Yannick Pelletier: "The Hedgehog is universal"

by Fernando Offermann
1/5/2017 – Recently Yannick Pelletier was visiting Hamburg to record his trilingual DVD about the Hedgehog in the ChessBase studio. Before he went back to Paris we invited him to a little chat. A chat about counterchances, exchanging queens, Carlsen's limited opening choices and recent opening trends. Interview...

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A guest from Paris: Yannick Pelletier during his visit in Hamburg | Photo: Fernando Offermann

Interview with Yannick Pelletier

Yannick, you are a few days in Hamburg to record a DVD. What kind of project is this?
It is a DVD, but in three languages. English, German and French. This means that I have to speak about the same content three times. On almost five days - I want to keep half a day in reserve to improve a clip if necessary. Yesterday, I worked into the late hours to revise.

And then you will return to Paris? 
Exactly. I have been living in Paris with my family for one and a half years.

Is that your first DVD in French? 
It is my first DVD ever. Before that I made some videos in French for a site in France. But the project at Echecs en Video petered out.

The topic of your DVD is the Hedgehog.
The Hedgehog system in the English Opening. The Hedgehog as a whole is a bit more comprehensive. There are a variety of structures White must choose but in the English this means: playing g3 and Bg2. 

So, not the English Hedgehog with e4 and f3. 
Exactly. In set-ups with g3 White sometimes plays e4, sometimes he does not. But this very system is the topic of the DVD.

From White's or from Black's perspective?
Mainly from Black's perspective though I do propose ideas for White. I also like to show where dangers are lurking. The DVD is also useful for those who play this system with White. Okay, today this is the case in almost all openings. Today, almost all openings are playable for Black. If you know them well, analyse them well. A lot is playable for Black, whether it's the Ruy or the Scandinavian. This means: you have to present an objective view.
I have been playing the Hedgehog for more than 20 years with Black, and I have also tried to play it with White, but less often.

"There is the Berlin. There is Najdorf... and the rest?" | Photo: Fernando Offermann

Peter Heine Nielsen said after the World Championship match in New York that White has more and more difficulties to find convincing lines, in all openings. Basically, Black defends, and you can defend better and better and more and more positions turn out to be viable. But for White it is more difficult to choose a convincing concept.

Well, of course, but you have to keep the nuances of this statement in mind, and he himself would point out these nuances because on the highest level of course not all openings are playable. I mentionded openings such as the Scandinavian. Maybe White can always get a slightly more comfortable position. Not a huge advantage, but something comfortable. And on the highest level you do not want to defend such a position. Therefore you usually play 1...e5 or Najdorf. Two years ago Nielsen and I were in Japan and he told me: Carlsen does not have a choice of a hundred openings that are all playable. Even though he tries to go in that direction. But if you take a closer look: with Black he only plays …e5, and against 1.d4 he does not play everything. For example, against 1.e4: there is the Berlin. There is Najdorf... and the rest? Okay, in the Ruy Lopez there is still the Marshall and so on - but you do not want to play something else. Okay, there are positions such as the Rubinstein in the French, very solid. But these are openings where you can be certain to suffer, and this is a no-go. On the highest level this is a no-go. The level of preparation is so high.

So far, the Hedgehog has been a rare guest on World Championship level. Can you imagine that the Hedgehog will return in a World Championship match?
I don't think that the opening has the character to appear in a World Championship match because the whole system is designed to play for a counterattack with Black - that is, you do not try to dry out play with a concrete approach - and the latter is currently the most favored method on the highest level..

- "There won't be a sudden novelty that says: the Hedgehog is dead."

When Khalifman in the year 2000 published the series about playing the opening according to Kramnik, with 1.Nf3, the Hedgehog was a key topic. It was not easy for Black to find a way against this. How do you see the situation today?
That exactly is one of the advantages of this system. Essentially, the Hedgehog is universal. There won't be a revolution. There won't be a sudden novelty that says: the Hedgehog is dead. Of course, there are subtleties, ideas are found but there is no lethal novelty which might occur in other openings...and which might force one to change the system. That is the good thing about it. 
Theory, of course, plays a role, for White and for Black. Important is: that you know what you can play. There is a certain move-order. In this line you cannot play certain things this way but you have to play them this way. The amount of theory is not that big, and if you know that, you do get your Hedgehog, your set-up, after ten, twelve, thirteen moves, and then you do play these typical positions, the plans are clear, that is pretty convenient. For amateurs, who do not have much time for studying openings and digesting difficult games (of course, you have to do some work but not that much) – but also for strong players. I have been playing this for twenty years, though maybe not always when I had the opportunity, but still. I still feel very comfortable in these systems, and of course, I like my ever growing experience.

"Sometimes White does not really do anything concrete and Black still suddenly has  ...b5 or ...d5" | Photo: Fernando Offermann

Twenty or thirty years ago Mihai Suba argued that the interesting thing about the Hedgehog is the fact that White at a certain point reaches his ideal set-up after which he could no longer improve whereas Black still had possibilities to perfect his position.

Okay, there are psychological factors. White has a space advantage and his pieces can move more freely, but at a certain point of time... well, Black holds and remains and is patient and is waiting for the chance to play …b5 or …d5. If White expands a bit too much, that is, after f4 Black might have …e5, and this might mean that Black indeed gets a counterattack. But sometimes White does not really do anything concrete and Black still suddenly has …b5 or …d5. I mean, if White is a player like Karpov this is not that simple, because Karpov is very patient, and he is patient in a very clever way. He is also prophylactic but he does not simply wait. He also uses small things... small, positional threats to change matters in his favor. Things are not simple against such players - but of course not only in the Hedgehog.

