Sidney Bernstein, Opening Innovator
by Michael Goeller
You don't have to be a GM to be an opening innovator, as the case of Sidney Norman Bernstein (1911-1992) illustrates. I have been looking through Bernstein's collected games in a rather remarkable little volume titled Combat: My Fifty Years at the Chessboard (1977). It is one of those great "best games" collections from a lesser-known master, of which there should be more (and there would be, except that they typically cost the author quite a lot of time, effort, and his own money to produce!) What impresses me most is the number of interesting and unusual opening ideas that Bernstein tried out during his long career (or two careers, as he puts it). He is among the first modern players I know of, for instance, to take up the English Defense (1...b6). He is also the first to try an early ...h5 advance in a line of the English that often begins 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. e3 d6 6. Nge2 h5! (as I mention in a previous article, given in the bibliography below). And in one game on the Black side of the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian, he plays an early ...h5! to slow down White's pawn advance. That would not be so remarkable, except that his opponent is a young Andy Soltis--whose name would later become attached to that idea!
What interested me most, however, were Bernstein's games with 1...Nc6, where his novelties have yet to be absorbed by theory. Like a number of New York players (including Kevitz, Bisguier, and most recently Joel Benjamin), Bernstein plays the move with the idea of achieving an ...e5 break--a system since popularized by British GM Tony Miles. Bernstein was way ahead of any of them...
E. Marchand - Sidney Bernstein [A10]
New York State Championship/New York, USA 1960
Bernstein finished the 1960 New York State Championship in second place, but did have the satisfaction of beating the tournament winner in the following nice game using a sort of Nimzovich or Bogoljubow Defense or Bozo-Indian, as one writer has termed it. Lately I like to think of it as The New York system, since a large number of players from that city (including Bernstein) played it.
"This novelty, suggested by Jack Soudakoff, is very difficult to meet adequately" notes Bernstein. The idea remains rather novel to this day, as most players in this position follow Tony Miles with 4... Bc5.
Necessary was 8. Nc3 Bxc3 (8... Ng4 9. Qg3 does not yield much)
9. Bxc3 Qxe4 10. Bxf6! (10. Qxe4+ Nxe4 11. Bxg7 Rg8 12. Bh6 Nb4 Bernstein)
10... Qxe3+ 11. fxe3 gxf6 12. Nh3 d6 13. Nf4 and though White is down a pawn he does have some play against Black's weak kingside pawns, e.g.: 13... Be6 14. Nd5 Bxd5 15. cxd5 Ne5 (15... Nb4 16. Rc1
An interesting Exchange sacrifice that does yield some play for White's Bishops. You can tell Marchand is a real fighter. If 20. Ra2 Nxd2+ 21. Nxd2 Na4 would leave White a pawn down and worse off positionally to boot.
Though he has a winning material advantage (a Rook for Bishop and Pawn), Black faces some technical problems due mainly to White's outside passed pawn and Black's difficulty mobilizing his queenside majority. Bernstein plays the remainder of the game with vigor to take the point.
The only way to try to mobilize the pawns, but White is able to avoid unfavorable pawn exchanges on that wing.
White can create more difficulties by 43. Ne4! Nb6 (43... Rh6?! 44. Ng5 Rf6 45. Bg4 Nb6 46. dxc6 Kxc6 47. Bh5!) 44. Ng5 f6 (44... Nxc4? 45. Nxf7 Rf8 46. Be6) 45. Ne6+ Kb8 46. dxc6 bxc6 47. Bd3 d5 48. cxd5 cxd5 and Black has barely begun to make progress.
Black's idea is to attack on the queenside with his pieces while the King holds the fort on the kingside.
After this, Black wins a pawn and solves all of his problems. White had to try 52. Nxd6 when Bernstein gives 52... Rc3 53. Ke3 Nxd5+ (53... Rxa3) 54. Kd4 Rxa3 but overlooks 55. Nb5! (55. Nxb7 Nb4 Bernstein) 55... Rxd3+ (55... Rb3 56. Bc4 Rxb5 57. Bxb5 Nf6 58. Be2) 56. Kxd3 with a very difficult and double-edged ending.
