Active vs. the Catalan!

7/22/2020 – The Catalan is a tough nut to crack. Lars Schandoff's article on the opening, included in ChessBase Magazine #196, challenges the solid setup with a fine solution — activity! Deviating from the practice of elite Grandmasters, he suggests a "more entertaining variation" with 5...a6 and the risky 6...Nc6!? Exciting and recommended to everyone who is not satisfied with playing for a draw when having the black pieces!

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Active vs. the Catalan!

Lars Schandorff shows a repertoire with 5...a6 and 6...Nc6!? (Part 1)

"How to fight against the increasingly popular Catalan?", that's without a doubt a question many Black players ask themselves these days. The choice is difficult. On the absolute top level there seems to be an agreement that Black should go for 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.0-0 Bg2 6.0-0 dxc4 or 4...Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Be7 6.Bg2 0-0 7.0-0 Nbd7. Both systems are super solid and well worked out. Still, White gets a small pull and realistically Black doesn't have any winning chances. We cannot be satisfied with that. At least not in every single game we play with Black. So I will propose a more entertaining line for Black. You can also call it a more complicated line. Of course it is not without risk, but it gives many more winning chances than the elite mainlines and perhaps most important it forces White out of his comfort zone.

After 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 you have to go 4...dxc4 if you want a complex game. White can respond with 5.Qa4+ and take the pawn back, but that is really nothing. Everybody plays 5.Bg2 and now 5...a6 6.0-0 Nc6!?.

 

Protecting the pawn with 6...b5 is analysed very deeply and is considered dubious. The knight move to c6 looks strange at first because it blocks Black's own c-pawn. However, it also blocks the long white diagonal for the Catalan bishop, which might be important in certain lines. In some variations the knight can even go to a5 and protect the extra pawn on c4. The most important feature of the move 6...Nc6 is by far that it stops White from playing the desirable Ne5.

The modern mainline and the most critical move is 7.e3. White bolsters the pawn on d4 and plans to go after the c4-pawn with moves such as Qe2 or Nbd2. The move 7.e3 is also the recommendation of Boris Avrukh in the new edition of his acclaimed 1.d4 book series. Some new discoveries also make it very interesting from Black's point of view. This is what this survey is all about. I will present a complete Black repertoire against the Catalan, so in the next ChessBase Magazine in part 2 I will look at the old mainline 7.Nc3, which by the way was Avrukh's original suggestion in the first version of the book. White's idea is just to go e4 next and take the centre not caring too much about the c4-pawn. In part 2 I will also check the positional 7.Bg5, probably intending to follow up with e3 and then claiming that the bishop got out before the diagonal was closed.

After 7.e3 Black responds with the subtle move 7...Rb8.

 

The idea is to protect the c4-pawn with ...b5. It is necessary to first evacuate the rook from the diagonal of the Catalan bishop. The immediate 7...b5? runs into 8.Ne5! Black has a major alternative though, which is the move 7...Bd7 that protects both the knight on c6 and the rook on a8 and also prepares ...b5 in some lines. That move is featured in Nikos Ntirlis' excellent 1.d4 d5 repertoire book. In this survey I will concentrate on 7...Rb8 because this is where things are really happening nowadays.

After 7...Rb8 White has two options, both trying to regain the pawn. The first is Avrukh's recommendation and also the most popular in over the board games, that is the clever A) 8.Nfd2 which prevents ...b5 and plans Nxc4 with a great position. The other is B) 8.Qe2. White wants to continue with Qxc4, but he allows 8...b5 when he intends to play a real gambit with b3. All other moves than these two can be considered inferior. In most cases Black just keeps his extra pawn with ...b5 and can confidently look ahead to a promising middlegame after a successful opening duel.

A) 8.Nfd2

 

8...e5! We are not going to sit and wait for White to play Nxc4. It is important to start our own active operations. By attacking d4 White doesn't have a free move to just capture on c4, but the move is a pawn sacrifice. 9.Bxc6+! White should go for it as well. Now he wins a pawn. It should be mentioned that he has a last attempt to keep control with 9.Nxc4, but after 9...exd4 he has to give the bishop on c6 anyway to win the pawn back. It doesn't promise much as seen in the game Bogdanovski,V - Akobian,V ½-½.

After 9.Bxc6+!, play gets rather forced for a few moves: 9...bxc6 10.dxe5 Ng4 11.Nxc4 Be6.

