Kramnik and the Reti (Part 1)

by Alex Yermolinsky
10/17/2017 – Among the top active players, few if any can claim to have made as many powerful contributions to opening theory as Vladimir Kramnnik. One need only recall that Kramnik is the only player on record to 'out-prepare' Garry Kasparov, and for the World title no less. In recent times, one of his latest pet openings has been the Reti, and guiding the reader through some of the changes along the way is GM Alex Yermolinsky. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

My Path to the Top My Path to the Top

On this DVD Vladimir Kramnik retraces his career from talented schoolboy to World Champion in 2006. With humour and charm he describes his first successes, what it meant to be part of the Russian Gold Medal team at the Olympiad, and how he undertook the Herculean task of beating his former mentor and teacher Garry Kasparov.


An evolving repertoire

Throughout his carreer Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik has been known for his deep opening preparation. From the 1992 Olympiad, where then 17-year old Vladimir made his entrance to the ranks of the world elite, to this day, when Kramnik retains a 2800+ rating and still harbors World Championship aspirations, his openings have always been top notch. One need only remember Kramnik's surprise weapon for the battle with Kasparov in London, 2000 — the Berlin variation of the Ruy Lopez, the opening now adopted by virtually every top player — to appreciate his contributions to theory.

Kramnik still plays the Berlin, albeit not too many of his opponents dare venturing into it, resorting instead to the d3 lines. Similarly, Vladimir has revived another forgotten variation, the Semi-Tarrasch, as a solid system against 1.d4, to complement his excellent Semi-Slav and Nimzo-Indian. In short, when commanding the Black pieces, Kramnik thinks equality first, and is often satisfied with a draw.

The Berlin Wall

On top level the Berlin Defense is a popular defensive weapon but it also offers Black good chances to win if White does not proceed precisely. On this DVD Victor Bologan shows what Black can and should do if White tries to avoid the main lines of the Berlin Defense.

Naturally, for those times when a tournament situation called for a win at all costs, Vladimir would venture into less explored territory, famously trying the Benoni in Game 13 of his World Championship match with Leko in 2004, a game he almost won it should be added, and the Pirc Defense he employed in the last round of the London Candidates 2013 against Ivanchuk (with much less success).

With White Kramnik came up as a 1.Nf3 player, but in truth this has been more about choosing a move order that allowed him to avoid openings — such as the Benko Gambit, the Benoni, etc. — that young Kramnik found annoying to face. In reality, Vladimir was a 1.d4 player of a most classical mold. Just look at his handling of the White side of the King’s Indian and the Grunfeld, and you will see a full-fledged strategy of occupying the center with pawns.

As every 1.d4 player should, even as a young player Vladimir possessed excellent endgame technique and was very adept at exploiting small positional advantages. However, Kramnik did not "chicken out" when it came to “defending his turf” against “unruly” opposition that tried sharp lines. From the Vienna Variation to the Botvinnik and all things in-between, Kramnik's handling of the Queen’s Gambit has always been a mark of excellence.

A complete player as he was by the mid-1990s, Kramnik at times opened his games with 1.e4, particularly in rapid and blitz games.

