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As things are, online chess is filling the gap from cancelled traditional tournaments. Naturally, the social side of meeting old friends at a chess event or even down the local club can't be replaced entirely. Still, to get some of those emotions from playing, many folk enjoy linking up with some opponents via the web. Watching the top players in action is also becoming better established and the availability of live commentary makes chess become more like a spectator sport. Magnus Carlsen was recently involved in getting a high-level online rapid tournament off the ground (which he ultimately won...if only just!) with seven other elite players taking part. The Slav was particularly popular, so I've based the present update around eight encounters from that event all involving 2...c6.

Download PGN of June ’20 1 d4 d5 2 c4 games

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Exchange Slav 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Nc6 6.e3 Bf7 7.Qb3 [D10]

The line involving 7.Qb3 is essentially the Main line of the Exchange Variation these days, so it was interesting to see it tested in Nakamura, H - Caruana, F. A key moment arose when Caruana hit the bishop with 12...Nh5:

The bishop has to move, but where? And what's the follow-up if Black again chases the bishop (i.e. meeting 13.Bg5 or 13.Be5 with 13...f6)? I've attempted to resolve these questions in the notes, but it seems clear that, for many practitioners, Black's best sequence in the more positional lines hasn't yet crystallized. Caruana's 15...Nc4 certainly had surprise value, but I'm not sure if it's objectively superior to the standard 15...f5. In the game he did indeed achieve equality, but it might put off some readers that White has the option of taking a draw (just after the opening) if he wants.

Slav Defence 4.Qc2 dxc4 5.e4 [D11]

Gambit play from Alireza Firouzja led to the following position in Firouzja, A - Caruana, F:

Black has an extra pawn, but to hold onto it he'll have to be very careful how he handles his queenside. White has the centre and will be able to develop more rapidly than his opponent. Previously the main option has been 8.Bd2 when 8...a5 is required to keep the bishop out of the blockading a5-square. In this case, White sought a different set-up with 8.Bd3 Bb7 9.0-0 Be7 and now the novelty 10.Rd1.

Caruana diffused any White initiative quite well (for a while) and was soon objectively better, which suggests that this new interpretation for White has limited value for the future.

Slow Slav 4.e3 Bf5 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nh4 Be4 [D12]

In Carlsen, M - Vachier-Lagrave, M there was a key position on move fourteen:

Vachier-Lagrave stuck to the Slav in this rapid event, but is better known for being a loyal Grünfeld player. So despite his 2778 rating he was relatively inexperienced in this opening and was thus going to be faced with some novel decisions (that naturally had to be made quickly). Here he chose 14...Nxe4 (after which Black has generally struggled) rather than 14...Nbd7 (which is easier to handle and where Black has largely flourished). Still, the reason for his downfall wasn't the fact that he chose the 'more difficult to play' option, but rather a tactical oversight on move nineteen: Instead of 19...Qd7? an alternative queen move, 19...Qb6, would have maintained the balance.

Slow Slav 4.e3 Bf5 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nh4 Be4 [D12]

Another Slow Slav for MVL and another loss, which in my opinion reflects his poor form rather than any serious problems with his opening prep. Still, in Caruana, F - Vachier-Lagrave, M the way that the American kept his initiative 'chugging along' throughout was instructive. The opening choice with 10.cxd5 and 12.0-0-0 has indeed become popular, which doesn't surprise me as it was advocated by Avrukh.

On move fourteen Black has a wide choice, but the Frenchman's 14...Rb8 defends the b7-pawn and thus threatens the white h2-pawn. Caruana then just left it en prise (which is new) and honour-bound Maxime felt that he had to capture it, otherwise his previous move had lost its sense. Although Black held out against the first wave I think that 'energy-wise' he was worn down by this defensive effort and went astray later when meeting the second and third waves from Caruana's forces.

As to my recommendations, I have already examined 14...Kf8 in a previous column, but I think that 14...Rc8 and 14...Nd7 are Black's best choices (see the notes) both of which prepare to go active on the queenside.

Exchange Slav 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bf4 Nh5 [D13]

I liked Black's opening in Firouzja, A - Vachier-Lagrave, M:

It feels nice and flexible and just so different from the mainstream Exchange. The knight will have to return at some point to f6, but there is no urgency to do so unless White opts for 8.Qb3 further pressurizing the d5-pawn. This is perhaps the biggest test, but I still think that Black's 'Grünfeld-style Exchange Slav' is sound and a good practical choice. In the game, after the sequence 8.e3 Bg7 9.Be2 0-0 10 0-0 Nf6 once we count tempi it becomes evident that Black has lost some time, but the fact that the bishop has been driven to the relatively inactive d2-square justifies this whole approach. Black duly equalized with no fuss in the game.

Slav Defence 4.Nc3 Bf5 [D13]

It's astonishing that things could go so badly for an elite player as it did for Black in Ding Liren - Vachier-Lagrave, M. Sure, he takes a calculated risk as early as move four, but to have to resign only twelve moves later must have come as a shock!

Over the years, this move has been tried fairly frequently, perhaps as a surprise weapon (as here). However, my investigations suggest that it is almost unplayable, so I don't expect many GMs to venture it in future. The problem for Black is that 5.cxd5 followed by 6.Qb3 hits both of d5 and b7 and then there is a choice: lose two tempi, give up the centre, sacrifice a pawn, or go into complications. MVL chose the latter but rather threw away any practical chances with the lemon 11...Kd8. Much more tricky would have been 11...Ke7, which has been tested a few times. Although it's not great, White has to find and play some strong vigorous moves to refute it.

QGA/Anti-Slav 4.Qc2 dxc4 5.Qxc4 [D23]

White squeezed out a win in the knight endgame in Nakamura, H - Caruana, F with excellent technique. A couple of small, almost invisible, 'half-errors' from his opponent was all it took.

As to the opening, the calm 9.Qb3 Qb6 10.Nbd2 may not look like anything special, but it does seem to create a few practical problems for Black. In the game and notes you'll perhaps notice that the fact that White is often able to plonk a piece on the d6-square adds some bite to his set-up, the game continuation being a good example: 10...Nbd7 11.Nc4 Qa6 12.Bf4 Nb6 13.Bd6 when Black has to be careful. Here, capturing on d6 looks like best continuation for Black.

Simplest of all, however, is varying with 10...Rd8, as played by Caruana in a later game, when he equalized almost straight away.

Slav Triangle 4.Qc2 e6 5.Nbd2 c5 [D30]

The choice of 5...c5 in Firouzja, A - Caruana, F is a classical reaction to slow white development involving Qc2 or Nbd2 (or here, both!)

After this counter, the players have some choice over the central pawn structure. In my opinion, Black shouldn't be afraid of accepting an IQP as he obtains good piece play to balance matters out. So I prefer for example 7...cxd5 to the game continuation involving 7...Nxd5. A little later, I think that Caruana castled too early (after which he was worse), whereas he should have instead created more tension in the centre first by developing his queenside quickly.

Despite these details, it looks like time was the biggest factor in deciding the result, but that's an integral part of the excitement in Rapid and Blitz.

Till next month, Glenn Flear

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