A trendy system against the King's Indian

8/12/2020 – With 5.h3 and 6.Be3 Fabiano Caruana hat set a new trend against the King's Indian. "A challenging positional setup, which has the further advantage of still being relatively fresh, uncharted and not overanalysed yet", writes Igor Stohl in ChessBase Magazine #196 - the current issue. In his article about this promising setup Stohl explains, among other things, why the typical King's Indian move 6...e5 here plays into White's hands.

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A trendy system against the King's Indian

Igor Stohl examines the modern 5.h3 0-0 6.Be3

While recently we have not seen the King's Indian on the Candidates, let alone the World Championship match level, it remains very much alive among rank and file grandmasters, as well as on the intermediate level. Therefore having a weapon against this dynamic opening is a necessity even for elite players. One such system has been attracting quite a lot of attention in the past few years from the 2700+ club. Although it has been played sporadically since the 1950s, it became increasingly popular only more recently. Firstly there were quite a few games (mainly in rapid chess) by Anatoly Karpov, which prompted Kotronias in part 4 of his King's Indian monography (2016) to name it after the 12th World Champion. Lately even challenger Fabiano Caruana added it to his repertoire, thus it certainly warrants closer attention. I'm talking about the 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.h3 0-0 6.Be3 line, which will be the topic of our survey. The position after White's 6th move is our starting point.

 

White's seemingly modest 5.h3 denies Black's forces access to the g4-square and with 6.Nf3 he might opt for the Makogonov system (E90), which is more connected with the Classical King's Indian. This has already been played rather extensively in the past and can be considered a mainstream choice for quite a while. Mikhail Krasenkow covered his favourite line in a series of articles in CBM 132-34 and some 12 years ago my friend Jan Markos wrote "Beat the KID", with one of the topics of this book being the Makogonov/Krasenkow (time flies!). Our variation is a bit different and possibly more flexible. Contrary to the Sämisch, White still retains the option to develop his knight to f3, maybe at some point even transposing to an advantageous version of the Makogonov. However, especially in the lines with 6...e5 7.d5, the knight more often than not takes the Sämisch route via e2. All in all a challenging positional setup, which has the further advantage of still being relatively fresh, uncharted and not overanalysed yet. We will gradually examine Black's main responses from the aspect of how and when he attacks White's pawn centre.

A) Rather untypically we will start with the statistically most often played reaction, namely the standard King's Indian thrust 6...e5 7.d5.

 

However, although the position remains complex, White's good results indicate maybe this straightforward solution is not ideal. Aiming directly for the typical f5 advance with 7...Ne8 8.g4 f5 9.gxf5 gxf5 10.exf5 Bxf5 11.Nge2 is dubious. Also one of the quite effective methods of getting counterplay against the Makogonov 7...Nh5 is here well met with 8.g3, followed by Be2, hitting the Nh5. Therefore Black usually postpones kingside action and aims to first develop his forces and possibly initiate queenside or (and) central counterplay.

A1) In practice, the most usual follow-up is 7...a5. After 8.g4 (White's main move, but Karpov has tried 8.c5!? as well. This is also interesting, the downside of Black's previous move is it creates some queenside weaknesses. The best reaction is probably the energetic 8...c6!?) 8...Na6 9.Nge2, the motif 9...h5 10.f3 Nh7 is known from the Sämisch.

 

However, here it's not too impressive, in Aleksandrov,A - El Taher,F ½-½ after 11.Qd2 Black managed to draw only after a protracted defensive effort. The notes indicate a radical approach with 11.gxh5!? might be even more dangerous.

Another common setup is 9...Nd7 10.Qd2 Ndc5 11.Ng3 c6 12.Be2 cxd5, here White has a choice.

 

13.exd5!? is definitely less typical, but it led to interesting play in Grandelius,N - McShane,L ½-½. I have a feeling it's rather White's play, which can be improved along the way. There is also the automatic recapture 13.cxd5, don't be fooled by the final result in Caruana,F - Nakamura,H 0-1 - White ruined his powerful attacking position in a blitz game.

A2) A similar, but rather more flexible continuation is 7...Na6 8.g4 Nc5 9.f3 (9.Qc2!? is a viable alternative), when it's Black facing an important decision.

 

9...a5 follows in the footsteps of line A1), but in Kashlinskaya,A - Guichard,P 1-0 White put the defence under pressure on both flanks and won convincingly. 9...h5 10.Qd2 gave White a pull in Caruana,F - Jones,G ½-½, while the sharper 10.g5 might serve the same purpose equally well. The most sensible option seems to be further development with 9...c6 10.Qd2 cxd5 11.cxd5 Bd7, after 12.Nge2 h5 in Grandelius,N - McShane,L 0-1 Black later on adequately solved his opening problems. However, the computer is not too convinced, the notes indicate maybe already 13.Nc1 was not an ideal continuation.

B) Next, we will focus on the Benoni approach with 6...c5, which is recommended both in the aforementioned book by Kotronias and also somewhat later by Bologan in 2017 as Black's best continuation.

