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This Update focuses on the recent World Rapid Championship, which is always a very interesting source of opening insights. In Rapid and Blitz, many leading players rely on favourite, well practised setups, even if these are not theoretically critical. Others employ novelties or rare ideas to gain an advantage on the board and/or the clock. We will see examples of both approaches in this month’s games.

Download PGN of January ’23 Flank Openings games

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Larsen’s Opening, 1 b3 e5 2 Bb2 Nc6 3 e3 Nf6 4 Nf3 Bd6 [A01]

Magnus Carlsen used Larsen's Opening multiple times on his way to winning both of the World Rapid and Blitz championships, with Carlsen, M - Abdusattorov, N being a prominent example. After 1 b3 e5 2 Bb2 Nc6 3 e3 Nf6, the continuation 4 Bb5 Bd6 has been considered the mainline for some time, but the game took a different direction with 4 Nf3 Bd6 5 c4. Later on, Black broke with 9...d5 leading to an open Sicilian-style imbalance:

This position, after White’s 12th move, was also reached in the famous 1970 game Fischer-Andersson. In that game, Fischer demonstrated what later became a standard plan, involving kingside expansion with Kg1-h1, g2-g4 and doubling the rooks on the g-file. Carlsen employed similar ideas on the way to an impressive win. It wasn’t all plain sailing, as Black had several opportunities to mix things up, but White eventually broke through with a rook sacrifice starting with 28 Ng5!

Neo-Catalan, 1 Nf3 d5 2 c4 e6 3 g3 dxc4 4 Qa4+ Nd7 [A13]

The game Anton Guijarro, D - Tabatabaei, M illustrated some move order nuances in the neo-Catalan. After 1 Nf3 d5 2 c4 e6 3 g3, a common continuation is 3...Nf6 4.Bg2 dxc4 5 Qa4+ Nbd7, but in this game Black captured the c4-pawn even sooner with 3...dxc4, which was followed by 4 Qa4+ Nd7 5 Qxc4 a6 6 Bg2 b5:

With Black’s knight not yet on the f6-square, White’s queen has more options, and now 7 Qh4 was a novelty. In fact, this was a refinement over 7 Qe4, which David faced as Black earlier in the event! After 7...Be7 8 Qe4 Rb8 9 Nd4 Ngf6 10 Qc2 Ne5 11 Nb3 0-0, White got a nice version of the Catalan, and soon had a strong pawn centre, with the key c5-square under control.

Réti Opening, Reversed Benoni 8 Ne5 [A14]

Yakubboev, N - Svane, R explored the reversed Benoni starting with 1 c4 Nf6 2 g3 e6 3 Bg2 d5 4 Nf3 Be7 5 0-0 0-0 6 b3 d4 7 e3 c5. Now 8 Ne5 is a topical idea, which prevents Black's standard developing move ...Nb8-c6.

Black often continues here with 8...Nfd7, but 8...Qc7 is a more subtle reply. After a subsequent ...Nf6-d7, Black wants to recapture with the bishop and then go ....Bc8xd7-c6. The game continued 9 f4 Nfd7 10 exd4 cxd4 11 Nxd7 Bxd7 12 d3 and now with 12...Bc6 Black had neutralized the g2-bishop, and effectively solved his opening problems.

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

Keymer, V - Nepomniachtchi, I opened with 1 Nf3 d5 2 e3 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3, one of Keymer's pet systems, which he has used in all kinds of events and time controls. After 4...b6, White used the precise move order 5 cxd5 exd5 6 g3, later followed by 9 b3 and 10 Bb2 to engineer a double fianchetto setup.

From the diagram, 10...Re8 has been the most common try to date, while 10...Nc5 was a new move. This was answered by 11 d3, stopping any knight jumps to the e4-square. White continued with a flexible pawn structure, keeping the a1-h8 diagonal open, and later going for kingside activity with 17 Qf3 and 18 g4. After that, Black started to falter, and White soon took over and wrapped up a win.

