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This month, we’ve done some musical chairs, as I’ll be taking over this column from Glenn. As readers of the 1.e4 column will know, I generally aim to cover a wide range of opening ideas, with a focus on high-level encounters and serious theoretical tries for both sides. If the keen readers among you have any specific requests, don’t hesitate to contact me, as I’m sure that a good number of ideas will warrant my attention!
In this month’s mix of games, I examine a few trendy sidelines, including the 3...a6 QGD and the Vienna with 5...b5. I also analyse some more Ragozin games, the Cambridge Springs and the Anti-Meran variation of the Semi-Slav. Included in the package is an annotation from Daniel Fernandez of his own game in the Catalan. Enjoy!

Download PGN of April ’21 1 d4 d5 2 c4 games

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QGD 3...a6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.Bg5 Be6 7.Bxf6 [D37]

In the last 2-3 years, there has been an increasing trend towards the offbeat QGD system 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 a6 which was probably brought about by Carlsen’s quite consistent use of the system through 2019. It has also been adopted regularly by some strong grandmasters such as Fedoseev and Rakhmanov, and is likely to be more popular in rapid games. The game Vidit, S - Grandelius, N saw 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.Bg5 Be6 7.Bxf6 At a time when this line was still more or less in its infancy, Illingworth attached a dubious mark to this exchange. Nowadays, it can be seen as a way to sharpen the play and perhaps make the opponent a bit uncomfortable... after all, their intention was to avoid theoretical complications. 7...Qxf6 8.Qb3 Ra7 9.a3 A rare move from Vidit which seems to be no more than a useful waiting move. 9...Qd8 (9...Nd7?? fails to 10.Nxd5 Qd8 11.Qe3+-) 10.h4!?:

This is actually a fairly common move in the 7.Bxf6 system; at least, according to our silicon friends. White's immediate idea is to play Ng5, while he also provokes the opponent into the weakening move ...h6. In general, the positions are balanced, though White has slightly better manoeuvrability, in my opinion, in that there’s a greater number of plans at their disposal. That said, there are some active plans for Black such as 10...b5!? and 10...c5 which deserve further attention.

Vidit, S - Mamedyarov, S, played a few days later, deviated with the move 8...b5?!, which is a bit bizarre considering that Mamedyarov had access to the aforementioned game. White is clearly better after the forcing sequence 9.a4 b4 10.Nxd5 Qd8 11.e4 c6:

12.Qe3! This is the point. Black's queenside will be too loose once he accepts the piece sacrifice. Play continued 12...cxd5 13.exd5 Qxd5 14.Rc1 Be7 15.Bd3 Qd7 16.Be4 At which point, it was necessary for Black to play 16...Qa7 17.Qf4! Nd7 18.d5, accepting a positionally disastrous opening. Instead, Mamedyarov played the greedy 16...Ra7? 17.d5 Bxd5 after which, Vidit could have easily decided the game with 18.Ne5 Qe6 19.Bxd5 Qxd5 20.Rc8+ etc.

QGD: Vienna Variation with 5....b5 [D37]

Another trendy line was seen in Moranda, W - Maghsoodloo, P: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.e4 b5!? 6.e5 (6.Nxb5 is probably the only other line which makes sense to investigate, although the game continuation was definitely more critical.) 6...Nd5 7.Nxb5 Nb6 8.Be2 Nc6 9.0-0 Be7:

We are definitely in the early stages of research but I would hypothesise that the most critical test of the line is 10.Qd2!? Bb7 11.Rd1 or 11.Qf4 intending to play for a direct attack by swinging the queen to g4 and perhaps re-routing the b5-knight to e4. Black’s position is surely defensible, but they’d have to be comfortable in the knowledge that their opponent will try to mate them in the short run! Alternatively, Black can consider castling queenside before any damage occurs, though as my annotations suggest, White may also be able to force Black into castling kingside by starting with 10.Nc3 0-0 and then 11.Qd2.

QGD: Ragozin Variation with 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bf4 [D38]

Martirosyan, H - Pashikian, A featured a topical line of the Ragozin: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bf4 0-0 7.e3 and now Black chose the most direct option 7...c5 8.dxc5 Qa5 which, objectively, should equalise quite easily. Having said that, Black is also forced into an IQP position, which is not to everyone's taste. In fact, having to sit with the weakness on d5 for the whole game is not such an easy task, even if we know that the engines will give 0.00. 9.Be5 Nfd7 10.Bd6 Rd8 11.Rc1 Qxa2? Already nervous about the prospects of an IQP, Pashikian chooses a risky alternative. 11...Nxc5 12.Be7 Nd3+ 13.Bxd3 Bxe7 14.0-0 is a balanced IQP position where Black has the two bishops and a reasonable amount of activity to compensate for it. 12.Qc2 Qa5 13.Bd3 g6 14.0-0 Nxc5 15.Ra1 Qb6:

16.Be7! This simple move may have been what Pashikian missed, or more accurately, he probably missed the point: Black cannot keep the exchange as 16...Rd7 17.Na4! wins on the spot.

