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This month, I cover a pair of games in each of the following openings: the Exchange Variation of the QGD; the Ragozin with 5.Qa4+ Nc6 6.a3; the Anti-Moscow Variation of the Semi-Slav; and the Catalan. We are lucky enough to have had one game from the World Championship to analyse (game two), which was incredibly exciting. However, there were plenty of other new ideas that cropped up, typically within the first 10 moves of the game (with exception to the Semi-Slav games) that I expect the reader should benefit from knowing.

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

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QGD: Exchange Variation with 5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 h6 [D35]

The classical QGD move order 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 has seen something of a resurgence recently, as modern engines and theoreticians have been showing that Black’s position remains solid after 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 h6 Nowadays, people are happy to insert the move ...h6 as early as possible, although some players prefer to defend the ending that arises after 6...Bf5. 7.Bh4 Be7 8.Bd3 0-0:

In the game Carlsen, M - Firouzja, A (2020), I was impressed by the World Champion’s idea to play 9.Bg3!? here, which has gone somewhat unnoticed in spite of the fact that it was played between these two heavyweights. The idea is to avoid the typical ...Nh5 trades that we are seeing in almost all of these positions. Of course, Black should be able to equalise, but it is a fresh idea which deserved more attention, in my opinion.

QGD: Exchange Variation with 5.Bg5 c6 6.Qc2 h6 [D36]

This month, Caruana employed a similar setup against Asadli; however, it seemed to be an inaccurate move order, insofar as it gave Black some chances to equalise very comfortably: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 c6 6.Qc2 h6 7.Bh4 Be7 I briefly mention in my notes that 7...g6!? could be a very worthy alternative. 8.e3 0-0 9.Nf3:

It's difficult to arrange h3, Bg3 with the queen already on c2. In order to aim for this, I suggest that instead of 9.Nf3, the more standard move order 9.Bd3 should be preferred. Caruana’s move gave Black the opportunity to equalise with 9...Ne4!. However, Asadli played 9...Nbd7 10.Bd3 Re8 11.Bg3 b6? which ended up being a positional disaster. See Caruana, F - Asadli, V for the details.

Ragozin with 5.Qa4+ Nc6 6.a3 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 Ne4 [D38]

I have recently analysed 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.Qa4+ Nc6 6.a3!? Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 Ne4 8.Bf4 and I’m happy to see that there are new games here already, so the further tests I was waiting for seem to be arriving. In Sethuraman, S.P - Pranav, A Black played the most natural 8...Nxc3 9.Qc2 Ne4 and Sethuraman came up with a new idea here:

10.h4!? White prevents ...g5, and in some lines you can imagine a Ng5 hitting the Black kingside. This is typical modern preparation, requiring the opponent to find some strange defences. These defences are 10...Ne7! and 10...Nd6!. The latter option would be my preference, as I believe 10...Ne7 gives White more reasons to be optimistic. Instead, Pranav chose 10...0-0?! which gives White an advantage after 11.e3 simply because the black king is liable to attacks from the two bishops and White’s kingside pawns.

In contrast, Boyer, M - Erigaisi, A featured 8...g5!?, the move which Sethuraman prevented in his game. This was analysed by Flear before me, while I also added my own notes in the game Grischuk, A - Pichot, A . I’ve given a small update on my analysis; however, the game is mainly there to show that Black can win very quickly if White is not ready for the complications. Here, White erred with 9.Bg3? h5 10.Ne5??:

10...h4 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Be5 f6 13.f3 Nxc3 14.Qc2 fxe5 15.Qxc3 exd4 16.Qxd4 and now instead of Erigaisi’s 16...0-0? 16...Kf7 followed by ...Qf6 was completely winning for Black, because of the extra pawn and White’s lack of development.

Semi-Slav Defence: Anti-Moscow with 9.Be2 Bb7 10.0-0 Nbd7 11.Ne5 Bg7 12.Nxf7!? [D43]

Any Semi-Slav aficionado would remember the famous piece sacrifice in Topalov, V - Kramnik, V (2008): 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 dxc4 7.e4 g5 8.Bg3 b5 9.Be2 Bb7 10.0-0 Nbd7 11.Ne5 Bg7 12.Nxf7!? Probably the most ironic thing I’ve seen on our pages is that the sacrifice was played this month against Cheparinov. I’m not sure if his opponent realised how risky this was, but he must have known that it was Cheparinov himself who discovered the piece sacrifice. Indeed, Topalov has stated that Cheparinov already prepared the analysis on the variation three years (!) before Topalov unleashed it to defeat Kramnik. 12...Kxf7 13.e5:

