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This month was a gold mine for the 1.e4 annotators, as the first major OTB event since the Candidates was basically a Caro-Kann-themed event! Every player in Norway had a Caro-Kann in at least one of their games, but there’s no question that it was Alireza Firouzja who inspired this trend. Coincidentally, the annotators both examined a game in the Fantasy Variation, which, after this month, may or may not see a rise in popularity.

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

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Caro-Kann Defence: Advance Variation, 4.h4 h5 5.c4 dxc4 [B12]

A very interesting game in the German Bundesliga illustrated nicely that after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4 h5 5.c4, Black is under no obligation to play the normal move (...e6.) It helps if he understands the ideas from that system and the pros and cons of each possible transposition, but I haven’t been able to find a disadvantage to starting with 5...dxc4 if after 6.Bxc4 Black’s intention is 6...e6 7.Nc3 Nd7 8.Nge2 Ne7 9.Ng3 Bg6:

The position is commonly reached from 5...e6 but White has lost some options along the way. As we will see, Black is doing well in the diagram position and with one improvement a couple of moves later, could have posed his 2700+ opponent very serious problems in Adams, M - Keymer, V. Right at the end of a classic Adams grind, Black also misses a surprise gift of a half-point.

Caro-Kann Defence: Fantasy Variation 3...e6 4.Nc3 Qb6 [B12]

The Fantasy Variation is one of the variations where I think the present wave of neural-network-derived engines (Leela, AlphaZero and now also Stockfish 12!) have a good chance of rewriting the theory. It is positively bursting with long-term pawn sacrifices, and I discovered at least one instance of an h-pawn thrust that I would love to see a test of. Following 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.f3 e6 4.Nc3 the key question is whether Black will allow the position to properly ‘Frenchify’ with ...Nf6 at some point, inviting e5 and indicating a future ...c5 from himself. There is some interesting NN- inspired stuff in the early notes, mostly favouring White, but Gazik, V - Blohberger, F followed a traditional path in 4...Qb6 5.Nge2 Nf6:

Here, having committed the g1-knight to e2, White was always unlikely to accept the invitation to push his e-pawn. He chose 6.b3 instead, and ended up with an IKP position (!) of which Black possibly underestimated the dynamic potential.

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

Caruana, F - Firouzja, A was a pleasant surprise for the common people as it also featured a Fantasy Variation. Preparation at the highest level involves a great deal of creativity these days, and here we have it! Instead of 3...e6, Firouzja chose 3...dxe4 4.fxe4 e5. This is the most direct approach, although both annotators believe 3...e6 is more reliable. 5.Nf3 Bg4 6.c3 Nd7 7.Bd3 Ngf6 8.0-0 Bd6 9.Na3!? This forces Black to make a committal decision. b5?! True, Black cannot allow Nc4 but the knight is also too strong on e3. 9...Bxa3! was necessary. 10.Nc2 Bh5?! Black's best was the counter-intuitive 10...0-0 11.Ne3 c5! 11.Ne3 0-0 12.Nf5 Qc7 13.Qc2 Bg6 14.Nxd6 Qxd6 15.Bg5 c5 The urge to change the structure is understandable, however opening the position should have been to White's favour.

16.dxe5?! Correct was the concrete 16.Bxf6 gxf6 17.Bxb5 cxd4 18.cxd4 exd4 19.Qc6! I'm sure Caruana considered the position after 18...exd4 but he may have underestimated this move. 16...Nxe5 17.Nxe5 Qxe5 18.Bxf6 gxf6 19.Bxb5 and at this point, 19...c4! would have been roughly balanced. In any case, the Iranian prodigy defended tenaciously and managed to hold.

Caro-Kann Defence: Exchange Variation 4.Bd3 Nf6 [B13]

Earlier in the tournament, Firouzja was also tested in the quieter 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3 Nf6. Tari played the natural 5.c3 Bg4 6.Qb3 Qc7 7.h3 (7.Ne2 is probably more reliable) against which, Firouzja changed tack with 7...Bd7! This ensures that a good number of pieces are kept on the board. 8.Nf3 Nc6 9.0-0 e6 10.Re1 Bd6 11.Bg5 I'm not a fan of this move in conjunction with h2-h3 because the bishop can never be rerouted to g3 and the f4-square is a permanent weakness. 11...0-0! In this structure, there is hardly ever a need to fear the doubling of his f-pawns. In that case, Black would obtain an initiative by using the g-file. 12.Nbd2:

12...Nh5! I already prefer Black's position. 13.Qd1 f6 14.Be3 Nf4 15.Bf1 g5!? 16.c4 Kh8!

