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I would argue that the importance of 'surprise value' has gone up in online rapid chess, (well, within reason!) as long as an offbeat idea is plausible and ostensibly tougher for the opponent to handle!
In many of the main lines of the Catalan, when Black just plays 'normally', he might get near to equality but have no real 'active play'. So there seems to be a trend to seek more obscure murky lines, where if the opponent is out of his comfort zone all three results come into the picture. I've picked ten games, all involving various forms of White's most famous kingside fianchetto opening, and have focused on lines which have received relatively limited ChessPublishing attention in the past.

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

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Catalan 4...dxc4 5.Qa4+ Nbd7 [E03]

In Caruana, F - Dominguez Perez, L the American's 5.Qa4+ was met by 5...Nbd7 followed by 6...c5:

There are various alternative ways of meeting the early queen check, as you'll see in the notes, but Dominguez's choice looks as good as any. Caruana's unusual 7.Nc3!? may have come as a surprise and, in order to solve the problem of his queenside development, the Cuban GM sacrificed his b-pawn. The resulting middlegame was 'unclear', with Black (according to the engines) having more than adequate practical compensation due to White's lagging development and misplaced king. Still, despite appearances to the contrary, White was the one pressing for the majority of the game after slowly but surely consolidating.

Catalan 4...Bb4+ 5.Nd2 0-0 6.Ngf3 dxc4 (4...dxc4 5.Nf3 Bb4+ 6.Nd2 0-0) [E04]

The encounter Wojtaszek, R - Naiditsch, A involved some ambitious play from Black, as he quickly opted for ...b5 to support the c4-pawn. I always feel that the knight on d2 is sub-optimal in such Catalan/Bogo scenarios as it gets in the way and doesn't help press against key squares such as d5 and b5. Still, it looks as if matters are still not so clear cut, as White has been generally doing quite well here.

Other moves 7...Nc6, 7...a5, and 7...c5 all have their attributes, but I quite like Naiditsch's principled approach. I also think that he followed up correctly: 8.a4 bxa4 9.0-0 Bb7 10.Nxc4 c5, but after 11.Rd1 it was a mistake to capture on d4, whereas he would have had a decent game following 11...Qe7. So despite getting into hot water and losing a pawn and ultimately the game, it looks like Black's route to equality is gradually being mapped out.

Catalan 4...dxc4 5.Nf3 c6 6.Ne5 [E04]

It's hard to believe in Black's opening play in Salem, A - Harikrishna, P.

In the diagram position they usually play 7...Nd5, but the Indian GM instead opted for 7...c5. It might have been preparation, or was it that he just changed his mind? The problem is that the threat against d4 doesn't compensate for White's lead in development, so he was soon a little worse without counterplay. Even so, his defensive play was first-rate and he earned a draw by steering play towards an opposite-bishop endgame and then setting up a fortress.

Catalan 4...dxc4 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Qa4 Bb4+ [E04]

This game Fridman, D - Davtyan, A was decided in the endgame, but quite a lot went on in the opening phase. There are several options for White following 10...a5!? 11.Qd1 0-0, on the twelfth move. I'm not quite sure which is the most challenging for Black, but I quite like 12.Nd2. The game instead continued with 12.a3 followed by the novelty 13.Na4. Black coped well for the next few moves which demonstrates that there is no objective advantage in Fridman's approach, but White still had enough practical play for his pawn. Later, Fridman played the endgame better than his opponent and won the race at a canter.

Catalan 4...dxc4 5.Nf3 a6 6.0-0 Nc6 [E04]

The encounter Santos Latasa, J - Dominguez Perez, L led to sharp play in a highly theoretical line.

The diagram position is a snapshot of the action, which is cranked up into a frenzy once Black starts pushing his h-pawn. Although 12...h5 has been played a fair amount, it seems that the game continuation 12...Bb4 13.b3 h5 is a better version. The notes show that it's easy for both sides to go wrong after that, but the game itself was played up to a high standard leading to dynamic equality in the endgame. Although Santos Latasa's 17.Qd4 is the latest word, it's worth investigating 17.hxg4 hxg3 and now 18.Nf3! with complications that might lead to a draw (or they might not, please check!).

Catalan 4...dxc4 5.Nf3 a6 6.Ne5 Bb4+ [E04]

White was close to winning in Harikrishna, P - Duda, J but resourceful play by the young Polish GM earned him a draw. White had the sort of advantage that would have been much easier to convert if he had had the time to calculate things out serenely, whereas (as we all know!) in rapid chess things have a tendency to go wrong!

The source of Black's problems can probably be traced back to the natural-looking 10...Bb7, as Harikrishna's 11.e4 Nf6 12.Bg5! proved to be quite strong. The game and notes suggest that Black should prefer 10...0-0 11.a4 f6 12.Ng4 and only now 12...Bb7.

Catalan Opening mainline 7...a6 8.a4 Bd7 9.Bg5 [E05]

The all-American tussle So, W - Nakamura, H turned out to be a one-sided affair, as Nakamura blundered on move eighteen. Before that however, on move fifteen, he had already made a second-rate move trading his powerful bishop too lightly. I prefer 15...Be5 to 15...Bxd4, but Nakamura clearly wanted to hurry his development along. So often, even at this level, a small error prepares an even bigger one!

Even earlier, 10.e3 was met by 10...b5 for the first time (even if this idea is known from similar positions), but although this novelty is probably OK, 10...Nbd7 is a calmer way to exit the opening with a good game in prospect.

Catalan 4...dxc4 5.Nf3 Be7 6.0-0 0-0 7.Ne5 Nbd7 [E05]

There was a fair bit of jockeying for position in the early stages of Lysyj, I - Martirosyan, H. The Nf3-e5-d3 manoeuvre isn't common, but seems to be quite a good idea, but I'm not sure about 11.Nf4 (a knight move too far?) because of the possibility of 11...e5. Anyway, all the early tension in the game made a refreshing change from the highly forcing lines that follow from 7...Nc6. So, for those seeking greener pastures, 7...Nbd7 could well be worth a try, although it might be a while before the bishop on c8 sees the light of day.

The pawn-up endgame was a tough one to win, at any time limit, so the result wasn't such a surprise.

Catalan 4...Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Nc3 Nbd7 7.Qd3 [E06]

There has been a trend of late in placing the queen on d3, as in at least three recent Grischuk, A - Aronian, L encounters, including our featured game.

With the queen defending the c4-pawn White is ready to develop the knight to the active c3-square. So Black has to decide how to react. A close look at the game and alternatives suggest to me that Aronian's pet 7...b6! is Black's best option, and after 8.cxd5 recapturing with either the pawn or the knight (as here) seem to be OK. This is the only one of the three games between the protagonists where White was close to winning, but this was largely due to Black's error on move seventeen, not the opening.

Closed Catalan 8.Nbd2 & 9.e4 [E09]

The encounter Donchenko, A - Grachev, B was a nice grinding win for White, the German making something out of nothing in confident style. Black could have done better on moves sixteen (maybe) and twenty (for sure).

Despite the way that things turned out, it looks like Black was doing fine after succeeding in getting in his freeing break at the right time. Following 12...c5, White has three options 13.e5 (as in the game), 13.Bxf6, and 13.d5. None of these seems to be enough to claim any opening advantage, but the latter of these is perhaps the most challenging - for both players!

Till next month, Glenn Flear

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