Vladimir Kramnik 1-0 Yasser Seirawan, Amsterdam 1996

[Event "Amsterdam VSB"] [Site "Amsterdam"] [Date "1996.??.??"] [Round "1"] [White "Kramnik, Vladimir"] [Black "Seirawan, Yasser"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B29"] [WhiteElo "2775"] [BlackElo "2630"] [Annotator "Alex Yermolinsky"] [PlyCount "63"] [EventDate "1996.03.??"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "NED"] [EventCategory "18"] [SourceTitle "CBM 52"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceQuality "1"] 1. Nf3 {Kramnik} c5 2. e4 $1 Nf6 3. Nc3 d5 4. exd5 Nxd5 5. Bb5+ Bd7 6. Ne5 Nf6 (6... Nxc3 7. Qf3 $1) 7. Nxd7 Nbxd7 8. d4 cxd4 (8... a6 {had been the known move.} 9. Bxd7+ Nxd7 10. d5 $14) 9. Qxd4 a6 10. Be2 e6 (10... e5 $5 {Kramnik}) 11. Bf4 Bc5 12. Qd3 O-O 13. O-O (13. Bf3 $5) 13... b5 $2 {A rare move, that makes easy life for the pair of white bishops, in their pressure against the queen side. Besides, this move weakens Black's solid structure.} ({I propose} 13... Qe7 $5 14. Bf3 Nb6 {when Black can hold the position, trying to get to d5, and play active.}) 14. Bf3 Ra7 15. Rad1 Qa5 {After this move, Seirawan loses the exchange by force, without any compensation. Black's problems involve finding a nice place for the queen.} ({For example:} 15... Qe7 16. a3 e5 17. Bg5 h6 18. Bh4 Qe6 19. Rfe1 $16 (19. b4 $16)) 16. a3 $1 b4 {[#]} 17. Na2 $1 bxa3 18. b4 Bxb4 (18... Qa4 $2 19. Rb1 {/\ 20.Nc3+-}) 19. Nxb4 Qxb4 20. Bd6 Qa5 21. Bxf8 Kxf8 22. Ra1 $18 {White will take a3 and the rest of the game is without interest.} Nc5 23. Qd6+ Re7 24. Rfb1 Ne8 25. Rb8 Nd7 26. Ra8 Qc5 27. Qxc5 Nxc5 28. Bc6 f6 29. Rxa3 Kf7 30. Bxe8+ Rxe8 31. Rxe8 Kxe8 32. Ra5 1-0

It seemed, he liked to surprise his opponents, often relying on sidelines and/or specific preparation against their favorite lines. However, the databases show he completely abandoned 1.e4 sometime in 1996, with exception of the Hoogovens Blitz, 1998.

There has been a lot of speculation as to why World Champion Kramnik returned to 1.e4 in 2003. I dare say, his opposition wasn't terribly impressed. The 2003-2007 stretch of match and tournament play saw Kramnik tumbling down to 2729, 80 points off his career best, and prompted his World Championship opponent, Veselin Topalov, to declare Kramnik “not quite my league”.

Vladimir Kramnik 0-1 Veselin Topalov, Sofia 2005

[Event "Mtel Masters"] [Site "Sofia BUL"] [Date "2005.05.22"] [Round "10"] [White "Kramnik, Vladimir"] [Black "Topalov, V."] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B80"] [WhiteElo "2753"] [BlackElo "2778"] [Annotator "Alex Yermolinsky"] [PlyCount "68"] [EventDate "2005.05.12"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "10"] [EventCountry "BUL"] [EventCategory "20"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e6 7. f3 b5 8. Qd2 b4 9. Nce2 e5 10. Nb3 Nc6 11. c4 Be7 12. Ng3 g6 13. Bd3 Nd7 14. Rd1 O-O 15. Qf2 a5 16. O-O a4 17. Nc1 Nc5 18. Bb1 Qc7 19. Nce2 Be6 20. Bh6 Rfe8 21. Nf5 Bxc4 22. Ne3 Ba6 23. f4 exf4 24. Bxf4 Ne5 25. Nd5 Qa7 26. Bxe5 dxe5 27. Kh1 Bg5 28. Nxb4 Bc4 29. Rfe1 Qb7 30. Nd5 Qxb2 31. Nc7 Ne6 32. Nxe8 Rxe8 33. Rf1 Rf8 34. Nc1 $4 (34. Bd3 {was forced, though Black would still be better after} Bxa2) 34... Qxb1 0-1

Play the Sicilian Najdorf

In 60 minutes you will get a crash course how to play such a complicated opening like the Sicilian Najdorf by the hands of GM van Wely who knows by experience how the dangers look like! The contents:
• Video 1, 2, 3: how to survive versus whites most aggressive approach: 6. Bc4, 6. Be3 and 6 Bg5
• Video 4: how to deal with the latest fashion in the Najdorf 6. h3 and last but not least
• Video 5: how to play vs the more classical set ups 6. Be2 and 6. g3

When the chips went down in Elista 2007, Kramnik greeted Topalov with a steady diet of 1.d4, introducing the Catalan as his powerful new weapon. The Catalan brought Vladimir many memorable victories and remained his opening of choice throughout 2014.

