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This month, the annotators delve into a number of different lines in the Caro-Kann Defence - covering the Advanced Variation, the Exchange Variation, the Classical Variation and the Panov-Botvinnik Attack. Justin also explores a couple of games in the Hippopotamus structure.

Download PGN of December ’20 1 e4 ... games

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Modern Defence: Classical Variation, Hippopotamus Defence [B06]

The advantage of online chess and shorter time controls is that we get to see offbeat systems much more frequently. Nepomniachtchi, I - Aronian, L, for example, opened with 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 a6 4.Nf3 d6 5.Be2 Nd7 6.0-0 e6 7.Be3 Ne7 8.Qd2 h6 9.a4 b6 10.Rfe1 Bb7 reaching a Hippopotamus structure. Unfortunately for Aronian, his lack of experience in these positions was telling, as he was dead lost after 16 moves. The game continued 11.h3 Nf6 12.Bd3 g5 13.e5?! A rushed decision. 13...Nd7?! 13...dxe5 14.Nxe5 Nfd5 would have given Black reasonable chances of holding. 14.exd6 cxd6 15.Ne4 The computer does not initially approve of this move, but it turns out to be cleanest, 15...Qc7. 15...Nf5 is met by the cunning 16.Ng3!:

16.Qc3 An unpleasant move to face. Aronian immediately panicked with Kd8?? Not a move that is made willingly. 16...Bc6 17.Qa3 and Black's position remains suspicious; 16...Nc5!? would have been a reasonable try. 17.Qa3 Nf5 18.c4+- and Black’s king never survived in the centre of the board.

In Valdes Escobar, A - Lagarde, M , Black opted for a different plan in the Hippo. 1.Nf3 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.e4 d6 4.Nc3 a6 5.a4 Nd7 6.Be3 b6 7.h3 Bb7 8.Bd3 e6 9.0-0 Ne7 10.Qd2 h6 11.Rfe1 c5!? Aiming for a Benoni structure. 12.Rad1 12.d5 is of course the principled move. 12...e5 13.Ne2 This is the type of position for Black that may suit King's Indian players. Weaker players often don't know what to do about the tension in the centre and the impending ...f5 thrust. 12...Qc7 13.Bf1 Rd8 13...0-0-0!? was also a decent try. 14.a5 bxa5! and Black will begin the launch of his kingside pawns. 14.d5 Finally, White decides to clarify the structure. 14...e5 15.g3 Anticipating ...f5. 15...Bc8!? It was already possible to play 15...f5, but keeping the tension is a good strategy against lower-rated opponents. 16.Bg2 Nf6 17.Nh4? Provoking Black into generating his own attack. 17...g5! 18.Nf3:

18...Ng6? missing the chance. It is surprising that Black did not play 18...g4! 19.hxg4 Nxg4 with an initiative. In any case, Black went on to win after White made a series of weakening moves on the kingside. This was prompted by the instructive manoeuvre ...Bd7 and ...Qc8!

Caro-Kann: Advanced Variation with 3...Bf5 4.Nd2 [B12]

So, W - Carlsen, M featured more familiar territory. 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.Nd2 e6 5.Nb3 Nd7 6.Nf3 h6 7.Be2 but now the World Champion came up with the creative idea a5!? 8.a4 Bb4+!? Without interposing the bishop check, the a5-pawn might have come under fire with Bd2.

9.c3 (9.Nfd2!?). 9...Bf8 The bishop definitely does not want to go to e7 before the knight on g8 has been developed. 10.0-0 Ne7 11.h3 11.Nh4 is also worthy of investigation. 11...Bh7 12.Bd2 Qb6 An active move, restricting the white queen and b3-knight. 13.Ne1 Nf5 14.Bd3 Be7 15.Qc2 Bg6= 16.c4?! After this, Black is slightly better, although the problem for White was that he lacked a clear plan.

16...dxc4 17.Qxc4 Nxd4! 18.Qxd4 But not 18.Nxd4?? Nxe5 19.Qc3 Bb4-+ 18...Qxb3 19.Bxg6 fxg6 and Black converted his material advantage.

Caro-Kann Defence: Advance Variation with 3...Bf5 4.h4 h5 5.Bd3 Bxd3 6.Qxd3 [B12]

In the position after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4 h5 5.Bd3 Bxd3 6.Qxd3, we have spent countless hours in this column trying to discover the truth of the 6...e6 7.Bg5 line, using both correspondence and OTB games, and even creating some of our own training games. Black is required (see May 2020 update) to grab a hot pawn on b2 and then, perhaps, to remember some rather tedious details before establishing a probable fortress with rook and minor piece against queen!

