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1937 Margate - Thomas vs. Keres
Every Move Explained


Paul Keres (1916-1977) was an Estonian grandmaster who tops the list of players who never competed in a World Championship match. In 1948, he played in the World Championship match tournament at The Hague and Moscow, where he finished tied for 3rd/4th out of 5 players.

He played in the candidates event for each of the next six subsequent World Championship cycles, where 1st place won the right to challenge the reigning World Champion. In the 1953 event, he finished tied for 2nd-4th behind Smyslov; in the 1956 event, he finished 2nd, again behind Smyslov; in the 1959 event, he finished 2nd behind Tal; and in the 1962 event, he finished tied for 2nd-3rd behind Petrosian. His nickname was Paul the 2nd.

After Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, Keres was invited to play in the U.S.S.R. Championship. He won in 1947 on his second attempt.

Sir George Alan Thomas (1881-1972) was an English player who was awarded the title of International Master (IM) in 1950, when the titles were first distributed by FIDE. He twice won the British Championship, and was a also a champion badminton player.

Margate (Kent, England) was the site of annual Easter tournaments between 1935 and 1939. Our game was played in 1937, when Keres tied for 1st/2nd with the strong American player Reuben Fine.

Thomas played the White pieces.

Next move: 1.e4 • For more about White's first move, see our tutorial Chess Openings - Initial Position.


This game was included in The Complete Games of Paul Keres, written by Keres himself. The title 'Complete Games' is misleading, because the book doesn't include all games by Keres. It is rather a collection of three volumes in one: 'Early Games', 'Middle Years', and 'Later Years'. The game with Thomas was included in 'Early Games', covering the period 1929-1938.

Of 1937, Keres wrote:

I began this eventful year with a training tournament at Tallinn [Estonia], where I attained first place ahead of [Paul] Schmidt. Then I left for the traditional Easter tournament at Margate. It turned out the many tournaments I had already played had improved my play to a very considerable degree. I played easily, without any strained effort and in addition produced some really good chess. Undoubtedly the best game I played was that against [Alexander] Alekhine, but also the encounters with Sir George Thomas, [T.H.] Tylor, and [C.H.O'D.] Alexander are good, artistic achievements.

Thomas was primarily a 1.e4 player, although he opened 1.d4 once in a while. In his notes to the game, Keres described Thomas' as 'a quiet positional player who usually avoids complications and feels most at home in peaceful positions where he can exert some light positional pressure on his opponent.'

Keres described his own style at the time as lively and combinative, whereas 'I had still had much to learn in quiet positional play'. At the 1936 Munich Olympiad, he had 'allowed full rein to an easy combinational style' with an excellent result.

Next move: 1...e5 • For more about Black's responses to 1.e4, see our tutorial Chess Openings - King's Pawn Openings.


The move 1...e5 was Keres' favorite response to 1.e4 in the 1930s, and he remained faithful to the move throughout his career. His backup in the 1930s was the French Defense (1...e6). Later in his career he abandoned the French in favor of the Sicilian Defense (1...c5) as his backup defense.

Like Thomas, he favored 1.e4 as White. When faced with 1...e5, he usually replied 2.Nf3, along with an occasional King's Gambit (2.f4) in his early career.

Keres was also a prolific writer and wrote works on all phases of chess. Later in his career, he was the author of a number of theoretical works on the opening. He was a recognized specialist in the 1.e4 e5 variations, especially the offbeat lines.

For a discussion of the ideas behind the first two moves for both sides in this game -- 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 -- see also Every Move Explained, 1844 Romantic Game.

Next move: 2.Nf3 • For more about White's responses to 1...e5, see our tutorial Chess Openings - Open Game.


Thomas almost always replied 2.Nf3 when facing an Open Game. He was undoubtedly aware that Keres always replied 2...Nc6.

Next move: 2...Nc6 • For more about Black's responses to 2.Nf3, see our tutorial Chess Openings - Open Game 2.Nf3.


When Keres replied 2...Nc6, he was aware that Thomas always continued with the Ruy Lopez (3.Bb5), rather than one of the other third moves for White. Of those moves, the Lopez is considered to put Black under the most pressure.

