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Have you noticed how Carlsen seems to astonish the watching world, time and again, with weird and wonderful ideas? He plays so many events and his games are carefully scrutinized by rivals and fans alike that he feels the urge to keep people guessing. Here, I'll be examining a case in point where the World Champion adds his own interpretation to a previously discarded line. Of course, with hindsight, one can show that his sixth move novelty shouldn't be a problem for Black, so well-versed subscribers will perhaps be able to cope better than MVL! However, be careful to keeping reading this column, as otherwise Carlsen's next surprise weapon in the Grünfeld might get you into a tangle!

Download PGN of November ’21 Daring Defences games

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Grünfeld 4.h4 [D80]

The opening moves in Carlsen, M - Vachier-Lagrave, M almost beggar belief. First of all the World Champion pushed his h-pawn on move four:

Previously 4.h4 had a bad reputation, but after 4...c5 he played the Exchange-style 5.cxd5 (whereas 5.dxc5 is dubious) 5...Nxd5 and then the original and outlandish 6.Na4. The reader might be aware of the Exchange Variation with 5.Na4 where Black's thematic counter is restrained, but it looks odd when Black has already played ...c5! A curious choice perhaps, but MVL failed to react well, going wrong as early as move seven (6...Nc6 7.e4 Nb6? whereas 7...Nf6 looks fine)! After that, despite Black's efforts, the result never seemed in doubt.

What next from Carlsen, who seems to come up with some amazing ideas and not just in the Grünfeld?

Grünfeld 4.Bf4 Bg7 5.e3 0-0 6.Rc1 Be6 7.c5 Nh5 [D83]

The choice of 6...Be6 has become popular in recent years, with one of the critical lines being tested in Sarana, A - Antipov, M where the diagram position was reached after 12...Nd7:

Three different moves have been tested in this sharp position, but are any of them dangerous? In fact, yes! Indeed, in my opinion, each of the continuations starting with 13.Be2, 13.Na4 Ne5 14.Ne2, and (in the present game) 13.Nce2 Bb2 14.Nd4, are all quite challenging. So despite Black obtaining an overall better percentage with Antipov's choice 7...Nh5, I still feel that the main move 7...c6 is more trustworthy.

Exchange 5.Bd2 Bg7 6.Nf3 0-0 7.e4 Nxc3 8.Bxc3 Bg4 [D85]

In Moroni, L - Ragger, M the following position occurred:

The Austrian GM played 13...c6 and after 14.Bh3 continued with 14...Qc7, when he seemed to be on the right track. However, a small slip on move 23 put him under pressure in the double (and then single) rook endgame which he eventually lost. The moral of this tale is that although the whole line should be fine for Black, there are practical problems that need to be solved along the way.

I now understand why the less committal 13...Qd6 is becoming popular, as from here the queen has influence in all directions, and I would argue that this is easier to handle, from Black's point of view.

Exchange 7.Qa4+ Nd7 8.Nf3 0-0 9.Qa3 [D85]

In Bernadskiy, V - Ivic, V White dropped the queen back to a3 on move nine, something I've not examined before:

The main advantage of this move is that White is very flexible and can aim to react accordingly depending on Black's reply. Then, after the 'natural' 9...c5 several moves have been tried, but the 10.h4 of the game is certainly the most dramatic.

The play that followed had so many uncertainties, it feels that there is plenty of scope for further research. So I'm not going to make any major conclusions, but White's ninth is minimum a plausible surprise weapon.

In the game, the advantage waxed and waned, with Black ultimately (somehow!) scraping a draw in the endgame.

Exchange 7.Nf3 c5 8.h3 0-0 9.Be3 Qa5 10.Bd2 [D85]

In Parligras, M - Erdos, V Black managed to nullify any white opening advantage with 10...Qa3!. This is just as well, as the alternatives 10...e6 and 10...Rd8 have recently come under some pressure (as you can see in the notes).

