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Grünfeld 4.Bg5 Ne4 5.Bf4 [D80]
The idea of dropping the bishop back to f4 (i.e. when pushed, rather than retreating to the most common h4-square) has seen something of a revival due to three recent Aronian games including Aronian, L - Vachier-Lagrave, M.
In this case, play quickly varied from known theory, the diagram position already being highly unusual. I consider these early queen exchange scenarios as typically offering White a good foundation, but nothing dramatic. For Black, play is 'solid but passive at first' as he lacks early counterplay. Here, White gained a significant advantage, but only due to MVL's slack eighteenth move (18...Rac8? instead of 18...b6) and converted his advantage... almost 100 moves later! There are some major alternative defensive set-ups for Black, but in most cases I don't see any particular benefit in having the bishop on f4 (rather than h4) from where it bears down on e7. So I can't see 5.Bf4 replacing 5.Bh4 as the main move.
Grünfeld 4.Bf4 Bg7 5.e3 c5 6.dxc5 Qa5 7.Rc1 Nbd7 [D82]
Black met the 4.Bf4 system in dynamic style in Aleksandrov, A - Ponkratov, P. After the moves 4...Bg7 5.e3 c5!? 6.dxc5 Qa5 7.Rc1 the following position arises:
Ponkratov's 7...Nbd7!? was only introduced into practice in 2019. This and the follow-up (i.e. meeting 8.cxd5 with the calm 8...0-0) temporarily gives up two pawns for rapid development. Sure, he regains one straight away, but then he is still a big central pawn light going into the next phase. However, an examination of the next few moves indicates to me that Black is fine, as illustrated by the fact that after 9.Bc4 Nxc5 10.Nge2 Bd7 11.a3 Ba4! he was already in the ascendance. So it looks like this recent addition to Black's options is going to be around for a while longer (especially as it has so far +0=4-2!).
Exchange 8.Rb1 with 9.Be2 b6 10.0-0 Qc7 [D85]
A good defensive display saw Deac overcome his opponent in Mastrovasilis, A - Deac, B but White's difficulties essentially came about because of his over-enthusiastic d-pawn push.
Black is ready to defend against any threats from White's active-looking minor pieces, and as such 20.d5?! duly turned out badly (following 20...Rc4 21.Nf6+ Nxf6 22.Bxf6 exd5). Instead, 20.Rbd1 Rc4 21.Rd2 would have maintained the suspence in an unclear struggle. As to the opening, 11.Bg5 Bb7 12.Qd3 looks like a decent set-up to me, but I wonder how dangerous the gambit alternative 12.d5!? will prove to be in future struggles.
Exchange 7.Be3 c5 8.Qd2 Qa5 9.Rc1 0-0 10.Nf3 Nd7 11.h4 [D85]
Two fashionable themes combined to make Sonis, F - Shevchenko, K a fascinating struggle as well as a theoretical battlefield. White combined his Be3-Exchange with an early h4 which seems to be popping up in all sorts of variations these days! A key moment occurred in the diagram:
In a previous game, 17.Rc7 turned out to be promising, but Sonis's 17.Rxc8 is an ambitious novelty. The point is that after 17...Raxc8 18.g4 White obtains two pieces for a rook. A few moves later, despite Black having plenty of pawns plus his rook to compensate for the pair of pieces White's activity turned out to be too hot to handle. I think however if Shevchenko had seized the opportunity to block off the kingside then he would have been OK.
Exchange 7.Bc4 with 10.h4 [D87]
The encounter Belous, V - Preotu, R was a sharp struggle where White's attacking intentions probably should have paid off, but he delayed the key breakthrough for too long.
