Tricky Traps!

It’s hard to overstate how important Fred Waitzkin’s Searching for Bobby Fischer (the book, not the movie) was in forming my early understanding of the chess world. From it I learned about the mid 1980s scholastic chess scene, the realities of living under Soviet rule, and an abiding respect for the teachings of Bruce Pandolfini.

It also introduced me to the idea of the “opening trap.” Waitzkin’s book is haunted by traps – those that the young Josh didn’t know, those that the blitz players in the park sprung on unwary opponents – and I distinctly recall how impressed I was by this. Could it be possible that games could be won simply with an opening trick? My copy of Modern Chess Openings (13th edition!) became my bible, and I dutifully scoured those pages for sure-fire wins… with, alas, very little to show for my effort.

Today I know that my juvenile obsession was somewhat misguided. There are, in reality, very few traps that will win games on the spot. Nevertheless, it remains the case that within most major opening systems, there are small tricks or nuances that players must attend to, lest they be set with a serious disadvantage.

I helped collect six such ‘tricky traps’ for the infographic (page 12) in the October issue of Chess Life. In this web companion, I give some details on each of the six positions discussed there, and talk a bit about how I came to settle on each of them.

The first thing that came to mind was a tricky line in the Caro-Kann that a local chess friend has recently shown me. I will not reveal his identity here, lest I ruin his opening surprise, but this friend has been playing 1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 when Black can (and has!) go wrong with 4…Bf5?! 5.Ng3 Bg6 (5…Bg4 6.Bc4!?) 6.h4 h6 7.Ne5 Bh7? (7…Qd6 8.d4 +/-) 8.Qh5 g6 9.Qf3 and White has a significant edge.

The most famous game using this variation is Lasker-Mueller from Zurich 1934.

Part of what makes this ‘trap’ so tricky is the slight deviation in move order on move two. By playing 2.Nc3 instead of 2.d4, White gains a tempo in lines where Black exchanges on e4 and plays …Bf5, as in the main line of the Caro-Kann. If Black continues to play in that vein, he runs into serious trouble. The database (as of early September) shows that Black falls into this trap 24% of the time in 6,711 games, and White has a win rate of 66%.

One of the first books I reviewed, way back in 2013, was Richard Pert’s Playing the Trompowsky. As part of his discussion, he analyzes 2.Bg5 against the Dutch, a move that remains troublesome for the unprepared f-pawn pusher, and one that has been part of my opening repertoire ever since.

In reading Pert’s book I was impressed with this position, which emerges after 1.d4 f5 2.Bg5 h6 3.Bh4 g5 4.e4!? Bg7 (alternatives: 4…Nf6 5.e5 e6 6.Bg3 f4 7.Bd3; 4…Rh7) 5.Bg3. Black can try to win a piece with 5…f4? (5…fxe4 is better) but White has a surprise up her sleeve: 6.Bxf4! gxf4 7.Qh5+ Kf8 8.Qf5+ Ke8 (if 8…Nf6 9.e5 d6 10.Qxf4) and now White plays 9.Be2! with significant initiative.

Here’s an example of how White’s game almost plays itself.

According to the database Black has reached this position 107 times, and played 5…f4? 43 times, when White has a win rate of nearly 70%.

I learned about our third  ‘tricky trap’ on Twitter. Or, better put, I was reminded of it when I saw that IM and WGM Ana Matnadze had fallen into it at the 2019 European Women’s Championship. (Yes, titled players fall into traps too!)

Matnadze’s error came in a standard line of the Accelerated Dragon or Symmetrical English: after 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 g6 6.e4 d6 7.Be2 Bg7 8.Be3 0–0 9.0–0 Black almost always plays 9…Bd7 or 9…Nxd4 10.Bxd4 Bd7. Why not the tempting 9…Ng4?

Here’s how it all shook out in Cramling-Matnadze:

There are 15,741 games with the key position after 9.0-0 in the database. In just 145 games – less than 1% – does Black play 9…Ng4, but White wins nearly 90% of the games in which it is played. A handy trap to know!

No discussion of opening traps would be complete without the famous “Noah’s Ark” trap, made famous (or infamous) after a World Champion overlooked it twice in his analysis!

