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English Defence 4 f3 [A40]
Despite a certain interest from various GMs and authors, playing with ...e6 and ...b6 is still quite a reasonable way of getting away from theory.
So in the three games featured in this month's update, two of them involve near-novelties on move five!
In Game One, for instance, White's natural-looking 5.Nc3 led us off the beaten track. I suppose that Black's English Defence with an early ...Nc6 was surprising, but Romain Edouard followed-up with ...Bd6 with another 'eyebrow-raising' minor piece!
The ploy worked, White advanced a central pawn and Black obtained good counterplay. The only problem for the Frenchman is that he missed the best way forward and White was able to walk his king to safety and equality. The endgame was an entertaining fight, but always fairly balanced.
English Defence 3 Nf3 Bb7 4 e3 f5 [A40]
In Game Two, Natacheev-Kostenko, Black fianchettoed both bishops which was met by sensible but uninspiring development by White. Kostenko was able to transfer his queen to the kingside and start a dangerous attack, but after mishandling it he had to suffer a worse endgame. Time probably influenced the result in this long struggle as White missed chances to win and later even went on to lose.
From our point of view, the opening was instructive in that 'slow, solid' ideas don't lead to anything against Black's set-up. So White has to strike while the iron is hot. His best chance of an opening advantage would involve an early e4 or d5 (see move seven), but these daring approaches require more tests.
English Defence 4 Bd3 Bb4+ 5 Kf1 [A40]
Nigel Short played a fairly new idea in Game Three with 5...c5, which superficially would seem to be at odds with having a bishop stuck in 'no man's land' on b4. He no doubt hoped to create tricky problems for his opponent, Ju Wenjun, but the Chinese Grandmaster was able to maintain an opening advantage. It's worth remembering that playing weird positions sets new difficulties for both players!
However, a closer look reveals that Short probably could have equalized with 8...d5, which justifies his novelty. Later on, Ju Wenjun was able to win a piece, but somehow she missed a crushing continuation and allowed the English GM a chance back into the game. This hidden resource being missed, Short soon went down.
Budapest Gambit 4 Bf4 g5 [A52]
In Game Four we have another example of Black struggling against 6.h4. For me, this move is tantamount to a refutation of the 4...g5 thrust:
By playing h2-h4 so early, Black cannot avoid significant line opening on the kingside. His structure then becomes weakened and his king has nowhere to hide.
In the game, White's nuance on move ten looks like another nail in the coffin of Black's schema.
Nimzovich Defence 2...d5 3 e5 Bf5 [B00]
In Game Five Black suffered all game from having less space, and in particular I could point a finger at the knight on g6 which was basically out of play. It strikes me that in such '...d5; met by e4-e5' lines Black has to play for ...f6 at some point to seek some counterplay against White's big centre. In the notes, Stevic played this counter on move five, but in other references it was sometimes employed slightly later.
I was intrigued to see that in one of the rare books in recent years on this opening, the author proposes 3...f6. Wisnewski's approach hasn't yet been tested enough at a high level to make any definite conclusions, but it deserves thinking about.
Nimzovich Defence 2 Nc3 Nf6 [B00]
In Game Six, Xu-Bauer, Black did play with ...f6, but only on move 12 after getting his king into safety:
However, there was little danger in delaying this counter, as the trade of light-squared bishops gave Black no problems.
Bauer later went astray, as he sacrificed a pawn and then a piece looking for an attack. Although his ideas weren't bad, they probably weren't optimal and White gradually consolidated.
Albin Counter Gambit 4 Nf3 Nc6 5 Nbd2 Nh6 [D08]
In Game Seven, Ulko-Iljuishenok, I start by looking at the rare move 5...Nh6!?, but play soon transposes to something more conventional (...Nh6-g4xe5 comes to the same thing as ...Nge7-g6xe5).
Iljuishenok then repeats his pet-opening where he was successful against Riazantsev, a game that you will find in the archives. Here Ulko varied with 11.Nb5 and went on to obtain a marginally superior endgame. Black's loss was more down to a blunder than anything else, but he could have made the defence easier by keeping his pawn structure intact with an alternative recapture on move 17 (see the notes).
So 6.a3 is a reasonable (if not the best) way to meet 5...Nh6.
Albin Counter Gambit 4 Nf3 Nc6 5 a3 Nge7 [D08]
In Game Eight White's sixth move deserves a diagram:
The idea is to be able to play Bb2 whilst keeping the c4-pawn defended. Better known is 6.b4, but Black's counterplay then often involves capturing on c4.
The game continuation 6...Bg4 7.h3 Bxf3 8.exf3 Nxe5 9.f4 may not look like anything special, but Black was unable to find a good plan and the bishop pair turned out to be a useful asset. White dominated proceedings.
Instead, Henris recommends 6...Ng6 7.Bb2 Bg4 8.Nbd2 Ngxe5, but this needs more tests especially following 9.Qc2, which my preliminary investigations suggest is playable for Black, but slightly easier for White.
Blumenfeld Counter Gambit Declined 5 Bg5 exd5 6 cxd5 h6 [E10]
In Game Nine Rodshtein wins almost effortlessly against Tizbir in the Blumenfeld Declined. So this merits a close look.
Although 8.Qc2 may look unassuming White does score quite well with this move, and I think I've ascertained why this is:
Over the years, Black has been unable to make the desirable 11...Bg4 work because White's 12.e5 messes up Black's harmony. Instead Black should settle for 11...Nbd7 where he is able to stop White creating any immediate central threats. Play then settles down into a normal-looking Blumenfeld Declined where White has a nice outpost on the c4-square, but Black has the bishop pair.
Blumenfeld Counter Gambit Accepted 7 e4!? [E10]
In Game Ten, Cerveny-Zwardon, White plays a surprising counter-gambit, 7.e4!?:
Although I have only found one other example (played by S.Pedersen in 2009), the idea reminds me of a similar counter sacrifice two moves earlier. Here Zwardon's vigorous counterplay won the day, but White's direct attacking ideas could certainly rattle someone who was unprepared.
From the diagram, after 7...axb5 8.e5 Nd5 I feel that 9.Bd3 must be critical, but my analysis suggests that Black is objectively fine. Even so, for practical purposes, having nerves of steel would help!
Till next month, Glenn Flear
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