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When playing the Catalan Opening (with either colour) there is often a choice between the 'tried and tested' on the one hand and the 'experimental' on the other. Many of the traditional main lines are well-known and best play typically leads to a niggling mini-edge for White, with few winning chances for Black. It often comes down to the first player having a superior light-squared bishop. As to the present period of being restricted to predominantly online 'fast time limit' games, experimental ideas abound and a number of newer dynamic options are being given a proper testing at GM-level. Below you'll find a mix of both approaches.

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

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Catalan Opening 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Bd6 [E01]

In Yuffa, D - Alonso Rosell, A Black surprisingly 'sacrificed' (albeit only temporarily) his d-pawn.

Of course, there is no obligation to take the bait, but if White ignores the offer and just continues with his development then Black can obtain a typical 'Closed Catalan' with a slightly more active bishop (on d6 rather than e7) than usual. So Yuffa decided to continue in the principled manner and capture (three times) on d5. The wide open centre leads to very different play than most Catalan players are used to and it could be that the better prepared player can get the upper hand. Objectively, however, Black is not doing too badly. In the featured game, the novelty 10.Qb3 perhaps caught Alonso Rosell by surprise, and Yuffa gradually built up his advantage, but 13...Qc5! would have kept the balance rather than 13...Bh3.

Catalan 3.g3 d5 4.Bg4 dxc4 5.Qa4+ Bd7 [E02]

In Plat, V - Babula, V Black was close to winning, but one error allowed his opponent a chance to scramble a draw.

In the diagram position, Black has to decide on his development plan for the next few moves. He could opt for a slightly constrained 'old-fashioned' set-up involving ...Nb8-d7-b6, or opt for a quick ...c5, as in the game. Babula chose the early ...c5-route, when Black challenges the white centre before either side is well developed. A key moment arises on move eleven, where Plat tried 11.Nb5, but this failed to generate any pressure. Instead 11.Qxd4 and 11.Nxd4 might offer White a slight pull, especially the latter of these. If Black can't quite equalize against either of them, then alternatives on move eight and ten could be investigated, but I reckon that in each case White's game is a shade easier to handle.

Catalan 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 a6 6.Ne5 [E04]

Black defended long and hard, but eventually cracked (i.e. 34...h5?!) under the relentless pressure in Cheparinov, I - Santos Latasa, J. White's advantage may not have been substantial, but it was always easier for him to 'switch about' and annoy the opponent.

This weird position arose from a gambit where White first sacrifices the c-pawn and then shows a willingness to offer up further material in his attempt to gain a big lead in development. In the diagram position, Black chose 9...c3, but 9...b5 is also known and was even employed by Nakamura. The whole line is for those who want to play ambitiously and don't mind taking risks, but good preparation can perhaps tip the balance in one's favour. There is such a scope for discovery here that it's too early to make any definitive conclusions.

Catalan 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 a6 6.0-0 Nc6 7.Bg5 [E04]

In Prohaszka, P - Oparin, G White failed to obtain anything special out of the opening, as indicated by a review of the diagram position where substantial simplification has already occurred:

Here White has the better light-squared bishop, but not for long, as ...c6 will enable the dormant c8-bishop to emerge. It seems only a matter of time before full equality will be obtained. So this suggests that earlier on, 10.Nxe5 wasn't particularly challenging, so 10.Nxc4 (as previously examined for ChessPublishing) could do with a further examination.

Oparin outplayed his opponent and won a fine bishop endgame, but Prohasza's endgame technique wasn't at its best.

Catalan 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 a6 6.0-0 Nc6 7.Nbd2 [E04]

In Fridman, D - Heimann, A Fridman surprised me (that is, looking from afar!) as early as move seven:

I hadn't seen this before, but it has apparently occurred quite a few times recently, as you can see in the notes. Both of these German GMs are usually well-prepared so that after 7...b5 8.b3 Heimann had a noteworthy novelty up his sleeve with 8...Bb7 which I rate quite highly. It was, for example, possible for Black to equalize completely a few moves later with 12...Be7 (instead of 12...Bb4). There are other options for both sides, indeed, but, in my way of thinking, Heimann's innovation has taken the sting out of 7.Nbd2.

