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The eyes of the chess world are firmly fixed on the annual Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee. As such, I've dedicated this month's update to the fine theoretical contests that have unfolded in the first half of the event.

Download PGN of January '12 Flank Openings games

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Anti-Slav [A11]

Black has previously been doing well in the important Anti-Slav gambit line 1.c4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.0-0 Nbd7 6.Qc2 Nb6 7.Na3 Qd5:

Marin recommends 8.Ne1 in Grandmaster Repertoire 4 - The English Opening vol. 2, but it seems more promising to follow Timman's example with 8.b3 cxb3 9.axb3 Be6:

Here the novelty 10.b4!? created fresh problems in Timman - Ernst. Black was essentially lost in just 11 more moves:

Pseudo-Grünfeld [A16]

The delayed-Nf3 variation 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.cxd5 Nxd5 4.g3 g6 5.Bg2 Nb6 6.d3 Bg7 7.Be3 Nc6 8.Qd2 poses Black a key question: how best to deal with Be3-h6?:

In Reinderman - Harika Black chose the principled 8...Nd4, aiming to prevent White's plan altogether with the maneuver of the knight to f5. After 9.Rc1 (9.Nf3 deserves attention) 9...Nf5 10.Bc5 0-0 11.Nf3 c6 Reinderman essayed a small novelty with 12.e3, but it's not enough to shake the theoretical verdict: Black is fine.

King's English 3...d5, Reversed Dragon [A22 & A29]

That same modest pawn push caused Black to come to grief in Nakamura - Navara. After 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Nb6:

Hikaru played 6.e3!?, a move that has not attracted much attention (I found only 76 games of nearly 4,400 to reach this position). Navara continued very logically with 6...c5 (6...Nc6 - as played in the only other GM game to reach this position - is an important alternative) 7.Nge2 Nc6 8.0-0 Be7 but after 9.f4! White's flank strategy paid dividends. and the American scored a pretty win.

Last month we saw a rare sideline in the Reversed Dragon (8...a5). Navara - Topalov takes us right down the main road 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3 Nb6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7 8.a3 0-0 9.b4 Be6 10.Rb1 f6 11.d3:

In the past Topalov has displayed a clear preference for the strategically principled 11...Nd4 (instead of 11...a5 12.b5 first), and this game was no exception. Here the popular approach with 12.Nd2 hasn't given White much to crow about, so Navara tried the straightforward 12.Nxd4. This hasn't been known to cause much trouble, but accuracy is still required of Black. Topalov proved up to the task with 12...exd4 13.Ne4 and now 13...Bd5! followed by 14...f5 ensured a favorable exchange of light square bishops, equalizing comfortably. The resulting middlegame actually provides plenty of play for both sides.

Symmetrical - Hedgehog [A30]

Tata Steel started with a bang as two of the world's most innovative and daring players provided a highly entertaining Hedgehog bout in Carlsen - Gashimov. After 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 e6 4.g3 b6 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.0-0 Be7 7.d4 cxd4 8.Qxd4 d6 Carlsen selected a line that demands much precision from Black, 9.Bg5 a6 10.Bxf6, an old favorite of Ulf Andersson. The main line runs 10...Bxf6 11.Qf4 0-0 12.Rfd1 Be7 13.Ne4 Bxe4 14.Qxe4 Ra7 15.Nd4 Rc7:

At this point the move 16.b3 is totally standard, as seen in (among others) Kasparov,G (2817)-Adams,M (2731)/Moscow 2004. Instead, Carlsen played 16.Rd2!?, speeding up development and forcing Gashimov to solve new problems. The Azeri Grandmaster continued in stock fashion with 16...Rc5 and 17...Qc7, after which Carlsen implemented Andersson's well-known maneuver with Qe4-b1-a2, Rd2-c2, and a3-a4, thereby depriving Black of the ...b6-b5 break. Eventually Carlsen's stifling play carried the day. Black has to take a hard look at early ...b6-b5 opportunities to avoid such a long and frustrating defense.

Perhaps inspired by their Grandmaster counterparts in the "A" section, L'Ami - Voacturo saw another main-line Hedgehog: 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 e6 4.g3 b6 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.0-0 Be7 7.d4 cxd4 8.Qxd4 d6 but this time the classical move 9.Rd1. Once again we have a long line: 9...a6 10.Bg5 (this time White doesn't intend to capture on f6) 10...Nbd7 11.Qd2 0-0 12.Bf4 (the idea) 12...Ne8 13.Rac1 Rc8 14.b3 Qc7 15.Qe3:

This position is known to theory and we first discussed it in the game Gustafsson, J - Prusikin, M/Pulvermuehle 2004. Vocaturo dealt with the Nc3-d5 threat by way of 15...Ndf6, but after 16.h3! White's space advantage and Black's slightly awkward pieces give the first player something of a nice pull. These last couple of games may dampen the spirits of ardent Hedgehog practitioners, though the good news is that there isn't a clear theoretical crisis. Interested subscribers should check out the truly fantastic work The Complete Hedgehog Volume 1 (and Volume 2) by Sergey Shipov for a comprehensive Hedgehog education.

Symmetric [A31]

The flexible line 1.Nf3 c5 2.c4 Nf6 3.g3 Nc6 4.Bg2 d6 5.Nc3 g6 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nxd4 Bd7 has been slowly gaining adherents. Black keeps the question of a knight trade open (in defiance of the bishop on g2!). After 8.0-0 Bg7 in Giri - Kamsky Giri chose to keep pieces on the board with 9.Nc2. Then 9...Rc8 10.Bd2 allowed Kamsky to unveil a good novelty with 10...h5!:

On 11.h3 he continued 11...Be6!?, gaining a tempo to bring the queen to d7. Giri was forced on the defensive, but a gross mistake from Kamsky allowed White to turn the tables. The takeaway is that this line gives White plenty to think about should Black try to postpone or do without castling.

That's all for now. Let's hope the second half of Tata Steel is as entertaining as the first! Incidentally, at this time of writing Carlsen is at 2848 on the "live" ratings. Will he surpass Kasparov's Herculean mark of 2851?

Until next time, John

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