QGD: Ragozin Variation with 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bg5 [D38]

Checa, N - Niemann, H featured some targeted prep in a line of the Ragozin which appeared to be harmless: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bh4 0-0 8.e3 Bf5 9.Bd3 Yes, White was playing for a win, but the real idea comes a little bit later. 9...Bxd3 10.Qxd3 c6 11.a3 Bd6?!:

This is a very natural retreat when you don't believe there's any danger in the pin to the f6-knight. However, White came up with a strong reply which was almost definitely part of the pre-game plan. 11...Be7 was best. 12.g4! and White initiated a strong attack. Black is not much worse and in fact went on to win very quickly as his opponent did not take care of his own king. Things could have turned out differently had White been less hasty.

Semi-Slav: Anti-Meran Variation with 8...dxc4 9.Bxc4 e5 [D45]

Dealing with the Anti-Meran Variation of the Semi-Slav is no easy task for Black, and it is likely to be a contributing factor to the decreased popularity of the Semi-Slav altogether. If the reader has no interest in entering the complications of the Anti-Meran main lines, there is a solid alternative in the line 1.c4 (Of course, the line usually starts via the 1.d4 move order) 1...c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e3 Nf6 4.Nc3 Nbd7 5.d4 e6 6.Qc2 Bd6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.0-0 dxc4 9.Bxc4 e5 which was played in Wojtaszek, R - Matlakov, M. 10.a3!? If White knows their opponent will play the usual ...Qe7, ...Rd8/e8 setup, then this line is worth keeping in mind. Instead, 10.h3 is the main line, when after 10...Qe7 11.Bb3 (11.a3 transposes to the game.) I recommend throwing in the move 11...a5!? which, according to my analysis, compels White to play 12.a3 anyway. 10...Qe7 The simple 10...exd4 does not score well here, nor in the analogous line after 10.h3 but I believe it should be considered for further analysis. 11.h3 Bc7 12.Ba2 h6 13.Nh4 Rd8 14.Nf5 Qf8:

White is slightly better in this position as he is ready to centralise his rooks while Black is not able to fight for the centre. Black would love to have his knight manoeuvre from d7-f8-e6 somehow, but this isn’t possible with the queen stuck on f8. At the same time, Black can alleviate some pressure by playing ...Nb6 and giving up the bishop pair, which is exactly what Matlakov did. In that case, both players would need to show some patience as the positions become relatively quiet. Matlakov is a good positional player, therefore this sort of position seems to suit his style very well.

QGD: Cambridge Springs/Classical Defence with 6...Be7 7.Bd3 [D60]

Cheparinov, I - Sharafiev, A featured a rare line of the Cambridge Springs: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.Bg5 Nbd7 6.e3 Be7 which generally leads to a hybrid structure of a Classical QGD and Semi-Slav. 7.Bd3 7.Qc2 is another important move. 7...0-0 8.0-0 h6 9.Bh4 dxc4 10.Bxc4 b5 11.Bd3 a6?! 11...Bb7 is the way to go in this particular position. The bind in the game turned out to be too strong.

12.Bxf6! Nxf6 13.Ne4 Bb7 14.Rc1 Solid positional understanding from Cheparinov. It was well worth giving up the dark-squared bishop in order to clamp down on the c5-square. If Black wants to make this variation work, they need to ensure that the liberating move ...c6-c5 is carried out as soon as possible, or else they’ll end up in a passive QGD position, which is not much fun at all.

Catalan with 4...Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Be7 [E07]

Daniel Fernandez and I played yet another over the board tournament in Australia a few weeks ago, so I’ve picked his brains to annotate the game Cheng, B - Fernandez, D, in which he displayed some impressive opening preparation in the Catalan: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Be7 6.Bg2 0-0 7.0-0 c6 8.Bf4 Nbd7 9.Nc3 Believing I wasn't very booked up, Bobby chooses the most critical line. Black more or less must take the pawn, if White does this without Qc2. 9...dxc4 Flear previously noted that this was critical. Indeed, with the queen not on c2, White struggles a little bit to recover the pawn immediately and so must play gambit-style. 10.e4! b5! Continuing down the critical path, since I trusted my own preparation. 11.d5:

11...e5!? This leads to unbalanced play in which all three results are possible. 12.Nxe5 12.Bxe5 leads to sharper play. 12...Nxe5 13.Bxe5 Ng4 14.Bf4 (14.Bd4? c5) 14...g5 (14...b4!? is also worth considering). 15.Be3!? A practically reasonable choice, offering to take on doubled pawns in return for an open file leading to Black's king. 15.Bd2 is the line I spent more time on at home. 15...Nxe3 16.fxe3 b4 17.Ne2 cxd5 18.exd5 Bc5 19.Nd4 Qe7

The position is an absolute mess, and the game only seemed to get messier from here. It was certainly an entertaining game for the spectators, who got to witness Dan’s resourcefulness in an ending which looked completely hopeless. He eventually won the game and shared equal first with me once again.

Till next time, Justin

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