The outright aggressive 10.h4 ups the tension, which forces his opponent to make a quick decision about how to ensure the king's future safety. Preotu reacted by hunting down the h-pawn, but at the risk of getting his queen into some difficulties. He was then behind in development and facing a big centre, but he had at least eliminated the annoying h-pawn. Frankly, in any practical game between humans, anything could have happened, but the engines point out a possible win for White with 23.d5!. When this pawn push did come (see 32.d5?!) it was certainly too late. It looks like there are plenty of questions that need to be answered in future games before we can reach any conclusions about the value of 10...Qa5 11.0-0!? which Carlsen has made popular by employing it in a few games.
Exchange 7.Bc4 with 10...e6 [D87]
In Peralta, F - Alsina Leal, D Black's attempts to generate compensation for his pawn failed to have the desired effect.
Peralta's choice of 13.dxc5 is a typical case of White releasing the pressure on his centre by helping himself to the undefended c-pawn. In many such cases, having such an appetite for pawn-grabbing comes at a price. Black's ability to play around the broken pawns and obtain a good grip on some key squares may lead to White going passive. There generally isn't a rush to win back such a sorry-looking pawn as it's difficult for White to generate an attack. I think that Alsina Leal should have calmly completed development before probing away at the holes in White's position. Instead, his vigorous kingside action rebounded on himself as he self-weakened more than anything else.
Grünfeld 5.h4 dxc4 6.e4 c5 (D90]
A highly theoretical battle occurred in Esipenko, A - Svidler, P which looked so wild from a neutral's point of view, but it seems that both players knew what they were doing!
There are so many amazing positions in this game, but the one above illustrates a typical theme where White continues with 18.Rxg7+ (weakening Black's king) 18...Kxg7 19.Qc3+ e5 20.Ne6+ Kg8 21.Nc7 and the fun continues! Right until the bitter end the players were fighting for the initiative. Is perpetual check going to be the final word on this particular branch of the 5.h4 variation? If this does prove to be so, and if White wants more, he needs to examine alternatives at move thirteen or even as early as move ten.
Grünfeld 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3 c5 [D93]
Both players in Radjabov, T - Nepomniachtchi, I were in a combative mood.
From the diagram, Nepomniachtchi continued with 13...Qxa2 (a novelty) with complications that ultimately worked in his favour, but Radjabov may well have been better see 17.b5 instead of 17.Be2, so Nepomniachtchi's move may well prove to be of short-lived interest. There are instead several promising options such as 13...Rd8, or 13...Rb8 (the latter of which I consider best).
The fact that Black seems to be doing well in the diagram position is further evidence that the earlier 9.Be5 is indeed well met by 9...Bxe5 10.Nxe5 Nc6!.
Grünfeld 4.Bf4 Bg7 5.e3 dxc4 (with Nf3 following shortly) [D93/D82]
Right from the opening, Black looked as if he was in trouble in the encounter Nakamura, H - Vachier-Lagrave, M.
The cause of Vachier-Lagrave's woes was no doubt the highly dubious 10...Nh5?!, whereas it seems that the prudent 10...Ne8 should be preferred, as in an e-mail game when Black didn't fare too badly. It felt that Nakamura should have had a killer blow somewhere in the middlegame, but his advantage was gradually eroded and a draw occurred. I have to describe 5...dxc4, 7...Nbd7, and 8...c5 as a highly provocative series of moves, which should only be undertaken with adequate preparation.
Russian 7...Bg4 Main Line (by transposition) [D99]
By a circuitous route the computer clash KomodoDragon - Ethereal arrived in the following position:
Although White has generally scored well in the traditional main lines that involve an immediate capture on f3, the game move 11...Qc8 seems to be the prize choice for computers of late. Ethereal waited to see White's twelfth move before capturing on f3 and it's possible that White's additional option 12.Nxe5 isn't that dangerous. So the 'queen sideways shuffle' can be considered as a move order quirk that might throw an opponent's preparation. Play after 12.h4 Nxf3+ 13.gxf3 Bh5 turned out to be quite complex, and although White won I had a feeling that Black was doing quite well after the opening phase. Why not see what your favourite engine thinks?
Till next month, Glenn Flear
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