The Polish Opening – Playing with the Orangutan

Quick overview

  • The Polish Opening is a rare opening that also goes by the names the Sokolsky Opening and the Orangutan Opening.
  • It arises after the move 1.b4, and White attempts to grab some queenside space and fianchetto the bishop to b2 on move two, in hopes of launching a long-range attack.
  • Black has several replies, with 1.d5 and 1.e5 being the most natural and popular as they grab control of the center and allow for easy development.
  • Despite being such a rare opening, it is not refuted and is very playable by both sides. Equal positions are likely to arise out of the opening.

The Polish Opening is a rare chess opening by White beginning with the move 1.b4. Out of all 20 possible first moves in chess, this move ranks no.9.

It is quite offbeat, and given its rarity, has value as a surprise weapon for players. 1.b4 is not an outright bad move, as it prepares a fianchetto of the dark-squared bishop. It is kind of like a Larsen’s Opening which grabs more space.

The Polish Opening has never been popular at the top level, though it has been used on the occasion. Magnus Carlsen used it against Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So in the online FTX Crypto Cup rapid tournament in May 2021.

The opening also goes by the names the Sokolsky Opening, named after Russian chess player Alexey Sokolsky, and the Orangutan Opening. The latter name apparently gets its name from when Savielly Tartakower and Geza Maroczy played a game at the Bronx Zoo in 1904. When, as legend has it, Tartakower consulted an Orangatang named Susan, who indicated he should play 1.b4.

Main ideas of the Polish Opening

Given White’s choice of a queenside flank pawn opening, it is obvious White is probably looking for some queenside tactics/attack.

Alexander Alekhine said that the opening reveals White’s intentions before Black has to reveal theirs. Black has a lot of flexibility in how to play, and perhaps the most logical solution for Black is to develop naturally and grab central space with 1…e5 or 1…d5.

The Polish Opening Main Line

1.b4 e5 2.Bb2

From here, Black has two choices; Either defend the pawn or capture White’s b4 pawn, thereby allowing their e5 pawn to be taken.

A trap to watch out for

If Black plays 2…Nc6 to defend the e-pawn, White simply plays 3.b5. Black’s best move is to undevelop their knight to b8 and White can win the e5 pawn cleanly, and their b-pawn is no longer under attack.

Defending the e-pawn

The two most common ways for Black to try to defend the e-pawn are 2…f6 and 2…d6, but both of these moves are slightly passive and/or weakening for Black.

2…f6 is not a bad move, but it does open up the light squares around their king. White will usually shift gears here and try to launch an attack from the kingside.

In the following game, White was able to exploit this weakness and win in only 17 moves.

2…d6, known as the Czech Defense is more popular but has the drawback of boxing in Black’s dark-squared bishop.

After 2…d6, White grabs space with 3.c4 and Black develops with …Nf6. 4.e3 and Black will play …g6 to fianchetto their dark-squared bishop. White has an ever-so-slight edge here.

As such, the main line goes 2…Bxb4 3.Bxe5 Nf6

White’s pawn had no natural defender, so it only makes sense for Black to capture it on move 2. However, this is not a gambit as Black’s e-pawn was neither defended.

In this position, White has indirectly managed to trade off one of their flank pawns for a central pawn. However, Black has more lines open for their pieces, so will likely grab a lead in development.

Play might go on with 4.c4 OO 5.Nf3 d5 6.e3 c5 7. a3 Ba5 8.cxd5 Nxd5.

White has a hard time fighting for a win here. Most games from this position end in draws. Black has slightly better development having castled kingside, and the open queenside shows that a fight will likely take place there.

White however has a kingside pawn majority which they will hope to be able to use to their advantage in the endgame.

Alternatives to 1…e5

1…c6 The Outflank Variation

Black sees that White is looking for active queenside play, so Black’s plan here is to develop the queen to b6 and place pressure on the b-pawn.

2.Bb2 Qb6 3.a3 a5

The pressure is mounting on the b-pawn, and White actually has to play 4.c3 to not lose the pawn. If 4.Bb3 axb4 5.axb4 Rxa1 6.Bxa1 and the b-pawn is hanging.

However, after 4.c3, Black is much better as White has blocked in their only developed piece.

So, White will try to employ some tactics and play 4.c4. After 4…axb4 5.c5, the queen must retreat. If 5…Qxc5 6.axb4, and a double attack on the queen and rook is unveiled.

Better for Black is to mix up the move order here. 2…a5 3.a3 axb4 4.axb4 Rxa1 5.Bxa1 Qb6 and White must uncomfortably defend the b-pawn.

1…d5

The second most common move behind 1…e5, it makes sense as Black grabs central space. White continues with their plan with 2.Bb2.

2…Qd6 3.a3 e5. This variation is known as the German Defense.

It may violate opening principles with such an early queen move, but the move is multipurpose. It attacks White’s b-pawn and prepares to establish an ideal pawn center with 3…e5.

It may look scary from White’s side, but play is equal here. White can try to go after Black’s exposed queen. Black may have a hard time developing with the queen on d6.

White can develop without much fear and play e3 and perhaps a later c4.

Instead of 2…Qd6, Black can try a slower development with 2…Nf6, Bf5 and e6, and the position will be fairly equal.

The Polish Opening is an ambitious opening that does not have a direct refutation. Generally, with sound play from both sides, each side is equal and some interesting games can arise from it.

The concepts are not terribly difficult to understand, though there are a couple of traps to be mindful of.

If you are looking for a fairly sound and offbeat opening, then the Polish Opening can be a good choice.

FAQs

Is the Polish a good opening?

Though not considered by engines or leading chess theoreticians to be the best, the Polish Opening is a fairly sound opening that generally leads to equal games for both sides.

How do you respond to the Polish opening?

The Main Line of the Polish Opening tends to offer Black the best chances. Black should take White’s pawn on b4 and allow a capture of their e5 pawn.

Why is it called the Polish opening?

It is named the Polish Opening after chess player Savielly Tartakower who would use the opening on occasion.

Why is 1.b4 called the orangutan?

Legend has it that when Tartakower played Maroczy at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, an Orangatan indicated to him that he should play the move 1.b4.

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