Catalan 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 a6 6.0-0 Nc6 7.e3 [E04]

The early phase of the encounter Banikas, H - Pichot, A followed a familiar pattern. White gambited his pawn definitively with b2-b3 and then angled for pressure down the 'a' and c-files as well as along the long diagonal. There are questions for both sides about where to place the dark-squared bishops (White chooses between d2 or b2, and Black between e7 and d6), so it's recommended to study a number of analogous positions to understand the various plans. A sideline that might be worth a try is 10.Nfd2 intending to come to b3 with the knight from where it has strong influence on events on the queenside. In the game (as in some similar sequences), once Black got in ...e6-e5 he was comfortable, so instead of Banikas's 15.Bc3, maybe 15.f4 is a better practical try.

Open Catalan 7.Qc2 dxc4 8.Qxc4 b5 [E05]

In Rozum, I - Paravyan, D Black obtained a good game straight out of the opening in the diagram position:

By cramping the queenside with 12...b4! he gains space and leaves White's pieces difficult to coordinate. The follow-up involving a quick ...c5 demonstrated that Black's position is the easier to handle in this type of position. So 12.Be3 could be worth thinking about (instead of 12.e3) when the knight has access to d2, but then the bishop is exposed to a quick ...Nd5 followed by ...Nxe3. Maybe the truth is that 11...Nc6 solves all of Black's opening problems. This isn't good news for those who play 8.Qxc4 in the Main Line.

Open Catalan 7.Qc2 a6 8a4 Bd7 9.Rd1 [E05]

A one-sided crush would be an apt description of Xu Xiangyu - Esipenko, A as the Russian was unable to solve his opening problems.

After seeing how badly Black is being battered in general after 10...Nbd7, I just have to give it a health warning. As White, you just need to remember 11.e4 b5 12.d5 exd5 13.e5! and the force will be with you!

So here is the state of play after Black's four main moves: 10...Bxf3 is the safest and most solid; 10...Bb4 has merit but there is a suggestion that White can keep a pull; 10...a5 and 10...Nbd7 come into the dubious category.

Open Catalan 7.Qc2 a6 8a4 Bd7 9.Qxc4 [E05]

The high-level encounter Ding Liren - Aronian, L wasn't very long, but was certainly entertaining. Ding Liren sacrificed a piece for an attack where he always had a draw in hand, but this proved to be all he was going to get against precise defence on the Armenian's part. Aronian has faced the question of how to keep his opponents guessing in these lines, so he has modified his choices a little over time and depending on circumstances. Frankly, despite Avrukh advocating White's chances in 2015, play following 10...Bd6 11.Qc1 seems fine for Black for various reasons, as you'll see if you just play through the Aronian games from the last few years. As to the present encounter, although 11...h6 is then a rather unusual choice, one could argue that he has already tried just about everything else!

Open Catalan 7.Qc2 a6 8a4 Nc6 [E05]

In Vidit, S - Firouzja, A I would argue that Firouzja's experimentation with the 9...Qd5 line was pushing his luck a little:

These sort of positions are known to be a little lifeless for Black, basically because the c-pawn is blocked and it's not evident for him to get ...e5 in (that is, soundly!). I suppose obtaining a 'safe but passive' position doesn't matter too much in a rapid game, especially when White can't make progress without spending clock time and taking some risks! In the game itself, Vidit's early 13.a5 already lost control and Black was able to steer the encounter into complications where he was doing fine (note that he achieved 19...e5! painlessly). Later, Vidit got the better of the struggle and Firouzja sacrificed the exchange and pawn for dangerous-looking (but objectively inadequate) counter chances, that had the desired effect as the game headed into a drawish pseudo-endgame.

Overall, in this variation, if Black exchanges queens early he ends up only a shade worse but usually lacks counterplay, whereas if he opts for ...Qh5, as here, then the queen is in danger of being misplaced.

Till next month, Glenn Flear

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