This opening has really come back into focus over the last year or so. The resulting positions, especially in the Accepted, are difficult to assess especially as computers tend to over-estimate White's chances. In many ways employing this gambit is a reaction against computer-aided preparation as the players are perennially confronted with the same dilemma: White is a pawn to the good but must be careful how he proceeds, Black has good piece-play but no concrete threats.
Can one even claim that 'if all goes well and White plays perfectly he is better' (your analysis module will no doubt insist that he is), but how many games actually pan out like that? In practise Black probably scores as well as in other openings, but playing virtually a whole game a pawn down doesn't suit everyone, hence some players' reticence to take the plunge!
In Game 1 Vaisser reacts to the b5-b6 system with ...e6. A few years ago strong technical players such as Dreev were comfortable with White, but over time Black's defences have been boosted and there seem few if any difficulties for the second player. In the actual game Black was soon in the driving seat, but even if White had tried a better fifteenth move I doubt that he would have had any opening advantage at all.
In Games 2 & 3 White plays with an early Q-c2, but in a slightly different manner. In the first of these Mamedyarov prefers 4.Nf3 g6 5.Qc2 whereas in Game 3 Ilincic opts for the immediate 4.Qc2.
As things turned out, the two opening sequences basically transposed as Black chose to capture on c4 in both cases. The games differed later in that Mamedyarov chose to play with an early h2-h3 in Game 2 and Ilincic didn't in Game 3, but in both cases White obtained some advantage.
In the first of these, Jones's play up to move 11 seems faultless but then he had to make a decision about how to proceed with development:
Although 11...Bxc4 led to a draw in the rapid game, and 11...Nb6 a loss in their later Blitz encounter, it seems that the latter move is more precise.
White obtained long-term pressure after the immediate capture on c4, despite the exchange of two pairs of minor pieces, whereas in the notes we can see how Black could have played in a more dynamic manner. So I recommend 11...Nb6!, and then after 12.b3, to investigate either 11...Bb7 or 11...e6.
Incidentally a draw with Black against a 'World Top Ten player' would seem to bear out Gawain Jones' point of view that the Benko is an ideal rapidplay weapon against anybody!
In Game 3, as White didn't play h2-h3, Pap decided to exploit this by playing ...Nf6-g4-e5 etc, however it wasn't then evident how he should have continued. His chosen method is no doubt playable, but I'm not sure that Black can then find a route to equality. Employing the same plan for Black as in Game 2 is a reasonable alternative despite the fact that White has 'saved' a tempo by not bothering with h2-h3. I quite like the idea of inducing White's queen's knight to a3 (where it is less flexible than on d2) which is a characteristic of an early ...Ba6.
The actual game featured a nice exchange sacrifice by Ilincic which is one that Black should probably aim to avoid in such positions.
The fianchetto Benko is the focus of our attention in Game 4. White was higher-rated to the tune of more than three hundred rating points, but was unable to win. Black's defensive set-up being one of the most trustworthy ways of meeting this line, as for example Tregubov has shown on several occasions. White's sacrifice of a piece for Black's centre was an interesting try, but not one that put the second player in any real danger.
Timoscenko-Vaisser in Game 5 should really have been won by White, so where did Black go wrong? I personally suspect that Black's problems started to build-up as soon as he touched his f-pawn, which constitutes a concession, as he never really had White tied down elsewhere (which is usually a pre-requisite of ...f5 being successful). Even ...Qa5 needs thinking about when White places his knights on c3 and e2 as there is no tactical play against the c3-square. Perhaps b6 is the right square for the queen in this line, from where it can always go to the probing a6-square, and in addition where it bears down on b2 and defends the d6-pawn in readiness for the ...e6-break.
In Game 6 White did manage to win the game in a high-level (rapid) encounter. However if we look closely at this tense middlegame, where neither side could easily make progress, it was Bologan (playing Black) who spurned a repetition only to fall foul of a strong intermediate move only shortly afterwards. My impression is that Bologan's unusual 14...Nh5 looks playable and makes an interesting change from the better known ideas of ...Rb8-b4 or ...Nb6-a4. However as this knight soon switched flanks with ...N(h)-f6-e8-c7 one could think of Bologan's strategy as a prophylactic rather than a constructive one as it 'stops/significantly delays the thematic e4-e5 advance' even at the cost of a tempo.
In Game 7 White opted to play the simplifying e4-e5 advance in one of the main lines of the Benko Accepted. Here it tends to lead to middlegames where Black has reasonable chances to equalize, but few chances to do any better. Elsness' move order requires a close look but in the actual game even the experienced Benko-hand Vuckovic went astray.
Here Vuckovic played the typical plan 18...Ne8 aiming for d6, which is reasonable enough but requires a better follow-up on move 20, (see the notes). Otherwise in this position 18...Nd7 followed by ...Ne5 takes advantage of the position of White's queen and was played a third of a century ago in the game Andrei Lilienthal versus Simon Webb where Black fully equalized.
Our featured game however is another one where White should probably have won.
There was a recent 2700+ meeting in the 3.f3 variation. Mamedyarov, although probably surprised by Grischuk's choice, was able to use a rare idea that the Azerbaijani had faced himself. Theoretically this game may raise more questions than it answers, but still a high-ranking player was unable to find anything particularly strong against 9...Qd6:
Later on, Black almost let things slip but, even if Grischuk had been more precise, exploiting the extra pawn in Game 8 would have been difficult.
I have analyzed a couple of Black wins from the Olympiad in this month's update.
In the first of these, in one of the main lines of the Neo-Grünfeld, Black practitioners seem to have found a good way to continue after 13.Qc2:
A position considered by Avrukh, but one that seems to offer Black some enticing possibilities. Both of 13...a4, or the tactically forcing 13...Nb4 14 Qb1 e5! are quite promising, and have been scoring heavily for the second player. The follow-up to Game 9 (McNab-Djukic where the Montenegran player was able to play this delightful novelty) was Leitao-Caruana where Black sacrificed his queen, which could bear a closer look. However it seems to me that the second player doesn't even need these sharp tactics to work for him, as other players have demonstrated that even a slightly more restrained approach can be quite promising for Black.
Cheparinov rather dominated his less well-known opponent in Game 10 but the Bulgarian was already rather comfortable after 11.Bg5 h6 12.Bf4. Instead I think that the immediate 11.Bf4 is more testing, the difference being that use of the g5-square by White can be a positive factor.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave wasn't happy against 11.Bf4 when Vladimir Tkachiev used it against him in the 2009 French championship, and one year later was able to use it playing White to help beat Maxim Rodshtein. In view of White's problems after 9.e3 (see Game 9) it seems that 9.d5 Na5 10.e4 c6 11.Bf4 is the critical line of the whole Neo-Grünfeld, so be ready! Food for thought and an area that I may well develop in future updates!
Till next month, Glenn Flear