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Hippopotamus, Anyone?

Many chess players would like to learn an all-purpose chess opening, especially an opening that can be deployed with either color, White or Black, almost regardless of the opponent's moves. Only a few chess openings fit that description, possibly the King's Indian formation and a handful of others. One candidate for such a "universal" system is the Hippopotamus Opening, perhaps the most irregular of the irregular chess openings.

This unusual debut can be reached by many move orders with either color; for example, White can play 1.g3, 1.b3, 1.d3, 1.e3 or other first moves. He will normally fianchetto both Bishops and place his Knights on d2 and e2, leading to typical positions like the one pictured below:


Here each Rook's pawn will likely advance a single square, and White will often delay castling in favor of other maneuvers. This system, the Hippopotamus Opening, is fluid and flexible and almost hypermodern - almost, but more accurately an "anti-modern" chess opening. In fact, this creeping forward with pawns to the third rank is a very old strategy, dating to the ancient pre-chess game of Shatranj.

A little history. Many old games can be found that touch on our theme, mostly experiments by Black involving 1...g6 with ...e6 and a fianchettoed King's Bishop. But the first proponent of this Hippopotamus structure was John Crittenden Thompson (1889-1971) of Newcastle, England. In the years after World War II, visiting Grandmasters often faced J.C. Thompson and his Hippopotamus in simultaneous exhibitions, where in the 1950s Thompson defeated GMs Tolush and Janosevic using this early "proto-Hippo" layout.

Few chess players, however, took any notice of the Hippopotamus Opening. Even Boris Spassky's adoption of the Hippopotamus in a World Championship match led to little research into this plan of development. Spassky used the Hippopotamus Opening twice in his unsuccessful 1966 bid to dethrone Petrosian, the reigning World Chess Champion. And though Spassky failed to beat Petrosian in this their first match the Hippopotamus Opening served him well, yeilding two draws with the Black pieces. 

Spassky - Petrosian, Moscow 1966

[Event "World Championship 26th"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "1966.05.06"] [Round "12"] [White "Petrosian, Tigran V"] [Black "Spassky, Boris V"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A42"] [PlyCount "77"] [EventDate "1966.04.11"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "24"] [EventCountry "URS"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] 1. Nf3 g6 2. c4 Bg7 3. d4 d6 4. Nc3 Nd7 5. e4 e6 6. Be2 b6 7. O-O Bb7 8. Be3 Ne7 9. Qc2 h6 10. Rad1 O-O 11. d5 e5 12. Qc1 Kh7 13. g3 f5 14. exf5 Nxf5 15. Bd3 Bc8 16. Kg2 Nf6 17. Ne4 Nh5 18. Bd2 Bd7 19. Kh1 Ne7 20. Nh4 Bh3 21. Rg1 Bd7 22. Be3 Qe8 23. Rde1 Qf7 24. Qc2 Kh8 25. Nd2 Nf5 26. Nxf5 gxf5 27. g4 e4 28. gxh5 f4 29. Rxg7 Qxg7 30. Rg1 Qe5 31. Nf3 exd3 32. Nxe5 dxc2 33. Bd4 dxe5 34. Bxe5+ Kh7 35. Rg7+ Kh8 36. Rf7+ Kg8 37. Rg7+ Kh8 38. Rg6+ Kh7 39. Rg7+ 1/2-1/2 [Event "World Championship 26th"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "1966.05.18"] [Round "16"] [White "Petrosian, Tigran V"] [Black "Spassky, Boris V"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B06"] [PlyCount "97"] [EventDate "1966.04.11"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "24"] [EventCountry "URS"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] 1. d4 g6 2. e4 Bg7 3. Nf3 d6 4. Be2 e6 5. c3 Nd7 6. O-O Ne7 7. Nbd2 b6 8. a4 a6 9. Re1 Bb7 10. Bd3 O-O 11. Nc4 Qe8 12. Bd2 f6 13. Qe2 Kh8 14. Kh1 Qf7 15. Ng1 e5 16. dxe5 fxe5 17. f3 Nc5 18. Ne3 Qe8 19. Bc2 a5 20. Nh3 Bc8 21. Nf2 Be6 22. Qd1 Qf7 23. Ra3 Bd7 24. Nd3 Nxd3 25. Bxd3 Bh6 26. Bc4 Qg7 27. Re2 Ng8 28. Bxg8 Rxg8 29. Nd5 Bxd2 30. Rxd2 Be6 31. b4 Qf7 32. Qe2 Ra7 33. Ra1 Rf8 34. b5 Raa8 35. Qe3 Rab8 36. Rf1 Qg7 37. Qd3 Rf7 38. Kg1 Rbf8 39. Ne3 g5 40. Rdf2 h5 41. c4 Qg6 42. Nd5 Rg8 43. Qe3 Kh7 44. Qd2 Rgg7 45. Qe3 Kg8 46. Rd2 Kh7 47. Rdf2 Rf8 48. Qd2 Rgf7 49. Qe3 1/2-1/2