The next year, however, brought another change. Kramnik returned to his old flame, 1.Nf3, but this time he wasn’t doing it just for the move order purposes. Suddenly, it was the full-fledged Reti and even the Kings Indian Attack!

Vladimir Kramnik 1-0 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Shamkir 2015

[Event "Vugar Gashimov Mem 2015"] [Site "Shamkir AZE"] [Date "2015.04.25"] [Round "8.1"] [White "Kramnik, V."] [Black "Vachier Lagrave, M."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A07"] [WhiteElo "2783"] [BlackElo "2765"] [Annotator "Alex Yermolinsky"] [PlyCount "75"] [EventDate "2015.04.17"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "AZE"] [EventCategory "21"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. g3 d5 3. Bg2 c6 4. O-O Bg4 {A solid system of development, favored by career Slav Defense players. Kramnik himself employed it many times. } 5. d3 ({The author of these notes has a particular affinity for} 5. c4 $5 e6 6. cxd5 {This early pawn trade has its points, but Black may reply in a classical fashion} Bxf3 (6... exd5 {is what White is playing for, however unclear the resulting positions might be.}) 7. Bxf3 cxd5 8. Nc3 Nc6 9. d4 ({ I haven't had much success with} 9. d3) 9... Be7 10. e3 {with a tiny plus for White, who relies on his bishop pair - see Karjakin-Vitiugov, 2014 and Karjakin-Eljanov, 2015}) 5... Nbd7 6. h3 $5 {Kramnik likes to see what Black plans to do with his bishop, before deciding on the direction of his own play.} ({Perhaps, it's a bit late for} 6. c4 {on account of} Bxf3 7. Bxf3 dxc4 8. dxc4 Ne5 {although} 9. Qb3 Nxf3+ 10. Qxf3 g6 11. Nc3 Bg7 12. Rd1 Qc8 13. Bf4 { brought White success in Nepomniatchi-Harikrishna, 2014}) 6... Bh5 7. Qe1 $1 { Very subtle play. White is no hurry to develop his other knight. We'll see why. } e5 8. e4 dxe4 9. dxe4 Bc5 10. a4 $1 {[#]} O-O (10... a5 {seems logical to put a stop to White's expansion on the Q-side.} 11. Nbd2 O-O 12. Nc4 Qc7 (12... Bb4 $5 13. c3 Bxf3 14. Bxf3) 13. Bd2 b6 {White has been able to provoke a small, but not insignificant weakening in Black's camp. Now if Bg2 ever gets opened (Nf5 Bxf5 exf5 for instance) the pawn on c6 will come under attack.} 14. Nh4 Rfe8 15. Kh1 Bg6 (15... Nf8 16. f4 {Vaganian-Mueller, 1996} exf4 17. Bxf4 $14) 16. Rd1 Nf8 17. Bg5 N6d7 18. Nf5 Ne6 19. Ncd6 {Vidit-Bindrich, 2017}) 11. Nh4 Re8 12. Na3 Nf8 (12... a5 13. Bd2 Qc7 14. Nc4 {transposes to the line above.}) 13. b4 $1 Be7 14. Nf5 Ne6 {[#]} 15. Nxe7+ $3 {Reminiscent of the famous "good knight for bad bishop" exchange from the Fischer-Taimanov game.} Qxe7 16. Be3 Bg6 17. f3 {[#] The last move is modest, but it serves the important purpose of securing White's advantage, as Black's Bg6 and Nf6 are out of work.} Nd7 (17... a5 18. b5 Nd4 {seems a reasonable try, but it hardly brings dividends after} 19. Qf2 Rac8 20. bxc6 Rxc6 21. Bxd4 exd4 22. Nb5 $16) 18. Nc4 f5 $5 {Understandably, MVL seeks counterplay.} 19. Rd1 f4 (19... fxe4 20. fxe4 Nd4 21. Bxd4 exd4 22. Rxd4 Ne5 {is not a very pleasant choice, but it would have taken some effort on Kramnik's part to convert his extra pawn.}) 20. Rxd7 $3 {A smashing shot!} Qxd7 21. Nxe5 Qc7 22. gxf4 Nxf4 $5 (22... a5 23. Qg3 Nf8 24. Rb1 $16) 23. Bxf4 Rxe5 24. Qe3 Rd8 25. Qxa7 Qe7 26. Bxe5 Qxe5 27. Qe3 $16 Qb2 28. Qc5 h6 (28... Rd2 29. Rf2 Qa1+ 30. Bf1 $16) 29. b5 $1 cxb5 30. Qb6 Rd2 (30... Qd4+ 31. Qxd4 Rxd4 32. axb5 Rb4 33. Rd1 Rxb5 34. Rd8+ Kf7 35. Bf1 $16) 31. Qxg6 bxa4 32. h4 Qd4+ 33. Kh1 Qd8 34. Bh3 Qxh4 35. Qe6+ Kh8 36. Rg1 g5 37. Qc8+ Kg7 38. Rb1 1-0