Next move: 3.Bb5 • For more about White's responses to 2...Nc6, see our tutorial Chess Openings - Open Game 2.Nf3 Nc6.


The move 3.Bb5 is known as the Ruy Lopez or the Spanish Game. It is White's most direct attempt to keep the small initiative that comes from the privilege of playing the first move in a game of chess. It combines both strategical and tactical objectives.

Strategically, White completes the development of the minor pieces on the Kingside and is ready to castle on the next move. Tactically, White attacks the Knight that is guarding the e-Pawn that is itself attacked by the White Knight.

In fact, 3.Bb5 doesn't yet threaten to win a Pawn, as we'll see on the next move. Eventually, though, it will threaten to win the e-Pawn and Black must stay alert to that possibility.

Next move: 3...a6 • For more about Black's many moves in response to 3.Bb5, see our tutorial Chess Openings - Ruy Lopez.


While Black has many playable third moves in the Ruy Lopez, the move 3...a6 is considered to be the best. By threatening to win a piece for a Pawn, it forces the light squared Bishop to move again. This forces White to decide a future for the Bishop: exchange it for the Knight; move to a4, maintaining the attack on the Knight; or retreat along the a6-f1 diagonal.

In fact, White almost never retreats along the diagonal. The choices are 4.Ba4 or 4.Bxc6.

It is important to note that the move 4.Bxc6 doesn't win a Pawn. After 4.Bxc6, Black continues 4...dxc6 (not 4...bxc6, when White can grab the e-Pawn). If now 5.Nxe5, Black plays 5...Qd4. By attacking the Knight and e-Pawn at the same time, White recovers the Pawn.

It is also worth noting that after 4.Ba4, Black has the move ...b5 in reserve. If White ever really threatens to win the Black e-Pawn, the move ...b5 will eliminate the threate fro good.

Keres knew that Thomas always played 4.Ba4 in this position.

Next move: 4.Ba4 • For more about White's two main responses to 3...a6, see our tutorial Chess Openings - Ruy Lopez.


White declines to exchange the Bishop for the Knight and maintains the pressure on the e-Pawn. Because of the tactical sequence discussed in the previous move, the Pawn is still not subject to capture without compensation.

Now Black has the choice between 4...Nf6 and 4...d6. The move 4...Nf6 is the overwhelming favorite among top players, and Thomas certainly expected Keres to continue with the Knight move.

Next move: 4...Nf6 • For more about Black's choices after 4.Ba4, see our tutorial Chess Openings - Ruy Lopez 4.Ba4.


Keres replied 4...Nf6 as Thomas expected. The Knight move starts the development of the Kingside by bringing the Knight to its natural square. The move also attacks the White e-Pawn, which is presently undefended.

Now we reach the first turning point in the game. The most popular move for White is now 5.O-O. White castles and pauses to see Black's next move, where Black has an important choice between 5...Nxe4 (the Open Variation) and 5...Be7 (the Closed Variation).

Besides 5.O-O, the options for White are played infrequently. Thomas had used two other moves in the past -- 5.Qe2 and 5.Nc3 -- although his first weapon had always been 5.O-O.

Next move: 5.Nc3


White takes a path less traveled. On 5.Nc3 Keres remarked:

This restrained method of play is a favorite continuation of Sir George Thomas's in the Ruy Lopez, and one with which he has obtained many fine successes. The line is similar to the Four Knights', with the exception of the moves ...a6 and Ba4 and these basically alter the character of the position.

The Four Knights Variation, which is considered quiet and drawish, is characterized by the move 3.Nc3, instead of 3.Bb5 as in the Ruy Lopez. A popular continuation after 3.Nc3 is 3...Nf6 4.Bb5 Bb4. If Black should continue instead 4...a6, then 5.Ba4 would produce the same position as in the diagram. Unfortunately, the move 4...a6 is a mistake, because White plays not 5.Ba4, but 5.Bxc6, winning the e-Pawn.

