The Ponziani is a much under-rated opening, and it may be experiencing a revival as I have already had to face it several times over the last year.
The last time was only a few days ago in the Freestyle (Advanced Chess) event, and after a little thought I decided to follow Marin's recommendation in his new book Beating the Open Games, to see how his analysis stood up. So, after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 c3 I played 3...Nf6 4 d4 Nxe4 (4...exd4 5 e5 Ne4 6. Qe2 f5 7 exf6 d5 is a lot of fun, and I played this in my previous game, and won quickly, but the line may be dubious and probably would not stand up to computer analysis) 5 d5 Ne7 (again 5...Bc5!? is fun, but not when facing a computer!) 6 Nxe5 Ng6 7 Nxg6 hxg6:
At a first glance this position looks tempting for Black, who has an open h-file for his rook and an extra piece in play, but I think this is misleading. White has the better pawn structure, and, as Nigel Davies said "an annoying space advantage" because of the advanced d-pawn.
My opponent now played the logical 8 Nd2 and to my horror I discovered that this wasn't even mentioned in the book! I spent the next 70 moves desperately trying to draw a worse ending, see Game 1.
The Rublevsky-Grischuk match provided us with a 'state of the art' look at the Scotch theory, White being its strongest current practitioner. After game 2 Rublevsky switched to 6 Qf3 and easily won game 4, but Grischuk struck back with the strong novelty 10...Bd4! in game 6 (yesterday, as I write) to force a quick draw, and used it again in the playoffs (today!) to win:
See Game 2 for the complete story. As Victor says: 'the ball is back in White's court'!
Giuoco Piano/Bishop's Opening [C54]
Returning to Marin's book (about which much has been written on the Forum), after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Nf6 4 d3 Bc5 5 c3 a6 6 Bb3 Ba7 7 O-O d6 8 h3 he recommends 8...0-0 9 Nbd2 Be6, as played in Karpov-Kortschnoi/Merano 1981, with close to equality.
This is a solid and sound line, but if Black wants to play for a win then Shirov's 8...h6 9 Re1 g5!? is worth a look, attempting to lever the g-file open:
In Game 3 Mickey Adams defended well as White right until just before the end, but with a weaker player defending the white pieces I think Black will score very heavily. Probably White should prefer 8 Nbd2, and only after 8...0-0 play 9 h3.
The Berlin Defence [C65 & 67]
Since taking up 1...e5 again over two years ago, after a long pause, I have tried a number of defences to the Spanish, 3...g6, the Steinitz Deferred and the Berlin Defence. The observant subscriber will notice that all these lines were suggested in articles by Nigel Davies on this section over 2 years ago! Yes, my only source of chess theory is this very column!
I soon discovered that one of the great reasons for playing the Berlin (apart from avoiding the popular Exchange Variation) was that most White players don't want to play the theoretical ending and so reply 4 d3 (or sometimes 4 Qe2), when by 4...Bc5 Black gets a superior version of a Giuoco Piano (White will often have to waste an extra move getting his bishop to b3 or c2). Better still, White sometimes plays 5 0-0?! (instead of 5 c3) when Black should reply 5...Nd4! and White already has to take care just to equalise!
Hard to believe? Just look at my analysis in the brief Game 4.
In actual fact I never intended to play the ending, but instead the Trifunovic line (see Nigel Davies' Feb '05 Update), 7...dxc6. The advantage of this is that the 'mainline' actually seems to give White no more than a draw, the disadvantage is that Black just can't avoid this perpetual.
This variation goes 8 dxe5 Nf5 9 Rd1 Bd7 10 e6?! fxe6 11 Ne5 Bd6 12 Qh5+ g6 13 Nxg6 Ng7 14 Qh6 Nf5 15 Qh3 (15 Qh5 Ng7 forces a repetition) 15...Rg8 16. Qxh7 Rg7 17 Qh5 Qf6 and now I was curious to know what would happen should White grab the rook by 18 Qh8+? Kf7 19 Qxa8, and so analysed this to a forced win for Black some time ago.
Imagine my surprise, and glee, when one of our silicon friends (Rybka, no doubt) decided to test this on me in the recent Freestyle event! To see this massacre, click on Game 5!
The traditional main move for Black was always 7...bxc6, and this still seems perfectly satisfactory, Malakhov trying it against Grischuk a couple of weeks ago in Game 6 and getting a good position despite White's clever innovation.
However, not everything is rosy in the 'Berlin garden' as after 4 O-O Nxe4 the move 5 Re1 is starting to become a major problem. Not because of 5...Nd6 6 Nxe5 Nxe5 7 Rxe5+ Be7 8 Bd3 which is nothing more than a big cheapo which allows Black to equalise easily (providing he knows what he is doing!), but rather 8 Bf1!:
The point is that play is likely to resemble an Exchange French once Black moves his knight and plays ...d5, but he will be several tempi down in the process! A 2200 player played this against me at Mudolsheim in December, and I lost badly through pressing too hard for the win. I didn't think too much of it until the Metz tournament this year when I saw Fedorchuk using it to win one of his games quickly.
So I have analysed this in some depth, and also give the line I think Black should try if he wants to play for a win, see Game 7.
I can't help feeling that we shall be seeing more of this!
Accelerated Closed Variation
Game 8 is not very theoretical but features a great new opening idea from Aronian, and a scintillating rook sac.
Till next month, Tony