Although this opening has suffered over the last few years, quite a few strong players still use it in their repertoire when they are angling to obtain winning chances. It seems a typical choice when playing lower rated opponents.
The reasoning being that unlike in more 'solid classical openings' there are no boring exchange variations, and the asymmetry of the Benko creates tension from the off.
In Game 1, playing Black, Ganguly avoids a couple of repetitions and was able to generate interesting play. Firstly he met f2-f4 with ...f7-f5 egging the pawns on when, despite the cramped centre, the d5-pawn eventually lacked support. His second bold step was to provoke his opponent to win the exchange, but with the blocked centre and outposts on d4 and e4 it was Black who had the better chances.
In Game Two Gagunashvili manages to keep his position sufficiently active to create problems for his opponent, however White could probably claim an edge after the opening. The fianchetto variation with 10 Rb1 Nb6!? 11 b3 is tricky but remains one of White's best options against the Benko:
The latter stages of the game were full of errors that both reflect the complexity of the position and without doubt serious time trouble. Again it was Black who avoided the repetition and was rewarded with the full point.
Game Three again features the fianchetto variation but this time involving Nh3-f4. Sergei Kasparov timed ...g6-g5 well and at first obtained the better of some curious complications. However he lost his way and eventually had to bail out into a drawish endgame.
In this variation White generally plays h2-h4 which is usually met by h7-h5. Then White's knight is nice and solid on f4 but Black in return has access to the g4-square.
What I like about Game Four is the way that Black gradually took control. The game flows along quite naturally and it's hard to even see where White went wrong. A good model for Leningraders. White's opening strategy doesn't impress as Black doesn't always need his dark-squared bishop to generate counterchances.
The opening in Game Five didn't go very well for White as 10 Rad1 Ne4! is already fully satisfactory for Black:
Pavasovic tried an interesting pawn sacrifice which gave him a continuing initiative and enough practical chances. Later on the endgame phase was very complex and Black went astray. Azmaiparashvili showed that his opening theory isn't that hot but that he has both excellent defensive and endgame techniques.
The 8 Rb1 line in the Exchange Variation can often lead to positions which are hard to judge:
In Game Six Krasenkow played the full-blooded main line where he captures the a-pawn with his queen. The first controversial moment is 16...Na5!? which is less well-known than the two alternatives mentioned in the notes. A couple of moves later Black surprisingly allows White to win a piece, but at the cost of three pawns and admittedly he seems to obtain enough compensation (well at least for a draw). Later on however he avoids a repetition and tries to play for the full point, (perhaps he was under captain's orders or he took time shortage into consideration) but it didn't really work. Near the end I'm surprised that he chose to exchange queens as I'm not sure how White would be able to win with Black's rook and queen so active.
As to the theory: I have to say that I'm not sure if 16...Na5 is better than the alternatives as it really requires more tests. If it fails, then 16...Rfd8 may be a reasonable move to fall back on.
Game Seven features a novelty as early as move 8. However Svidler soon showed Vallejo that such an early display of kingside aggression is optimistic and almost certainly misplaced:
This is the position after 8 h4. This is the first time that I've found a game with this move. After 8...Nc6 9 e5 Bf5 the only way to try and justify White's play is 10 h5 but I can't imagine many will want to play so riskily.
Game Eight features another example (see Game 7) of the popular Exchange Variation with Bd2. Here the nuance-laden 8 Bb5 is met vigorously by Mamedyarov who goes for a quick ...f5. Although everything went well in the game the final assessment of this line may depend on Barsov's 10 Nh3!?.
The Exchange sacrifice variation has recently seen renewed interest in 16 Qd4. In Game nine Peter Heine Nielsen gives it a go but is faced with the rare 16...Bd7 which, despite what followed, may not be a bad move. Critical seems to be a 30-year-old game where Black was OK (see Niklasson-Schmidt in the notes). In Nielsen-Holze Black very definitely wasn't OK!
I suspect that 21...Qc8 (Schmidt) is better than 21...Qd6 (Holze) as played here.
To finish with, a game that involved unusual material balances and a fascinating struggle. Simacek produces an amazing idea to trap Jansa's queen in Game ten. Jansa playing Black was able to obtain enough material and a fairly decent blockade which seemed to hold until deep into the ending. However simplifying into bare queen versus bishop, knight and three pawns turned out to be a poor choice as the Black minor pieces were tied down and unable to defend their kingside.
Till next time,