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This Update draws on games from the latest events, online as well as offline. Once again, top players used the online tournaments to explore both experimental and more serious new ideas. It is interesting to then see some of the ”online“ novelties cross over into classical over-the-board games!

Download PGN of December ’20 Flank Openings games

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Larsen’s Opening, 1 b3 d5 2 Bb2 Bf5 [A01]

This month we look at two games where Black answers 1 b3 or 2 b3 with ...d7-d5 and an early ...Bc8-f5. Nepomniachtchi, I - Anton Guijarro, D opened with 1 b3 d5 2 Bb2 Bf5 3 d3 e6 4 Nd2, a line that Nepomniachtchi has used in a number of recent online games. White delays the development of his g1-knight and aims to push through the e2-e4 break. Anton replied with 4...Nf6 5 g3 and now 5...a5!? was a novelty:

Black is asking questions on the queenside, and after 6 a3 a4 7 b4 c5 8 c3 the b2-bishop was blocked in, and Black already had a nice position. Anton eventually scored a convincing victory.

Réti Opening, Lasker’s System [A07]

Sanal, V - Firat, B, started on conventional lines with 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 b3 d5 3 Bb2 Bf5 4 g3 transposing into a double fianchetto Réti, and reaching the following position after 8 moves:

White usually now chooses either 9 c4 or 9 Re1 (preparing e2-e4), but Sanal instead uncorked the provocative novelty 9 Nh4!?. In some lines, White intends to sacrifice a pawn after a later ...Be7xh4. Black reacted with 9...Nfd7 but after 10 e4 Bf6 refrained from grabbing the pawn. White still managed to spice things up with 11 Bxf6 Nxf6 12 e5 Nfd7 13 f4 c5 14 c4, again offering material and creating dynamic play in a seemingly quiet position. Meanwhile, back on move 9, it seems that Black should be fine after 9...c5 or 9...a5.

Réti Opening 1 Nf3 d5 2 g3 Nf6 3 Bg2 g6 4 c4 dxc4 [A09]

Alireza Firouzja continues to essay the Réti against the world's top players. In last month's Update, we looked at his games with 1 Nf3 and 2 g3 against Carlsen and Caruana. This month, Firouzja, A - Aronian, L began 1 Nf3 d5 2 g3 Nf6 3 Bg2 g6 4 c4 and now 4...dxc4 is a capture Aronian has experimented with in recent games. Following 5 Qa4+ Nfd7 6 Qxc4 Bg7, we reach a little explored position, where White aimed to create some dynamic chances on the kingside with 7 Nc3 Nb6 8 Qh4:

White went for an ambitious space-gaining strategy with 9 d4 and 11 g4. In a double-edged position, both sides missed chances, although Firouzja finally prevailed.

Réti Opening, Reversed Benoni 5 d3 [A13]

In the reversed Benoni setup after 1 c4 e6 2 g3 d5 3 Bg2 Nf6 4 Nf3 d4, the move 5 d3 requires Black to play close attention to the potential structures.

White's main idea is seen after 5...c5 6.e4! where White gets a good version of a King's Indian Attack structure. Instead, in Iturrizaga Bonelli, E - Dominguez Perez, L, Black avoided that with 5...Bb4+! which, based on this showing, largely takes the sting out of White’s setup. Out of the opening, White had to reconcile himself to a level game, but 10 a3?! led him into difficulties.

Neo-Catalan, 4...dxc4 5 Qa4+ Bd7 [A13]

Ponkratov, P - Inarkiev, E, from the Russian (in person) Team Championship reached a well-known position after 1 Nf3 d5 2 c4 e6 3 g3 Nf6 4 Bg2 dxc4 5 Qa4+ Bd7 6 Qxc4 c5 7 Ne5:

Here, the standard move is 7...Qc8, which is very solid but doesn't give Black many active chances. Instead, Black tried to improve with 7...Qc7?!. Unfortunately for Black, the queen is exposed on the c7-square, and White soon got rapid development and a dream Catalan-style position.

Anti-QGD System, 4...b6 [A17]

In the anti-QGD system starting with 1 Nf3 d5 2 e3 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3, both sides have a lot of flexibility in move orders, with a typical scenario unfolding after 4...b6 5 b3 Bb7 6 Bb2 Nbd7 7 cxd5 exd5 8 d4 Bd6 9 Rc1 a6 10 g3 Qe7 11 Bg2:

From Black’s viewpoint, castling short has been an automatic choice for most players.

In Malakhov, V - Matlakov, M, however, Black instead continued with the creative 13...0-0-0! This concept had been pioneered by GM Dominguez in some online games, but Matlakov got to unleash it in a classical game. The point is that the g2-bishop is not well placed to attack Black's king, while Black has the attacking plan of ...Nf6-e4 and ...h7-h5-h4. In view of this, White likely needs to reconsider his earlier move order, as suggested in the game notes.

King’s English, Keres System 1 c4 e5 2 g3 c6 3 Nf3 e4 4 Nd4 d5 [A20]

A key position in a topical line of the Keres system arises after 1 c4 e5 2 g3 c6 3 Nf3 e4 4 Nd4 d5 5 cxd5 Qxd5 6 Nc2 Nf6 7 Nc3 Qe5 8 Bg2 Na6:

Now 9 0-0 has been the main move thus far, and was the subject of the Candidates clash Giri-Grischuk, analyzed in the April 2020 Update. Shankland, S - Sevian, S, instead saw the rare choice 9 Rb1!?. White delays central action and hints at b2-b4 to constrain the a6-knight. The surprise value paid off, as after the mis-step 13...Qe5?, White won a clean pawn with 14 d3!

Symmetrical English, Rubinstein Variation 7 Be3 [A34]

The online match Aronian, L - Nepomniachtchi, I featured a three game debate in the Rubinstein variation. After 1 c4 c5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 g3 d5 4 cxd5 Nxd5 5 Bg2 Nc7 6 d3 e5, Theory's main direction involves an early Ng1-f3-d2-c4. Instead Aronian put early pressure on the c5-pawn with 7 Be3 Be7 8 Rc1 reaching the following position:

Now after 8...0-0 9 Na4, the c5-pawn is threatened, so Black offered an exchange sacrifice with 9...b6. Following 10 Bxa8, Black got sufficient compensation, and an entertaining game ensued. Instead, White can improve with 10 Nc3! since the a8-rook isn't running away. In the two later games, Nepo refined his approach with 8...Ne6, and this move is covered in the notes.

I hope you enjoy this update!

Until next month, David.

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