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In this month’s update we look at some recent action in the Benoni, including online events and also games from the Top Chess Engine Championship. Computer engine assessments have never been kind to the Benoni, so it’s interesting to see what happens when they are forced to play it!

Download PGN of May ’20 Nimzo and Benoni games

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Snake Benoni 5...Bd6 6 e4 0-0 7 f4 [A60]

5...Bd6 6 e4 0-0 7 f4!?:

The Snake Benoni is still occasionally tried by strong players, although usually it’s reserved for blitz or rapidplay games. The rules of the Top Chess Engine Championship state that engines play each pre-selected opening from both sides, and this led to two games in the Snake between Leela Zero and Stockfish. That’s certainly a fairer rule than just one side having to play an opening - I recall how upset Garry Kasparov became when he was forced to play the Bryan Counter-Gambit (1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Bc4 Qh4+ 4 Kf1 b5) against Nigel Short in an exhibition match!

6 e4 0-0 7 f4 is an attempt to refute the Snake out of hand, as it forces Black to give up a piece. After 7...Nxe4! 8 Nxe4 Re8 White has 9 Qe2!:

White is ready to meet ...f5 with Nxd6, and if Black retreats the bishop to threaten ...f5 White has time to prevent it with g2-g4. However, after 9...Na6!?, introducing ideas of ...Nb4 and also ...c4/...Nc5, the position remains complicated and Black certainly has some compensation. In both games White carefully navigated a way to an advantage, but in neither case it was sufficient to win. So that’s 50% for the Snake at that level! See Stockfish - LCZero for analysis.

Modern Benoni: 6 Nf3 g6 7 Nd2 [A61]

Another pair of games involving Leela Zero produced a fresh idea for White in one of the main lines of the Modern Benoni, 6 Nf3 g6 7 Nd2 Nbd7 8 e4 Bg7 9 Be2 0-0 10 a4 Re8 11 h3!?:

This is a completely new position! Although the idea of h2-h3, preventing a later ...Ng4, is well known, the main point is that White delaying castling in favour of other useful moves usually played later. Amazingly, this little nuance seems to give Black some more problems to solve. Find out why in the notes to LCZero - AllieStein.

Modern Benoni: 6 Nf3 g6 7 Bf4 a6 [A61]

Bf4 lines continue to be a popular way of meeting the Modern Benoni. It’s often difficult for Black to create counterplay in the 7...a6 line, but I do like what Black tried in a recent game, 6 Nf3 g6 7 Bf4 a6 8 a4 Bg7 9 e3 0-0 10 h3 Ne8 11 Be2 Nd7 12 0-0 Ne5!?:

Normally Black prepares ...Ne5 with ...Qe7, so that he can recapture on e5 with pieces. However, in the game Le Tuan Minh - Indjic, A, Black played the immediate 12...Ne5, signalling that he is willing to recapture on e5 with a pawn. The perceived wisdom is that the change in pawn structure benefits White, but in this case there are some compensating factors that need to be taken into account. 12...Ne5 at least looks like a decent practical choice for Black.

Modern Benoni: 6 Nf3 g6 7 Bf4 Bg7 [A61]

6 Nf3 g6 7 Bf4 Bg7 8 e3 0-0 9 h3:

7...Bg7 is the more ambitious way to meet 7 Bf4. It’s true that Black must be willing to face the critical 8 Qa4+, but if White chooses the quieter e3 and h3 set-up, Black has more ways to mix things up compared to the similar line with ...a6 and a4 inserted.

As we’ve seen before, 9...Na6 is a decent option, and there’s also 9...Qe7 10 Nd2 Nh5 11 Bh2 f5!, as played by Caruana against Xiong in 2018. In the recent game Bartholomew, J - Trent, L, White played 10 Be2 (instead of 10 Nd2), and this was met by 10...Ne4!?:

I suggested this freeing idea in the notes to the Xiong-Caruana game, and since then it’s been tried on a couple of occasions. Black is willing to give up the d6-pawn in exchange for active pieces and an initiative.

Modern Benoni: 6 e4 Bg6 7 Nge2 [A65]

It feels like the Ne2-g3 plan is becoming increasing popular. I imagine this is partly because it can be used as an all-in-one solution for White against the King’s Indian, Modern Benoni and Delayed Benoni.

6 e4 g6 7 Nge2 Bg7 8 Ng3 0-0 9 Be2 h5?!:

The ...h5 pawn advance is a typical way for Black to gain early counterplay against Ne2-g3, but Black has to be careful with the timing. Here it seems premature, and well met by 10 Bg5!. In the recent game Vrolijk, L - Pikula, D, White was able to implement a typically violent attack with 0-0, f4 and e5, to which there was no answer - a depressingly common occurrence for Black in this line.

A more favourable version of ...h5 was seen in Berry, N - Wadsworth, M, 8...a6 (instead of 8...0-0) 9 a4 Nbd7 10 Be2 h5!?:

It can certainly be argued that an early ...h5 has more merit if Black hasn’t yet castled, and it’s noticeable that Garry Kasparov has played in similar fashion. Black’s king isn’t yet committed to the kingside, so White’s plan is less automatic. Furthermore, the rook on h8 is able to support the pawn’s advance to h4.

Modern Benoni: Taimanov Attack [A67]

We round off this month’s action with a game in the main line of the Taimanov Attack with 6 e4 g6 7 f4 Bg7 8 Bb5+ Nfd7 9 a4 0-0 10 Nf3 Na6 11 0-0 Nb4:

12 Re1, allowing the bishop to retreat to f1 after ...a6, remains White’s most popular choice here, but in a recent game White chose the rare move 12 h3!?. The idea is quite subtle. White plans to meet ...a6 with Bc4, and 12 h3 ensures that Black isn’t able to relieve some of the pressure with a later ...Bg4. After 12...a6 13 Bc4, the entire assessment of the lines seems to depend on whether or not Black can successfully play ...f5. See the notes to Sonis, F - Indjic, A for analysis on this plus an update on 12 Re1.

Till next time, John

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