they concentrate their full firepower on the center, he will wildly open the center, creating massive chaos on the board.
Planning to swing the queen to h3.  White indeed targets Black's kingside with this maneuver, but he soon reveals that his queen is misplaced and uncomfortable on the far side of the board.  Three years after this game, Peter Heine Nielson tried instead 17. Rf3.  The rook lift to h3 proved very effective because White's queen was freed from the task of trying to provoke a weakness in Black's camp.  When Black defended against the rook life with ...g6 and ...Be7-f8-g7, White was able to place his queen on f2 and engineer a trade of dark square bishops on d4, quickly ending the game.  (If you want to investigate this game yourself, you can find it by searching for Nielsen-Van Wely, Tastrup 1992.)
17...Bf8 18.Qh3 g6 19.Qg4
 It is hard to know what to think of White’s last three moves, which were all made with the queen.  White perhaps was planning a pawn storm with h4-h5.  However, he quickly abandons this plan and places his queen on h4 next move - even if White opened the h-file, he would still need to trade dark-square bishops in order to work up a mating attack.
19...Bg7 20.Qh4 Wojt3.jpg

Position after 20.Qh4

The fourth queen move in a row!  Although White is accomplishing little, it is important to recognize that he is not in any way hurting his position.  He still retains his full attacking potential on the kingside, and is preparing now for f4-f5.
  20. … Nf8?! 
Black is indeed making more room for his other pieces, but this knight retreat looks too passive.  I would have preferred the more aggressive 20...Nb4, which puts pressure on e4, tickles the knight on c3, and offers dynamic possibilities for striking in the center such as ...e5, ...d5, and even ...f5!?
 White senses Black is retreating, so he pursues him!
 21...gxf5 22.exf5 Ne7?! Wojt4.jpg

Position after 22...Ne7?!

A poor choice from Wojo, allowing White to gain a big advantage.  However, it is important to keep in mind that in Wojo's Sicilian games, the tactics became so thick so quickly that there was always ample room for both sides to blunder.  Evaluations in a typical Wojo Sicilian middlegame could easily swing from winning for one side to winning for the other in the blink of an eye.  In hindsight, one may favor 22. ... Ne5 as being a more accurate option, but Wojo's choice does set the board on fire!
23.f6! Bxg2+ 24.Kxg2 Nf5?Wojt5.jpg
Position after 24...Nf5?

A tactical blunder, but one that increases the complications on the board immensely – thus, in a way, giving Wojo the kind of game he wants 24...Neg6 25.Qf2 Bh8 26.Bxb6 also leaves Black's position precarious, however - his bishop on h8 is completely hemmed in!  Only Black's two center pawns give him chances, assuming he can begin to roll them down the board without them being ambushed by White's better-placed pieces.
 25.Rxf5! exf5 26.fxg7 Rxe3 27.gxf8Q+ Rxf8 28.Nd4 would have left White with a nearly winning position - his two knights will completely dominate Black's rook and pawn, due to Black's weak king position and ruined pawn structure.
 25...Qc6+ 26.Kg1 Bh8 27.Nd4
Was 27.Bxb6 too materialistic?  White probably feels he could simply trade pieces and be effectively up a piece due to Black's hemmed in bishop on h8; however, he underestimates Black's fearsome center pawns.  There seems to be no tactical reason for avoiding the capture of the b6 pawn, so the deciding factor was only how gutsy White felt.  By trading, White shows that he hopes the advantage he has gained on the kingside is a permanent one, similar to a material advantage - however, this assumption turns out to be wrong.  White probably would have been correct to take the b6 pawn and put the onus on Black to prove something for it, as Black now gains a few important tempi for the attack.
 27...Nxd4 28.Bxd4 e5!Wojt6.jpg
Position after 28...e5

