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Both annotators bring you even more Caro-Kann action. There isn't a main-line 4...Bf5, Short System, or Karpov Variation in sight, though, as the changing profile of this opening has caused lines like the Exchange and Fantasy to be pushed to centre stage. OTB games are once again in the majority!

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

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Modern Defence: 4.Be3 a6 5.h4 [B06]

Dragun, K - Arribas Lopez, A was the only game this month that was not a Caro-Kann. It began with 1.d4 g6 2.e4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Be3 a6 5.h4 Nf6 6.f3 b5 7.Qd2 Nbd7 This sideline was discussed in Dan's notes to the game Wang - Hilby.

8.Bh6?! Black equalises easily after this hurried move. Instead I focus on the moves 8.g4 and 8.0-0-0, the latter of which is White’s best reply according to our analyses.

After 8.g4 h6 9.0-0-0 Nb6 White should consider 10.Nh3 which hints at the positional sacrifice 11.h5 g5 12.Nxg5 etc. In response, I believe Black maintains the balance with the line 10...h5!? 11.gxh5 Nxh5 12.Qf2 Nc4 13.Bxc4 bxc4.

I agree with Dan that 8.0-0-0! is White’s strongest reply. 8...Nb6 9.Bh6 Bxh6 10.Qxh6 and White is better, but Black can fight with the move 10...Bb7!

In the game continuation, Black gained an initiative after the moves 8...Bxh6 9.Qxh6 c5 but wasn’t able to convert a winning position later in the game.

Caro-Kann Defence: Two Knights main line with 3...dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Qe2 Na6 [B11]

Following 1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Qe2 Na6, we have previously considered both 6.d4 and 6.a3 in this column. My contention is still that the former is White’s best way to try for an advantage, while 6.Nxf6+ gxf6 7.c3!? Qd5 8.g3 is a continuation that, while testing, forces Black to grab the bull by the horns:

In Abasov, N- Shengelia, D Black didn’t do so and played the relatively timid 8...Qe6?!, signing himself up for much endgame suffering. In the end, it turns out he did get some saving chances, though only after White handled his space advantage a bit hesitantly. Instead, very decent prospects to win the opening battle were offered by 8...Bg4.

Caro-Kann Defence: Advance Variation with 3...Bf5 4.h4 and 6...Qa5+ [B12]

It seems that, with our attention taken up for most of last year by the enthralling lines that start with 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4 h5 5.Bd3 Bxd3 6.Qxd3 and now 6...e6, we missed a seemingly small contribution, mostly due to Russian player Olga Girya, within the line starting with 6...Qa5+ 7.Nd2 e6 8.Ngf3. Far from being forced to adopt the approach of a quick ...Nh6-f5 (see Vucinic-Kobalia), Black also has a different solution available, and one which is more satisfactory to me on some intuitive level. This month’s game Radzhabov, R - Girya, O proceeded with 8...Qa6 9.c4 Bb4!?:

This idea has also been tried by some 2600+ players (Riazantsev, Abdusattorov) but this is the first time a strong player repeated it and clearly held their own against strong home preparation. There are indeed some interesting lines that White could prepare here, but none that really threatens Black’s concept of trading her dark-squared bishop and fighting for the light squares with both knights.

Caro-Kann Defence: Fantasy Variation 3...e6 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.Bd2 [B12]

The Fantasy Variation of the Caro-Kann 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.f3 has gained some traction recently. Vitiugov, N - Kobalia, M featured the main line 3...e6 4.Nc3 Bb4 and now 5.Bd2 which was recently mentioned in passing by Dan. 5...Nf6 This gives White more play than he deserves. 5...b6 6.a3!? Bxc3 7.Bxc3 dxe4 8.Nh3 gives White sufficient compensation, but not enough for an advantage. Alternatively, 5...Ne7 is always a reliable move and scores well. 6.e5 Nfd7 7.f4 b6?! Too slow. 7...Be7!? would have been a sensible retreat. 8.Qg4 g6 9.Nf3 Ba6 10.Bxa6 10.Qh3! (preparing g2-g4) was already a significant advantage for White. 10...Nxa6 11.0-0 Nc7:

12.Qh3! Interestingly, this is the first new move of the game. White definitely won the opening battle as he obtained a good French position. Note that in the French Defence, Black usually has their knights on c6 and e7, but in this case, both knights have very poor trajectories. Later, White botched a winning position by blundering to a simple tactic - probably the result of time trouble.

