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This month, Justin moved on to the greener pastures of 1.d4 d5 2.c4, and so I have taken over as the sole columnist here. Despite this separation, as two youngish GM’s living in the same place (and in some sense ‘cut from the same cloth’) we continue to collaborate on analysis and chess projects: this column features one of his annotations, and his features one of mine.
Even as the Candidates restarted and produced its worthy winner, I decided to focus for now on some of the extremely hard-fought and theoretically relevant games that took place at a slightly lower level of around 2450-2600.

Download PGN of April ’21 1 e4 ... games

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Alekhine’s Defence: 4.Nf3 Bf5 [B04]

Sevdimaliev, U - Bartel, M was a game that caught my attention for being a really full-blooded fight between an established 2600+ player, and a much lesser-rated (but still GM) opponent who managed to play out of his skin for one game. Play began with 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 Bf5:

Black’s idea is quite a simple one: discourage c4, play ...e6 very soon, and make an informed decision about where to place the b8-knight. In my opinion, White’s reaction of 5.Bd3 was a pragmatic and correct one (even if not completely principled according to a truly purist viewpoint) and yields a small edge. However, the position is one where the objective assessment is perhaps less important, compared to the players’ understanding of the nuances of ‘small centre’ positions. A somewhat dreary early middlegame gave way to violent complications as an exchange was sacrificed during the endgame transition, with both sides having winning chances.

Pirc Defence with 3...c6 4.f4 [B09]

While writing these words, it occurred to me that the title could have been a true celebration of Central Europe: Pirc being a (late) Yugoslav and Slovenian GM, 3...c6 reflecting a ‘Czech’ approach from Black, and 4.f4 being the quintessential ‘Austrian’ move. All our previous columnists have been critical of the Czech Pirc, and I shall join them with a couple of caveats after being encouraged by a subscriber email to take a fresh look at the variation. In Hovhannisyan, R - Andriasyan, Z White met 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 c6 in the approved fashion, with 4.f4 g6 5.Nf3 Bg7 6.Bd3:

It seems that the game move 6...Bg4 can be met very naturally with 7.h3, while the story is a little bit less clear if castling is inserted for both sides. White has to play with slightly greater attention to detail to obtain a real plus after 6...0-0. Additionally, I took a new look at the even more exotic line with 4...Qa5, which seems to have a correspondence-level refutation in the form of an exchange sacrifice.

Caro-Kann Defence, Two Knights Variation with 3...Bg4 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 e6 6.Be2 Bc5 [B11]

Following 1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3 Bg4 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 e6 6.Be2, this column has spent an abundance of time on the 6...Nf6 variation (and ensuing pawn sacrifice), the analysis of which is perhaps due an update or two. The blitz game Fedoseev, V - Mamedyarov, S saw a system for Black that I feel I hadn’t seen before, with 6...Bc5 7.0-0 Ne7!?:

Compared to the pawn-sacrifice line 6..Nf6 7.0-0 Bc5 8.Rd1 Bd4 9.Qf4, here White doesn’t have so many options for dislodging the dark-squared bishop if it does get to d4, but it turned out that 8.Rd1 Bd4 9.Bf1! was fully sufficient to give White an advantage anyway. Nevertheless, both sides have a couple of early options that bear mentioning and it could be that 8.Rd1 wasn’t the most precise.

Caro-Kann Defence: Short System with 5...c5 6.Be3 Qb6 7.Nc3 Nc6 8.0-0 Qxb2 [B12]

We return once more to the deep and well-studied tabiya after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.Nf3 e6 5.Be2 c5 6.Be3 Qb6 7.Nc3 Nc6 8.0-0 Qxb2 9.Qe1 cxd4 10.Bxd4 Nxd4 11.Nxd4 Bb4. White’s most promising route in this position seems to be 12.Rb1 Bxc3 13.Rxb2 Bxe1 14.Rxe1 b6 15.h4 h5 16.Nxf5 exf5 and now 17.c4, a move which I believe I haven’t checked in any real depth before:

Play usually proceeds quite quickly to either a pure-rook or pure-minor-piece ending, with Black’s best choice seemingly being the latter after 17...Ne7. Instead, in Shirov, A - Najer, E Black chose the apparently inaccurate 17...d4, delaying the development of the g8-knight by what might turn out to be a crucial tempo. Shirov’s preparation was not enough to obtain an advantage out of the opening, but after a natural sequence of moves he nevertheless ended up with a more pleasant rook endgame, eventually turning it into a win.