The principal idea of the Hippopotamus Opening is coordination and harmony in piece placement, while offering no weaknesses for the opponent to target. The Hippo player will strike in the center or maneuver for position according to the disposition of the opposing forces. Known as the "Scorpion" in Russia, this opening is largely a system for counterattack, appealing to those players who like to experiment with unusual chess openings. Keene and Botterill (The Modern Defence. Batsford, 1972) note that, "Such strength as the Hippopotamus has derives from the resilience of a cramped but not compromised position, and the dangers White will run of...being tempted into a rash advance", while Andrew Martin (The Hippopotamus Rises: The Re-emergence of a Chess Opening. Batsford, 2006) observes, "The idea is that Black develops within his first three ranks at the beginning of the game. He will construct a solid, stable yet flexible position, wait to see what White is doing and react accordingly."

All very well, but in chess nothing comes for free - and the extreme flexibility offered by the Hippopotamus Opening carries a price. The opponent can dictate the course of play and is free to occupy the center or mount any number of quick attacks. So make no mistake: anyone employing the Hippopotamus Opening can get crushed in spectacular fashion. The opening is nevertheless fun to play and promises creative opportunities from the first move, as seen in the following pair of games. 

The Hippopotamus Opening

[Event "ICC 3 0"] [Site "Internet Chess Club"] [Date "2013.01.27"] [Round "?"] [White "Babakaevsky"] [Black "likemachine"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A02"] [WhiteElo "2693"] [BlackElo "2763"] [Annotator "Pickard, S."] [PlyCount "119"] [EventDate "2013.??.??"] 1. f4 e6 2. Nf3 b6 3. b3 $5 Bb7 ({Black may consider} 3... Qf6 {since an f-pawn gambit is doubtful, e.g.} 4. Nc3 $5 ({The natural advance} 4. d4 $1 { is better, and after} Bb7 5. e3 $11 {White has good chances in a complicated position, without the sacrifice}) 4... Qxf4 {and now:} 5. d4 $6 (5. e4 Bb4 6. Bd3 ({Not} 6. Be2 $6 {and Black grabs another pawn with} Bxc3 7. dxc3 Qxe4 $15 {etc.}) 6... Nf6 7. a3 Be7 8. O-O $32 {White has development and f-file potential}) (5. g3 Qf6 6. Bg2 Bb7 ({Or} 6... Nc6 7. O-O Bc5+ 8. Kh1 Bb7 9. Bb2 Qh6 10. e4 $13 {with equal chances}) 7. O-O Nc6 8. d4 $44 {again with interesting play}) (5. e3 $6 {appears too slow after} Qg4 6. Bb2 Nf6 $15 { when White finds it difficult to get organized}) 5... Qg4 6. Ne5 Qh5 $15 { and White is pressed to find compensation for his pawn.}) 4. e3 Be7 5. Bb2 Bf6 6. Nc3 Ne7 7. Be2 O-O ({If} 7... Nd5 {[%cal Gd1c1] then} 8. O-O $11 {or 8.Qc1 is okay for White.}) 8. O-O d6 ({Piece play by} 8... Nbc6 {is possible; for example} 9. e4 Ng6 10. e5 ({First} 10. g3 {invites} Nd4 $13 {etc.}) 10... Be7 11. g3 d6 12. d4 dxe5 13. fxe5 Qd7 $13 {with unbalanced chances.}) 9. Qe1 Nd7 10. d3 g6 11. e4 Bg7 {[After maneuvers Black has adopted the Hippopotamus Opening.]