Play the St. George

St. George was a roman soldier and christian martyr who supposedly slayed a dragon in the 3rd century, and so it is surprising to find his moniker attached to a chess opening that isn’t part of the Yugoslav attack. Rather, the St. George is an “uncommon” opening for black involving the the moves a6, e6, and b5, with the idea of an early queenside fianchetto. Michael Basman has played this for years, and has written a small monograph on it as well. One nice thing about this uncommon opening is that it can be a universal defense for black, like 1…b6, since it is playable against any of white’s first moves.

Famously, Tony Miles beat Karpov with the move 1…a6 in 1980. Naturally, his motivations were to avoid opening theory and try to simply play chess. Incredibly, this worked. Here is the game- annotations by Raymond Keene reproduced from chessgames.com.

What can we conclude form this game other than Karpov clearly had an off day? I’m not entirely sure and would hesitate to go so far as to say this opening is clearly valid because the World Champ stumbled. I do, however, think that this game illustrates the kind of counter-play that black can quickly drum up in this opening. Black has a number of setups, depending on what white does, however, the backbone of the opening is the pawn skeleton a6, b5, e6 and playing for the c5 break early. For someone who already plays 1…b6 and is familiar with the theory of that defense, she will find that many of the same ideas occur here, for instance the possibility of an early f5 strike on the e pawn can be a theme, as well as the importance of hanging onto the dark squared bishop in a pawn skeleton firmly entrenched on white squares.

Probably white’s most common setup against the St. George involves playing Bd3 and holding onto a firm pawn duo on e4 and d4, while threatening to push one of the pawns forward and disrupt Black’s development. The following game collection illustrates ideas for both sides in this setup. As black, I like the idea of pushing c5, and trying to open the c-file for my rook, and perhaps rerouting the queenside knight to the outpost c4 via c6, a5.

Another possible setup for white is the so-called “Three Pawns Attack,” in which white builds a massive center quickly and threatens to bowl black over. Often in this position, Black will gambit a pawn and invite white’s bishop out onto the open where it will lose at least a couple tempo, meanwhile black’s rapid development on the queenside is adequate compensation for the pawn. In face, black gets so much piece play in variations where white takes the pawn immediately that a stronger opponent will likely keep the tension rather than release it so soon. Black often hits the center with an early f5 as well, when the pawn structure may take on a dutch stonewall feel. This is an all out attempt to seize the initiative and comes with the drawback of making yet another pawn move in the opening when already down a pawn, yet it’s likely black’s best chance for survival. Below are some sample games in this line to give you a feel of the themes and possibilities.

Obviously, any opening that involves an early e6 may transpose into a French of some sort, and the St. George often does take on a French flavor, particularly where white plays an early e5, as in the following game. Here, black does best to play d5, making it a kind of french advance where he has developed his light square bishop early. My gut tells me that this is likely not best play objectively speaking, but at first blush black appears to have a nice french advance setup considering his usually struggles with the light square bishop in the mainlines. In the following game, Hodgson, who is known for his interesting opening choices, shows us how it’s done.

Where white chooses solidity above all and plays a King’s Indian Attack setup, the game will turn towards a closed sicilian. In fact, in many instances it can transpose entirely to those lines, which give black simple play and a straight-foward plan involving advancing the queen-side pawns and pressuring the white center with a well timed pawn break, usually d5.