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This month we take a look at some unusual lines, still largely (but not entirely) played online or in hybrid format. The goal had been to include some personal OTB material as well, but regrettably my tournament had to be cancelled for Covid reasons.

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

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Queen’s Fianchetto/Owen’s Defence: 3.Bd3 e6 4.Nf3 [B00]

Not everyone would have the nerve to play 1.e4 b6 against the world champion (even in blitz) and for this reason the game Carlsen, M - Radjabov, T caught my eye. I enjoy a good opening experiment with Black and spent quite a while trying to find merit in this line, with mixed success. After the game’s 2.d4 Bb7 I think 3.Nc3 may allow Black slightly more fun, but instead Carlsen chose 3.Bd3 e6 4.Nf3:

Here on principle I would have offered a Sicilian structure with 4...c5, while Radjabov decided instead to set up a Hippo position. The resulting play was quite instructive and Black, having managed to push ...e5, missed his chance to completely equalise the stakes in the centre with 15...d5.

Modern Defence: Gurgenidze System 3.Nc3 c6 4.f4 d5 5.e5 h5 [B06/15]

The game Mammadzada, G - Nihal, S began with 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c6 4.f4 d5 5.e5, when Black has ‘gained’ a tempo compared to 2...d6 3.Nc3 c6 4.f4 d5, as played in Christiansen, J - Carlsen, M - a game which is worth looking at for comparison with both this game and the next. Schematically, I think the position after 12.0-0 is worth noting:

Black can choose between placing the b8-knight on d7 (as in the game), and routing it via a6 to c7. But, in either case, the g7-bishop is best off being retreated to f8, making clear that the extra tempo is at best of dubious utility. I believe the difference is enough to give White a small advantage in many lines.

Modern Defence: 2...g6 3.Nc3 a6 4.a4 [B06]

Yet another all-Polish game (we have seen several in the last few months) saw a test of the interesting concept 1.e4 d6 2.d4 g6 3.Nc3 a6. Black holds off on ...Bg7 for potentially quite deep reasons (as explored in the 4.f4 note.) After 4.a4 Black considered that enough capital had been extracted from the move-order and continued 4...Bg7:

The question of whether we get a Sicilian, Hippo or even Benoni structure is about to be decided. In Klimkowski, J - Bartel, M White decided to narrow down Black’s choice with the unconventional 5.Bg5, which I am not convinced was met in the correct way.

Pirc Defence: 2.b3 [B07]

The game Nitin, S - Sethuraman, S was a kind of refreshing one to analyse: rather than drowning everyone in reams of Pirc theory White simply essayed 1. e4 d6 2.b3 and opened the door to a rather more schematic kind of opening discussion. White is prepared to play a symmetrical structure after an eventual ...c5 or ...e5; since all White’s moves have been productive there will be a small edge unless Black responds with more accurate piece placement. Consider the position after 2...Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bb2 Bg7 5.d4 0-0 6.Bd3:

Black can achieve reasonable play after either 6...e5 or 6...c5, but after 7.dxc5 dxc5 and now 8.h3!?, White can also be optimistic: Black’s c8-bishop has no really logical post and so it is likely that White can connect rooks first. Winning the bishop-pair does not really lead to much for Black either, since a bishop trade along the long diagonal is possible to foresee even without a crystal ball. The game proceeded along broadly similar lines, with White eventually gathering enough momentum (through playing natural moves) to overcome a 250-point rating difference and score a notable upset.

Caro-Kann Defence, Fantasy Variation with 3...e6 4.Nc3 Bb4 [B12]

Last month we considered 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.f3 e6 4.Nc3 Bb4 and now 5.e5. In this month’s game Djukic, N - Braun, A both sides followed my recommendations for a while: 5.Bf4 Ne7 6.Nge2 b6 7.Qd3 Ba6 8.Qe3 Nd7:

Here I have previously only considered 9.a3, which has its points but probably should be delayed slightly. It seems that the game move 9.0-0-0 leads after best play to a position where White is a pawn down for interesting compensation (which includes the bishop-pair), while anything less than best play gives White, as in the game, a fairly clear advantage. Still, opposite-side castling is never a trivial imbalance and, after some slight mutual inaccuracies, Black managed to find an inspired exchange sacrifice that caused White what turned out to be insuperable difficulties.

Caro-Kann Defence, Advance Variation with 4.g4 Bd7 5.c4 e6 6.Nc3 [B12]

The game Ponkratov,P - Fedoseev, V was a handy test of this old sideline, which risks nothing for White and asks some relatively critical questions. Note the position after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.g4 Bd7 5.c4 e6 6.Nc3, when Pavlovic previously recommended 6...c5 here. That leads (according to my analysis) to a hitherto untested position where Black has an IQP and their king is still in the centre, but White’s co-ordination looks terrible. Instead Vladimir tried the positionally well-motivated 6...h5:

It turns out that in a great many lines, White actually has a positional threat of playing c5 themselves, which is one of several reasons why 6...c5 still looks superior from a theoretical standpoint. The game itself was rather entertaining: White should probably have won, but at some point failed to open up the position enough for their queen.

Caro-Kann Defence, 4...Nf6 5.Nxf6 exf6 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 Na6 [B15]

This column has previously analysed the standard ...h5 lines almost to death; it was refreshing this month to see a slightly different implementation. In the game Pruijssers, R - Shimanov, A Black opted for the unconventional 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6 exf6 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 Na6:

As compared to other lines in this system, Black may be trying to avoid kingside castling (possibly in favour of ...g6 and ...Kf8-g7); the position after 8. Qc2 Nc7 9.Ne2 h5 bore certain similarities to the usual lines but also contained some original elements. After checking a number of tries for White to gain an advantage, I concluded that kingside castling in conjunction with a c4-push is probably the most critical.

Caro-Kann Defence, Classical Variation with 8.Bd3 Bxd3 9.Qxd3 e6 10.Bf4 [B19]

Finally we come to something that almost passes for a main line. At least, I have already looked at it a fair bit, including in the game Aronian-Firouzja from Norway Chess 2020. The game Bellahcene, B - Adly, A began with 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Nf3 Nd7 8.Bd3 Bxd3 9.Qxd3 e6 10.Bf4 Qa5+. (Note Firouzja played 10...Ngf6 instead.) The different placement of the h-pawn started to play a number of rather subtle roles in the position after 11.Bd2 Bb4:

White can fight for an advantage with both 12.Ne4 and 12.c3. My feeling is that the latter is most practically testing. (Also interesting are the deviations on moves 14 and 16.) As things were, play entered a Rubinstein structure; Black had a more comfortable position after 20 moves and eventually managed to grind out a win from a tense rook ending.

All the best, Daniel

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