Reti - A Repertoire for White

Starting with 1.Nf3 the Reti is designed for those players who like strategy, manoeuvres and plans. Bologan presents a repertoire based on 1.Nf3 giving you options for all major replies.

Compare this positional gem with my own effort below:

Alex Yermolinsky ½-½ Jaan Ehlvest, Kuybyshev 1986

[Event "USSR Ch First League"] [Site "Kuybyshev"] [Date "1986.??.??"] [Round "5"] [White "Yermolinsky, Alex"] [Black "Ehlvest, J."] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A07"] [WhiteElo "2470"] [BlackElo "2455"] [Annotator "Alex Yermolinsky"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventDate "1986.10.10"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "17"] [EventCountry "URS"] [EventCategory "10"] 1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 c6 3. Bg2 Bg4 4. h3 $5 Bxf3 5. Bxf3 Nd7 6. d3 Ngf6 7. e4 dxe4 8. dxe4 e5 9. Nd2 Bc5 10. Nc4 O-O 11. O-O Qe7 $6 ({Better was} 11... Re8 { with the idea of Bf8, and Nc5-e6}) 12. Qe2 Qe6 13. Kg2 b5 $5 {Black counters on the Q-side before White has a chance to play a2-a4.} 14. Ne3 Nb6 15. b3 $8 a5 16. Nf5 g6 (16... a4 17. Bg5 Nfd7 $2 18. Bg4 $36) 17. Nh6+ Kh8 18. h4 Bd4 19. Rb1 Nc8 $1 20. h5 Nd6 21. Rh1 b4 22. a4 $1 c5 23. Bg5 $5 (23. Bd2 $1 c4) 23... Ra7 24. Rh4 Nxh5 {Forced} 25. Bg4 Qe8 $1 (25... f5 26. exf5 Qd5+ 27. Bf3 (27. Kh2 $5) 27... e4 28. Bxe4 $16) 26. Bxh5 f6 27. Bxg6 Qxg6 28. Be3 Re7 29. Rg4 Qe8 30. Rh1 $2 (30. Qf3 $1 Qa8 31. Rh1 (31. Nf5) 31... f5 $140 32. Nxf5 Nxf5 33. exf5 Qxf3+ 34. Kxf3 Rxf5+ 35. Ke4 $16) 30... f5 31. Nxf5 Nxf5 32. exf5 Rxf5 33. Re4 Ref7 34. Rf1 $8 Qc6 35. Bxd4 $138 cxd4 36. f3 Qf6 37. Rh4 Rg7 38. Qe4 (38. Rfh1 Rfg5 39. g4 Qf4 40. Qd3 Kg8 $1 41. Qc4+ Rf7 42. Qc8+ Rf8 43. Qc4+ Rf7 $11) 38... Rf4 39. Rxf4 exf4 40. g4 Re7 41. Qd5 {sealed move. Draw agreed without resumption, based on 41...Qe5 42. Qe5 Re5 43.Rd1 Re2 44.Kh3 Rf2 45.g5=} 1/2-1/2

Clearly, I wasn't able to take control of the queenside, and this is why White's ambitions remained unfulfilled. It might seem that the capture on f3, as Jaan Ehlvest's choice in the game above, is a better idea, rather than keep the bishop on h5, but the next game shows how flexible Kramnik's plans can be.