 

B1) White is at a crossroads here and has tried to fight for an advantage with three moves. After 7.dxc5 Qa5 8.Bd3 dxc5 9.e5, the surprising 9...Nh5!? (9...Nfd7 might also be justifiable with energetic play) led to a tactical melee in Fressinet,L - Golod,V ½-½, in which Black holds the balance.

B2) 7.Nf3 was Karpov's usual choice, after 7...Qa5 8.Bd3 Nfd7 9.0-0 Black can't really advantageously retain the central tension. Therefore he far more often plays 7...cxd4 8.Nxd4.

 

White strives for a Maroczy setup, the usefulness of 5.h3 after the natural developing move 8...Nc6 was nicely demonstrated in the game Cheparinov,I - Amin,B 1-0. Both Kotronias and Bologan make a case for 8...b6. In Hedgehog-like positions after 9.g3 and 9.Bd3 Black gets reasonable counterplay, but far more dangerous is the direct 9.Qd2 Bb7 10.f3, followed by 0-0-0 and a kingside pawn storm.

B3) Another principled line from White's point of view is central expansion with 7.d5 e6 8.Bd3.

 

After the obfuscating 8...Na6, the logical moves 9.Nf3 Re8 transpose to Adhiban,B - Ponomariov,R ½-½; the Indian GM in his notes shows how White could have retained the opening initiative. 8...exd5 9.exd5 occurs more often, now 9...Re8 10.Nf3! leads to a position, which arises mainly via a Makogonov move order and has long been considered to be pleasant for White after 10...Bh6 11.0-0. The alternative 9...Na6 10.Nf3 Nb4 11.Be2 from Cuenca Jimenez,J - Amin,B ½-½ led to complications, favourable for White - later the Egyptian GM even employed the line with opposite colours. The notes also show how White can fight for an advantage after the Benko-like 7...b5.

A different strategy from lines A) and B) is to postpone an attack on the pawn centre only after White commits himself to a certain setup. This has also its drawbacks, as White usually can develop his knight to f3 after all, striving for an advantageous versions of the Makogonov. Finally, it also complicates the life of your annotator, as the possible transpositions are really numerous :).

C) Let's start with the less logical 6...c6, as now Black will hardly proceed with c5, losing a full tempo. While the expansive 7.g4 a6 probably gives him enough counterplay, more sensible is 7.Nf3. Now 7...Na6 transposes to Wei,Y - Adhiban,B ½-½, where Adhiban explains how Black could have had a hard time.

D) After 6...Nbd7 7.g4 a good reaction is 7...c5!

 

With White's kingside advance, Benko Gambit ideas become more attractive for Black. This was quite strikingly shown in Repka,C - Amin,B 0-1, where White allowed his opponent almost everything. However, more circumspect is 7.Nf3. The Nd7 is not ideally placed after 7...c5 8.d5 and 7...e5 8.d5 Nc5 (White has excellent results after 8...Nh5 9.Nd2!?) 9.Nd2 a5 10.g4 transposes to the Makogonov proper.

 

I won't go into more detail here, mentioning just Anand,V - Ponomariov,R 1-0 as a model game from White's viewpoint. Even nowadays Black seems to be struggling in this branch.

E) The knight is more flexibly placed after 6...Na6. Now 7.g4 c5 8.Nge2 b6!? 9.e5 Ne8 gave Black sufficient counterplay in Caruana,F - Adhiban,B ½-½, but the simple 9.Bg2 deserves more attention. Once again the more often played alternative is natural development with 7.Nf3. After 7...c5 Black easily equalised in Bluebaum,M - Carlsen,M ½-½, but White spurned the most principled reaction 8.d5. This can after 8...e6 9.Bd3 lead to positions we checked in the B3) line. However, preferable is 7...e5, now 8.d5 just as above gets us the Makogonov (E92), but an improved version of line D), as now 8...Nh5!? with the idea 9.Nd2 Qe8 is more to the point; in practice Black has had good results in this subvariation.

F) There is yet another approach, the provocative 6...Nc6!? forces White to commit himself immediately with 7.d5 (7.Nf3 e5 8.d5 Nd4! leads to sterile equality). After 7...Ne5 8.f4 Ned7

 

Black toys with idea Nh5 and can undermine White's centre from both sides (c6 or/and e6). In some sense the position resembles an Alekhine, the follow-up 9.g4 c6 10.Nf3 cxd5 11.cxd5 in connection with the novelty 11...b6!? led to a complex struggle in Caruana,F - Firouzja,A 1-0. The notes mention a few games, played subsequently in 2020. In these Black held his own; possible improvements for White are 12.Nd4 Nc5 13.Nc6 or Timman's 12.Bg2!?.

Conclusion: In my opinion, countering the 5.h3 & 6.Be3 system with immediate central action 6...e5 or 6...c5 promises White reasonable chances to fight for an advantage. Currently it seems Black should be more flexible and 6...Na6 might be objectively the best choice. I must confess I like the challenging 6...Nc6!? and expect some further developments here as well. However, more tests are certainly required, e.g. 12.Bg2 or the computer suggestion 13.Nc6 in Caruana,F - Firouzja,A 1-0 have still not yet appeared in practice. 

You'll find the complete articles with all games and annotations in ChessBase Magazine #196 (Juli/August 2020). 

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