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Benko Gambit Declined 4.Qc2, 4.Nf3 bxc4 [A57]
The new revitalized Benko Gambit, involving the quick ...0-0 and ...Qa5, is still popular and (at present) holding up to scrutiny. So there is a desire for some White players to seek earlier alternatives. I'll be looking at three of these this month.
In Game One White employed 4.Qc2 and was able to support his centre until Black struck out with 13...f5!?:
The timing of this counter is often key to Black's plans in this type of structure. In the game I think that Black got it slightly wrong and weakened himself too much. In the middlegame, Berczes let his initiative fizzle out because he missed a timely h4-h5 and then he had to defend a somewhat worse endgame. White's play in the latter part of this encounter was quite poor, and almost certainly because of a lack of time.
Black may need to prepare ...f5 a little more carefully to equalize, or even switch to an alternative plan based on ...Rb8 and ...Nh5 (see the notes to move 10).
In Game Two meeting 4.Nf3 with 4...bxc4 leads to easy development for White. I don't think this is Black's easiest way of seeking equality against White's main 'Benko Declined' try. Instead I would recommend readers to seek more complex play following 4...Bb7 or 4...g6.
White was never close to winning this game despite being better in two phases: The opening (he should have patiently developed with 18.Re1) and the endgame (I don't think he missed anything here, the extra pawn being only a nominal advantage).
Benko Gambit 5.e3 [A57]
The variation with 5.e3 is a natural way of supporting the extra pawn on b5 by opening the light-squared bishop's diagonal. Game Three flowed well for White who was able to conserve his advantage from the opening throughout. Clearly 11...Bc6 didn't hold-up well here, as the novel 13.Qb3 followed by 14.axb5 proved to be very strong. The queen was much stronger than the rooks. The notes suggest possible alternatives at this point: Nicolai Pederson tried the interesting 11...Qg6 in one game, and Black seems to be OK after the most popular 11...e6. If these don't appeal then there is always 5...g6 to fall back, that is if you really can't find a way to make 5...axb5 palatable.
Neo-Grünfeld with 5.cxd5 & Nge2 [D72]
In Game Four, Ipatov-Erdogdu, the variation with a quick e2-e4 was tried. This is one of the only lines where White develops his king's knight to e2 rather than f3:
Between moves 12 and 14 there is a great deal of leeway as to the choice of moves for both players. In this case, after Ipatov's 12.Na3 (see the diagram) play continued with 12...Bf5 13.Be3, when Black mostly plays 13...Qd7 rather than 13...Re8. I don't think this is particularly significant, but Black's choice of plan afterwards certainly was. My judgement is that ...Bh3 trading bishops isn't best, as Black often finds this piece quite useful, as you may observe in some of the other game segments. In the featured game, Black was unable to cope with the advance of the d-pawn.
Neo-Grünfeld 5...dxc4 6.Qa4+ [D73]
In Game Five White's opening didn't work very well. Even from quite an early stage it was largely a question of whether Timofeev, playing Black, could find a way to make something of his advantage.
After 6.Qa4+ I like Black's choice of 6...Nfd7, after which there are perhaps better alternatives to 7.Na3, such as 7.Nbd2 which has been chosen by Khalifman and Wang Yue. However, according to my assessment, White hasn't been able to demonstrate any advantage from any of them.
Neo-Grünfeld 6.cxd5 Nxd5 & 9.d5 [D76]
Game Six was a highly theoretical battle where White offers the d-pawn as bait and Black takes up the challenge. After that the forcing complications led to the diagram below:
In the diagram position, Ftacnik chose 16...Nc4 which could well be the best move. Black certainly obtained a good game and later was perhaps close to winning, but Kopylov somehow wriggled out.
Neo-Grünfeld 6.cxd5 Nxd5 & 9.e3 [D76]
Game Seven, Jobava-Ivanchuk, is another game where Black obtained great hopes of winning only to let the chances slip. Jobava was able to create an original position by playing 12.b4 (unusual) and then 13.Qc2 (new):
Ivanchuk was up to the challenge, and hit back at White's pawn front obtaining counterplay. The counter 22...c5! was particularly notable which led to the win of a pawn. It was perhaps on move 30 (or thereabouts), where Ivanchuk lost the thread.
Neo-Grünfeld 6...dxc4 7.Na3 [D77]
Game Eight was also encouraging if you take Black's side of the Neo-Grünfeld. Agrest's choice of 10...Bg4 is unusual and certainly created some new problems for White:
Winsnes replied with 11.Qb5, but after 11...Rb8 the capture of the pawn on c5 gave Black excellent play. In a British league game, Richard Bates wasn't successful with 11.Rd1 either, so that leaves us with 11.h3 posing the question to the bishop immediately. If then 11...Bf5, play would be similar to 10...Bf5, which is better known, except the extra move h2-h3 may add some original touches. Miles once retreated with 11...Be6 which also looks playable. The most curious thing about the present game is that Agrest sacrifices his c-pawn, and yet he soon obtained a powerful passed ...c-pawn! White was defenceless in the face of combined threats of promoting the pawn and bashing his king.
Neo-Grünfeld 6.0-0 c6 7.b3 [D78]
In Game Nine, Nyzhnyk-Pakleza, Black played the same opening variation as I examined in Ding Liren-Caruana a few months ago (see the archives). This variation with 8...c5 gives Black plenty of activity, but it seems that White can also hope for dynamic piece play. I quite liked 12...e5, after which I think that chances were about balanced:
In any case, this was far more double-edged and indeed 'interesting' than a number of lines involving ...c6, which have the reputation of being downright dour.
In the game White had somewhat the better of the latter phase, but Black was able to hold on.
Blumenfeld Gambit Declined 5.Nc3!? b4 [E10]
In Game Ten Wei Yi gets into trouble against a lower-rated player. The curious thing about the sidelined knight on a4 was that it didn't seem to negatively affect White's game. The key aspect was that White took the centre, held onto it, and eventually was able to start rolling his pawns forward. Gagare's 10.a3, opening the a-file, was an important element in his success:
In the final position I wonder if Wei Yi resigned too early, probably because he was unaware of a resource. It may well be still lost, but deserved playing out.
So 5.Nc3 looks a little silly, but has it's points. There could be improvements in the late opening, but I suspect that it is as early as move six that Blumenfeld players would do well to modify their choice of set-up.
Till next month, Glenn Flear
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