Wojtkiewicz puts the energy back into his position.  White may have considered himself a piece up due to Black's lifeless h8 bishop, but now Wojo evens the score by sending in two center pawns powerful enough to pick up the bishop's slack.
White hopes to invade Black's queenside, but in doing so, his own king safety is jeopardized.  Perhaps 29. Be3 was a wiser option, clinging on to the g5 pawn, which now threatens to fall off the board in short order.  After 23. Be3, White wouldn't be physically ahead in material; however, he could try to use his "extra" minor piece to attack Black's rolling pawn center and eventually blockade it.
29...d5 30.a5 d4 31.Na4 Ng6 32.Nc5 e4!?
An exciting and very risky option.  White now nabs one of Black's center pawns, and appears to have a dominating position - however, Black is pinning his hopes on activating his pieces and hunting down White's open king!
33.Qxd4 Re5 34.Ra3
 A practical move, one which is not materialistic.  White wants to keep bringing his pieces into the defense.  Black now passes on the option of taking White's g5 pawn, which would lose time after 34. ... Rxg5 35. Rg3.  We are now coming up on the fortieth move, and it is highly probable both players were in some time pressure – though even with a full two hours on the clock, this position would be tough to play accurately!
34...Rae8 35.Qe3 Nh4 Wojt7.jpg

Position after 35...Nh4

Black's pieces are swooping into the attack.
White fears the wrong check!  White understandably wanted to avoid ...Nh4-f3+, which would allow Black to pick up the g5 pawn, but moving the king to h1 places it on a very dangerous diagonal.  Black forces White's queen from e3, removing the blockade on Black's e-pawn.  In my opinion, this is a decisive mistake.  Even though a computer may be able to save White's position after this move, White is clearly now in a very defensive mindset, only reacting to Black's threats.  From here on out White creates no threats of his own, and is pounded by Black’s invading forces until he inevitably blunders. 36.Raa1 , trying to relocate the rook to the open d-file, might have been a more practical option.  However, Black still has plenty of resources - he can unleash ...h7-h6, ...Nh4-f3+, or even ...Nh4-f5 at any time.  For his part, White will pick up the a6 pawn with Nc5xa6, and pray that he doesn't get checkmated.  So long as his queen and f1 rook can hold the crucial squares around his king, White might just survive - and perhaps come out with a winning set of passed pawns on the queenside.  Either way, both sides have full chances for a full point!
36...Nf5! 37.Rxf5
White tries to save himself.  Otherwise White would have been hard pressed to deal with both the threats of ...e3+ and ...Rxc5, netting two pieces for the rook.
 37...Rxf5 38.Kg2

 I expected at this point for White to simply be lost; his king is far too open, and material is now approximately even.  And, after the text move, White is indeed lost.  I tried putting it into the computer, however, and my Fritz 8 came up with a Houdini-like way to maintain the balance.  The key is the somewhat improbable-looking 38.Nxa6! Qxc2 39.Ra1! Qxb2 40.Re1, when the onus is again on Black to find a creative way of breaking down White's position.  While this defense is certainly possible for a human to find over-the-board, it is hard to believe that many of us would have the composure necessary to spot such a resource in the face of ominous peril.
 I am surprised Wojo did not play one of the two ways to drive the nail into White’s coffin, 38. ... Rf3 or 38. ... h6, but I suspect the scramble to make move the time control made it difficult to finish White off accurately.
39.h3 Rf5 40.Ra2!?
A bizarre move, but it was very difficult to find something else.
40...Rf3! 41.Qe2 Qc8! Wojt8.jpg

Position after 41...Qc8!

White has no defense against 42. ... Qxh3.  A splendid display of Wojo's ability to tactically outplay his opponents in the rough and stormy seas of the Sicilian.  The lead changed hands many times, but Wojtkiewicz held out the longest, and his tenacity won the day. 0–1

    Throughout my many encounters with other Wojo fans, I have observed that many prefer either his White games or his Black games.  In fact, this division among Wojo’s fans runs deep at the club level, where those believing themselves to be “positional” players are often at odds with so-called “tactical” players.  As petty as it may seem, each party claims Wojo’s style for its own!  This strikes me as peculiar when I reflect upon how much overlap between Wojo’s dueling chess styles – positional and tactical – can be found in a single game.  If one of his main strengths with White was his ability to convert small advantages through “simple” tactics, it follows that with Black he was able to use tactical means to secure lasting positional pressure – especially in the endgame.