Caro-Kann Defence: Fantasy Variation with 3...dxe4 4.fxe4 e5 5.Nf3 Be6 [B12]

Your columnist returned quite successfully to the board this month, sharing first place in Australia’s Doeberl Cup with ex-co-annotator Justin Tan. Luck played its part in the final result, but there was not too much of it in my only Caro game from the tournament, Kuybokarov, T - Fernandez, D. After being somewhat surprised by my opponent’s Fantasy Variation, I decided to proceed with the slightly offbeat 3...dxe4 4.fxe4 e5 5.Nf3 Be6!?:

The move is perfectly solid and valid, and White’s best approach is to just develop pieces and hope to prove later in the game that the e5-pawn cramps Black’s style a bit. Instead, after the normal moves 6.c3 Nf6 7.Bd3 Nbd7, my opponent went for the slightly exuberant 8.Ng5, after which White should end up positionally worse for the rest of the game. This being an imperfect human encounter, there were tactical opportunities for both sides, but in the end White’s rather unaesthetic IKP (and its permanent blockade by an e5-knight) decided the game in my favour.

Caro-Kann, Korchnoi Variation: 5...exf6 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 0-0 [B15]

Justin, for his part, played two instructive Caro-Kann games during his conquest of the Doeberl Cup. The first of these (by ECO order) was a very crisp win on the Black side of the fashionable line 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Qc2 Re8+ 9.Ne2 h5. Here opinion is divided as to which side White should castle, and in Ikeda, J - Tan, J White kept both options alive for a while with 10.Be3 Nd7 11.h3:

On principle this seems like a reasonable idea, but it turns out that in conjunction with queenside castling it doesn’t make so much sense, since a future g4-break is likely to be a bit ineffectual. Therefore I would continue to prefer short-castling for White as a more solid approach. In the game, we were treated to a smooth demonstration of how Black can develop a queenside attack, seemingly without allowing any counterplay at all.

Having played through many games such as the above, the question has naturally occurred to me of how exactly Black should play if White doesn’t opt for 8.Qc2. In fact, on some level 8.Qc2 can be considered a kind of ‘hope chess’ these days - wishing that the opponent’s theory is 10 years in the past and that they aren’t aware of the powerful h-pawn thrust. With that in mind, it was interesting to see the game Fontaine, R - Svane, R in which White simply chose 8.Ne2 Re8 9.0-0:

White is keeping Qc2 in reserve, and preparing to meet most normal moves with 10.Ng3. I doubt that Black can get away with playing 9...h5 unprovoked (at the very least, Bf4 will come in a better version than usual) and so Rasmus’ 9...Nd7 looks logical. After this, White tried 10.Bf4 anyway, but according to my analysis 10.Ng3 is worth a serious look here as well. The later course of the game was exceptionally tense and once again, there are points in the rook ending that are very much worth your time to take note of.

Caro-Kann, Classical Variation with 7...Nd7 8.h5 Bh7 9.Bd3 Bxd3 10.Qxd3 e6 11.Bd2 [B19]

The second game by Justin Tan this month is his best win to date (by rating) and was mostly annotated by him. In Tan, J - Melkumyan, H play proceeded down a theoretical line established by Jones-Laznicka (4NCL 2014, in the archives) and perhaps started to achieve its independent theoretical importance after 15.g4:

White threatens to break through with g5 and so Black should accept the pawn. After 15...Nxg4 16.Qe2 Qb6 White’s prep recollection started to become hazy, and he started to come up with innovations of which he was perhaps unfairly critical afterwards. In particular, following 17.Rdg1 f5 the move 18.Ne5!? is one which I personally would not hesitate to repeat.

All the best, Daniel

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