Back to the diagrammed position, Keres continued:

After 5...Bb4 White can reply very strongly 6.Nd5. The mechanical reply 6...Nxd5 would, after 7.exd5 e4 8.dxc6 exf3 9.cxd7+ etc., simply lose a Pawn. Black can, however, make use of these extra moves to protect his e-Pawn quietly by 5...b5. This small differentiation from the normal Four Knights' is sufficient to dispel the drawish nature of the opening in certain cases.

Next move: 5...b5


Black continues with the move that he considers 'sufficient to dispel the drawish nature of the opening'. The Pawn move attacks the White Bishop and forces White's reply. It also stops any possibility of Bb5xc6 followed by Nf3xe5, winning a Pawn.

Next move: 6.Bb3


The retreat of the White Bishop is forced. Capturing twice on b5, whether with the Knight first or the Bishop first, gives up a minor piece for two Pawns. This is not good because, other things being equal, a minor piece is worth three Pawns. Here, other things are equal and two Pawns is not sufficient compensation.

Next move: 6...d6


This is the hardest move in the game to explain. Keres assigned the move a '!?', meaning a speculative or interesting move. He explained the move using the following reasoning:

This seemingly highly risky move is psychologically well motivated. Sir George Thomas is known to be a quiet positional player who usually avoids complications and feels most at home in peaceful positions where he can exert some light positional pressure on his opponent. His intended "methodical" continuation in this variation would probably be: 6...Be7 7.O-O d6 8.a4 b4 9.Nd5 as, for instance, occurred in the game Sir George Thomas - Alekhine, Hastings, 1922. Therefore, Black tries with the text move to give the game quite another turn and to this end he is ready to embark on unforeseeable complications.

Thomas played 5.Nc3 against Alekhine and he played it against Keres. Both of those opponents were tactical geniuses who studied the opening phase of chess carefully. Although it had taken Alekhine more than 80 moves to score the full point, Thomas had good chances through much of the game. Was he hoping for similar chances against Keres?

Keres again:

The sequence of moves chosen by Black has the advantage that White can no longer arrive at the usual variation. After 7.a4 b4 8.Nd5, Black can, in addition to 8...Nxe4, also very well play 8...Na5.

The most important move in the position, however, is not 7.a4, but 7.Ng5.

Next move: 7.Ng5


White attacks f7 for the second time. Keres:

How is Black to protect f7? It would appear that Sir George Thomas could find no reply to this query during the game, and he plunges into complications in which even in subsequent analysis it is practically impossible to find absolutely the right continuation.

When a club player lets you play a move like 7.Ng5, you just play it. When a grandmaster lets you play it, you look around a little, then you play it. Keres again:

There are probably very few players who would not have embarked on this sally here. Now Black is forced to make the ensuing Pawn sacrifice, but he retains thereafter an enduring initiative and sets his opponent some difficult problems. The system initiated by the moves 5...b5 and 6...d6 does, in any case, merit further notice and is probably a playable way of avoiding the various unpleasantness threatened by 5.Nc3.

By 'unpleasantness', Keres means remaining on the defensive for the forseeable future.

Next move: 7...d5


Very surprisingly, Black moves the d-Pawn for the second consecutive move. This protects the f-Pawn by blocking the Bishop's diagonal, but leaves the d-Pawn insufficiently protected. It is attacked by three pieces and defended by two. Keres:

This Pawn sacrifice is already known in positions where White can only capture by 8.exd5 In the position in the game, however, White can also capture with the Knight and this makes matters much more complicated.

After 8.exd5 there would equally follow 8...Nd4 and if then White by 9.d6 Nxb3 10.dxc7 Qxc7 11.axb3 went in for winning a Pawn then Black after 11...Bb7 obtains a fine position with excellent attacking prospects.

What about 8.Bxd5? Black has the forced sequence 8...Nxd5 9.Nxd5 Qxg5 10.Nxc7+ Kd8 11.Nxa8 Qxg2 12.Rf1, when 12...Nd4 wins easily.

Did Keres find the moves 6...d6 and 7...d5 while the game was being played, or did he find them during his home preparation. While we can't be completely sure, it's a good bet that he found the idea at home. Alekhine had been World Champion from 1927 to 1935 (and would regain the title later in 1937), and Keres would undoubtedly have studied his games. Thomas was a strong English player whom Keres was bound to meet during tournaments scheduled in England. He had certainly played through the 1922 game during his preparation and would have noticed the unusual fifth move in one of his own pet openings.