1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.Be2 Be7 7.Be3 Nc6 8.0–0 0–0 9.f4 a6 10.a4 Qc7 11.Kh1 Re8 12.Nb3 Wojtb-1.jpg
Position after 12.Nb3

White is aiming to adopt the second, more solid approach to this middlegame, which I outlined earlier. The text is not as popular as the two mainlines for this approach – 12. Bf3 and 12. Bd3 – but is still a very solid and respectable option. With this move White maintains his space advantage by avoiding trades and discourages his opponent's main counterstroke, ...e5.
Virtually forced, since Black has to prevent White's a4-a5 push. The only other real possibility, 12...Na5, is undesirable because after 13.Nxa5 Qxa5 14.Qd3, White has good chances for an advantage.  Black is in an awkward situation: his queen is blockading White's a-pawn! Also promising is the try 13. Qd3, daring Black to take on b3 and open the c-file for use by White.
 White begins bringing his pieces towards the center and the kingside with his next few maneuvers. Meanwhile, Black completes his development.
 13...Bb7 14.Qf2
Notice how White is also targeting the queenside as he is mounting his kingside forces - a model strategy for preserving his space advantage!
 14...Nd7 15.Rad1 Rab8 16.Bg4!?Wojtb-2.jpg
Position after 16.Bg4!?

An interesting decision! White somewhat awkwardly begins to mount direct pressure on Black's e6 pawn. With this move White probably is hoping to advance f4-f5 soon, but Wojo is vigilant in solidifying his position against White's potential strikes. 16.Bf3 was a somewhat more solid – yet less creative – option.

Beginning with this move, both sides begin to shuffle their pieces back and forth, as neither side can effectively breach the other's lines. Seeing that f4-f5 is stalled due to Black's ability to simply play ...Nde5 to defend his e6 pawn, White temporarily abandons the idea of a kingside push and begins to regroup his forces.

White slowly creeps toward Black's king, as there is not much point in keeping pressure on b6, which is now overprotected by Black.
17...Nf6 18.Be2 Bb7
Play continues in this back-and-forth fashion. White, who seems to have accomplished nothing over the past four or five moves, grows impatient to strike. 19.e5?!Wojtb-3.jpg

Position after 19.e5?!

This is exactly the reaction Black wanted. White, frustrated with himself, grows bold and attacks. Unfortunately this thrust gains him little, as Black's pieces are working harmoniously to patrol the key tactical points in the center. There was a strong case to be made for a more patient approach from White: 19.Nd4! , a move which leaves Black with a lot to think about. He cannot easily strike with ...e6-e5, something which previously would have caused White concern, because his light-squared bishop no longer controls f5; exchanging on d4 would simply allow White's dark-square bishop to concentrate its power on the g7 square in harmony with White's queen; and White's threats of e4-e5 are much stronger because he has the option of removing Black's knight on c6 at his leisure.
 The best approach. Black's pieces work in harmony to pressure White's central e5 attacking "wedge". Had Black chosen to immediately open lines with 19...dxe5? , White would have been able to exploit his extra freedom of maneuver on the kingside: 20.fxe5 Nd7 (20...Qxe5?? 21.Bf4) 21.Bf4 Ndxe5? (21...Ncxe5 22.Rxd7 Qxd7 23.Bxe5 loses immediately) 22.Nd4!, when Black is ensnared by pins and in a losing position.
20.exd6 Bxd6
A triumph for Black: White abandons any attempt to sustain his mighty e5 pawn wedge. However, it would be an overstatement to say that Black is already better. White's position is still perfectly playable; although he has lost his center, his pieces still have plenty of freedom.
21.Ne4 Be7 22.f5?! Wojtb-4.jpg
Position after 22.f5?!

