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There have been quite a few high level encounters involving the Neo-Grünfeld with an early g2-g3. The present 'normal' of online Rapid and Blitz chess has seen a resurgence in a number of lines where White is testing the opponent's preparation. In some cases these lines arose via delayed d2-d4 move orders, something Grünfeld players need to be aware of when planning their repertoire. So it can be worth learning more than one way to handle White's fianchetto, but first of all I suggest that you study what follows closely!

Download PGN of January ’21 Daring Defences games

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Neo-Grünfeld 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nb6 7.Ne2 c5 8.d5 [D72]

In Lenderman, A - Sorokin, A White chose a sideline i.e. 10.Nbc3 (rather than the more fashionable 10.Nec3) followed by 11.Nf4 and recaptured on d5 with the f4-knight. Although Black is slightly inconvenienced due to his remaining knight being temporarily sidelined on a6, it didn't take long for Sorokin to organize his forces effectively. Furthermore, by instead capturing immediately on d5 (10...exd5) Black essentially avoids the plan chosen by Lenderman. So although there might be surprise value in White's approach, it doesn't look challenging from a theoretical point of view.

Neo-Grünfeld 6.cxd5 Nxd5, 9.e3 a5 [D76]

White employed the Avrukh inspired approach with an early N-h4 in Vasquez Igarza, R - Cheparinov, I, but cautiously didn't follow-up with f2-f4.

A manoeuvring phase followed where there was a notable tendency for Cheparinov's pieces to drift to the queenside. Unfortunately for the Bulgarian star, once the game sharpened up, White's pieces were the better poised to profit from the opening of lines and Black's forces turned out to be largely misplaced. I don't think however that there was really any opening advantage for White, but Black always has the tricky question of when to go for ...e5, as any moment from move ten onwards is plausible. In the middlegame, Cheparinov could have justified his ambitious kingside play with 26...Rxc5! which suggests that he was doing OK until then.

Neo-Grünfeld 6.cxd5 Nxd5, 9.e3 Re8 10.Re1 e5 [D76]

White kept the advantage throughout in Pantsulaia, L - Lomsadze, D although Black perhaps had drawing chances in the endgame.

After having examined the consequences from this position I have to admit that I prefer White. If Black can't exploit the vulnerable long diagonal (he tried his best in the game, but obtained no joy) then his knight on a5 is going to be a problem. In this highly theoretical struggle, Black's novelty on move twenty-three (!) wasn't bad, but there was at best a 'half-pawn down' endgame in prospect. Does this mean that 10...e5 is premature? Not just because of this line, but it's further evidence that suggests that Black should be more cagey, such as with 10...a5.

Neo-Grünfeld 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Nf3 0-0 7.0-0 Nb6 8.Nc3 Nc6 9.d5 Na5 10.Qc2 [D76]

Although Black won in Pacan-Milej, K - Dziuba, M it was White who made the early pace.

Here Dziuba went for 12...Qc7 when White reacted with the precise sequence 13.Nb5 Qb8 14.Bf4 e5 15.Be3 Bf5 16.Qc5 after which there is a choice between 16...Nc8 (as in the game, which just accepts that Black is a bit worse) or 16...Rc8 seeking highly intricate complications. After an exhaustive examination, I'm now convinced that these are better for White. So my conclusion is that Black's twelfth move isn't sufficient for equality. Instead I prefer 12...Qe8, as explained in the notes.

Neo-Grünfeld 5...dxc4 6.Na3 c3 7.bxc3 0-0 8.0-0 c5 9.Bb2 [D77]

The encounter Banusz, T - Howell, D reached the diagram position after 11.Nd2:

At this point, Black has some choice, for example Tamas Banusz had already faced 11...Bg4, but instead David Howell opted for 11...Qb6. It seems that, in any case, Black's provocative strategy is essentially to create some chinks in the central bastion. White was never really able to coordinate his forces and was soon worse after the neat tactic 16...Nxc4, which brings me to the conclusion that the second most popular move 11.Nd2 isn't a particularly dangerous weapon.

Neo-Grünfeld 6...dxc4 7.Na3 c3 8.bxc3 c5 9.Ne5 [D77]

In Matlakov, M - Zakhartsov, V White obtained promising-looking compensation for a pawn, but never found the right moment to regain the material and eventually paid the price for allowing the c-pawn to survive for too long. Nevertheless, he must have been happy with the opening phase, a key moment being the following:

Here the pawn-grabbing continuation 11...cxd4 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.cxd4 Bxd4 14.Rc1 has been tried a few times, but I haven't found a route to complete equality. So I think that alternatives at move eleven should be preferred, such as 11...Nxe5 or 11...Be6.

Neo-Grünfeld 6.0-0 c6 7.b3 [D78]

In Firouzja, A - Duda, J a complex position arose early on, which goes to show that 7.b3 can certainly be an interesting way of varying from the often dull lines arising from 7.cxd5.

In the diagram position, 13.e3 and 13.N2b3 are decent alternatives to Firouzja's choice of 13.Nc2. Later the up-and-coming star was able to continue with Nc2-e3-d5 from where the knight dominated proceedings, so I think that Duda should have pressed against c4 in order to keep White's play in check. So I've suggested 15...Na5 as an improvement, and then much later (but same square!) 27...Na5 should have been able to maintain the balance. All-in-all, a fascinating variation with plenty of opportunity to outplay an opponent (with either colour!).

Neo-Grünfeld 6.0-0 c6 7.Qa4 [D78]

In Oparin, G - Jones, G the advantage switched hands in the middlegame, but at no point was it decisive with both sides seeking the full point.

Oparin's favourite 7.Qa4 was effectively neutralized by Jones's play, especially as his odd-looking 11.Qe1 didn't offer anything. As to various other ways to handle White's queen, the more conventional 11.Qa5 shouldn't concern the second player either it seems, and earlier deviations all lack punch in my opinion. So, as Black has several satisfactory ways of meeting this early queen sortie, it looks like a theoretical dead end.

Neo-Grünfeld 6.0-0 c6 7.Qb3 Qb6 [D78]

Although this variation often starts slowly, there are ways for either side to seek interesting play. In Svidler, P - Duda, J the choice of 10.c5 being notable with a scenario that reminds one of various forms of the Slav.

The most dramatic moment has to be the Russian's choice of 17.Rxa6!? smashing Black's queenside, but I have mixed feelings about whether this was such a good idea. He seemed to obtain enough play for his dashing exchange sacrifice, but perhaps no more than that. Earlier on, from Black's point of view, I prefer 12...Bf5 (to Duda's 12...Ne8) as a plan involving ...Nd7 and ...e5 is easier to handle (and frankly to understand!) than the Polish player's attempted kingside action.

Neo-Grünfeld 6...c6 7.Qb3 a5 [D78]

Another case of Peter Svidler sacrificing the exchange with Rxa6 occurred in Svidler, P - Giri, A and again I'm not a fan, as he could have maintained a clearer advantage by other means.

The a-pawn push that Giri employed seems to be a dynamic way of generating counterplay. However, the choice of 10...b5 is questionable, as the weakening of the queenside structure is more of an issue than gaining a few tempi for development. I think that after 14...b3 Black is compromising himself even further, and was soon clearly worse. So, for example, instead of the flashy 19.Rxa6, I've pointed out that 19.Nd2 was strong, freeing up the f3-square for the queen.

So, going back to the diagram on move ten, there are three alternatives cited in the notes, all of which offer superior chances for Black (and with less risk) than in the main game.

Till next month, Glenn Flear

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