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This month I will cover the theoretical implications of the Open Candidates Tournament, where the players could be expected to prepare themselves very well. The line-up was known well in advance and the national representatives could expect to get a lot of support in their attempts to qualify, so this put an onus on the value of surprise. Quite a few of the games were quite interesting from a theoretical point of view, and I will cover them in the approximate order in which they were played.

Download PGN of May ’24 1 d4 d5 2 c4 games

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QGD, Semi-Tarrasch 4.e3 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.a3 [D40]

The Semi-Tarrasch was played in a couple of games, Gukesh, D - Vidit, S in round 1 and Praggnanandhaa, R - Abasov, N in round 6. The standard move order is 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.e3 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nc6, and now both games featured 6.a3:

After Black's 6...a6 they varied and Gukesh played 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.b4 Bd6 9.Ra2!?, aiming to bring the rook to d2:

This does not seem to give White an objective edge, but Black certainly has to be careful.

Praggnanandhaa instead played 7.b3 and then his 9.c5 was a move introduced some 30 years ago by Boris Gelfand:

Abasov would not have been expecting any of this and he found himself in a bad position.

These two games should also attract the attention of English Opening aficionados, there are possible transpositions via 1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.e3 e6 5.d4 d5 and 1.Nf3 c5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.e3 e6 5.d4 d5. Both 7.dxc5 and 7.b3 look like interesting ways to cause Black some problems. There's also a possible transposition from the 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 line I covered last month, when Black plays 4...c5 there is 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.a3.

Catalan Opening 4.g3 Bb4+ 5.Nc3 dxc4 6.Bg2 [E04/E20]

The round 2 encounter, Praggnanandhaa, R - Gukesh, D, proved to be a hugely important game, and it also had theoretical significance. Praggnanandhaa's 14.e5 varied from a handful of previous games, and from the clock times it seems that it was prepared in advance:

If this is the case I might need a better engine, White seems to be struggling to drum up sufficient compensation after 15...fxe6. In the game White also found himself running short of ammunition and when the smoke finally cleared he was a piece down for insufficient compensation. Nonetheless this was a fascinating encounter for which both players deserved great credit.

Queen's Gambit Declined with 3...Bb4 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 Nf6 [D31/E40]

The position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 Nf6 6.e3 (Abasov, N - Caruana, F ) can also be reached via a Nimzo-Indian, but 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ would be an unlikely choice for a Nimzo player. Caruana's choice of this, plus his 6...c6, must have taken Abasov by surprise. His 7.a4 is not bad in itself, but after 7...0-0 8.Bd3 e5 9.dxe5 dxc4 10.Bxc4 Qxd1+ 11.Kxd1 Ng4, he soon found himself with an inferior position:

A well prepared White player might find 7.Bd3 e5 8.Ne2 attractive, where White can get good compensation for a pawn.

QGD, Exchange Variation 4...Nbd7 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bh4 c6 [D35]

Caruana pulled off another surprise against Gukesh in round 11 (Gukesh, D - Caruana, F ), employing the variation with 6...h6 and 8...g5 for what appears to be the first time:

Had Caruana played 14...Be6, was Gukesh ready with the recommendation of 17.Nb3!, as proposed by Max Illingworth? In any event Black varied with 14...Qe7 and obtained a decent position. One thing I might point out is that when White castles early there's some danger in an ...h6-h5-h4 plan by Black, and I gave a couple of examples of this in the notes.

QGD, Exchange Variation 5.Bg5 Bb4 6.e3 h6 7.Bh4 g5 [D35]

There was another QGD Exchange in the final round, with Caruana, F - Nepomniachtchi, I featuring a similar kingside pawn advance but with the bishop on b4. I liked White after his 'novelty' of 14.f4, but the engine does not entirely agree:

What does seem like a reasonable claim is that White's more compact position is easier to play. After a couple of inaccuracies Nepomniachtchi found himself in a critical position but drew after switching to swindle mode.

Queen's Gambit, Pseudo-Tarrasch 3.c4 c5 4.cxd5 cxd4 5.Qxd4 [D06]

Also in round 11, Nakamura surprised Praggnanandhaa with 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c5!?, which I have dubbed the 'Pseudo-Tarrasch'. Nakamura had played this once before in an internet blitz game, but there he played 9...Bd7 instead of 9...Nc6:

Actually both 9...Nc6 and then 10...a5 are engine picks, but this has not been reflected in practice as yet. White was presumably surprised and his 11.Nb5 is not the best. After this we see Nakamura channelling Magnus Carlsen and outplaying his opponent in a complex endgame, see Praggnanandhaa, R - Nakamura, H.

Queen's Gambit Accepted, Furman Variation 5...Be7 [D26]

Last but not least, Gukesh wrong-footed Nakamura in the last round with his 5...Be7:

At first sight this looks plain bad, surely Black will lose a tempo in many lines where he plays ...c7-c5 and then recaptures with the bishop? This may be true, but how exactly should White exploit it? I thought that 9.dxc5 was the right way, or earlier just 7.0-0 rather than 7.a3. In Nakamura, H - Gukesh, D White found himself in a deeply unpromising position and had to scramble a draw.

See you next month! Nigel Davies

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