If you can’t beat ’em, Ulf ’em…

One of my earliest chess heroes in the 1970s was Ulf Andersson. Ulfie’s most famous trait was his endgame technique, and he liked nothing better than to exchange queens early on, and then grind his opponents down, in supposedly equal endings. I remember Michael Stean writing about when Andersson played at Hastings around this time. In those halcyon days of old, before the top GMs spent every spare moment of their lives wired up to their laptops, they would spend the evenings during a tournament in the hotel lounge, rubbing shoulders with the amateurs, talking chess and playing blitz. Stean recalled that when Ulfie played blitz, he would often remove the queens from the board , and sometimes the rooks as well, and then play the game with only the remaining pieces! Needless to say, he was virtually unbeatable.


“Illegitimi non carborundum” – Ulf Andersson, Grinder supreme

I soon learnt from Ulfie the effectiveness of chopping queens early on. Most amateur players hate such “dry” positions, and they usually play them badly. It is also a great way to avoid having to study opening theory. If you are content to exchange pieces early on, and settle for a quiet position where you have no objective advantage, but can simply play chess in a calm, technical position, then you have a slew of variations, in which you can do this. Lines with dxe5 against the King’s Indian, 7.dxc5 against the QGA, the Berlin Wall endgame as Black, etc – all these lines produce an early queen exchange, and often have the opponent snoring peacefully within a few more moves, his slumbers only broken when he suddenly wakes up and realises he is losing the ending!

GM Keith Arkell (photo: John Saunders/Chessbase)

I had great success playing in this style. Another GM, who has made a healthy living from such an approach, is England’s Keith Arkell. Keith freely confesses to being an Ulfie fan, and he has honed the “Ulfing” approach into a fearsomely effective weapon in British weekend tournaments. In the following game,  he anaesthetises a strong FM opponent, and lifelong Grunfeld expert, and wins with seemingly effortless ease.

[Event “Hastings Masters”] 

[Date “2010.01.01”]

 [White “Arkell, Keith C”]

[Black “Knott, Simon J B”] 

1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 d5 3. cxd5 Nxd5 4. Nf3 g6 5. g3 Bg7 6. Bg2 O-O 7. O-O Nc6 8. d4 Nb6 9. e3 Re8 10. b3 e5

Much midnight oil has been spent by White players, trying to prove a theoretical advantage against this neo-Grunfeld line. But if you are an Ulfer, you can ignore all this, and just switch on the hoover, the moment Black’s pawn gets to e5! 11. Nxe5 Nxe5 12. dxe5 Qxd1 13. Rxd1 Bxe5 14. Bb2 c6 15. Rd2 Bf5 16. Rad1 a5 17. Ne2 Bxb2 18. Rxb2 Rad8 19. Rc1 

This is a clever and non-standard move. Arkell abandons the open d-file to his opponent, but realises it does not matter, as White will plug the file with Nd4, and all the while the black c-pawn cannot reach c5, Black cannot remove the knight. Meanwhile, White intends to attack the queenside with b3-b4. Re7 20. Nd4 Be4 21. Bxe4 Rxe4 22. b4 Na4 23. Rb3 axb4 24. Rxb4 c5 25. Rxa4 cxd4 

26. Rd1! One of the secrets of successful Ulfing is never to forget about tactics. Most club players switch off their tactical alertness, once the queens come off, and think that tactics no longer matter in endings. Nothing could be further from the truth. This nice double-pin of the black d-pawn wins a pawn. Rc8 27. Rb1 Re6 28. Rxd4 Rc2 29. Rf4 b6 30. a4 Ra2 31. g4 g5 32. Rf5 h6 33. Rb4 Kg7 34. h4 gxh4 35. Rbf4 f6 36. Rb4 Rc6 37. Kg2

Rc5 Black’s last chance was to go active with 37…Rc1. 38. Rff4 Rg5 39. Kh3 Ra1 40. Kxh4 h5

Now another tactical blow wraps things up quickly. 41. Rxf6! Rxg4+ 42. Rxg4+ Kxf6 43. Kxh5 Kf5 44. Rf4+ 1-0

A fine example of Ulfing, a much underrated approach to chess!

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