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This month's batch includes a set of five games in the Pirc Defence annotated in great depth by James Vigus. They all deal with lines in which White plays 4 Be3, or transposes into it. Ever since the rise of the 150 Attack (a name drawn from the Gradings of the players who used it on the British Grand Prix circuit), Be3 systems have been consistently popular, as much or more so than alternatives. Vigus, who wrote the leading Pirc Defence book 'The Pirc in Black and White', considers the combination of systems arising from Be3 as Black's most serious challenge in terms of finding a solution.

I have also put in quite a few new games with 4 Bg5. Regular readers will recognise this as a fabulously successful system for White of late. The games, both main and imbedded ones, confirm Black's problems in the opening, even if he scores a few points.

In the Alekhine Defence, reader Luis Eduardo Neves Gouveia asks some specific questions about an important game Grischuk-Ponomariov, Torshavn 2000, which is still critical to theory.

Finally, I've merged six recent games with 3...Qd6 the Scandinavian Defence into one game, to give an overview on what's going on there. I should note that Michael Melts has a new edition of his The Dynamic 3...Qd6 out, which is pretty much required reading for fans of the variation. I have quoted from it quite a bit.

Download PGN of April '09 1 e4 ... games

Pirc Defence

James Vigus contribution begins with the game Vavra - Popchev, Prague 2009, in which he introduces his set of Pirc games as follows: 'Nowadays, the toughest decision a Pirc player has to make is how to respond to this flexible move [Be3], which can introduce the 150 Attack (usually involving h3 and Nf3), the Archbishop Attack (h3 and g4), or the Argentinean Attack (f3 intending g4, h4). Through some lively recent games, let's review Black's three distinct responses.'

He then goes on to categorize three plans for Black. I'll refer to his games in those categories and say a few words about them:

PLAN A: 4...c6, delaying ...Bg7

In the Vavra-Popchev contest, Black embarks upon an early queenside attack with ...c6 and ...b5. To me, it's surprising that the fairly slow move 5 h3 causes such problems, but by preventing ...Ng4, it threatens e5, as happens in the game:

It seems that the move ...b5 is a mistake, and perhaps Black should return to ...Bg7 after all. He does so in Nepomniachtchi - Yudin, Aeroflot, Moscow 2009. This is a type of Plan B below, but I've put it here to contrast with the Vavra-Popchev game. White embarks upon the Archbishop Attack 6 g4, a popular formation discussed in this column:

Now when Black plays 6...b5 anyway, he is more secure against central breaks, but the option of 6...Qa5 is particularly interesting. Incidentally, James indicates some problems involved with Nepomniachtchi's move order 4 h3 and 5 Be3, as opposed to the immediate 4 Be3.

Black never does get around to ...Bg7 in Granda Zuniga-Movsziszian, Benidorm 2009, by transposition. There he opts to answer the Archbishop by a combination of ...b5 and ...e5:

James doesn't seem completely happy with Black's play in this move order, but the notes indicate that the second player always has chances.

PLAN B: a combination of ...c6 and ...Bg7, delaying ...0-0

In the game Jansa - Hartoch, World Senior, Bad Zwischenahn 2009, Black employs this plan. White effects the exchange Bh6 (...Bxh6/Qxh6), which he is able to do with an extra tempo over the lines in which Black's bishop is still on f8:

The players reach this position and White stops to prevent ...Ng4 with 10 h3 (maybe 10 Bc4 should be looked into). Then Black should have played 10...b5!, with exciting complications after 11 Bxb5 that James analyses to a draw.

PLAN C: the brave - or maverick - ...Bg7 and ...0-0, delaying ...c6.

As James says, playing both ...Bg7 and ...0-0 is 'Black's most radical reply to the 150 Attack: castling into it. After 4 Be3 Bg7 5 Qd2 0-0 White's critical move is 6 0-0-0, preventing ...e5 and ...c5 and preparing an attack with f2-f3 and an advance of the kingside pawns.'

