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In this Update, we examine Magnus Carlsen’s games with 1 b4 and 1 b3, as well as some new and half-forgotten ideas in a wide range of openings.

Download PGN of June ’21 Flank Openings games

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Orangutan Opening 1 b4 e5 2 Bb2 Bxb4 [A00]

1 b4 is not an opening you expect from the World Champion, but he played it three times in the FTX Crypto Cup, including the critical knockout game Carlsen, M - Nakamura, H. After the principled continuation 1...e5 2 Bb2 Bxb4 3 Bxe5 Nf6, White normally drops the bishop back to the b2-square sometime over the next few moves. Instead, Magnus introduced a brand new concept starting with 4 c3:

White intends to trade with Be5xf6, construct a pawn chain on the dark squares, then gradually exploit his central pawn majority. Following 4...Be7, White varied from an earlier Carlsen-Giri clash with 5 e3, and after 5...c5 6 Bxf6 Bxf6 7 g3 b6 followed by 9...Ba6 Nakamura came up with a way to probe the f1-a6 diagonal. From White’s viewpoint, a reasonably successful opening was spoiled by 13.a3?, allowing a combination that netted two pawns for Black. Nevertheless, White managed to stay in the game and eventually held an opposite coloured bishop endgame.

Larsen’s Opening 1...e5 2 Bb2 Nc6 3 c4 Nf6 4 Nf3 [A01]

In Larsen’s Opening after 1 b3 e5 2 Bb2 Nc6, the move 3 c4 is a topical alternative to the well-explored mainline 3 e3 Nf6 4 Bb5. Following 3...Nf6 4.Nf3 e4 5.Nd4 Bc5, White is at an important crossroads:

From the diagram, the sequence 6 Nxc6 dxc6 7 e3 Bf5 led to a 17 move win for Black in the famous 1970 game Larsen-Spassky. This has likely discouraged generations of players from trying 3 c4 and 4 Nf3. Instead, the move 6 Nf5 gives the variation a new lease of life, and has been explored extensively in recent blitz games by the likes of Nepomniachtchi, Adhiban and Rapport. Now Black had previously continued with 6...0-0, but Carlsen, M - Grischuk, A, featured the novelty 6...d5!?. Although engine approved, this move leads to complications that are hard to navigate (especially in a rapid game) without preparation. After Black erred on move 9, White got a great position with huge pressure on the dark squares.

Anti-Dutch System 1 Nf3 f5 2 b4 [A04]

While staying on the theme of an early b-pawn push, the game Sulskis, S - Stremavicius, T featured the rare anti-Dutch variation 1 Nf3 f5 2 b4:

If Black is comfortable entering the Leningrad Dutch, then 2...d6 is a decent choice, when 3 d4 typically enters Dutch territory. On the other hand, if Black wants to play the Stonewall or Classical Dutch, then after 2...Nf6 3 Bb2 e6, White can attempt to benefit from not committing to d2-d4. In the game, White gained space on the queenside with 4 b5 a6 5 a4, and later secured White good control of the queenside light squares. In summary, an interesting move order for White, particularly against Stonewall players.

Neo-Catalan 4...dxc4 5 Qa4+ c6 [A13]

This month we continue to review the Neo-Catalan with ...c7-c6 after the introductory moves 1 c4 e6 2 g3 d5 3 Bg2 Nf6 4 Nf3 dxc4 5 Qa4+ c6 (5...Nbd7 was covered last month in Nepomniachtchi-Alekseenko). Now after 6.Qxc4 b5 White has a choice of queen moves. In last month's Update, the game Christiansen- Le Quang Liem featured the position after 7 Qc2, while Yu Yangyi - Di Li varied with the important alternative 7 Qb3:

White’s main direction is to apply immediate pressure in the centre with 7...Bb7 8 d4 Nbd7 9 0-0 Be7 10 Ne5. In the game, Black then resolved the tension with 10...Nxe5 11 dxe5 Nd7 12 Nc3 Qc7. After completing development, Black managed to get in the key freeing break 16...c5, which he justified by tactical means, reaching an acceptable position.

Mikenas Attack 3...d5 4 e5 d4 5 exf6 dxc3 6 fxg7 [A18]

In the Mikenas Attack following 1 c4 e6 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 e4 d5 4 e5 d4 5 exf6 dxc3, the move 6 bxc3 is by far the mainline. In Yu Yangyi - Wei Yi, however, White uncovered the half-forgotten idea 6 fxg7. This move is actually new to this site, but is one of the first things White tried, dating back to Nimzowitsch's games in the 1930s!

In this unusual open position, Black can equalize with precise play, but Black’s awkward setup after 8 Nf3 Nc6 9 Qc2 Qf6 10 0-0-0 Bd7?! 11 Bg5 left White for choice. Yu Yangyi later reeled in an endgame win.

King’s English, 3 Nf3 e4 4 Ng5 c6 [A22]

After 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 Nf3, the moves 3...e4 4 Ng5 are usually the precursor to the Bellon Gambit with 4...b5, which has, however, long fallen out of favour because of 5 d3. Instead the fresh gambit idea 4...c6!? was introduced to GM practice by Adhiban in online rapid this month.

Adhiban faced 5 Ngxe4 in his first game with this line, which must be a critical test, although White erred early on. Instead, Aravindh, C - Adhiban, B varied with 5 Qa4 Qe7 6 Qc2 b5 7 cxb5 d5 and although Black went wrong over the next few moves, with some improvements, he could have secured reasonable compensation for the sacrificed pawn.

King’s English, 2 g3 Nf6 3 Bg2 Bc5 4 Nc3 c6 5 Nf3 e4 6 Nh4 [A23]

The line 1 c4 e5 2 g3 Nf6 3 Bg2 Bc5 4 Nc3 c6 has become quite trendy in the last couple of years. Now the critical sequence 5 Nf3 e4 6 Nh4 d5 leads to sharp and complex positions that have been debated in several high-level games. The diagram position is reached after 9...g5:

Here the piece sacrifice staring with 10 dxe4 gxh4 11 Bf4 was covered in in the February 2020 Update (Caruana-Van Foreest), while 10 d4 was White’s choice in Liu Yan - Ju Wenjun. Now 10...Bb4 was a new move, which should have led to a decent game for Black, except for the mistake 14...0-0?, which leaves Black’s king too exposed. Instead 14...Nc6! would have justified Ju Wenjun’s novelty.

Pure Symmetrical 5 Nf3 e6 6 d4 [A37]

Liu Yan - Xu Zhihang opened with the Symmetrical English line 1 c4 c5 2 g3 g6 3 Bg2 Bg7 4 Nc3 Nc6 5 Nf3 e6, and now 6 d4 is a well-known attempt to sharpen up the game. The following position arose after 6...cxd4 7 Nb5 d5 8 cxd5 exd5:

Usually White recaptures the d4-pawn with the b5-knight (either before or after castling), but the less common 9 Nfxd4 sets Black some different problems to solve. White redeployed the b5-knight to the c3-square where it put direct pressure on Black's d5-pawn, and in the game White secured a slight edge out of the opening.

I hope you enjoy this Update!

Until next month, David.

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