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This month I'll be looking at various areas that caught my attention amongst recent games played at a high level.
Just to what your appetite: There are some adventures in the Benko Gambit, followed by various Anti-Dutch systems where White aims to avoid the main lines, and finally some noteworthy games in the Neo-Grünfeld.

Download PGN of March ’16 Daring Defences games

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Benko Gambit Accepted without Kxf1, 5.bxa6 g6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.e4 0-0 8.e5 [A58]

In Zatonskih, A - Oparin, G Gibraltar 2017, the 'modern' (interpretation of the) Benko was met by an early e4-e5 by White. This certainly looks like a logical way to attempt to 'punish' Black for not having played ...d6, although in practise it hasn't been particularly successful:

Zatonskih then soon innovated, but White's bishop wasn't really better on the d3-square (rather than on e2 which had previously been played). Black achieved a good game and certainly had aspirations of getting more than a draw, but White's defences held firm.

Benko Gambit Accepted 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.g3 0-0 8.Bg2 d6 9.Nf3 Nxa6 [A58]

In Maiorov, N - Perunovic, M Lisbon 2017, Black met White's fianchetto with ...Nxa6 which has the advantage of keeping the light-squared bishop's options open:

Although White has generally been able to achieve good results with the Fianchetto variation (against most Black set-ups), in this particular line the second player has generally held his own. Indeed, this encounter flowed well for Perunovic who was able to coordinate his forces better than his opponent. I wasn't keen on White's plan with a2-a4, but it required some dynamic ideas by Black (...c4, ...Qd4, and ...f5) to help destabilize the white forces.

Benko Gambit Accepted 6.Nc3 d6 7.Nf3 g6 8.g3 Bg7 9.Bg2 Nbd7 10.Rb1 [A58]

One of the traditional main lines in the Fianchetto Variation received a serious test in the featured game Jojua, D - Pantsulaia, L Tbilisi 2017. This approach hasn't been a popular choice by Benko players of late, perhaps due to Black having difficulty in equalizing:

Here again it was White who was happy with the outcome, which suggests that Jojua's choice of 13.Qd3 is just as promising for White as the main move 13.Qc2.

The worrying issue from Black's point of view is that it's hard to pick out a clear improvement for him in the early middlegame when the game was inexorably crystallizing in White's favour. So my conclusion is that I don't trust the whole 11...Bc8 variation. Instead, if you are seeking an alternative, maybe take a leaf out of Perunovic's book (see above)!

Dutch Defence 2.Bg5 h6 3.Bh4 g5 4.e3 Nf6 5.Bg3 d6 6.h4 [A80]

After the popular 2.Bg5, Black allows himself to be provoked into advancing his kingside pawns. The most challenging way forward for White involves the sharp reaction 6.h4, as featured here, posing the question to Black: What are you going to do now?

White has a big percentage at this point, but my investigations suggest that Black has more than one way to equalize. The main game Urkedal, F - Vovk, A Fagernes 2016, was played a few months ago but I wanted to highlight the successful new plan employed by the Ukrainian GM. Vovk was able to obtain a good game with 6...Rg8, but I think that 6...g4 also leads to Black obtaining a satisfactory position, see the notes.

Dutch Defence 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bg5 d5 4.Bxf6 exf6 5.e3 Be6 6.Qf3 [A80]

In Volkov, S - Golubov, S Taganrog 2017, White employed 6.Qf3, and after 6...Qd7 Volkov followed up with 7.h3!?, an unusual move. Apart from covering the g4-square, this can be a useful waiting move, but even so, I'm not sure this is really theoretically challenging for Black.

In fact, Golubov's plan with ...g5 and ...0-0-0 is one of Black's best methods in general and, in this case, (with White's queen absent on kingside duty) the timely follow up with ...a6 and ...b5 gave him the better of the struggle. A model strategy from Golubov until, that is, he let a big advantage slip through his hands.

Although placing the queen on f3 is one of White's main options in this line, the unconvincing h2-h3 looks like something a luxury that I doubt will catch on.

