Queenside fianchetto - 2 b3
As I have mentioned in previous updates, I have quite a lot of respect for this move. It is always dangerous to give 'just so' strategic explanations for opening ideas, but I suppose one of the points of 2.b3 is that 1...c5 makes it relatively problematic for Black to contest the a1-h8 diagonal because the natural way of doing so, with ...e5, leaves a big hole on d5. The other main point of 2.b3 is that by making the early running with the queen's bishop, White keeps the other pieces very flexible, and he can develop them differently depending on Black's second and third move. So White often plays f4 in the early stages, but he doesn't have to, and sometimes he can play Qf3, Qg4 or Qh5 before developing his king's knight. Sometimes play might resemble a Rossolimo with an early Bb5, while sometimes White might decide to fianchetto both bishops. Occasionally, White also reverts back to simpler lines with Nf3 and d4.
2.b3 has been a lifelong favourite of Georgian Grandmaster Gelashvili, was one of the many pet lines of Boris Spassky, and more recently it has been played with some success by Nigel Short. I have also noticed that several strong players adopt it occasionally when they are looking to play a game of chess, relatively unencumbered by theory, enjoying the relative 'slack' afforded by the first move, and hoping to pose Black some unusual problems. I do not think 2.b3 gives White serious chances of gaining an advantage from a theoretical point of view, but as I have stressed before, it is far from clear that White has this opportunity in main line Sicilians either. My general feeling therefore is that it is worthwhile for all 1 e4 players to spend some time becoming acquainted with this move because it is very playable and no clear answer has emerged for Black yet (perhaps because White's position is so flexible). Moreover, 2.b3 is a useful resource to call upon if you are not sure what else you want to play. From Black's point of view, the move should be taken seriously, and I have suggested some promising antidotes below.
Needless to say, the theory of this line is relatively undeveloped, but I have tried to bring it along a little below.
2...b6 is, to my mind, a very natural response. The problem is that it only takes the pressure off for a couple of moves (...b6,...Bb7 and then what?) and it is not totally clear how Black should continue to develop:
2...Nc6 3 Bb2 e5 is the move that 2.b3 'asks for' in some ways, but it is far from clear that Black should give White what he asks for:
White can play against this move in King's Gambit style with an early f4, or more positionally with Bc4, Ne2 and f4. In the former case the positions are complicated, and we might have to revisit them, in the latter case there are some tricky move-order issues that influence whether or not Black can free his position at an early stage. This is all covered in the notes to Short - Prasad 2004.
This paragraph covers lines with an early ...d6, that is the various move orders involving ...d6, ...Nf6, ...Nc6 and, usually, ...g6. Finding the most exact move order is still tricky for both sides, but some pointers are given in the notes to Morozevich - Baklan 2004 and Navara - Bu 2006.
Lines with an early ...e6 are similarly complicated, at least in terms of finding the most accurate move orders, but I have tried to make some sense of them in the notes to Short - Topalov 2000.
2...Nc6 3.Bb2 Nf6!? looks to me like it might be one of Black's better answers to 2.b3:
This is related to the fact that Black seems to have a good answer to both 4.Bb5 (Nd4) and 4.f4 (d5) which leaves White with 4.e5 Nd5 when White has good chances of developing some initiative if Black is less than fully accurate, but it is not clear whether White can do better than transpose back into the line 2.Nf3 e6 3.b3 Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 which, as I suggested in a recent update, currently looks reasonable for Black, see Spassky - Sosonko.
Last, but by no means least, I can upon a blitz game to suggest that 2...g6!? is a lot better than it looks!
White can try all sorts of funny business but none of it seems to threaten Black, and indeed in Short - Nielsen 2004, Black quickly gained the upper hand.
I had hoped to be able to give some definitive advice to Black players about how to meet 2.b3 but at the moment I am far from sure what I would do myself. If you are willing to spend some time on it, my advice would be to try to find a move order where White is more or less forced to meet ...d5 with e5 at an early stage, and if you can't find one, give serious attention to the pugnacious 2...g6 and the principled 2...e5; both moves are risky in some ways, but my impression is that Black can make them both playable with some attention to detail. Perhaps on the basis of subscriber feedback I will be able to give clearer advice in future updates, but for now it seems that 2.b3!? is quite an attractive option for White, at least from a practical point of view.
Until next time, Jonathan