Caro-Kann Defence: Exchange Variation with 4...Nc6 5.c3 Nf6 6.Bf4 Bg4 7.Qb3 e5 [B13]

The game Sturt, R - Fier, A provided us with a test of the new idea 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3 Nc6 5.c3 Nf6 6.Bf4 Bg4 7.Qb3 e5!? which has been played a few times now, including by some strong grandmasters. It is a strategically risky approach that generates some winning chances by accepting an IQP and/or a pawn sacrifice, and so suits the situation where you would like to win as Black against a slightly lower-rated player in an open. White has a choice between the calm 8.dxe5 and the game move 8.h3!?:

There followed 8...Na5 9.Qc2 exf4 10.hxg4 Nxg4 11.Kf1!? and an absolutely fascinating game, made the more so by the fact that there is a move-for-move duplicate in the databases, featuring one of the same players on the opposite side of the board. (The benign explanation is that someone accidentally copied and pasted the moves while managing the tournament .pgn files; still, it seems indisputable that this game did happen at least once!) Both sides had their chances, first Black and then White, with a sudden and incredible eleventh-hour opportunity for Black to claim the full-point; the opening conclusion is probably that Demchenko’s 11.Qe2+ is a better way to play against Black’s awkwardly split pawn structure.

Caro-Kann Defence: Panov-Botvinnik Attack with 5...g6 6.cxd5 [B14]

The Panov-Botvinnik is rarely seen these days as Black has numerous ways to equalise. Badelka, O - Goganov, A opened with 1.c4 c6 2.e4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.d4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 An uncompromising system which we haven’t examined since 2015. Badelka chose the harmless continuation 6.cxd5 which led to a slow game with chances for both sides. Instead, I take the opportunity to update the theory of White’s most critical try 6.Qb3. One of the interesting ideas I found was 6...Bg7 7.cxd5 0-0 8.Nge2 (8.Be2 is the main line, and also leads to equality) 8...a5!? Probably the best move. I am tempted to attach an exclamation mark, but as it is quite new territory, I will remain modest about it:

Now if 9.Nf4?! (Alternatively 9.g3 a4! 10.Nxa4 Qxd5! 11.Qxd5 Nxd5 is harmless) then the counterattack 9...g5! 10.Nfe2 a4! gives Black far too much dynamic play for the pawn.

Caro-Kann, Korchnoi Variation with 4...Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6, 9.Qc2 h5 [B15]

Next, in Howell, D - Ghasi, A we see a topical opening debate in the line 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Ne2 Re8 9.Qc2 h5 which we could call the modern main line of the Korchnoi Variation. The reader might notice that most of the games we have analysed from this position resulted in a White win. This score line is obviously not reflective of the soundness of the defence; instead, it seems to reflect the fact that we find it extremely impressive whenever White manages to breach Black's setup. 10.0-0 h4 11.h3 Nd7 12.Be3 Nf8 13.Rad1 At this juncture, most of Black's legal bishop moves are plausible:

13...Bd7!? 14.c4 Rc8 15.Nc3 Bb8 is offered by Rambaldi in his book 'The Caro-Kann Revisited'; while 13...Be6 is the most logical continuation and even 13...Bb8!? deserves attention. The game continued with 13...Bc7 14.c4 Qd6!? 15.Nf4 According to Ashwin in his notes to the game Sjugirov - Bai, 2018, this move causes some problems for Black, while Rambaldi suggests that Black maintains the balance. I believe Ashwin's evaluation was closer to the truth and I have investigated some possible continuations to support it. The game quickly led to a fascinating ending that takes up most of the analysis. For the endgame experts, this may be of interest!

Caro-Kann Defence: Classical Variation with 7.Bd3 [B18]

Finally, we of course need to pay attention to another game from the Tata Steel tournament, Grandelius, N - Wojtaszek, R. Nils showcased his opening ingenuity throughout the event, and here he played a very tricky line that Black can definitely equalise against, but needs exceptional preparation since the correct reply appears to have never been played! I am talking about the position after 1. e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Bd3:

Black may accept the pawn sacrifice here with ...Qxd4, though I am unconvinced about his chances in either of two possible lines thereafter. Probably more practical is the game continuation 7...Bxd3 8.Qxd3 e6 9.N1e2 Nf6, though in my opinion White has very good chances unless Black then knows to meet 10.Bd2 with the untested 10...Qb6!?N followed by ...Qa6. It would be interesting to see in future games by the inventive Swedish grandmaster whether he also had something lined up for this eventuality. Instead, 10...Nbd7 was played and White won the opening battle, though the ensuing strategic fight could have gone either way.

Till next time! Justin and Dan.

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