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For the January Update I was planning to look at some Flank Opening games from Wijk aan Zee and Gibraltar, but then my review copy of Play 1.b3! The Nimzo-Larsen Attack: A Friend for Life (New in Chess) by Ilya Odessky came through the post, and I decided to give 1.b3 and related ideas my attention instead. If you have no interest in playing 1.b3, and absolutely no fear of facing it as Black, please read on, because my learning experience with 1.b3 should have some collateral benefit and because there are numerous transpositional issues relating to English and Réti lines.

My motivation (I always like to know an author's motivation, beyond the obvious one, because if they only have the obvious one, I doubt the value of what they are about to say) to look at these lines relates to my experience of losing against a young Japanese player, Kojima, at the Dresden Olympiad. The problem in that game was not 1.b3, but it began, in a way, with the lack of it. Before the game I had a distinct sense of opening theory fatigue in general, and Slav fatigue in particular. I really wanted to play something non-theoretical instead and 'just play chess' as they say, but I had almost forgotten how to do this, and didn't feel confident enough to just play 1.g3 or 1.b3 and hope for the best, so I plodded on with 1d4 theory instead.

There was not much wrong with the opening, but at least partly because I began the game without any interest in the opening, the whole game turned out to be strewn with errors, and I describe in the recent New in Chess magazine how I continued this patchy play by losing a rook ending a safe pawn up. There were numerous causes for this loss, but I feel it began with the absence of an opening weapon like 1.b3- something to play when you are tired of theory and want to 'freshen up' your experience of playing. 1.b3 seems to me to be a move that allows you to create, and that forces your opponent to create, more or less from the first move.

Download PGN of January '09 Flank Openings games

1 b3

The only problem is that 1.b3 is not a great move. It is not even a good move in fact, because Black has numerous ways to develop his pieces and castle without losing either space or structure. However, it is not a bad move, and if you can play it with one or two supporting ideas, an open mind, and some freshness, there are chances to cause problems for the opponent, perhaps no less so than with main lines. My impression, based on a couple of hours leafing through Odessky's book, and a few more flicking through classic 1.b3 games, is the following:

A defining feature of 1.b3 is that in many lines there are not many pawn exchanges for several moves so the main pawn structure is not usually clarified for several moves. This approach therefore tends to work well against players who are impatient to impose their will on the game, players who crave theory, and players who have some positional limitations and need clear strategic objectives. However, 1.b3 generally works less well against classical players who are versatile and have wider positional understanding, including an awareness of different opening systems (Réti, English, Hippo, reversed Sicilian etc).

However, it depends a bit on how you view 1.b3 because there seem to be two main ways to do it: the so-called Nimzowitsch Attack with b3, Bb2, followed by e3, f4, intending Nf3-e5, Rf3-g3 and hopefully a mating tactic on g7. Such an approach seems compelling the first time you see it, and Nimzowitsch used it to beat lesser mortals, but my impression is that it doesn't work against half-decent defenders, mainly because they strive to challenge or restrict the bishop on b2 very early.

Alternatively there is the more patient, Larsenesque approach, which tends to involve an early c4, not trying too hard to generate the initiative, and focusing on altering the pawn structure and making the right exchanges at the right time. Stylistically I prefer the latter approach, and indeed I begin this update by looking at three Larsen games to give some idea of how it works.

Larsen - Andersson and Larsen - Keene are not theoretically critical, though both games include some theoretical information. The point of showing them is to show how Larsen used to win with 1.b3, which was mainly just to build positional tension, and very gradually outplay the opponent, hoping that they would sooner or late do something a bit hasty, which they often did.

Larsen - Cafferty has more theoretical value, because I think it shows the most promising way for White to deal with 1.b3 e5 2.Bb2 Nc6 3.e3 d5, namely with 4.Bb5 Bd6 5.c4!?:

Hodgson - Hall is another positional classic, included to show that of all the opening ideas 1.b3 calls upon, The Tromposky is surprisingly relevant, because White often swaps his newly developed dark-squared bishop for a knight on f6 in order to damage Black's structure:

1.b3 often transposes into Réti territory when White plays Nf3, bur several lines have independent value and Vaisser - Flear and Hertneck - Medvegy both witness sharp fights where White relies on some early pawn play to take the initiative.

I haven't covered all the lines in this update, most notably 1...b6 or 1...c5, mainly because I spent a while trying to find a vaguely promising line after the response that I feel is Black's most reliable. 1.b3 e5 2.Bb2 Nc6 3.e3 d6!:

Followed in most cases by ...g6 appears to me to be a fully adequate answer for Black, and I think all White can do is play a relatively harmless version of the English and hope to out-manoeuvre the opponent. Minasian - Adams gives some details.

That's all for now. We'll get back to a wider variety of lines in the next update. Jonathan


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