} 12. Qh4 h6 13. Na4 $5 ({A major turning point. White might have asserted himself by} 13. d4 $13 {grabbing the center.}) ({There was also the quiet} 13. Rae1 $13 {awaiting events.}) 13... c5 $5 14. Bxg7 Kxg7 15. c4 d5 $6 {[This move allows White to create a dangerous Kingside pawn majority.]} 16. cxd5 exd5 17. Nc3 $14 {[White has a nagging edge.]} Nf6 $6 ({Only encouraging the first player's advance, but even} 17... d4 18. Nb5 $32 {[%csl Rd6] leaves White better placed.}) ({And the steady} 17... Bc6 {can lead to} 18. f5 $36 { and questions about the state of Black's King.}) 18. e5 $16 {[Now White's advantage is clear. It's only a 3-minute game, so we'll let the players battle for a moment - only pointing out that Black next spends a third move to bring his Queen's Knight to a slightly inferior square.]} Nh7 $6 19. d4 Nf5 20. Qf2 Rc8 21. Rac1 Qe7 22. g4 Nxd4 23. Nxd4 cxd4 24. Qxd4 Qc5 25. Rfd1 $4 ({Very bad, and ought to lose. He should have gone} 25. Qxc5 Rxc5 26. b4 $16 {followed by 27.Nb5.}) 25... Rfe8 $4 ({Black fails to cash. After} 25... Qxd4+ 26. Rxd4 Rc7 $1 $19 {White cannot escape the c-file pin of his Knight. The same "double blunder" happens next move.}) 26. Kf2 Nf8 27. Qxc5 Rxc5 28. Na4 $4 ({Again correct is} 28. b4 Rcc8 29. Nb5 $18 {and wins.}) 28... Rxc1 29. Rxc1 Ne6 $13 { [Now Black is in the game.]} 30. Kg3 $6 ({Better is} 30. f5 $13) 30... g5 $15 31. f5 Nf4 32. Bf3 Rxe5 $6 ({Dangerous play is generated by} 32... d4 $1 $15 { instead.}) 33. Rc7 $13 {[A difficult ending ensues.]} Ba6 34. Rxa7 Be2 35. Bxe2 Rxe2 36. Nxb6 d4 $6 37. Nc4 d3 38. a4 $6 ({Here} 38. h4 $14 {is preferable.}) 38... Rg2+ $2 ({The White pawns can be broken up by} 38... h5 39. gxh5 Nxh5+ 40. Kf3 Rxh2 $11 {with mutual opportunities.}) 39. Kf3 $16 Rxh2 40. Ne5 $4 ({ A losing blunder. Here the Rook must immediately get behind the pawn by} 40. Rd7 $16 {and White has a strong advantage.}) 40... Kf6 $4 ({Missing the win to be had by} 40... Rh3+ 41. Ke4 d2 42. Rxf7+ Kg8 43. Rd7 Rd3 $1 44. Nxd3 d1=Q $19 {etc.}) 41. Nc4 $13 {[Once more we have a balanced game. Time pressure is obviously upon us, however, and fortunes continue to shift.]} h5 $6 42. Ra6+ Kg7 43. gxh5 Rxh5 $6 44. a5 Rh1 45. Rd6 $16 Rb1 $6 46. Nd2 $2 (46. a6 $18 { is winning for White.}) 46... Rb2 $2 47. Ke3 $18 {[White is winning.]} Ra2 48. a6 Ng2+ 49. Kxd3 Nh4 50. f6+ Kg6 51. Kc3 $2 ({Instead} 51. Nc4 $18 {wins.}) 51... g4 ({Or} 51... Nf5 52. Rc6 g4 $132 {with counterplay.}) 52. Ne4 Nf5 $44 { [Black has just enough to stay alive.]} 53. Rb6 g3 54. Nxg3 Nxg3 55. b4 Ne4+ 56. Kd4 Nxf6 $11 57. b5 Kf5 58. Rc6 Nd7 59. Rd6 Ne5 60. Rd5 {[The position is still equal, and we presume that Black lost on time.]} 1-0 [Event "Lone Star Open"] [Site "Dallas"] [Date "1988.07.04"] [Round "?"] [White "Pickard, Sid"] [Black "Gardner, B."