Dutch Defence 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 g6 4.c3 Bg7 5.Qb3 [A81]

With c2-c3 and Qd1-b3, White aims to annoy Black by 'stopping' him castling kingside. Clearly, within a couple of moves or so, Black can indeed block the a2-g8 diagonal, and thus earn the right to castle. Fair enough. However, this comes at a cost, as he can't generally deploy his central pawns in the way he would normally do in a Leningrad.

Here in Hausrath, D - Jakubiec, A Belgian league 2017, the second player achieved a good game by meeting White's set-up with ...Nc6 and ...d5. Later on, with the ambitious ...e7-e5 advance, Black successfully challenged White's centre and gained the upper hand. In the middlegame Jakubiec could have rounded off his good play with a deep combination which would have won, whereas in the latter stages, it wasn't easy to convert the pawn-up late middlegame. So all-in-all Black's development plan looks like a good answer to the Qb3 idea.

As an aside, this is an interesting try with reversed colours against the Bird's Opening (1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 c6!? 4.Bg2 Qb6).

Stonewall Dutch (with Bf4) 5.Nf3 Bd6 6.Nc3 c6 7.Bf4 [A90]

The theme involving B-f4, which occurred in Eljanov, P - Carlsen, M Wijk aan Zee 2017, is a well-known recipe against the Stonewall. However, the timing of Eljanov's 7.Bf4 is notable in that White hasn't yet castled. Although the Ukrainian GM eventually 'went short', you'll see in the notes several examples where White players left their king in the centre or even castled long.

As to the opening approach: If playing the bishop to f4 on the seventh move caused the best player in the World to suffer, then this will interest others, so beware of the theme! I don't have any magic solutions to suggest, but it makes sense to compare with B-f4 in analogous positions, where in most cases Black has been doing OK.

After the opening phase, Eljanov had the easier game and was definitely pressing the World Champion. However, Carlsen is a master of defence and after his shaky opening played quite accurately and even turned the tables.

Neo-Grünfeld 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.cxd5 Nxd5 7.0-0 Nb6 8.Nc3 Nc6 9.d5 [D76]

In Lei Tingjie - Hansen, E Wijk aan Zee 2017, a forcing line occurred that typically leads to White having the slightly better structure, but where Black is generally active enough to cope.

Honing in on Black's isolated c-pawn is the main aim of White's strategy. Here White did indeed win the pawn (eventually) but Black had more than enough play with his active rook and bishop pair. Even if Black didn't miss anything significant, he had the better of the draw, so it looks like his novelty (14...Nd5) is quite good.

Here, in the above diagram position after 14.e5 is where the Canadian introduced 14...Nd5!? whereas in the past 14...Bg4 had been played.

Neo-Grünfeld 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Na3 c3 [D77]

The root cause of White's problems was not necessarily 10.Nc4, but this fairly rare move didn't exactly challenge Black in Sodoma, J - Vachier-Lagrave, M Gibraltar 2017. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave demonstrated good technique to grind down his opponent by taking a bind on some key central squares and never letting go. It was instructive to see how Black was able to get his pieces installed on c4 and e4, a consequence of White's planlessness.

Neo-Grünfeld 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 c6 7.cxd5 [D79]

The Exchange Variation of the Neo-Grünfeld has a reputation of being dull, but in the battle of the legends, Mecking, H - Shirov, A Florianopolis 2017, things turned out to be quite lively. First of all, Black's eighth move sets the scene by seeking to mix matters by changing the pawn structure into something more double-edged:

I can't see any particular problem with this move, as you will notice in the game and notes.

In reply, White's 9.Qb3 enabled the Brazilian veteran to recapture on c3 with his queen (i.e. retaining symmetrical pawns) which was solid enough, but Black was slightly more lively after this. Later, after obtaining a slight edge, Shirov perhaps underestimated Mecking's counterplay based on a queen sacrifice. Towards the end, with White having such good pieces, Shirov had to defend accurately to hold the balance.

Till next month, Glenn Flear

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