But this is too far! White underestimates the power of Black's "coiled" minor pieces, which will soon unleash their power. Perhaps psychologically White felt an obligation to “continue” his attack; he was presumably still suffering from the frustration he probably felt upon not "achieving" much between moves 14 and 18. Far better was the less ambitious but solidifying 22.c3 , after which White could claim a decent game by simply continuing to maneuver his pieces towards to the kingside. He has plenty of ideas, such as Be2-d3 with a possible Ne4-g5, or even simply returning his queen to f2 to keep Black tied to b6 and the dark squares on the queenside. True, it is unlikely that these maneuvers would cause Black much concern; he could simply challenge the d-file, play on the queenside, or shore up his kingside with moves such as ...Nf6. However, this was to be preferred over White's course of action in the game, which hands the initiative directly to Black.
22...Qxg3 23.hxg3!?
 This is, in the strictest sense of the word, not a tactical error. However, it comes very close to being one!  Black now has a tactical possibility to gain a clear advantage, which is very hard to spot without the aid of a computer.  However, even then it is possible the more common-sense continuation Wojo chose is of nearly equal worth. In either case, White is now in a very precarious situation. It is also easy to forgive Klovans' misstep when we consider that the other recapture, 23.Nxg3, still allows Black to make use of his tremendous potential for activity. For instance, after 23...Nce5 24.fxe6 fxe6 25.Nd4, it looks as if White is putting pressure on Black's e6 pawn, but in reality Black's active pieces will give him tactical play against White's queenside.  There would follow 25...Rbc8! 26.c3 Nc5!, when Black has successfully defended his e6 weakness, leaving White to confront his own problems. White must defend not only a4 but also against nasty ideas such as ...Bh4 and ...Ne4 from Black.
The tactical possibility Black either eschews or overlooks here is: 23...exf5! 24.Rxd7 fxe4 25.Bf4 Bc8! 26.Rc7 g5!! 27.Rxc6 gxf4 28.gxf4, when Black has the upper hand thanks to his bishop pair.  The fact that Wojo declined this tactical opportunity may indicate he is already beginning to “transform” himself into a positional giant, a transformation that is revealed in full on by the choice of his 27th move. 
24.fxe6 fxe6 25.Nd6 Bxd6 26.Rxd6 Nf6!