Next move: 8.Nxd5


As pointed out in the previous note, this appears to be the strongest way to capture the attacked Pawn. White threatens to exchange on f6, when the Black f-Pawn is again exposed to the combined attack of the White Bishop and Knight.

If now 8...Be6, then 9.Nxe6 fxe6 10.Nxf6+ Qxf6. Black is still down a Pawn with a mangled Pawn structure.

Next move: 8...Nd4


This Knight move aims to eliminate the dangerous Bishop on b3. Once the Bishop is gone, the White attack on f7 will disappear. Keres:

Surprisingly enough, this Knight attack proves to be strong enough in this position to ensure Black adequate counterplay. Despite manifold analyses and researches published in chess literature after the game it is still not clear how White could obtain here concrete chances of an opening advantage. Rather the opposite is the case. White must play most carefully in the ensuing phase of the game so as not to fall victim to a withering attack on the part of his better developed opponent.

Here Keres gave a tangle of tactical variations demonstrating that Black is better. The most critical is 9.Nxf6+ Qxf6 10.d3 (not 10.Nxf7 Nxb3 or 10.Bxf7+ Ke7 11.d3 h6) 10...h6 11.Nh3 Qg6 12.Kf1 Bg4. If 9.d3, Black has 9...Nxb3 10.axb3 Nxd5 11.exd5 Qxd5. If 9.Nc3, then 9...Nxb3 10.axb3 b4 11.Na4 h6 12.Nf3 Nxe4 13.Qe2 Bb7 14.d3 Ng5, 'and in return for the Pawn Black has a fine position with good attacking chances'.

The position after 8...Nd4 is excellent for tactical study.

Next move: 9.Ne3


Keres: 'White fails to obtain a satisfactory result with this retreat, but what should he play?' White's other moves leave Black with a continuing attack.

White envisions a position where, in return for giving up his well placed Bishop, he gets an open a-file for his Rook and keeps his extra Pawn. Because of the renewed threat on f7, Black's next move is forced.

Next move: 9...Nxb3


Black eliminates the best developed White piece (the Knight on g5 is easily repulsed), which is also attacking f7. In return, White gets an open file for the Queenside Rook. This will prove harmless to Black, because the backward Pawn on a6 is easily defended and not easily attacked.

Next move: 10.axb3


The Knight has to be recaptured and this is the type of position where the principle of 'capture toward the center' applies. The move 10.cxb3, weakening the White center, would be a mistake.

Next move: 10...h6


Black has eliminated one of the White attackers and now eliminates the second. The Knight on g5 is also the sole defender of the White Pawn on e4, which is already attacked once.

Next move: 11.Nf3


The move 11.Nf3 is forced. The Knight retreats, attacking the Black Pawn on e5 at the same time. The only other feasible move, 11.Nh3, leaves the Knight far from the action and loses the e-Pawn.

Next move: 11...Nxe4


Black captures the loose e-Pawn. Keres: 'With his two Bishops and better development Black naturally seeks to open up the position and therefore both center Pawns are exchanged.'

Next move: 12.Nxe5


White in turn captures the loose e-Pawn. White is still a Pawn ahead and the position is tense.

If it were White's move, then 13.Qf3, threatening mate and attacking the pinned Knight on e4 would win immediately, but it is Black's move. Black has the initiative.

Next move: 12...Qf6


Black strikes first, threatening mate on f2 and attacking the Knight on e5. White has several possible moves to defend both threats: 13.N5g4, 13.Nf3, 13.N3g4, 13.Nd3, and the surprising 13.Qh5, when 13.Qxf2+ Kd1 leaves Black vulnerable on f7. Which move is best?

The move 13.N5g4, retreating the Knight, covering f2, and attacking the Queen is tempting. After 13...Qg6 14.O-O Bd6, Black threatens ...h5 and the Knight on g4 has no good retreat. White prefers a safer square to retreat the Knight.

