Bizarre opening moves and an early innovation

8/17/2009 – Innovations after move 20? There is no need to wait that long. In Aronian-Kamsky, Jermuk 2009, the Armenian came up with his innovation on move five! And five moves later he basically had a winning position. What the bizarre opening moves 1.c4 g6 2.e4 e5 3.d4 have to do with the Grünfeld Defence was explained by Mihail Marin in CBM 126 (buy it now!); we reproduce here a shortened version of his article. Kamsky certainly hadn't had a look at Marin's analysis – you better do it! Aronian-Kamsky with annotationsMihail Marin on the variation 1.c4 g6 2.e4 e5 3.d4

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A possible complement to the Grünfeld

by Mihail Marin

1.c4 g6 2.e4 e5

It is well known that the central idea of the Grünfeld Defence is to undermine White's d4-pawn. Therefore, the anti-Grünfeld systems based on delaying the move d4 and an early development of the queen (for instance: 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Qa4+) tend to be somewhat unpleasant for Black. Although it is not entirely clear whether these lines offer White better chances for an advantage than the main lines of the Grünfeld, psychologically they can be regarded as obtaining a small victory, in the way that the type of position obtained differs from those aimed at by Black. However, refraining from the immediate occupation of the centre with d4 offers Black some possibilities to diverge from the standard course of events.

Recently, I annotated for CBM 125 the game Van Wely - Ivanchuk, in which the opening played bore some relation to a system that became fashionable in the '70s and, although it seems to be a rare guest in tournament practice nowadays, it never was refuted. The present article is intended to offer an overview of this original variation, advocated in practice by several strong grandmasters from Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia.

After 1.c4, a common answer for Black is 1...g6. Now, 2.Nc3 c5 is supposed to be safe for Black (3.Nf3 Bg7 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Nc6 6.Nc2 Bxc3!?+), while 2.d4 Nf6 re-enters genuine Grünfeld paths. 2.Nf3 Bg7 only delays the critical moment for one more move, which makes 2.e4 the critical continuation.

It may seem that Black has been tricked into the King's Indian or Modern (2...Bg7 3.d4) or into the rather passive Maroczy Sicilian (2...c5 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.d4), but, surprisingly, there is a deviation: 2...e5.

C) It becomes clear now that White should change paths at an earlier stage. The best moment to do that is on the 3rd move, just before the bishop gets  developed to g7. After 1.c4 g6 2.e4 e5, White plays 3.d4.

This change in the course of events slightly troubles Black. 3...exd4 is not recommendable, because after 4.Qxd4 Nf6 5.Bg5, the threat e5 forces Black play the passive 5...Be7. Consolidating the centre with 3...d6 is probably OK, with every chance to transpose to a "normal" Modern line, but remains outwith our main theme: by advancing his d-pawn so soon, Black reduces his chances for a successful break in the centre.

The specialists in this variation mainly rely on the developing (and counter-attacking) move 3...Nf6.

White has several ways to continue.

4.Nc3 is not too popular, but is not entirely without point. Black wins time with 4...exd4 5.Qxd4 Nc6, but will not find it too easy to open the position. See Robatsch,K - Kortschnoj,V 0-1.

4.dxe5 looks like a critical test, but in practice White has not found it easy to take advantage of the exposed position of the black knight after 4...Nxe4. For 5.Qd4 see Ree,H - Ribli,Z ½-½, for 5.Qd5 - Polugaevsky,L - Adorjan,A 1-0 and for 5.Bd3 - Quinteros,M - Jansa,V 0-1. In all these games, the advanced position of the e-pawn offers Black excellent counterplay with either ...d6 or ...f6.

White has been relatively successful in practice with the logical developing move 4.Nf3.

The tension in the centre has become quite complex and Black has to calculate his steps with precision. As in a similar situation above, 4...d6 is not interesting, because it defines the intentions of this pawn too soon.

C1) Therefore, the only way to maintain the tension is the slightly surprising move 4...Bb4+. We will see more of this check later. It may seem that ...g6 has become a mere loss of time, having weakened the f6-square at the same time, but there is a similar situation in the Scotch Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.e5 Qe7 7.Qe2 Nd5 8.c4 Nb6 9.Nc3 Qe6 10.Qe4 g6 11.Bf4 Bb4). The g6-pawn somewhat restricts the white light-squared bishop and leaves the g7-square available for the knight (or king). Therefore, it is early for hurried conclusions still, so let us check concretely.

The line goes 5.Bd2 Bxd2+ 6.Qxd2 Nxe4 and it seems that Black has managed to muddy the waters. However, the game Portisch,L - Sax,G 1-0 casts serious doubt on Black's strategy. The tempo spent on ...g6 seems to be of vital importance in this dynamic position.

Therefore, it seems that Black should abandon his central positions already. 4...Nxe4 allows White win time for his development with 5.Bd3 and is not to be recommended. See the game Ubilava,E - Sion Castro,M 1-0.

C2) The other way to release the tension is 4...exd4. After 5.e5 it suddenly appears that 5...Ne4 6.Qxd4 would win a whole tempo for White if compared with the variation 4.dxe5 Nxe4 5.Qd4. Therefore, Black has to resort to the intermediate check 5...Bb4+. The main line goes 6.Bd2

6...Qe7 7.Bxb4 Qxb4+ 8.Qd2 Qxd2+ 9.Nbxd2 Nh5 10.Nxd4 Nc6 11.Nxc6 dxc6.

Contemporary players are familiar with what could be called the Spanish Berlin structure, but here Black does not enjoy the pair of bishops. However, his results have been quite acceptable in practice. One important detail that favours him is that the far advanced e-pawn is slightly vulnerable, the same as the squares around it. This allows Black to play for a blockade, sometimes leading to a draw in a position only visually better for White. Another essential element is the fact that the black king has not lost the right to castle yet. See Polugaevsky,L - Timman,J 0-1 and Stean,M - Jansa,V ½-½.

As a player who treasures flexible pawn structures, I can understand those who are not entirely convinced about the viability of Black's position. Fortunately for him, there is a possible deviation on the 6th move: 6...Bxd2+ 7.Qxd2 Qe7, as played only once in Stohl,I - Navara,D ½-½. Surely, further practice is needed here, but at first sight Black's position looks entirely viable.

Conclusion: In order to have chances for an advantage, White should open the centre as soon as on the third move. Although Black seems to be under some pressure here, accurate play may suffice for approximate equality after 3...Nf6 4.Nf3 exd4 5.e5 Bb4+, with the aforementioned two possible continuations. Since the variation more or less fell out of fashion many years ago, there is plenty of room for investigation still.

Finally, I would add that this whole setup (2...e5) has some practical value against 1.Nf3 as well. After 1...g6 2.d4 Black can return to the normal paths with 2...Nf6, while 2.c4 Bg7 will almost surely transpose to our system or else to some slow English line, without immediate dangers for Black. Only 2.e4 can pose repertoire problems, because it more or less forces Black to play a Pirc. However, with a knight on f3 already, White cannot employ the most dangerous lines such as Bg5, f4 or the early Be3.

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