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This month I've picked mostly high-level games, some from popular lines that we've been tracking, but also from variations that we haven't seen before. Also, I've mixed in games played during last month's column's time period, because they are relevant to this month's. I think that I'll make a practice of this, so as to give a broader but still up-to-date view of what's happening. Mostly we have Caro-Kanns this time, because that's where the grandmaster action has been.

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


In Z Almasi-Mi Marin, Reggio Emilia 2008, we see a move, 4 Bg5, that scored 9 of 10 in this month's batch! While Black may be able to equalise in this variation, there is no clear way to do so and it seems that he has the harder task in practice.

This is a standard position, Black secures the two bishops, which he judges to be more important than the weakening of the kingside. For his part, White increases his lead in development. Pirc players beware, and study James Vigus' book!

Caro-Kann Defence

As always, the Caro-Kann is the favourite choice of grandmasters out of those covered in this section. The Advance Variation 3 e5 continues to be very popular at the top levels, arguably giving White better winning chances than the other conventional lines. After 3 e5 Bf5, White no longer plays 4 Nc3 e6 5 g4 so often, but plays the Short System with Nf3 and Be2, or a flexible move such as 4 Be3 or 4 Nd2. We've seen a fair amount of both in this column. Both this and last month there were a number of games with 4 Be3, largely in White's favour:

In Sulskis - Postny, Dresden 2008, I've included recent games and analysis. This line is a practical choice for White versus the Caro-Kann.

The Short System is considered safe and perhaps slightly better for White, but that's not proven yet. There were several prestigious games from the basic position:

Here Leko - Cheparinov, FIDE Grand Prix Elista 2008 featured the direct 5...c5. My impression is that in almost every variation, almost no matter how the play goes, White can get enough pressure to bother Black. With accurate defence the second player will hold the draw, but he'll have to find good moves over the board.

In Svidler - Topalov, Pearl Spring 2008, the 5-time Russian Champion seems to get confused by Black's move order.

Topalov's 7...c4!? releases pressure on the centre, but foils White's queenside attacking plans and prepares a general advance. Svidler ends up with a serious positional disadvantage.

In Smirin - Rodshtein, Haifa ISR Ch 2008, Black didn't risk 5...c5, but played conventionally with 5...Nd7 and 6...Ne7. This resulted in a mostly positional struggle in which the advantage went back and forth, but in the end a draw was the fair result.

Here Smirin opened things with 13 c4, but this led to what should have been a harmless liquidation. In the notes I've included Svidler-Nakamura, Aker Rapid 2009, a quick kill for White.

Black went with Houska's preference 3 e5 c5 in Hector - Khenkin, Bundesliga 2008-9, and came out on top in the line with 4 c4!?. In the game, Black found a nice move:

He played 5...Bg4! 6 Qxd4 Bxf3 7 gxf3 Nc6!, gambiting a pawn for more than enough play. Instead, 6 cxd5 is critical. And in general, I think that the move order 4 Nf3 with the idea 4...Nc6 5 c4! is more accurate.

The main line with 3 Nc3 dxe4 4 Nxe4 Bf5 5 Ng3 Bg6, etc., is contested several times every month, and this time we have a game of stars between 2700+ Bacrot and Peter Leko (2747) in the FIDE Grand Prix in Elista 2008. They enter the main line featured in Jovanka Houska's book, and arrive at the following position:

With his last move, 16...0-0, Black has deviated from Houska's recommendation 16...Rd8, and White tries to take advantage by 17 g4. Not surprisingly, complications ensue, with White drumming up a big attack. He ends things with a pretty tactic. See Bacrot - Leko, Elista 2000.

Jovanka Houska herself played two recent games in this line, winning both. Jovanka appeared on my ChessFM online interview show recently, and I asked her if it were a problem that opponents could read her book and prepare against her published analysis. Apparently not!

This main line arose in Spence - Houska, Hastings 2008/9. White deviated from the standard continuation, but Houska's claim that Black is at least equal in this position was born out.

In Chkhaidze - Houska, Hastings 2008/9, it's Black who deviated first:

Instead of the normal 13...0-0 or 13...Nxe4, she embarks upon the rather adventurous-looking 13...c5!?. White is thrown into utter confusion and gets massacred.

These last are not high-level games, but they are instructive tests of important lines that players on both sides of the main line should study.

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.