Bekker - van Liempt, Dutch Youth 2008 is his illustrative game, in which Black plays the daring move 6...Re8!?:

The idea is to be able to slide the bishop back to h8 if and when White plays Bh6. I think James is rightfully skeptical of the move, and he adduces a lot of original analysis. 6...e5 is at any rate safer.

He concludes 'A is standard, B under pressure, and C deserves a revival despite the obvious risk involved. In all cases White is doing quite well theoretically, yet Black's results turn out to be quite good, reflecting the ever-resilient nature of the Pirc.'

Thanks, James, for this huge contribution!

For the last few months 4 Bg5 versus the Pirc has amassed huge results, as readers of this column will recall. This month, White continued on a roll with 4 Bg5; he didn't quite match his previous sky-high percentages, but still scored 14 wins, 4 losses, and 2 draws. At first, it looks like the big difference is that the highest rated games are won by Black. Unfortunately, those results prove to be deceptive, because White stands better in the openings, in some cases much better, and loses due to much later errors.

I'll start with no less than three of Black's wins in Dobrov - Nikolic, Budva 2009 (in its notes are Godena-T Petrosian, Budva MNE 2009 and Dreev -T Petrosian, Budva MNE 2009). In all of these games, Black used the risky system with ...c6 and ...b5:

As Black in this position, Nikolic castled and Petrosian played 7...Qb6?!, versus Godena, neither achieving equality. With White substituting the move Nf3 for Qd2, Petrosian also played 7...Qb6 versus Dreev, and again stood worse! My feeling at this point is that the variations with ...c6 and ...b5 are risky, and that those moves should be mixed with piece play.

In that context, the opening in Solovjova - Mammadova, St Petersburg 2009, isn't bad for Black. I like the fact that she foregoes moves like ...b5 and plays for development:

With a queen on a5 and the possibility of exchange on f3, the move ...e5 becomes a primary theme. White played a bit conservatively and Black should have equalized; but even after missing a shot by her opponent, she may have been able to hold the draw.

Black plays more classically in Nestorovic - Svetac, Belgrade 2009, establishing himself in the centre with ...e5. But again, he 'castles into it' and exposes himself to attack:

Here White plays the unsubtle 10 h4, which causes no end of trouble. Black doesn't defend well, and a nice miniature results, in which White plays a pretty (and not so obvious) finishing combination.

Alekhine's Defence

Luis Eduardo Neves Gouveia sends some analysis of the well-known game Grischuk - Ponomariov, Torshavn 2000, which I talked about in my Mastering the Opening series. This is indeed a very important variation for the assessment of the classical Alekhine with 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nd5 3 d4 d6 4 Nf3, and now 4...g6.

This position is the result of logical play by both sides. Now White can try the pawn sacrifice used by Grischuk, which Luis discusses; but I also noticed an alternative pawn sacrifice which seems to give White a nice advantage and may render the main line less relevant.

Scandinavian Defence

The 3...Qd6 variation simply dominates top-level usage of the Scandinavian Defence. In the game Caruana - Milanovic, Budva MNE 2009, White plays an extremely interesting pawn sacrifice that Anand either invented or made popular. At the very least it makes the variation more interesting:

Here 9 Nf3 and 9 Qd3 were both played this month with Tiviakov as Black. Caruana chose 9 Be2!? Qxg2 10 Bf3. White obviously gets the initiative, but a pawn is a pawn. My guess is that there's an approximate balance, as indicated by previous games and the back-and-forth nature of this one: White gets some edge, but then allows Black to get back into it. Then the second player himself drifts and White gets a significant advantage, only to make 'the last mistake' with an incomprehensible pawn sacrifice.

Rather than treat them separately, I've merged five other games from this month into the main one, in order to give an overview on what's going on in the 3...Qd6 variation, assisted by Michael Melts' new book. They include two draws, a win and a loss by Tiviakov, who is the leading 3...Qd6 player at the top levels.

Till next month, John

Please post you queries on the 1 e4 ... Forum, or subscribers can write to me at if you have any questions or queries.