Next move: 13.Nf3


White retreats the attacked Knight and shields f2 from the attack of the Black Queen. The Knight move 13.Nf3 also shields the a8-h1 diagonal, the b2 square in particular, if Black should develop the Bishop on that diagonal.

Next move: 13...Bb7


Black develops the Bishop on the long diagonal. The backward Pawn on a6, which is under attack by the Rook, is kept protected by the Bishop, allowing Black to castle Queenside ...O-O-O.

Next move: 14.Qe2


White has two natural moves -- Qe2 and O-O -- and it is not obvious in which order they should be played. Many players would opt for castling first.

White would also like to play d2-d3, forcing the enemy Knight to retreat, but this opens the a5-e1 diagonal, inviting ...Bb4+. It is better to castle first.

Next move: 14...O-O-O


Black moves the King out of the center and activates the Rook. Black's Queenside Pawn structure leaves the King a little exposed, but the White pieces are not developed well enough to take advantage of this.

Next move: 15.O-O


With Black's Queen on f6, the Bishop on b7, the Knight on e4, and the other Bishop ready to go to d6, we can imagine White feeling uncomfortable about castling Kingside. What else is White to do with the King?

Leaving the King in the center is not an option. How will the Rook on h1 participate in the game? Castling O-O-O requires 15.d3 first, when 15...Bb4+ can't be blocked by 16.c3 because of 16...Nxc3.

White hopes that the Knights on e3 and f3, together with the lack of weaknesses in the White Pawn structure will allow a successful defense against any Kingside attack. Now that White has castled O-O, the move d2-d3 can be considered.

Next move: 15...Bd6


Black develops the last minor piece, directing it toward the castled King. Keres summed up the position verbally:

Now we see the first fruits of Black's Pawn sacrifice. He has developed his pieces ideally and they are aiming at White's Kingside, whereas the White pieces are still lacking in cooperation. It is clear, beyond all doubt, that Black possesses here more than adequate compensation for the Pawn and that the White position is scarcely to be defended even with the best play.

Naturally we cannot maintain that the position arising after 9.Ne3 could be attained by force. White could have chosen other ways of developing his pieces at earlier stages in the game. It must, however, be conceded that Black always retains sufficient opening advantage to justify his small material sacrifice.

Following Keres' hint, if we compare the position after 9.Ne3 with the position after 15...Bd6, we see that White has castled and has developed the Queen and the Queenside Rook. The Bishop on c1 is still two moves away from being developed. Black has castled, has developed both Bishops to active squares, and has activated one of the Rooks. Moreover, the Knight on e4 is developed more aggressively than either of the two White Knights.

Keres also points out that 'White still cannot proceed with the development of his Queen's wing, since after 16.d3 there would come the very awkward 16...Ng5.' After 16.d3 Ng5, the exchange 17.Nxg5 would be disastrous because of 17...hxg5, opening the h-file to Black's Rook and letting another Black piece into the attack on the White King.

Next move: 16.Ng4


The idea behind this move, which attacks the Black Queen, is to entice Black into an exchange of minor pieces followed by recapturing the sacrificed Pawn. This would reduce the pressure on White"s King.

Next move: 16...Qf5


Black must move the Queen. It is difficult to see which Queen move is best. Keres considered 16...Qg6 to be a little more accurate, 'Nevertheless, the text move is also adequate.'

Now if 17.Nh4, then 17...Qh5 'with a decisive attack for Black.' If 18.g3, then either Rook to e8 threatens a discovered attack on the White Queen.

Next move: 17.d3


White is running out of options and plays the move that was avoided on the previous move. How else can the Queenside be developed? White is hoping for 17...Qxg4, but Keres wants more from the position:

Black also would like to avoid simplifying too much and he therefore refrains from 17...Qxg4 18.dxe4 Rhe8, though this would regain the Pawn with an excellent position. With the text move he hopes to decide the game in his favor by a direct Kingside attack, but White still has some stubborn defensive chances.

Was Keres second guessing his next move?

Next move: 17...Ng5


Under attack by the Pawn, the Knight moves to a square where it maintains pressure on the White Kingside. In addition to 17...Qxg4, mentioned in the previous note, Black could have moved either Rook to e8, but is trying to avoid any minor piece exchanges that would reduce the tension.

