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Slowly but surely we see an increase in the number of books about our 1 e4 X defences. Peter Wells' Grandmaster Secrets: The Caro-Kann is the best general book on the Caro-Kann that I've ever seen, and it's only 175 pages long. For more about this and Jovanka Houska's Caro-Kann book, see my latest book reviews on TWIC. I've also talked about both of these books on my Chess.FM Internet radio show; in fact, Peter Wells was a recent guest. We'll start with their opening.

Download PGN of January '08 1 e4 ... games


This just in today: The game Leko - Ivanchuk, Corus (Wijk aan Zee) 2008, followed the current main line of the 4...Nd7 Caro-Kann Defence, something that I was planning to say a few words about anyway. It's funny that when I originally looked at 4...Nd7 it hadn't been the most popular move and yet was doing reasonably well. Since then top players haven't been shy about using the move, perhaps in part because 4...Bf5 can be a bit dull if White wants to play it that way.

Leko played the line with 13 b3 and 15 Qh3. He achieves something (with perhaps slightly inaccurate play on Black's part) but decides to agree to a draw in a position that seems to have some life left in it.

It's interesting to see that Morozevich also trusts the 4...Nd7 variation for Black. Amonatov - Morozevich, Moscow 2007, tested the 15 Qh4 variation (from the diagram). White seemed to have a little something, but a few accurate moves and Black achieved full equality.

In the main line of 5 Ng5 Ngf6 6 Bc4 (instead of 6 Bd3), which goes 6...e6 7 Qe2 Nb6 8 Bd3 h6 9 N5f3 c5, the move 10 Be3 was played in Mista - Akesson, 7th Amplico AIG Life, Warsaw 2007:

I'm interested in 6 Bc4 as a practical alternative to 6 Bd3, if only because it takes a lot more specific study to play White in the 6 Bd3 lines (for example, his queen can even be trapped if he isn't careful). By contrast, Black has done very poorly and failed to achieve equality versus 10 Be3, which is also more fun for White. So the whole variation should definitely be considered.

The Advance Variation continues to fascinate. For example, after 1 e4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 e5 c5, the popular move 4 c4 has always been odd-looking to me, since it leaves d4 undefended and still doesn't develop a piece. But the move does pressure d5, and I haven't seen a fully satisfactory solution for Black yet:

In Muzychuk - Ushenina, Ljubljana 2007, Black played 4...Nc6 5 Nf3 cxd4 6 Nxd4 dxc4 and failed to equalise. In the notes, I show a way that White can meet Jovanka Houska's 6...e6 successfully, and other tries such as 5...Bg4 are currently wanting, according to theory. Naturally there is plenty to investigate.

In Haslinger - Marusenko, Hastings 2008, the more conservative 4...e6 is analysed. Quite apart from possible transpositions, the game itself (a miniature) is not a good advertisement for it. I suggest some early ways for Black to change the character of the game.

Scandinavian Defence

There were no games in this month's bunch between high-rated players with 1 e4 d5 2 exd5 Qxd5 3 Nc3 Qa5. But, as is becoming the norm, there were a number with 3...Qd6. Top theoretician Sergei Tiviakov suffered two defeats with that move in the same line. Gashimov - Tiviakov, Reggio Emilia 2008, turned tactical at an early stage; and Ni Hua-Tiviakov, Reggio Emilia 2007, has some basic themes involving the ...e6/...c6 structure.

Both games reached this position:

Versus Gashimov, Tiviakov played 8...Nxe5, and versus Ni Hua, 8...Qxd5. Both games are worth looking over, all the more so if you want to combine ...Qd6 with ...c6 (My personal opnion is that this is better done by 3...Qd6 4 Nf3 c6).

In any case, there are plenty of ways for Black to set up his pieces in these lines, and 3...Qd6 will remain popular for the foreseeable future.

Pirc/Modern Defence

It's been a while since I looked at the Modern Defence side of the ...g6 openings. In particular, the complex of variations with ...a6, promoted by Tiger Hillarp-Persson (otherwise known as 'Tiger'), is still popular in mid-level play. Theory hasn't provided much of a verdict because there are too many disparate lines. That situation is good for the player who wants to get out of normal channels. Unfortunately, Black is undertaking a lot of risk, because a slight misstep can do him in, whereas White's mistakes tend to be more forgiving. In particular, the wrong move order can be killing, and my feeling is that in practice, Black needs to have a lot memorized about the first 8-10 moves or so of these systems. Thus the wish to avoid theory ironically requires quite a bit of study! Nevertheless, when the early moves are sorted out there are an almost infinite number of different game situations, wherein lies the fun.

Variations with f4 are naturally the most critical. My warning about move order can be seen in Schlosser - Seul, Bundesliga 2007-8:

Strange to say, the simple move 6 e5! causes difficulties that Black never recovers from.

Many players of White seem to have settled upon an approach that involves Be3/Qd2/f3/h4, and if ...h5, then Nh3-g5. According to Tiger, Emmanuel Berg has been a consistent advocate of the idea, and indeed, he has a contribution in this month's batch.

Against accurate defence, White normally won't get to crash through, or even establish a clear positional edge, and yet Black is sometimes at a loss for a good plan. Let's see a couple of variants.

Cubas - Leitao, Americana BRA 2007:

Here Black has gotten all of his planned moves in (...Nd7/...Bb7/...c5). After 10 dxc5, the natural 10...Nxc5 would have given him equality; instead, he got trapped in the centre following 10...dxc5? White developed a big advantage, but as so often happens tossed it away.

Once again, this standard formation arose in Kritz - Zozulia, Ascona 2007:

Black has traded off his dark-squared bishop in the interest of simplification, but also to leave White with his inferior light-squared bishop. The moves ...Bb7 and ...Rc8 will give him a harmonious game. So White plays 12 a4 to mess up Black's queenside. That eventually pays off, although in general the first player can only expect a small advantage in a situation with chances for both sides.

Finally, we see another and quite reasonable idea for Black in E Berg-Angskog, Rilton Cup 2007. When White plays Nh3, Black simply captures that piece. Since White has committed his kingside pawns, he is unlikely to castle in that direction, so normally he will play 0-0-0. Then Black can use his usual queenside attacking ideas. If they create some pressure, that might make up for White's bishop pair. If not, the latter will be a real force throughout the game.

Here 10...c5 is too ambitious and can be met by a successful 11 dxc5, so Black tried 10...c6 instead, continuing by attacking via ...Qa5, ...Nb6, etc. White was a bit better when Black blundered.

Till next month, John

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