One cannot help but recall the game Fischer-Andersson, 1970, in which the idea Kh1, Rg1 and g4 was carried out in a reverse Hedgehog structure. In the same fashion, Firouzja went on to win a model attacking game, see Tari, A - Firouzja, A.

In Tari, A - Aronian, L, the Norwegian Grandmaster deviated from the above game with the move 5.h3 preventing ...Bg4. 5...g6 As is his trademark, Kramnik makes an instructive remark here: Black, he says, usually waits for White to play h3 before embarking on the ...g6/...Bf5 plan. That's because when the g-file is opened for Black's rook, the pawn on g2 will be more vulnerable, as in that case, g2-g3 would weaken the kingside too much. So, other than creativity, top-level preparation involves an understanding of move orders and an appreciation of such fine details! 6.Nf3 Bf5 7.Be2 Nbd7 A peculiar square for the knight. 8.0-0 e6?! This was played very quickly by Aronian but I suspect it was all a bluff. 9.Bf4 After 9.c4!, I don't like Black's position at all. 9...Qb6 10.b3:

10...g5? Highly inventive but objectively incorrect. 11.Bxg5 Ne4 12.Bh4?! This gives Black a dynamic resource which offers full compensation for the sacrificed pawns. 12.Be3 was best. 12...Rg8 13.Kh1 e5! 14.dxe5 Qg6?? It transpires that nothing particularly comes out of this move. Correct was 14...Be7! 15.Bxe7 Nxf2+ 16.Rxf2 Qxf2 with an unclear game. 15.Rg1 and White was winning.

Caro-Kann: Korchnoi's 4...Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Qc2 Re8+ 9.Ne2 h5 [B15]

In Norway, even the World Champion adopted the Caro-Kann as a winning attempt against his young opponent, Duda. 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Qc2 Re8+ 9.Ne2 h5 A well-known move by now. 10.Be3 Nd7 11.0-0-0 b5!? A bold sacrifice, clearly prepared. 12.d5 c5 13.Bxb5 Rb8 14.c4 a6 15.Ba4:

15...Re7 Played after an 8 minute think. It's difficult to know if Carlsen was out of 'book' on this move or the next, however engines suggest there was a better use of the e5-square with 15...Re5! restricting the e2-knight as 16.Ng3?! allows 16...Nb6 17.Bb3 h4 and the knight is forced to retreat. 16.Ng3 Ne5?? At this point, 17.Bd2 (to consolidate with b3 and Bc3) was winning. Duda missed this chance and several more, but so did his esteemed opponent! This goes to show just how complicated the middlegame was. In the end, Duda prevailed, ending Carlsen’s 125 (!!) game unbeaten streak. See Duda, J - Carlsen, M.

Caro-Kann: Classical 4...Bf5 Main Line without 8.h5 [B19]

As far as I am aware, the line 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Nf3 Nd7 8.Bd3 lacks a formal name in chess nomenclature and also receives far less attention than its database share (or even the quality of the move!) would indicate. Black still captures with 8...Bxd3 9.Qxd3 e6 10.Bf4!:

The point of this variation for White is that ...Qa5+ as a response looks almost dubious, and so there is no way to encourage White back into a Bd2-system. In particular, the h5-square that White declined to occupy with a pawn can often be useful for a knight instead. Sadly, a couple of moves later White played a surely uncritical knight retreat to the back rank, Black equalised without issues and eventually managed to win. See Aronian, L - Firouzja, A.

Caro-Kann: Classical 4...Bf5 Main Line with 13. Kb1 0-0 14. Ne4 c5 [B19]

Continuing with the Firouzja/Caro theme, I bring you Duda, J - Firouzja, A, where after 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.Bd2 Ngf6 12.0-0-0 Be7 13.Kb1 0-0 14.Ne4 Black opted to avoid the knight trade in favour of 14...c5!?:

White reacted with the (in my opinion) less-than-critical 15.Be3, allowing Black to demonstrate equality in at least two ways. I give some new ideas after the critical alternative reply 15.g4!? as well as picking apart the nuances of the choices made by both players over the next five moves. In particular, Firouzja’s choice to sacrifice the b7-pawn with 15...Nxe4 16.Qxe4 Nf6 17.Qxb7 Nd5 was adequate for a draw, but only if followed up correctly!

Till next time, Justin and Dan.

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