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A00"] [WhiteElo "2290"] [BlackElo "2394"] [Annotator "Pickard, S."] [PlyCount "73"] [EventDate "1988.07.04"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventCountry "USA"] 1. g3 d5 2. Bg2 Nf6 3. d3 e6 4. Nd2 b6 5. b3 Bb7 6. Bb2 Nbd7 7. e3 {[White's pawn structure is unique to the Hippopotamus Opening. Here the first player has not been challenged for his passive layout, but he must soon find a way to contest the center.]} Bd6 8. Ne2 Qe7 9. a3 O-O-O $5 $13 {[Provocative, but the position offers equal chances.]} 10. b4 e5 11. c3 $6 ({Striking at the center with} 11. c4 $13 {is much better.}) 11... c5 ({After the strong move} 11... h5 $1 $17 {White has to be careful.}) 12. d4 exd4 13. cxd4 c4 14. b5 ({The natural } 14. Nc3 $13 {is more flexible.}) 14... Rhe8 $6 ({A wasted move, which Black recognizes shortly. Instead} 14... h5 $15 {is still best.}) 15. Nc3 h5 16. O-O h4 17. a4 hxg3 18. hxg3 Bxg3 $6 ({Perhaps too hasty, and} 18... Bc7 $13 { [%cal Yc8b8] followed by ...Kb8 takes time to consolidate.}) 19. Qf3 $5 ({ Accepting the sacrifice with} 19. fxg3 Qxe3+ 20. Rf2 Qxg3 21. Nf1 $14 {is interesting.}) 19... Bc7 ({Not} 19... Bd6 $6 {because of} 20. Nxc4 $14) 20. Nxc4 $2 ({White executes his plan, but Black has time to regroup. The right way is} 20. Ba3 Bd6 $8 ({the only move in view of} 20... Qe6 $2 21. Bh3 $18) ({ and the tricky} 20... Ne5 $2 {fails to} 21. Qh3+ $1 Qd7 22. dxe5 $16 {etc.}) 21. Bxd6 Qxd6 22. Nxc4 Qc7 23. Nd2 $14 {with a good game.}) 20... Rh8 $5 $15 ({ Avoiding entanglement on the Queenside after} 20... Qb4 $2 21. Rfc1 $16 { and so forth.}) ({But} 20... Kb8 $1 $17 {or even 20...g5!?, and Black's attack looks faster.}) 21. Rfc1 Ne4 $2 ({A serious error. He should play} 21... Kb8 { and if} 22. a5 {the disruptive} Qb4 $1 23. Ra4 Qb3 24. a6 Ba8 25. Ba3 Ne4 $15 { gives Black the better game.}) 22. Ba3 $6 $16 ({Much simpler is} 22. Nxe4 dxe4 23. Qxf7 $18 {winning.}) 22... Qe6 $6 (22... Qh4 $16 {is a little better, but White has a clear advantage.}) 23. Nxe4 dxe4 24. Nd6+ $18 {[White is winning.]} Kb8 ({Or} 24... Qxd6 25. Bxd6 exf3 26. Rxc7+ Kb8 27. Rxb7+ $18 {wins.}) 25. Qxf7 Qg4 26. Rxc7 Kxc7 27. Nxb7 Rdf8 ({If} 27... Kxb7 {then} 28. Qd5+ $18 { and wins.}) 28. Bd6+ Kxb7 29. Qd5+ Kc8 30. Qa8+ Nb8 31. Qxb8+ Kd7 32. Qc7+ Ke6 33. Qe7+ Kd5 34. Qe5+ Kc4 35. Bxf8 Rxf8 36. Qxe4 Qxe4 37. Bxe4 1-0

It is still difficult to find study material on the Hippopotamus Opening, and interested players have to make do with passing references and footnotes. For those wishing to persue this "ugly" chess opening, some slight information may be found here, here and here.

Ultimately, however, the beauty of the Hippopotamus Opening is seen in the inner logic, the internal harmony of the system - not in its outward appearance, which offends the "opening esthetic" of some chess players. Here the eye of the beholder should recall the following poem by Ogden Nash:

The Hippopotamus

Behold the hippopotamus!
We laugh at how he looks to us,
And yet in moments dank and grim,
I wonder how we look to him.

Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus!
We really look all right to us,
As you no doubt delight the eye
Of other hippopotami.