November 05, 2011 11:56

The Greek Queen

The Greek Queen

While reading a very serious op-ed about the developments on the Greek crisis in the Financial Times, I suddenly had the very non-serious realization that there seems to be no such thing as a ‘Greek Opening’ in chess.

Everybody knows the Spanish and the Italian, there’s a Portuguese Variation (you should try it one day!), and I also heard of the story of the ‘Irish Gambit’ (don’t try that one), but why doesn’t there seem to be anything ‘Greek’ in chess? Why do we have all these brilliant Greek philosophers, when there are so few brilliant Greek opening innovators?

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is, of course, the enigmatic Gioachino Greco, sometimes known as El Greco, who lived from approximately 1600 to approximately 1634, and who’s regarded as the first chess ‘professional’ in history.

Most of Greco’s games are considered to be reconstructions. Nowadays, he is best known for his ideas in the Giuoco Piano and as the inventor of the ‘wrong rook pawn’ endgame where a win with Bishop + rook pawn vs. lone king is still a draw. There even appears to be a ‘Greco Defense’, but it’s hardly worthy of bearing his name (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Qf6?).

While reading on Greco, I discovered that the Owen Defence (1.e4 b6) is actually sometimes referred to as the Greek Defence. So there is one after all! The reason, somewhat predictably, again has to do with Greco, though ironically, Greco wasn't Greek at all - he was an Italian. (Update: As reader Panagis Sklavounos notes in the comments, the name is actually derived from Greek traders who played this opening in the early 19th century.)

One of Greco's recorded games goes as follows:


1.e4 b6 2.d4 Bb7 3.Bd3 f5? 4.exf5 Bxg2 5.Qh5+ g6 6.fxg6 Nf6?

PGN string

7.gxh7+! Nxh5 8.Bg6 mate.

Some people may protest that this game is obviously a reconstruction, but during my chess life, I have already seen this exact scenario unfold in chess simuls twice! The first time happened right next to me during a chess simul when I was in high school; the second one I witnessed while being a spectator to a simul given by the Dutch GM Genna Sosonko .  (Amazingly, he played 7.g7+? but still won. To this day I am convinced Sosonko played this move out of courtesy rather than out of ignorance.) 

Moreover, the variation has a respectable echo in another line (from the so-called English Defence): 1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6 3.e4 Bb7 4.Bd3 f5 5.exf5 Bxg2?! 6.Qh5+ and although modern theory now prefers White, things are actually not that clear. The whole line becomes even more relevant if Black, instead of taking on g2, immediately, plays 5…Bb4+! first, clearing f8 for the Black king. White should therefore go 6.Kf1 when Black has promising compensation after 6…Nf6 followed by 0-0.

I probably wouldn’t have thought about the Greek Defence and its possible roots again (though it’s hard to avoid thinking about Greece these days), but yesterday I received an inspiring new book from the Quality Chess publishers titled The Alterman Gambit Guide, in which GM Boris Alterman devotes an entertaining chapter to a line which is another distant cousin of Greco’s original idea:

1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6 3.e4 Bb7 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.f3 f5! 6.exf5 Nh6!

PGN string

One of the funny things of this line (and indeed many silimar ones) is that here it’s not White who’s doing the Qh5+ checking, but Black: after 7.Bxh6?! there follows 7….Qh4+8.g3 Qxh6 and Black is fine. (This idea is also seen in some variations of the Saemisch King’s Indian.)  Black’s big idea is that if White takes on e6, the knight jumps to f5, threatening a deadly 'Greek' check on h4:

7.fxe6?! Nf5!

PGN string

Alterman now analyses the logical moves 8.Nge2 and 8.Bf4 which are indeed played the most often, but he doesn’t mention another very natural continuation - especially if you are familiar with the idea of clearing a square for your king in the face of the Qh5/h4 check:

8.Bd3!? Now, 8…Qh4+ 9.Kf1 Ng3+ 10.hxg3 Qxh1 11.Nb5! is suddenly good  for White, so Black should play differently. One option is 9…0-0, the other is the immediate 8…0-0 which does, however, allow White to take on f5. (8…Nd4 9.Be4! is what White wants.) In both cases, Black has interesting compensation but, at least according to the engines, not more than that.