The position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 5.d4 b5 6.Bb3 Nxd4 7.Nxd4 exd4 occurs 934 times in the database. I was shocked to learn that 135 players – nearly 14% — fell into this ancient pitfall with 8.Qxd4! Naturally Black’s win rate after such an error is a healthy 78%.

The Slav was one of the first openings I played with Black. I tried the Meran and mainline (4…dxc4 and 5…Bf5) but in both cases, I was always concerned with what happened when White played Bg5. I didn’t want to learn all the theory of the Botvinnik Variation, not that I would have understood it anyway, so I turned to the Cambridge Springs defense. It can be reached through a number of move orders, but the main one is 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c6 5.Bg5 Nbd7 6.e3 Qa5.

Here White’s main moves are 7.Nd2, 7.cxd5, and 7.Bxf6. 7.Bd3 looks logical, but it turns out that after Black’s 7…Ne4 there is a bit of poison.

If 8.Qa4? Qxa4 9.Nxa4 Bb4+ 10.Ke2 Nxg5 11.Nxg5 and Black is much better, while after 8.cxd5?! Nxc3 9.bxc3 Qxc3+ 10.Kf1 Black has an edge. The only move that keeps equality for White is 8.Bxe4 dxe4 9.Ne5 (but not 9.Nd2?? Qxg5).

What about 8.Qc2?, which White tried in 19% of games after 7.Bd3 Ne4? Black’s answer is 8…Nxg5 9.Nxg5 dxc4 10.Bxc4 Qxg5 when, per the database, Black wins the vast majority of the games.

Last but not least, the Levenfish Attack has been a personal favorite ever since I first saw it referenced in Walter Tevis’ The Queens Gambit, soon to be serialized in a mini-series on Netflix. The teenaged wunderkind Beth Harmon destroys her training partner (and paramour) Benny Watts with it in a blitz blindfold game.

Not many Dragoneers study the Levenfish, as it is not considered critical by today’s theoretical standards. That does not mean that it is without danger, especially if Black develops normally after 6.f4 Bg7?. (Note that both 6…Nc6 and 6…Nbd7 are equal, with White’s best chances to play in a manner akin to the Grand Prix attack.)

Now White springs the trap: 7.e5 dxe5 (7…Nh5!?) 8.fxe5 (this is the diagrammed position) and if 8…Ng4? (8…Nfd7 9.e6!) White wins with 9.Bb5+. There’s no way to avoid losing material. Key lines include:

9…Nd7 10.Qxg4
9…Nc6 10.Nxc6 Qxd1+ 11.Nxd1 a6 12.Ba4 b5 13.Bb3
9…Bd7 10.Qxg4
9…Kf8 10.Ne6++-

Black falls for 8…Ng4 about 37% of the time according to the online database, after which White wins nearly 90% of the time.

What are your favorite opening traps? Did we miss any big ones? Let us know in the comments to this article!


  1. Very nice collection!

    I’ve won many online games with this line I picked up from the Opening for White According to Kramnik series: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Bg4?! 4.Ne5 Bh5? (4…Bc8 may be necessary) 5.Qb3! and White is already close to winning: 5…Qb6? 6.Qh3! (hitting c8 and the h-file) is nice geometry.

    NM Frederick Rhine pointed out a cheap trap in the King’s Gambit a couple years ago. My memory is not very good, and I’ve fallen for it more than once online (before and after he told me!): 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.d4 g4 5.Ne5 Qh4+ (Black is better) 6.g3 fxg3 7.Qxg4 and now instead of the good 7…Qxg4!, Black gets greedy/”brilliant” with 7…g2+? 8.Qxh4 g1=Q But now White has 9.Nc3! with excellent compensation for the sacrificed rook.

  2. Or was I mixing up my King’s Gambit lines above? There’s also 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.Nc3 (instead of 4.d4) 4…g4 5.Ne5. Now 5…Nc6 and 5….d5 are moves, but 5…Qh4? is strangely bad because of a similar trick to the previous comment: 6.g3 fxg3 7.Qxg4! g2+? (again, Black should bail out with 7…Qxg4) 8.Qxh4 gxh1=Q and now 9.Qh5! Nh6 10.d4! is a winning attack.

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