In the diagram, it's as if the active posting of the queen helps to frustrate White's efforts to build up actively, and thus seems to give Black a good game. Still, perhaps this isn't so surprising as 8.h3 is a luxury, in that it's a tempo spent in an open position compared to some analogous positions.

Exchange 7.Bb5+ c6 8.Ba4 0-0 9.Ne2 b5 [D85]

In the game Lupulescu, C - Ivic, V Black had to decide how to generate his counterplay, take for example the following position:

The classic Grünfeld response would seem to be 9...c5 and indeed after the sequence 10.0-0 Nc6 11.Be3 Na5 a number of games (starting in 1998 when Topalov popularized this approach from the white side) have seen White try all sorts of ideas, but Black has not been unduly troubled (that is, theoretically).

Tempting is the 9...b5 10.Bb3 a5 of the featured game, to get the queenside going with a gain of time. White's hope is that such an early expansion will be more a source of weakness than strength, but this didn't prove to be the case here. Ivic's demise was more a case of placing his rook on a suspect square and not realising the danger in time, just when he was in the process of achieving full equality.

Exchange 7.Nf3 c5 8.Bb5+ Nd7 [D85]

In Gozzoli, Y - Gledura, B White delayed checking with the bishop on b5 until after ...c5 had been played. This cuts out all the ...c6 lines (as in Lupulescu, C - Ivic, V see above).

A key moment occurred on move ten:

Here Gozzoli opted for 10.a4 but then 10...cxd4 11.cxd4 Nc5 12.Qc2 Ne6 worked out fine for Black who was able to equalize. A bigger challenge, that might still offer White a pull, would have been 12.e5 in this line. Later, it was Gledura who was pressing and may well have missed a win in the transitional phase at the point of heading into the queen endgame.

The crunch move in this line, as I see it, is the 'flexible' 10.Re1 after which White is well-placed to react accordingly to the different set-ups at the opponent's disposition. This perhaps explains the difficulty for Black in finding a clear route to equality thereafter.

Exchange 7.Nf3c5 8.Be3 Bg4 9.Rc1 0-0 [D85]

In Sarana, A - Chigaev, M Black never really equalized (except for a short sequence near the end) and was always second best.

A big decision occurs in the diagram position. The Grischuk solution 13...Bxf3 14.Bxf3 Bd4 was revealed seven years ago in the all-Russian battle Kramnik, V - Grischuk, A Stavanger 2014. In my opinion, this still reflects Black's best way of handling this position, as no 'magic' solution for White has been forthcoming in the intervening period. Here Chigaev instead opted for 13...Nf6 but Sarana's 14.Qc2! (bolstering the centre) turned out to be too tough to handle and Black's position after the opening wasn't comfortable at all.

Exchange 7.Bc4 c5 8.Ne2 0-0 9.Be3 Nc6 10.h4 [D87]

This early h-pawn advance is becoming quite popular, but I didn't see any advantage for White in this particular game. It may not seem that thrilling, but Black's 'threat' of a repetition seems to ensure equality, but such negative play may bug those who want a fighting game.

In Ponkratov, P - Chigaev, M it was Ponkratov who avoided the quick draw with 14.Rc1, but Chigaev's sensible approach afterwards neutralized the position. It was only later on, deep into the pseudo-endgame, where Black went astray.

Grünfeld 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.h4 [D90]

In the elite struggle Firouzja, A - Vachier-Lagrave, M Black showed that he was willing to go into a complicated struggle with his choice of 5...dxc4. In the following play, both sides have a number of plausible options that could do with further tests, but it was Firouzja who was able to introduce a novelty.

In this position, the rather cautious moves 12.a3 and 12.Kf1 had been previously played. Here 12.Be3 was given its first test, Firouzja's idea being to follow-up with Qd2 and Bh6. In the actual game, this typical idea worked out rather well, as it induced MVL into a dubious exchange sacrifice which led to Black quickly going downhill. Analysis however suggests that the idea in itself isn't bad, but that Black needs to first eliminate the f3-knight in order to obtain a decent game.

Till next month, Glenn Flear

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