52... Rc5! 53. Ke3 Nxd5+ 54. Kd4 Nb4 55. Be4 Nc6+ 56. Ke3 d5 57. Bd3 Rc3 58. Kd2 Ra3 59. Bb5 Ne7 60. Nd6 b6 61. g4 Rf3 62. f5 Rf4! 63. Bd7 Rxg4 64. f6 Rg2+ 65. Ke3 Ng8! 66. Nc8 Nxf6 67. Bb5 Rg4 68. h5 Nxh5 69. Be2 Rxa4! 70. Nxb6
Quite a combative struggle from beginning to end!
In the next game, Bernstein faces an even more fierce competitor, using an opening that would become his opponent's trademark!
Alexander Kevitz - Sidney Bernstein [E33]
New York 1956
Today it is Alexander Kevitz whose name is most associated with this line. But perhaps it was Sidney Bernstein who inspired the idea? Below you can see a typical tableau of the Kevitz - Trajkowicz system, today more commonly called "The Tango." But Bernstein manages a rather "New York" twist on it with ...d6.
Today 3... e6 is more common, with the idea of trading off the Bishop (before playing ...d6) with ...Bb4+ -- which White can then prevent by 4. a3!? Black should then play a King's Indian set-up as demonstrated by Bologan in a number of games. Bernstein's move marks this as more typical of the New York System, where Black plays to gain a foothold on ...e5.
Also good is 10... a6!? Black is doing well in any case.
As Bernstein notes, White may have a slight structural edge due to his better pawn majority. But Black has excellent piece play and control of the center. Chances are evenly balanced. Black's plan is to control the open d-file with the hope of inducing an exchange at d4, when his disabled kingside majority will give birth to a passed pawn. White's plan is to advance his Queenside majority and create a passed pawn. And both players are working hard to stop the other from making progress! This is quite a fight.
It seems wrong to exchange the Knight for White's Bishop, but it is otherwise difficult to stop White's Queenside progress. Meanwhile, the prophylactic ...b5!? is too risky: 23... b5!? 24. Rxd7! (Black is better on 24. cxb6 Qxb6 or 24. Bf1 Rd4!) 24... Qxd7! (24... Rxd7 25. a4! Nxe2 26. Qxe2 Qd8 27. axb5 Rd2 28. Qf1 Rxb2 29. bxc6 Rxb4 30. h3) 25. Rd1 Qc7 26. Nd3 Nxd3 27. Rxd3 Rd4 28. Rxd4 exd4 29. a4 bxa4 30. b5
Bernstein suggests that, having achieved his objective, he was now at loss for a plan and made the mistake of giving his opponent a useful open file for counter-play. But now is Black's chance for 26... b5! 27. Qd3 e5 with the plan of ...Ra8 and ...Qa7 to seize the a-file himself.
31. b5 Bd7 32. Nb4 Rc8 33. Rc1 Qa5 34. c6 bxc6 35. bxc6 Be6 36. Nd5 Kh7 37. c7 g6 38. Kg1 d3 39. Qxd3 Bxd5 40. exd5 Rxc7 41. Rxc7 Qxc7 42. d6 Qc1+ 43. Kf2 Qc5+ 44. Kg3 f5 45. d7 e4 46. Qd1 f4+ 47. Kxf4 Qg5+ 48. Kxe4 Qe7+ 49. Kd3 Qxd7+ 1/2-1/2
A very hard-fought draw!
Games in PGN
Java Play (for those arriving at the wrong page)
Chessgames.com. The Chess Games of Sydney Norman Bernstein
_____. Combat: 50 Years of Sidney Bernstein
Some of the better games and stories from Bernstein's book can be found here.
Davies, Nigel. Don't Try This at Home
Davies begins his article by talking about how Bernstein's book inspired him.
Goeller, Michael. Chess and Evolution: An Example of Lateral Transfer
There is a Bernstein game embedded in the notes to the game beginning 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. e3 d6 6. Nge2 h5!
_____. The Panther
An article on the line 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6 3.Nf3 d6, as played by Bernstein.
_____. 1....Nc6 or Kevitz System Bibliography
____. The Meštrovic Variation of the Nimzovich Defense
A line with close links to the Panther.
Copyright Michael Goeller © 2007