Now the Knight on f3 is attacked three times and defended only twice. Since there are no other pieces available for its defense, it must move. White again avoids 18.Nxg5, opening the h-file to Black's Rook. If 18.Nfe5, then 18...Ne6 threatening ...h5; if 18.Ne1, then 18...h5 immediately.

Next move: 18.Nh4


The Knight escapes capture by jumping off the dangerous diagonal. At the same time, it attacks the Black Queen and protects the sensitive weakness on g2.

Now we see why 16...Qg6 would have been better than 16...Qf5. If the Queen were now on g6, Black could play 18...Qh5. The Queen finds a good square anyway.

Next move: 18...Qd5


Black moves the Queen away from the attack of the Knight and creates a battery of Queen and Bishop on the long diagonal. The battery is directed at the g2 square, which is protected only by the Knight on h4. If that Knight could be forced to move, Black would have checkmate on the move.

Here Keres pointed out that the best defense was 19.f4: 'Black would then reply 19...Ne6 and still retain some very dangerous threats'. The moves ...Qh5 and ...Nd4 would be two of those threats.

Next move: 19.c4


White tries to drive the Queen off the long diagonal, but misses the best chance with 19.f4. Now White has a nice tactical blow.

Next move: 19...Nh3+


White's g2 is protected by the Knight on h4, but the square h1 is unprotected. Since the move 20.gxh3 would lose immediately to 20...Qh1 mate, White is forced to play the only other legal move.

Next move: 20.Kh1


White plays the only move that avoids immediate checkmate.

Next move: 20...Qh5


Black's last move cleared the fifth rank, allowing the Queen to move to h5. On that square it attacks the hapless White Knight on h4 and pins the Knight on g4 to the White Queen.

Keres: 'This is immediately decisive, since the Knight on h4 cannot now be protected. The ensuing counterplay can already be classed as desperation.' White can't capture the Knight on h3, because the g-Pawn is pinned by the Bishop on b7.

Next move: 21.c5


White is grasping at straws. The move 21.Nf3 leaves the Knight on g4 undefended and the Knight on h4 has no other retreat squares. The move played, 21.c5, attacks the Bishop and is based on the principle that an attacked piece (the Knight on h4) can be defended by attacking a piece of equal value (the Bishop on d6). Black could now play 21...Bxc5, but first brings another piece into play.

Next move: 21...Rhe8


The only undeveloped Black piece, the Rook on h8, enters the game with an attack on the White Queen. The Pawn on c5 can be captured next move.

If now 22.Be3, Black has 22...Qxh4 23.cxd6 Bxg2+! 24. Kxg2 Nf4+ winning the Queen, as pointed out by Keres.

Next move: 22.Qc2


The Queen moves away from the attack of the Rook. Now both White Knights are en prise to the Black Queen.

In his notes, Keres was objective in the analysis of his play: 'Black could simply reply 22...Bxc5 with a won position; instead he still persists in playing for mate and thereby makes the task more difficult.'

Next move: 22...Qxh4


Black wins a piece, but leaves some chance for counterplay. Keres:

Hopeless was 23.c6 Bxc6 24.Qxc6 Nxf2+ 25.Kg1 Nxg4 with a piece more for Black, but 23.f3 would still have made further resistance possible. Black would stand much better also after this and he would have a number of good lines, amongst which 23...Bxc5 24.Qxc5 Re2 appears one of the simplest, by which he could utilise his advantage in position.

Next move: 23.cxd6


White misses the chance for counterplay and falls into a mate in three.

Next move: 23...Bxg2+


This is the first move of a forced mate. White now has a single legal move.

Next move: 24.Kxg2


White's move is forced. The square g1 is covered by the Black Knight.

Next move: 24...Qxg4+


Black has a single move to force checkmate and plays it. White's next move is again forced.

Next move: 25.Kh1


White's move is again forced. White's own pieces take away three squares from the White King.

Next move: 25...Qf3#



Black won: 0-1

For all games in the 'Every Move Explained' series, see
Improve Your Game.