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My usual style is to pick 2500 (give or take) clashes, but this month Tata Steel gave us a Modern game, and there is a masterclass in the Tiger’s Modern structure from American GM Awonder Liang.

Download PGN of December ’23 1 e4 ... games

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Alekhine Defence, 4.Nf3 g6 5.Bc4 [B04]

We kick off with Raja, H - Bortnyk, M. The lesser-known Bortnyk brother has performed commendably in a number of tournaments lately and appears very much at home in the complicated positions of the B00-B19 region. He met 5.Bc4 with 5...c6 and after a few moves reached the following position:

The logical progression of both sides’ development means that next on the agenda is a c-pawn push (possibly for both sides.) Black, perhaps somewhat inaccurately, opted to push the pawn immediately with 13...c5, which was met in instructive style.

Modern Defence, Austrian Attack with 4...a6 5.Nf3 Nd7 [B06]

Next up the masterclass that was Jacobson, A - Liang, A. While I am perhaps not such a fan of Black’s 5th move, White didn’t follow up their queenside constriction with enough of a push in the centre. Their last chance to do so arose after 13...Nc6:

White should really be pushing f4-f5 by now (there were a couple of opportunities already) and with his next neutral move 14.Qd2 he actually handed over something of an initiative to Black, who incisively points out that the a4 push is not always entirely beneficial to White.

Modern Defence with 3.Nf3 d6 4.Bc4 Nf6 [B06]

Onto a line I’ve always enjoyed facing with the Black pieces and here it was Jorden van Foreest opting to take play into the murky waters of the Modern in Ju, W - van Foreest, J. White’s initial setup gives the impression that they want to play something a little quieter, with perhaps a slight edge; the higher-rated player with Black instead decides to up the ante with 7...Nh5:

King’s Indian ideas abound for Black from this moment on, be it ...Qf6 with ...Nf4, or indeed the ...f5 break. White may have some edge, but cannot rely on peace to any significant extent. At the same time, Black often (as in the game) has the ability to sacrifice an exchange to sharpen things further.

Pirc Defence with 2.d4 a6 [B07]

Okay, so the move orders in the Pirc/Modern are seldom simple, with ...g6 often delayed and ...Bg7 delayed or omitted entirely. But even by the standards of the genre this is a little bit odd, and what better battleground than a tactical slugfest between two Scandinavian veterans in Hector, J - Fries Nielsen, J. A number of early quirks notwithstanding, the late opening saw play reach a type of position more typical for the Nimzowitsch defence (!), with Black preparing and then playing 12...g5:

It was remarkable for me to see how easily White’s position slid from +0.5 to 0 and then into negative; ten moves later, without making any really significant mistakes, White was lost! An instructive game for the column as a whole, since it draws features from at least 3 of our openings.

Caro-Kann Defence, 2 Knights Variation with 3...dxe4 [B11]

Back to a perennial battleground (the line with the knight trade on e4) and M.Bortnyk shows his strength in both opening choice and subsequent play in the game Bortnyk, M - Putnam, L. Specifically, I would draw attention to his decision to play the setup with 10.Bb3 and then 11.a4:

We have tended to write off 10.Bb3 as relatively harmless and allowing Black to push their queenside pawns (particularly the a-pawn.) There is, however, relatively little expansion to be done after 11.a4 and so following the natural 11...Bd6 12.d4 a6 13.Bg5 Black’s decisions revolved more about when and how to arrange the push ...c5, balanced against the sharpening of play that may result if White is allowed to take on f6. As things went, Black never managed to push the c-pawn and the resulting ‘bad’ bishop on b7 became the bane of his existence once a few pieces got traded.

Two Knights Variation with 3...Bg4 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 e6 6.Be2 [B11]

These days we almost don’t get a month without one of these and the wrinkles of move order continue to evolve at pace. The game Karthikeyan, M - Shankland, S saw Black playing the order 6...Bc5 7.0-0 Ne7 (I would favour developing the other knight) and now 8.Rd1:

The intention to push d2-d4 is a noble one indeed, but sadly White never gets there as after 8...d4! 9.Nb1 Ng6 it is Black who looks like controlling the dark squares, especially the central ones. A timely ...h5-h4 then practically reduced White to a state of desperation. Instead, 8.Na4 is more appropriate.

Caro-Kann Defence, Exchange Variation with 4.Nf3 [B13]

Finally a bit of self-aggrandisement as I took on noted Swedish veteran GM and Caro-Kann expert Ralf Akesson in the Belgian league recently. While I eschewed most of the sharp lines in favour of a grinding approach, the line with 4.Nf3 should not be considered harmless. A typical position (after Black has lost the bishop pair but successfully pushed ...e5) arose after 15...Ne4:

My opponent successfully demonstrated over the course of the next 5 moves that my engine-awarded slight advantage is liable to dissipate with good play, but then ran into longer-term strategic issues arising from the slight weakness of the d4-square and the potential for White to try and fix the queenside with a4-a5. See Fernandez, D - Akesson, R.

All the best, Daniel

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