 

The real starting position for the 7...Rb8 line. White has won a pawn, but Black has tricky piece play. This also goes for the ending: 12.Qxd8+ Rxd8 13.Nbd2 Bb4 14.b3 h5! with good play as seen in a bunch of games, for instance Nesterov,A - Praggnanandhaa,R 0-1. This gives a good illustration of how dangerous the position is for White. Also moving the queen to e2 or c2 is risky because Black immediately attacks with 12...h5! as in Iskusnyh,S - Vorobiov,E 0-1.

The best move is 12.Nbd2. After the active 12...Bb4 White has a choice.

 

He can protect the knight on c4 with 13.b3 or develop his queen to e2 or c2. Often these moves interact so a lot of transpositions take place. Let's take them one by one.

A1) 13.Qc2 is the least popular. Black answers 13...h5! with good play, see Raja,R - Aravindh,C 0-1.

A2) 13.Qe2 is met with 13...Bxd2 14.Bxd2 and again the thematic 14...h5!.

 

Black intends ...h4 with a strong initiative. That White really should take care is perfectly illustrated in the following game. After the natural 15.Rad1 h4! Black already had a serious attack, Song,R - Santos Latasa,J 0-1. White should go for 15.f3. However, Black has no intention of withdrawing his forces. He rather sacrifices a piece: 15...h4! 16.fxg4 hxg3.

 

Black has enough compensation. If White tries to play safe with 17.hxg3 then 17...Qd5! attacks the knight on c4 and threatens a check on h1, so Black wins the piece back and stands somewhat better in the ending, Batchuluun,T - Sethuraman,S ½-½. More critical is 17.b3 Rxh2 18.Qf3, but also here after 18...Rxd2 19.Nxd2 Qxd2 the position is balanced, Hilby,C - Matsenko,S ½-½.

A3) 13.b3 h5! We know this by heart by now.

 

Now 14.Qc2 and 14.Qe2 are quite similar to what we have already seen, and since Black threatens to play ...h4 White has to kick the annoying knight on g4 away with 14.f3 or 14.h3.

14.f3?! is refuted by the spectacular 14...Nxe3! 15.Nxe3 Qd4 as shown by the Indian prodigy Pragg in a recent game. Actually the well-prepared teenager just copied the play of the Norwegian grandmaster Frode Urkedal, Ravi,T - Praggnanandhaa,R 0-1.

14.h3! is critical and where new findings are to be expected. After 14...Bc3 another young Norwegian grandmaster sacrificed the exchange with 15.hxg4. He won a complicated tactical struggle, but might as well have lost. Interestingly the super computer Leela suggest to sacrifice the exchange with 15.Ba3! instead which according to my analysis leads to a balanced game. This is where theory currently stands, Arvola,B - Galchenko,M 1-0.

B) 8.Qe2 b5 9.b3 

The only way to justify White's setup. 9...cxb3 10.axb3 Be7.

 

White has good positional compensation as known from similar positions, but probably no more than that. Seeing it from Black´s point of view, being a pawn up and having a solid position isn't that bad! Basically White has three plans available: 11.Rd1 followed by e4 is a real gambit, while 11.Bb2 or 11.Bd2 followed by Rc1 is the typical procedure, where White is having pressure down the semi-open a- and c-files.

B1) 11.Rd1 0-0 12.e4 Bb7 13.Nc3 Nb4 and it already felt like White didn't have enough for the pawn in Rogule,L - Potkin,V 0-1

B2) 11.Bb2 0-0 12.Rc1 Bb7 13.Nbd2 Nb4.

 

The position is balanced. Here 14.Ne5 Bxg2 15.Kxg2 Rb6 followed in Erigaisi,A-Adhiban,B 0-1.

C) 11.Bd2!? 

Looks a little strange, but maybe the bishop is better here. 11...0-0 12.Rc1 Bb7 13.Ne1.

 

This is very interesting. White plans Nd3 with a very harmonious position. Black is a pawn up, but still it is not so easy to come up with a good plan. Both 13...Nd5 and 13...Nb4 are playable, but best is probably 13...Qd7 14.Nd3 Bd6 with a complex game, Andonovski,L - Guha,C 1-0.

Conclusion: The variation with 5...a6 and 6...Nc6 is working very well for Black against 7.e3, in fact he is almost better after 7...Rb8! White definitely needs to come up with something new to keep the line going, or he must switch to either 7.Nc3 or 7.Bg5, the moves that I will investigate in the final part of this active repertoire for Black against the Catalan.

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

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