When you think of it, the idea of putting a queen on h5 or h4 is so pervasive in this opening that almost anything goes, really. I have always been particularly fascinated (but afraid to try out myself) by this one:

1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6 3.e4 Bb7 4.Bd3 Qh4!?

PGN string

Attacking e4 and if 5.Nf3, then 5…Qg4! and Black threatens to take on g2 as well! Of course, the most beautiful line now is 6.0-0 Bxe4 7.Bxe4 Qxe4 8.Re1 Qb7! when White doesn’t seem to have much compensation despite his huge lead in development. Instead, White has tried several alternatives, most prominently 5.Nd2 and 5.d5 (played by Alexei Shirov, back in 1990, against Eric Prie). My engine, however, comes up with an even cleverer move:

5.h3!? I guess only a machine could come up with the point that 5…Bxe4 fails to 6.g3! and Black loses his bishop: for once, the ‘Greek’ queen is punished for her risky adventure.

I’m sure many of today’s politicians and financial analysts couldn’t agree more.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


pk's picture

I didn't know that Greco was also known as El Greco. Perhaps because there is an even more famous El Greco (

prugno's picture

Indeed, I have never heard of Gioacchino Greco as "El Greco", at most "Il Calabrese" (from his home region of Calabria) is how other contemporary authors such as Salvio referred to him. It wouldn't make much sense either, because "El Greco" is Spanish (and the painter lived in Spain), while in Italian it would be "Il Greco".

I think this is simply an error which should be corrected.

Arne Moll's picture

Hm, interesting. I'm pretty sure I've seen him referred to as 'El Greco' in some old chess books, but you're right it's not a very common reference (though you can find numerous hits on Google with it in a chess context). I've corrected it.  

Arjo's picture

I also played the "Greek Defence" in an official competition game at my chessclub. See game 10:

Greco's picture

Dominikos Theotokopoulos a very famous painter was called El Greco. Not this one...

SadTruth's picture

(Amazingly, he played 7.g7+? but still won. To this day I am convinced Sosonko played this move out of courtesy rather than out of ignorance.)

I am a FM myself and I was also only thinking about g7.

Alvarez's picture

And that's why you are an FM and not a GM :)

Apsyrtos's picture

There may be no opening, but the Greeks have a corner on one of the classic sacrifices in the game with the Greek gift:

Sergio's picture

@Apsyrtos, I knew about the greek gift. They could have made an whole articel about that. Strange that in chess the greek gift is almost always Bxh7, while I think it should be more historical correct to call a typical knight (horse looking figure) sacrafice as greek gift.

Anthony 's picture

I reckon eventually it will be the analysts and politicians etc. who will be seen as the adventurers with their Euro nightmare.

Anthony's picture

In fact, I suggest we re-christian the fools mate the 'euromate'!

PP (NL)'s picture

If there would be a Greek attack, it would be from behind.... ;-)

Nice article!

Panagis  Sklavounos 's picture

The real reason that the opening: 1.e6 b7 was called "Greek Defence" (a name given by the Austrian Johann Baptist Allgaier in his classification of chess openings in 1819) is that traders of Greek origin were playing fianchetto openings in the Vienna coffee houses. During that period the Greeks were under the Othoman Empire rule and the manner of their playing was accustomed to the Othoman kind of chess, which was called "satranji" and was not permitting the double pawn move.
I included this information in my book: "Greek chess players of the 19th century", published in 2010.

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks, Panagis, that is very interesting (even though it somewhat destroys my story :-) ) 

So who are these Greek players who played this opening so often? They certainly were earlier than Owen, who was active in the second half of the 19th century. 

Philipp Somrowsky's picture

nice reminder of Gioachino Greco!

Foibos Iapetidis's picture

Have you ever heard of the Grivas variation in the Sicilian?
It has been employed by many top players.
Grivas is a Greek GM and for a few years now he is the coach of the Greek national team.

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