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The new Armenian champion, GM Hovhannes Gabuzyan, had many adventures on his journey to the title, venturing 1 b3 (twice), 1 c4 (twice) and 1 f4 as White. I’ve included three of his games in this month’s Update, together with some of the latest elite online battles.

Download PGN of March ’21 Flank Openings games

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Larsen’s Opening, 1 b3 e5 2 Bb2 Nc6 3 e3 g6 [A01]

This month, we look at three different responses to Larsen’s 1 b3. In the first, Gabuzyan, H - Petrosyan, M, Black adopted a dark square strategy, using a King's Indian style setup with 1 b3 e5 2 Bb2 Nc6 3 e3 g6:

Here White has tried moves such as 4 f4 and 4 h4, but Gabuzyan chose to go for the central break with 4 Nf3 Bg7 5 d4. After 5...d6 6 dxe5 Nxe5 7 Nxe5 Bxe5, he declared his aggressive intentions by castling long following 8 Nc3, 9 Qd2, 10 0-0-0 and then launching an attack with 11 Nb5 and 14 Qa5. In fact, calmer play would have yielded White a decent position, but he entered sharp complications, even sacrificing a rook to open up Black's king.

Larsen’s Opening, 1 b3 e5 2 Bb2 Nc6 3 e3 Nf6 4 Bb5 e4 [A01]

Nakamura, H - Vidit, S varied from the above game with 1 b3 e5 2 Bb2 Nc6 3 e3 Nf6, and after 4 Bb5, Black went for 4...e4, a modern alternative to the mainline 4...Bd6. Black gains space and aims to probe the light squares in White's camp:

In the past, Hikaru had played 5 f3, but here switched to 5 Ne2. The continuation 5...a6 6 Bxc6 dxc6 7 Ng3 h5 8 Nc3 Bg4 9 f3 exf3 10 gxf3 led to an interesting battle where Black holds the bishop pair but White has a central pawn majority. Black should be OK if he plays energetically enough to keep White’s centre at bay.

Larsen’s Opening, 1 b3 a5 [A01]

In reply to 1 b3, the move 1...a5 looks rather ridiculous at first sight, yet Black has scored more than 50% with it in practice, and GMs Jobava and Rapport are numbered among its victims! I've noticed a surprising number of games where White responded sub-optimally, perhaps being "out-provoked" by such an impertinent reply!

White has made various attempts to punish Black's move order, including 2 a4 and 2 e4, but in Afanasiev, N - Chetverik, M, White chose the sensible 2 Bb2, tempting Black to push ahead with 2...a4, whereupon 3 b4 left Black’s a4-pawn isolated from the rest of his forces. White further outplayed his opponent and was strategically winning within a dozen moves. If Black is going to play 1...a5, he should likely answer 2 Bb2 with 2...d5, holding back on ...a5-a4 until a more opportune moment.

Bird’s Opening, 1 f5 d5 2 g3 h5 [A03]

Talking of early rook’s pawn pushes, Black was more successful with one in the game Gabuzyan, H - Ter-Sahakyan, S. After 1 f4 d5, if White wants to go for a reversed Leningrad Dutch setup, he is best advised to start with 2 Nf3 since 2 g3 can be well met with 2...h5, which looks promising for Black. It is similar to the line 1 d4 f5 2 c4 g6 3 h4 with reversed colours.

The game continued 3 Nf3 h4 4 Bg2 h3 5 Bf1, after which White’s development is set back and the h3-pawn remains a thorn in his side. Although White was in difficulties out of the opening, our hero did turn the tables and was pressing later on.

Réti Double Fianchetto vs. QGD setup, 6...b6, 8 cxd5 [A14]

The Réti double fianchetto continues to be a popular choice when White is faced with the solid QGD structure, and a key line occurred in Gabuzyan, H - Martirosyan, H after 1 c4 e6 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 g3 d5 4 b3 Be7 5 Bb2 0-0 6 Bg2 b6 7 0-0 Bb7. Now 8 cxd5 has become an important attempt for White to extract an edge from these positions, rivalling the traditional main move 8 e3.

From the diagram, after 9...Nd7 10 Re1 N5f6 11 Nc3 c5 12 e4 cxd4 13 Nxd4 the players reached a typical position with open c- and d-files. White is trying to extract an edge from his small space advantage, although Black is close to equality with accurate play. In the game, Black was too hasty to trade queens, and White reached an endgame where his bishop pair was a potent force.

Pseudo-Grünfeld, 5 e4 Nxc3 6 dxc3 [A16]

After the opening moves 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5 4 cxd5 Nxd5, White has many anti-Grünfeld systems available, with 5 e4 being an old Ulf Andersson favourite. In the queenless middlegame that arises after 5...Nxc3 6 dxc3 Qxd1+ 7 Kxd1, the move 8...f6 introduces a clear cut plan which has served Black well, namely ...e7-e5, ...Nb8-d7 and ...Bf8-c5 to trade the dark squared bishops. Radjabov, T - Vachier-Lagrave, M. now saw 8 h4 which looks like the best attempt to revive this line:

Here MVL played 8...h5 to stop the h4-h5 push, but perhaps should consider 8...e5 9 h5 g5 transposing to Carlsen - Vachier-Lagrave from the January Update, which reached the same position from a different move order. Radjabov continued 9 e5 opening the b1-h7 diagonal to target the newly weakened g6-pawn, and eventually secured a win in his trademark technical style.

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

Duda, J-K - So, W opened with 1 Nf3 d5 2 e3 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3 b6 5 b3 Bb7 6 Bb2 Nbd7 7 cxd5 exd5, and here White usually plays d2-d4 sooner or later, developing the f1-bishop on the d3- or g2-squares. Instead, Duda had a different idea, keeping his d-pawn at home with 8 Be2 a6 9 Qc2 Bd6:

White now launched the novelty 10 Qf5!?. It is possible that this is a one-off move for a rapid game, rather than a long-term theoretical direction, but time will tell. In any case, Duda managed to create an imbalance and play for a win against the super-solid Wesley So. Following 10...Qe7 11 0-0 g6 12 Qh3 h5 13 Rfe1 h4 14 e4, White's blasts open the e-file and the a1-h8-diagonal before Black's king is settled, leading to a complex struggle where both sides have to be accurate.

Pure Symmetrical 5 Rb1 [A36]

In Ding Liren - Grischuk, A, after 1 c4 c5 2 g3 g6 3 Bg2 Bg7 4 Nc3 Nc6, White essayed the uncommon move 5 Rb1!?:

If White wants to expand on the queenside, the usual starting point is 5 a3, but in the notes I explore some of the differences that he may have had in mind. The game saw a manoeuvring phase that is typical for these symmetrical English positions, although the later stages were marred by mutual blunders.

I hope you enjoy this Update!

Until next month, David.

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