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The Kibitzer

Tim Harding
Can the Ponzi Fly Again?
Recently a new book on the Ponziani opening turned up in my mailbox. It was
written by two of America's leading correspondence players, Dave Taylor and
Keith Hayward. Play the Ponziani is published by Everyman Chess (ISBN
978-1-85744-620-3; US$27-95, UK 16-99, 300 pages softcover). In the year
2000, Dave Taylor had self-published Ponziani Power and now Hayward has
brought it up to date. The new work is very densely packed with information,
providing comprehensive coverage of the opening in the way that the old
Batsford monographs used to do, rather than the selective coverage through
illustrative games as usually seen in Everyman Chess books.
Ponziani Opening
Although I never had much success with the opening, I did (twice) write short
books on it for Chess Digest. The first of these was in 1974, the second and
more substantial work was published ten years later. I note that Hayward and
Taylor do not include the 1984 work in their bibliography, but I think that is
just an oversight as they have clearly seen the book. Both of my old booklets
were in English descriptive notation because that is what the Chess Digest
publisher, Ken Smith, insisted upon.
An image of the Ponzi as a large flightless bird somehow got into my mind.
Had the authors taught it to fly again? So I decided that this opening was
worth another look. The English name of the opening is really a misnomer. 3
c3 is much older, but Domenico Lorenzo Ponziani (1719-96) analysed 3f5
in his book The Incomparable Game of Chess and the name eventually stuck.
I first came across this opening (with black) as a young player when J. B.
Howson, a strong English civil service club player, came to my school to give
a simultaneous display in the early 1960s. I no longer have the game score,
but it probably was not worth preserving.
After 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 c3 (the characteristic move of the Ponziani) White
apparently intends to follow up with d2-d4 and then recapture on d4 with the
pawn, achieving a big pawn centre. However there is another point to 3 c3.
I probably thought, like so many others meeting it for the first time,
something along the following lines. "That's a silly move. Now I can play the
freeing move 3d5 because after 4 exd5 Qxd5 he cannot hit my queen by
Nc3 as he has stupidly blocked the knight with his pawn."
There followed 3d5 4 Qa4!
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[FEN "r1bqkbnr/ppp2ppp/2n5/3pp3/Q3P3/
2P2N2/PP1P1PPP/RNB1KB1R b KQkq - 0 4"]
"Ouch. I didn't see that. He didn't take my pawn or defend his e-pawn. My
knight is pinned. If I play 4dxe5, he plays 5 Nxe5 and I am in trouble on c6,
but if I play 4Bd7, then my d-pawn is no longer defended."
I probably did not even consider 4f6, or 4Qd6, both of which protect the
e-pawn, because the first is an ugly and apparently weakening move, while
the latter offends against the principle of moving the queen early . although
that is what White has just done.
I cannot remember what I played, but I know I lost quickly. Afterwards
Howson showed me a few tricks of the trade.
3d5 is actually playable, but Black needs to know what he is doing. If he is
unprepared, White has excellent chances of achieving a significant opening
advantage. The details follow later in the article.
Every other reply for Black and a final assessment of the book will follow in
the September column.
Comments from a Loyal Reader
It seems that the Ponziani Opening does not attract a large following, but it
does attract extraordinary loyalty from the few who find it suits their style.
Last month I invited any readers who had played the Ponziani to send in
comments or analysis, and one did. Many thanks to 2103-rated Robert Taylor
from Preston in England (no relation of the co-author, I think), who will find
himself quoted several times in this article.
Robert Taylor comments, "The book is impressive in terms of its scope . I
have previous books on the opening and no-one has been this thorough
previously, I think; however I do take issue with some of the 'preferred lines'
given by Hayward and in a small number of places I think he leaves things out
. maybe for space reasons, or other considerations. Also I do disagree with
his assessments in a couple of places (he is stronger than me of course but I
stick to my guns!)."
On the opening itself, Robert Taylor writes, "The most optimistic assessment
I can make of 3 c3 is that it is fifth best in the position, but even so, I still
employ it several times a year. Entertainment value (added to which, so many
black players steer away from the critical positions, so my score with the
move is no worse than you'd expect . quite the reverse)!"
The rest of this month's article is devoted to a detailed look at the 3d5
variation and the September column will deal with 3Nf6 and Black's other
possibilities, and any further reader feedback.
A Detailed Look at the 3d5 Line
It is now time to make a detailed examination of the critical positions arising
from 3d5. I look at these first because, frankly, if you do not like the type of
game you obtain with white here, then you should not be playing the
Ponziani. The play is sharp, but the opportunities of obtaining a clear, if not
decisive, advantage (or disadvantage) straight out of the opening are greater in

the 3d5 variation than in almost any other line arising from 3 c3.
An important position to note is the following, which commonly occurs after
White's fifth move when Black defends his e-pawn by 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 c3
d5 4 Qa4 f6, and now 5 Bb5.