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.

1. c4 Nc6 2. d4 e5 3. dxe5 Nxe5 4. e4 Qh4!

"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.


5. Qd4

5. Nc3 Bb4 (5... Bc5 6. g3) 6. Bd2 Bxc3 7. Bxc3 Qxe4+ 8. Qe2 Qxe2+ 9. Bxe2 f6 10. c5!? yields White only marginal compensation for the pawn.


5... Nc6 6. Qe3 Bb4+ 7. Bd2 Nf6 8. Bd3?

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 O-O-O 17. Bc4) 16. Rc1 c6.


8... Ng4! 9. Qg3 Qxg3 10. hxg3 Bc5 11. Nh3 Nb4

A different idea is 11... Nge5 12. Be2 Nd4 13. Bc3 d6.


12. Be2

If 12. Bxb4 Bxb4+ 13. Ke2 d6


12... d6

Not 12... Nc2+? 13. Kd1 Nxf2+ 14. Nxf2 Nxa1 15. Nd3 Bd4 16. Bc3 and White will win the wayward Knight shortly with Kd2 and Na3 or Nxc3 followed by Rxa1 with a clear material advantage.


13. Kd1?!

13. Na3 Bd7


13... a5 14. a3 Nc6 15. Ke1 Nd4 16. Bd1 Ne5 17. b3?! Nd3+ 18. Kf1 Nb2 19. Be2 Nxb3 20. Bc3!?

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.


20... Nxa1 21. Bxg7 Rg8 22. Bxb2 Nb3 23. Nf4 Bd4! 24. Bxd4 Nxd4 25. Nd5 Kd8 26. Rxh7 Be6 27. Nf6 Rf8 28. Bd3 Ke7

28... c6!


29. Nd5+ Bxd5 30. exd5 Rh8 31. Rh4! Rxh4 32. gxh4 Rh8 33. g3 Kf6

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.


34. Nd2 c6

The only way to try to mobilize the pawns, but White is able to avoid unfavorable pawn exchanges on that wing.


35. Ne4+! Ke7

35... Ke5?? 36. f4+ Kf5 37. Nxd6+


36. Nc3! Rh5 37. f4 Nb3 38. Kf2 Nc5 39. Be2 Rh8 40. Bf3 Kd7 41. Bg4+ Kc7 42. Bf5 Nd7?! 43. Bc2?!

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.


43... Nb6 44. Bd3 cxd5 45. cxd5 Kd7 46. Kf3 Ke7 47. Ke4 Rg8 48. Ne2 Nd7 49. Kf3 Nf6 50. Nd4 Rc8!?

Black's idea is to attack on the queenside with his pieces while the King holds the fort on the kingside.


51. Nf5+ Kf8! 52. a4?

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

70. Bxh5 Rb4 71. Bd1 b5 72. Be2 a4


70... d4+! 71. Kd2 Ra2+ 72. Ke1 Nf4 73. Bc4 Ng2+! 0-1

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

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 Nc6!?

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.


3. d4

3... 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.


4. d5

4. Nc3 e5 is The Panther, which may have been Bernstein's intention.


4... Ne5 5. Nxe5 dxe5 6. Nc3 e6 7. e4 Bc5! 8. Be2

Not 8. b4? Bd4!


8... O-O 9. O-O h6

Perhaps 9... a6 10. Bg5 h6 11. Bh4 Bd4


10. Qc2 Bd7

Also good is 10... a6!? Black is doing well in any case.


11. a3 a5 12. b3 c6 13. dxc6 Bxc6

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.


14. Bb2 Rc8 15. Kh1 Qc7

A different idea is 15... Nd7 16. f4!? exf4 17. Rxf4 Ne5 -- but that would hardly be consistent with the two players' strategies.


16. f3 Rfd8 17. Nd1 Rd7 18. Nf2 Rcd8 19. Nd3 Bd4! 20. Rfd1 Nh5 21. b4 Bxb2 22. Nxb2 Nf4 23. c5 Nxe2!?

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


24. Qxe2 Rd4! 25. Rxd4?! exd4 26. Qc4 axb4?

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.


27. axb4 Qd7 28. Ra5 Qc7 29. Nd3! e5 30. Ra1! Re8

30... b6? 31. b5


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!

download pgn

Games in PGN

Java Play (for those arriving at the wrong page)

Related Links 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