We theorised at that point that the more reliable 6...Qa5+ would begin to dwarf that line in OTB significance, and in one of the biggest OTB events of the final quarter of 2020 we got an interesting test of that line. In Van Foreest, J - Anton, D, White opted for neither the traditional 7.Bd2 nor the already-defused 7.Nd2, but the interesting pawn sacrifice 7.b4!?:

Unfortunately, we did not get a high-level practical test of the acceptance of this gambit. (Matters are far from clear, but I think White has at least enough compensation.) Instead, Black declined with the sub-critical 7...Qa6 and his position gradually became worse and worse, until he took the decision to sacrifice an exchange for practical chances. This choice eventually paid off as the Dutch star blundered a piece in a messy position.

Caro-Kann Defence: Exchange Variation with 4...Nc6 5.c3 Nf6 6.Bf4 Bg4 7.Qb3 [B13]

I (DF) am in the process of ordering and revising my thoughts about the Exchange and Panov variations, and so this month I will take a break from the Moderns to look at no fewer than three games classified under B13. Broadly speaking, after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3 Black’s approaches can be divided into those where he plays ...g6 (and ...Bf5 at some point), and those where he does not. Subelj, J - Petkov,M fell in the latter category, and continued with 4... Nc6 5.c3 Nf6 6.Bf4 Bg4 7.Qb3, a position we have discussed a few times before in these pages:

Now 7...Qd7! appears quite a bit stronger than the alternative ...Qc8 (the move we saw in the games from the Ding-Carlsen minimatch in October) and my tentative conclusion is that it equalises, while no other move quite manages this. The main reason is the ease of getting a bishop to d6, even at the potential cost of a pawn. Black’s play vindicated the choice of opening line and he achieved a totally winning position, before blowing it in one move.

Caro-Kann Defence: Exchange Variation with ...g6 [B13]

There are various ways in which Black can work with the idea of ...g6 (and, possibly, ...Bf5) in the early stages of an Exchange Caro-Kann. 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3 and now I decided to revisit my own favourite line 4...g6!? quickly, as well as some other ideas. In particular, there is a queen sacrifice for White in the notes to move 6.

As a quick summary of those digressions, the inclusion of h3 for White at any stage makes the ...Bf5 idea more desirable, to the extent that White should be thinking about where he can move the d3-bishop thereafter (to avoid swapping it.) To avoid giving away too many chances for the bishop to use the b5-square instead of the e2-square, I think that after 4...Nf6 5.h3 Black should perhaps opt for the immediate ...g6 push. Instead, in Studer, N - Peralta, F, Black chose to begin with 5...Nc6 6.c3 g6 7.Nf3 Bf5:

It seems White had been unnecessarily granted the option of a Rossolimo-esque 8.Bb5; however, this chance was not used. White played 8.Be2 and Black demonstrated an interesting plan with 8...e6 9.0-0 h6! which seems to equalise, and at any rate leads to more inspiring chess than the usual stuff with an ...e5 push and an IQP. Again, Black played the opening extremely well and should have been pressing, but White stayed in the game and eventually exploited a rather subtle tactical opportunity.

Caro-Kann Defence: Panov-Botvinnik Attack with 6.Bg5 Bg4?! [B13]

In the position after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4 Nc6 5.Nc3 Nf6 6.Bg5 Black has a variety of relatively normal moves, starting with 6...dxc4 and also the once-exotic 6...Be6. However, in Safarli, E - Gukesh, D Black picked his choice from rather further down the list: 6...Bg4. I took the opportunity to also investigate the interesting 6...Ne4, which is almost equally rare but has strong patronage from Latvian GM Igor Kovalenko. Sadly, it seems that Gukesh’s experiment will not be repeated: while the more common 7.Qa4 and 7.f3 lead to complications that don’t necessarily favour White, Safarli’s choice of 7.Be2 simply gets the job done:

After 7...Bxe2 8.Ngxe2 dxc4 9.d5 Ne5 10.0-0 almost any move from Black is best met by 11.Qd4, with the exception of the game move 10...g6 that could have been met by an immediate 11.d6!, spelling tragedy for Black. As it was, Gukesh obtained fair chances to get back into the game in a piece-play-dominated middlegame, but never quite grasped hold of the equality that was decidedly within arm’s reach.

Caro-Kann Defence: Classical Variation with 4...Bf5 [B19]

Finally, in Nakamura,H - Firouzja,A we saw the classical, and in some sense, ‘old main line’ of the Caro-Kann: 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Nf3 Nd7 8.h5 Bh7 9.Bd3 Bxd3 10.Qxd3 e6 11.Bf4 11.Bd2 is more topical. Qa5+ 12.Bd2 Bb4 13.c3 Be7 14.c4 Qb6!? This move has been seen once before on our site (see Moulthun's notes to Dervishi - Eljanov).15.Bc3 But this is a new try, albeit, a harmless one. In the next few moves, Firouzja showed excellent understanding. 15...Ngf6 16.Ne5 Rd8 17.Qe2:

17...Bb4! 18.0-0 Bxc3 19.bxc3 0-0 20.Rab1 Qc7 21.f4 c5 and at some point, it looked like he was taking over the initiative. Unfortunately, he made a painful blunder later on that gifted Nakamura the full point in a drawn position.

Till next time, and we wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Dan and Justin.

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