Ulf Andersson with Bg5xf6:


If you are interested to play the Hedgehog with Black, which White player should you study?
It depends a bit on the system. Take Ulf Andersson, for example. He also played the Hedgehog with Black but when playing the English with White he developed a lot of systems. For instance, the system with Bg5xf6 which is very popular today. Maybe he was not the first to play that system but he understood: White can exert some pressure - and Andersson won a couple of fantastic games with that system. Against Seirawan, against Grünfeld. To study these games gives you a basis if you want to enter these lines with Black. You look at the games of Andersson and you understand where dangers are lurking. That is Andersson. And maybe more modern: Georg Meier also won a couple of good games. Against Iordachescu, with the maneuver Kh2/Qh1, pretty instructive.

Okay, you study these variations, and you understand: there might be problems - here, here, and here, and you have to be careful, but then you find what you should play because the Hedgehog does not die because of Bg5 and Bxf6.

Georg Meier against Iordachescu


For example, Andersson also developed ideas with b3. But he has never played the system with Re1 and e4, though this system is dangerous. Kramnik played it. Followed by a quick f4, possibly g4, with attacking chances, sometimes White sacrifices a piece in the center, here Black really has to be careful with the move-order. There are tricks, every second time White has Nd5, and then the question is: why does it work? And why does it sometimes do not work? That is not so easy to see. And sometimes you simply have to know.

But this is also a topic of your DVD?
Yes. All the systems with g3, Bg2, and this possibility Re1. Today, people do not play Re1 so often because Black has a rather safe antidote, namely …d5 and …Nxd5. Then things simplify somehow. For instance, So against Carlsen, Wijk aan Zee 2016. This variation neutralizes Re1:

Wesley So - Magnus Carlsen, Tata 2016 (12. round):


But if Black wants to play a Hedgehog after Re1, he can do so, though it is risky. But Black has…d5, which I mention on the DVD without analysing it in detail - there would be simply too much material. I focus on the Hedgehog with Re1, and mention that it is difficult for Black. However, it is playable. And I am ready to play against it with Black. 

What is the problem for the Hedgehog player if he encounters a player who follows Marin's repertoire recommendations? 
Mihail Marin avoids the Hedgehog in his 1.c4 repertoire series. He gives 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3. Maybe because he plays the Hedgehog himself. And he wants to play 2…c6 3.Bg2 d5 4.Nf3. That is rather critical for White. That is, for both sides. 

- "If you do not have much space you should usually exchange pieces, knights in particular. Not in the Hedgehog."

Are you interested in soccer? There are similarities to playing without having the ball often or without having a lot of space. But a team that plays like that plays with the energy of a tight spring, ready to counter with only a few moves as soon as the team which has more space slips a little. 
I know too little about soccer to discuss strategies seriously but the Hedgehog might lead to paradoxical situations. You have limited space, only three ranks. If you do not have much space you should usually exchange pieces, knights in particular. Not in the Hedgehog. Black's pieces are harmoniously placed and they are all standing on good squares where they fulfill tasks. The bishop b7 on the long diagonal, the bishop on e7 retreats to f8, sometimes it goes to g7, the rooks are in the center, everything is coordinated, the knights too, on c5, on d7 or f6 - they are standing well. Not too exposed. And you can maneuver, you can improve, and maybe at a certain time Black has a counter with ….b5 and …d5. This means that sometimes certain exchanges are not good for Black - although you have less space. For example, the exchange of queens: well, you cannot force it directly from the opening or rather extremely rarely, but the exchange of queens is not always good for Black. He needs the queens for his counterplay. Without queens - or, let's say, without additional pieces - we have no potential for counterplay, we just have less space. Okay, Black might be able to play …b5 or …d5, and if things go really well we do equalize but we will never be able to play for the initiative or for an attack. Therefore you need the potential of a lot of pieces. That is very interesting.

"You cannot force a Hedgehog. But there are ways." | Photo: Fernando Offermann

Is the Hedgehog still a good counter opening? 
Of course, sure - par excellence. But you do not necessarily always get a Hedgehog. Maybe against 1.e4 if you play the Sicilian but you cannot force a Hedgehog against 1.d4. Maybe in the Nimzo - at a certain point of time you do play ...c5, hoping for d4xc5, or you play c5xd4 yourself which steers the game into Hedgehog structures. But if White does not go along you cannot force the Hedgehog. If White does not want a Hedgehog in the English Opening - that is, after 1.c4 Nf6 – he can play 2.g3 immediately, and then you cannot force a Hedgehog. But if White starts with 1.a3 you can neither force a Hedgehog. But there are ways. And if White wants to play the English in a principled way you usually get a Hedgehog.

Yannick Pelletier's trilingual DVD about the Hedgehog in the English Opening with g3 and Bg2 will appear in Spring. Hitherto ChessBase published  "The English Hedgehog Defence"  by Lubomir Ftacnik and "Power Play 12: The Hedgehog" by Daniel King.

Translation from German into English: Johannes Fischer

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Eigenfunction Eigenfunction 1/6/2017 12:26
Incidentally, Georg Meier, featured in one of the games with white, is known for playing the French Defence: Rubinstein Variation as black. I agree with Pelletier though, that the Rubinstein is usually a no-go against top players.