Position after 26...Nf6

Black begins to bring his pieces towards the kingside. He now threatens ...Ne4.
White understandably wants to guard against the threat of Ne4, but at this stage he is probably suffering psychologically because his attack has backfired. Note how much more effective Black's three minor pieces are than White's. Even though White's give the impression of targeting Black's queenside, Black's are actually creating significant tactical threats against White's kingside! With his next move, White reveals he has gotten himself into a very defensive mindset by completely overlooking a key resource. 27.Bd4! would compel Black to retreat with 27...Ned7 , which in turn would buy White additional time to play 28.Kg1. Here it is doubtful Black could achieve an advantage similar to the one he achieved in the game. This is now perhaps the most interesting moment in the game. Black faces a key decision. One would expect Wojo in his typical Sicilian "tactical" mode to attempt the very risky and provocative 27. ... Ne4!?, creating an all-out tactical melee.  Instead, however, we see Wojo make a seemingly effortless transition: he goes from trying to create an imbalanced position out of the opening to playing systematic, positional chess. Black dominates the game from here on out in "typical" Wojo fashion, the kind of domination fans of Wojo's White games are used to. His bishop comes to d5 to hone in on White's weakened queenside structure; his knight comes to e4 to destroy the harmony of White's pieces; and his rook dominates the d-file.
If: 27...Ne4!? 28.Rxb6 Nxg3 29.Bxa6!? (29.Re1 Nxe2+ 30.Rxe2 Nc4 31.Rb4 Nxe3 32.Rxe3 Bd5 gives Black simple but sizable edge - he targets White's loose queenside while having untouchable extra pawns on the kingside.) 29...Bxa6 30.Rxa6 Nxf1 31.Kxf1, when although Black is up material, the position is messy enough that it is difficult to envision any grand scheme for increasing the size of his advantage.  Thus, Wojo chose 27. … Nf7, and we are treated to a positional masterpiece: for here he indeed does have a scheme for increasing his advantage, and a very intuitive one at that – bring the pieces to better squares!
 28.Rxb6 Nd5 would have been uncomfortable for White, but in hindsight, it is possible that this was his best option: after 29.Rxb7 Rxb7 30.Bd4, White is down some material, but he has the two bishops as compensation. It is much harder to envision Black's forces completely dominating White's in this imbalanced situation.
28...Be4 29.Rd2 a5
In defending his a-pawn, Black weakens b5. However, the benefits of this for White are small, because Black also fixes White's own queenside pawns as targets.
30.Nd4 Rbc8 31.Bb5 Re7 32.c3 Bd5 33.Nf3 Ne4 34.Rdd1 Bb3 35.Rd7 Rxd7 36.Bxd7 Rd8 37.Bb5 Nc5
 The past seven moves have seemed so natural that they did not merit commentary; however, Black's pieces are now dominating the board!  His last move brings a4 to its knees.
A desperate attempt to trade pieces, which Wojo doesn't oblige.  38.Bxc5 bxc5 wouldn't have helped, as Black will soon play ...Nd6.
 38...Nd6 39.Bf4 h6 40.Nf3 Bxa4 41.Be2 Bb3Wojtb-6.jpg
Position after 41...Bb3

One can say from this point that it is only a "matter of technique" –however, in looking at the remainder of this game, one is truly forced to admit how good Wojo's technique really is! Black forces his rook's way to the second rank, uses his light-square bishop to bombard the g2 pawn, and tactically converts his advantage into an easily winning endgame! After comparing Wojo's tactical style to his positional, technical style, I must say the commentator's job is much easier when annotating the latter kind of play! Wojo's moves seem to explain themselves.
42.Ne5 Nde4 43.Nc6 Rd7 44.Re1 Nf6
 Black brings his pieces back towards the kingside for a final assault.
 45.Nd4 Bd5 46.Bb5 Rf7 47.b4 axb4 48.cxb4 Nce4
All Black's minor pieces are now on their optimal squares to bring about the destruction of White's kingside.
49.Rc1 Ra7 50.Nc6 Ra3 51.Bc7 Nc3! 52.Nd4 Nxb5 53.Nxb5 Rb3 54.Bd6 Rb2 55.Rc8+ Kh7 56.Rb8 Rxg2+ 57.Kf1 Ne4!
 Cleverly ending the game.
 58.Kxg2 Nxd6+ 59.Kf2 Nxb5 60.Rxb6 Nc3 61.Rb8 Kg6 62.b5 Kf6 63.b6 Ne4+ 64.Kf3 Nc5+
 Black will next mop up White's b-pawn with ...Nd7, and so White resigns. 0–1

    While the Scheveningen Defense was Wojo’s principle weapon against 1. e4 for most of his career, in 1999 he made a switch to the Accelerated Dragon.  Although he suffered many losses at the top level with his defense, his victims were also numerous and included top U.S. Grandmasters such as Hikaru Nakamura, Nick DeFirmian, and Alexander Shabalov.  In our next installment in this series, I’ll investigate Wojo’s use of the Accelerated Dragon in great detail.  I’ll tackle such issues as how he avoided the drawish tendencies of the Maroczy Bind through the use of offbeat move orders; why he could defeat the best players in the U.S. with the Accelerated Dragon in rapid chess; and how world class GMs tried to tackle Wojo’s fiery dragon, including a game in which GM Viktor Bologan defeated Wojo by obtaining tremendous queenside pressure in the form of three aggressive, tripled b-pawns!