Now here comes the Behemoth! | ChessBase

Now here comes Behemoth! Book of Job (40:15-24)

By Grandmaster Raymond Keene OBE

In the French version of the Old Testament we read, as an equivalent of the eponymous title of this month’s chronicle: here is the hippopotamus. Here indeed!

Now here is Behemoth, which I made with you; he eats grass like an ox. Behold now, his strength is in his loins, and his strength is in the navel of his belly. – King James Bible

I just received a review copy of The Hippo’s Defense by Italian IM Alessio de Santis, published by New to chess. The Hippo was first promulgated in detail by English hobbyist JC Thompson (who surprisingly gets no credit in the new book), widely considered an eccentric, but who turned out to be something of a prophet . Unfortunately, as Jesus Christ pointed out, ‘Truly I say unto you, no prophet is accepted in his own land.’

As it stands, the Prophet was right, and the Behemoth maintained a solid fifty percent for Black, even at the highest level of competition, and in a World Championship match (Petrosian vs. Spassky 1966).

Alexander Tolush (1910-1969) was a strong Soviet grandmaster. He contested the USSR championship ten times, taking 2nd place behind Paul Keres in 1950. In 1953, he took 1st place in Bucharest, ahead of Petrosian, Smyslov and Spassky.

According to Bill Cash’s invaluable online information on the origins of the hippopotamus, the following year Tolush held a simultaneous exhibition in England. One of the players was our eccentric prophet, John Crittenden Thompson (1889-1971) from Newcastle. Thompson loved unusual openings. His iconoclastic idea was 1. e4 Nh6 (or 1. d4 g6 2. e4 Nh6), which he called the Hippopotamus Defence. In 1957 he wrote a short pamphlet titled Hippo chess opening. He used this opening when he faced masters and grandmasters in simultaneous exhibitions, defeating grandmasters Tolush in 1954 and Janosevic in 1956 (but losing to Keres) with this odd defense. Thompson first called his opening (…Nh6 as Black and Nh3 as White) the Chinese opening, but rejected it in favor of the hippopotamus. To him, the pawn structure looked like a sleeping hippopotamus.

Here’s how Thompson defeated Tolush, using the old hippo defense in a simulation. It’s a wild game with chances for both teams. Thompson finally found a way to attack White’s king, threatening to checkmate in the middle of the board.

[Click the notation to follow and analyse the game on a large board]

The Hippopotamus Defense is just what players who hate memorizing loads of opening theories need.

It is a simple and clear defense that avoids the ever increasing number of primary analyses. It’s flexible and universal: Black can use the Hippo against virtually any White choice (1. e4, 1. d4, 1. c4, 1. f4, Colle, London, Trompowsky, Reti and others). It is relatively unknown and will surprise many opponents. It was used by Tony Miles and Boris Spassky among others and, as will be seen, I came very close to using it myself.

Besides all this, the hippopotamus is seriously underestimated: with its characteristic double fianchet, it may seem silent, but inside hides a very dangerous animal. FIDE Master Alessio de Santis is one of the world‘s leading hippopotamus experts and has written a practical, well-structured and accessible manual. I highly recommend it and wholeheartedly agree with British Grandmaster Glenn Flear’s verdict:

‘This work has been little less than a revelation. Before I opened it, I expected something superficial, but once I plunged into those murky waters where hippos live, I was impressed with De Santis’ application. Almost every plausible structure that White can try is anticipated, examined, and therefore appropriate antidotes are advised. De Santis really approached his subject from every angle imaginable so as not to neglect any effort. Did you know that the hippopotamus is the most dangerous of all large animals? In terms of opening in chess, I would say that is also the case.

The King James Bible also agrees, attributing these characteristics to Behemoth: “He moves his tail like a cedar, the nerves of his stones are wound together. His bones are as strong as pieces of brass; his bones are like iron.

I myself tried the hippo unintentionally, although de Santis would no doubt describe my efforts as half-hippo. Victory in this game helped me earn the gold medal on my board, representing England.


The above article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of The British Chess Magazine, oldest chess publication in the world. It is reproduced with kind permission.

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