13...Ne8!?N A surprising sideline within a surprising sideline! However, it is not at all surprising in this case, considering the above context. 13...Nd5 has been analysed in great detail by theoreticians (including our own), which is also 0.00 of course! The game continued 14.Bh5+ Kg8 15.f4 Rh7 16.fxg5 hxg5 17.Qg4 c5 18.d5 exd5 19.Rae1 Kh8 and we reach a critical position. In my opinion, White should probably try to make a draw here, otherwise the position becomes messy/risky to play for White. I did find one forced draw with a very strong engine (20.Rf7), but in the game, White went wrong with 20.Bg6? See my notes to the game Aditya, M - Cheparinov, I.

Semi-Slav Defence: Anti-Moscow with 9.Be2 Bb7 10.Qc2 [D43]

Theodorou,N - Rahul, S featured another critical line 10.Qc2 Nbd7 11.Rd1 The game quickly led to the tabiya 11...Nh5 12.d5 Nxg3 13.hxg3 exd5 14.exd5 cxd5 15.Nxd5 Bg7 16.Ne3 Qa5+ 17.Kf1 Rd8 18.Nf5 Kf8:

In this position, there are several moves that are in the 0.00 ballpark, and I imagine it's not so easy for Black to deal with all of them, so if you are heading into this from the black side, be prepared to calculate a fair bit, or do your own research to check the various possibilities for White. Theorodorou chose a new move for our site 19.Rd6 after which, Black played one of two equalising moves 19...Nc5! (the other move was 19...Qxa2!) when the game continued 20.b4 Rxd6 21.Nxd6 Qxb4 22.Qf5 Ke7 23.Nxb7?? It's a shame that Theorodorou forgot his prep here, as I think he came up with a decent practical try with 19.Rd6. The correct move was 23.Qxf7+. See my notes to that game for the analysis.

Catalan: Main Line with 7.Qc2 b5 8.Ne5!? [E05]

It goes without saying that I had to examine game two of the World Championship Carlsen, M - Nepomniachtchi, I in great depth, as it was arguably the most exciting game of the match: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2 b5 8.Ne5!?:

A rare move! The engines all say that 8.a4 is the most challenging move. But at high depth, everything ends up being equal, and this is just one example among many which illustrates that chess, far from being dead, is full of viable, surprising options from a very early stage of the game. I also use the game as an opportunity to consider the line 8.a4 b4 9.Ne5!? Qxd4 10.Bxa8 which is more critical than I realised. However, Carlsen’s move leads to completely different positions. 8...c6 The other important line is 8...Qxd4 9..Nxf7! c6 10.Ng5. 9.a4 9...Nd5 10.Nc3 f6 11.Nf3 Qd7 11...b4 is another critical line. 12.e4 Nb4 13.Qe2 Nd3 Kasparov noted in his instructive post-game commentary with Sadler that in his day, it was usually the case that Black had a good game if they could secure the knight on d3 like this. However, modern chess is incredibly dynamic, and there are lots of potential factors that may give White compensation even though the knight managed to get to d3. In this case, White hopes to gain pressure in the centre and to develop a kingside attack if given the chance. There is plenty of material online that I suggest the reader look at as well, but I hope my notes add to the reader’s understanding of the game, particularly of the opening and the middlegame implications of Carlsen’s 8.Ne5!?.

Catalan/Bogo with 4...Bb4+ 5.Bd2 a5 [E11]

No less inventive was Gelfand’s idea 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 a5 6.Bg2 0-0 7.Qc1!? in Gelfand, B - Adams, M.

The subtle queen move is designed to reach a better version of the line 7.Qc2 where Black’s best move is 7...c5. Let’s see the difference: after 7.Qc1 c5 White plays the move 8.dxc5 and after 8...d4 9.Bxb4 axb4 10.Ne5, the crucial point is that 10...Qc7? is bad in view of 11.Qf4! Qxc5 12.Nd3 Qxc4 13.Nd2 Qb5 14.Qxd4 and the b4-pawn is rounded up: 14...Nc6 is met by 15.Bxc6 Qxc6 16.0-0. This is such an important difference that in the analogous version 7.Qc2 c5, White should play 8.cxd5 instead, when Black is generally holding up with the line 8...cxd4 9.Nxd4 Qb6 10.e3 exd5. See my notes to the game for the full analysis.

Until next time, and Happy New Year to all! Justin

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