King’s English 2 Nc3 Bb4 3 Nd5 a5 [A21]

After 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Bb4 3 Nd5, recent high-level games have been split between 3...Be7 and 3...a5, with the latter featuring in Donchenko, A - Petkov, M. After 4 Nf3 d6, the line 5 e3 Nf6 6 a3 Nxd5 7 cxd5 Bc5 8 d4 exd4 9 exd4 Bb6 was covered in the November 2022 Update, while this month’s game varied with 5 a3 Bc5 6 e3 c6 7 d4 Ba7 8 Nc3 Nd7, reaching an important branching point:

If White simply plays Bf1-e2 and castles short, Black can generate pressure with ...e5-e4, ...d6-d5 and ...Ba7-b8, pointing attacking forces at White's king. As a result, White has explored other setups involving early queenside expansion, or aggressive measures involving g2-g4. In this month’s game, White continued on the queenside with 9 b4 Ngf6 10 Bb2 0-0 11 Be2 Re8 12 b5. Following 12...exd4 13 Nxd4 White had some space advantage, and got the better of the subsequent manoeuvring to establish a firm grip on the centre.

Adhiban Gambit 5 Ngxe4 Nxe4 6 Nxe4 d5 7 cxd5 8 Ng3 h5 [A22]

We continue to track developments in the Adhiban Gambit, namely 1 c4 Nf6 2 Nc3 e5 3 Nf3 e4 4 Ng5 c6, after which Black has scored around 50% in games in my database.

Now 5 Ngxe4 continues to be the mainline, although whatever the engine says, White's play hasn't been that convincing in practice. Instead, 5 Qa4 is less explored but perhaps deserves more adoption than it has been getting. Anyway, a key position arises after 5...Nxe4 6 Nxe4 d5 7 cxd5 cxd5 8 Ng3 h5 9 e3 h4 10 Ne2 Nc6 11 d4:

In earlier Updates, we have looked at 11...Qf6, while in Gines Esteo, P - Durarbayli, V, Black unleashed 11...h3. This is a fresh idea, which may not be 100% correct, but worked out well in the game. Now after 12 gxh3 (12 Bd2 looks better) 12...Bxh3 13 Bxh3 Rxh3 14 Bd2 Qh4, Black can (at least) can win the pawn back by force. White further weakened his king’s pawn cover with 16 f3, and Black took over, although the game was eventually drawn after many adventures.

Symmetrical, Hedgehog 2 Nf3 b6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Bb7 5 Nc3 Nf6 6 f3 e6 7 e4 [A31]

The game Shankland, S - Hambleton, A opened with 1 c4 c5 2 Nf3 b6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Bb7 5 Nc3 Nf6 6 f3 e6 7 e4 d6 8 Be3 a6 9 Qd2 Nbd7. This sharp version of the Hedgehog used to be popular, but these days is seen comparatively rarely.

In the vast majority of games from this (or a similar) position, White has played Bf1-e2 and castled short. In this game, however, Shankland uncorked 10 0-0-0, intending a kingside pawn storm in the style of the English Attack against the Sicilian. There are few recorded games here, but modern engines are big fans of this plan for White. Nevertheless, these complex positions are tough to play over the board, so both sides have practical chances. In the game, White landed a blow with 17 Nf5, a thematic knight sacrifice which turned out to be mistimed. After a bruising encounter, Aman emerged on top and scored the full point.

Symmetrical, Reversed Grünfeld 4 Nc3 d5 5 d4 cxd4 6 Nxd4 e5 [A34]

The game Svane, R - Caruana, F arrived at a sharp exchange Grünfeld with reversed colours after 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 g3 c5 3 c4 Nc6 4 Nc3 d5 5 d4 cxd4 6 Nxd4 e5 7 Nxc6 bxc6 8 Bg2:

In this position, Black has often played 8...Rb8 or 8...Be6, but Caruana’s choice was 8...d4, offering an exchange sacrifice. This is rare continuation here, but a well-known idea from the Grünfeld line with reversed colours. As the game turned out, Black had full compensation for the material, and even got winning chances after White went wrong on move 17-18.

A Happy New Year to all subscribers!

Until next month, David.

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