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Last month, the chess world was treated to a thrilling finale of the Magnus Carlsen Tour Final. Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura provided a high-quality, see-saw battle which was only decided in the final set Armageddon when Carlsen successfully created an impregnable fortress with Black. This month’s update includes two of their critical encounters plus other new ideas and novelties in the Nimzo-Indian.

Download PGN of September ’20 Nimzo and Benoni games

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Nimzo-Indian, Saemisch Variation: 4 a3 Bxc3+ 5 bxc3 c5 6 e3 Nc6 7 Bd3 0-0 [E29]

4 a3 Bxc3+ 5 bxc3 c5 6 e3 Nc6 7 Bd3 0-0 8 Ne2 b6 9 e4 Ne8 10 0-0 Ba6 11 f4 f5:

Magnus Carlsen has played the Saemisch Variation a number of times over the past year or so, and in last month’s update we studied two of his recent encounters, against Vishy Anand and Anish Giri. At the time I mentioned that no-one had tested Carlsen in the main line of the Saemisch. Well, they have now!

Hikaru Nakamura, Carlsen’s opponent in the final of the Carlsen Tour Final, played the Nimzo-Indian in the Armageddon game to decide the fifth set. Carlsen chose the Saemisch and they reached the well-known position above.

Here Carlsen decided to release the tension in the centre with 12 exf5 exf5 13 dxc5 bxc5 14 Be3 d6 15 Ng3 g6 16 Re1:

The position has opened up to some extent, but White’s bishops are still blunted and struggling to find activity. Carlsen solved this problem over the next few moves, demonstrating the resources for White in this line, but he then committed a significant mistake which handed the advantage over to the American GM. See Carlsen, M - Nakamura, H for analysis of the key lines.

From White’s point of view, there isn’t a great deal of scope for flexibility in the main lines. For example, 9 0-0 Ba6 10 Ng3 (instead of 10 e4 or 9 e4) is rarely played and considered to be inferior. Even so, it is still worth taking a closer look to see how Black should react. In the recent game Mester, G - Almasi, Z, Black continued with 10...Na5! 11 Qe2 Qc7?!:

This is a novelty, although probably by accident rather than design considering how rare this line is. In this instance it seems that ...Rc8 is stronger than ...Qc7, as the queen is misplaced in some key lines.

Nimzo-Indian: 4 e3 0-0 5 Bd3 d5 6 a3 Bxc3+ 7 bxc3 dxc4 [E49]

4 e3 0-0 5 Bd3 d5 6 a3 Bxc3+ 7 bxc3 dxc4 8 Bxc4 c5 9 Ne2 Qc7 10 Ba2 b6 11 0-0 Ba6 12 Bb2:

The day after unsuccessfully employing the Saemisch against Nakamura, Carlsen returned to a line with which he’s enjoyed some previous success (against Nakamura, the move order was 5...c5 6 Nge2 d5 7 a3 Bxc3+ 8 bxc3 dxc4 9 Bxc4). The game continued 12...Nc6 13 Rc1 Rac8 (a novelty; in previous games the focus has been on 13...Na5 and 13...Rfd8) 14 c4 cxd4 15 exd4 Qe7:

Watching the game unfold, I was expecting the obvious 16 Re1 here, lining up d4-d5. Carlsen, however, instead sacrificed a pawn with 16 d5!? exd5 17 Re1 and the online audience were treated to a spectacular, high-class game - see Carlsen, M - Nakamura, H for analysis.

Nimzo-Indian: 4 e3 d5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 c6 7 Bd3 0-0 [E49]

4 e3 d5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 c6 7 Bd3 0-0 8 Ne2 b6:

An early ...d5 in conjulction with a2-a3 normally leads to the Botvinnik-Capablanca Variation, but ...c6 is a decent alternative for Black, who is now able to recapture on d5 with the c6-pawn and plans light-squared activity with ...b6 and ...Ba6.

It’s worth noting that Black can adopt this plan via more than one move-order. For example, there’s 4 e3 0-0 5 Bd3 d5 6 a3 Bxc3+ 7 bxc3 and now 7...c6 (instead of the most popular 7...dxc4 8 Bxc4 c5, which Nakamura chose against Carlsen). There is also 4 f3 d5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 c6!?, which will likely transpose if White chooses 7 e3.

Play usually continues 9 cxd5 cxd5 10 0-0 Ba6 11 f3, with the typical plan of Ng3, e3-e4, etc.

Black reacts with 11...Qc8! planning light-squared action with ...Bxd3 followed by ...Qa6 - see the notes to Esipenko, A - Mingarro Carceller, S.

Nimzo-Indian: 4 Qc2 0-0 5 e4 d6 [E32]

4 Qc2 0-0 5 e4 d6:

In recent years 5...d5 has pretty much dominated the proceedings, at least in elite-level chess. However, at lower levels it’s sometimes more practical not to follow elite-level and constantly developing theory, and instead choose something with lower maintenance levels and some surprise value. At the moment 5...d6 is hardly ever played by 2700+ grandmasters, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unplayable, rather it’s just unfashionable.

Although overall 6 a3 has still been played the most, it’s noticeable that during the past two years the sharper 6 e5 has been the more popular choice for White, and by quite some distance too. A critical line runs 6...dxe5 7 dxe5 Ng4 8 Nf3 Nc6 9 Bf4 Nd4:

White has tried a number of queen moves here, and it seems that 10 Qd2! has become the most challenging - see Sivuk, V - Aczel, G for analysis.

The older main line is 6 a3 Bxc3+ 7 bxc3 e5 8 Bd3 Nc6 9 Ne2:

About a decade ago White started enjoying success with 9...b6 10 0-0 Ba6 11 f4 Nd7 12 Rf3!. Although Black certainly has defensive resources here, the kingside attack isn’t easy to meet over the board.

9...Nh5!? is an interesting option for Black. One point to note about the knight on h5 is that it gives Black the opportunity to meet Ng3 either by ...Nf4 or a simple exchange - not a bad option to have given the potential problems the knight causes Black when it reaches f5 in the 9...b6 line. Furthermore, after 10 0-0 Black may also alter the course of the game with 10...g5!?:

It’s one thing to chase the white bishop on g5 with ...h6 and...g5, but playing ...g5 here, without any provocation, really does strike me as radical. The major positive - to offset the weaknesses Black must accept - is that White is denied his main plan, namely f2-f4, and is forced to come up with another idea. See the notes to L’Ami, A - Rozentalis, E for analysis of this position plus an update on 9...b6 10 0-0 Ba6 11 f4 Nd7 12 Rf3.

Nimzo-Indian: 4 Nf3 0-0 [E21]

4 Nf3 0-0 5 Bg5 c5 6 Rc1 cxd4 7 Nxd4 h6 8 Bh4 d5 9 cxd5 g5 10 Bg3 Qxd5 11 e3 Qxa2:

This could certainly be described as an elite-level variation, because it’s been seen almost as often in strong grandmaster games as it has at any other level. After some attention on 12 Bd3, the focus has returned to 12 Qc2, which was tried by both Nepomniachtchi and Carlsen in recent online tournaments. In earlier games Black had responded with 12...Nd5, but 12...Bxc3+ 13 Qxc3 Ne4 14 Qc2 Qa5+ 15 Ke2 Nxg3+ 16 hxg3 Kg7 was played by Wesley So against Carlsen at the Lindores Abbey tournament in June.

So lost the game, but Peter Leko noticed a significant improvement for Black, repeated the line against Nepomniachtchi at the Legends of Chess event in August, and equalised comfortably - see Nepomniachtchi, I - Leko, P for details.

Till next time, John

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