Vladimir Kramnik 1-0 Alexei Shirov, Zurich 2016

[Event "5th Zurich CC Blitz"] [Site "Zurich SUI"] [Date "2016.02.15"] [Round "1.1"] [White "Kramnik, V."] [Black "Shirov, A."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A07"] [WhiteElo "2801"] [BlackElo "2684"] [Annotator "Alex Yermolinsky"] [PlyCount "61"] [EventDate "2016.02.15"] [EventType "tourn (blitz)"] [EventRounds "5"] [EventCountry "SUI"] [EventCategory "21"] [SourceDate "2016.02.15"] [SourceVersion "1"] [SourceVersionDate "2016.02.15"] [SourceQuality "2"] 1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Bg4 3. Bg2 Nd7 4. O-O Ngf6 5. h3 Bxf3 6. Bxf3 e5 (6... e6 7. d3 Bd6 8. Bg2 O-O 9. Nd2 c6 10. e4 {Eljanov-Shirov, 2016}) 7. c4 $1 {Suddenly, White isn't going d2-d3 and e2-e4 as expected.} c6 8. cxd5 cxd5 9. d3 {[#] Black regrets two things he has done: the e-pawn went a step too far, depriving the d5-pawn of much-needed support, and, secondly, the knight is misplaced on d7. It should be on c6, of course.} Be7 10. Nc3 d4 11. Nb5 a6 ( 11... Qb6 12. Na3 Bxa3 13. bxa3 Nc5 14. a4 Rc8 15. Ba3 $14) 12. Na3 Rb8 13. Bd2 b5 14. Rc1 O-O 15. Rc6 $1 $16 {White is clearly better. This being a blitz game, we shouldn't be surprised at Shirov's violent reaction.} e4 $5 16. dxe4 Ne5 17. Rc1 d3 18. Bg2 dxe2 19. Qxe2 $16 Qd3 20. Qxd3 Nxd3 21. Rc7 Bd6 22. Rc6 Be5 23. Rxa6 Bxb2 24. Ra5 b4 25. Nc4 Bc3 26. e5 Nd7 27. Rd5 N7c5 28. Be3 Rfd8 29. Nd6 Bxe5 30. Bxc5 Nxc5 31. Rxe5 1-0

The Reti, a flexible attacking opening

The Nimzo-Indian, the Gruenfeld and the King's Indian Defence are three incredibly uncomfortable defences to meet. This hypermodern DVD gives new ideas on how to squash these setups with sound, positional play based on double fianchetto systems.

The following is another example of Kramnik's implementation of the main idea of the Reti Opening: blasting open the long diagonal for the fianchetto bishop!

Vladimir Kramnik 1-0 Wesley So, Leuven 2016

[Event "GCT Blitz YourNextMove"] [Site "Leuven BEL"] [Date "2016.06.19"] [Round "1.4"] [White "Kramnik, V."] [Black "So, W."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A07"] [WhiteElo "2812"] [BlackElo "2770"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "75"] [EventDate "2016.06.19"] [EventType "tourn (blitz)"] [EventRounds "18"] [EventCountry "BEL"] [EventCategory "22"] 1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Bg4 3. Bg2 e6 4. O-O Nf6 5. h3 Bxf3 6. Bxf3 Nbd7 7. d3 Bc5 8. Nd2 O-O 9. Bg2 a5 {Clearly, this pawn push was directed against White's standard plan of development with b2-b3. Kramnik has other ideas.} 10. c4 c6 11. e3 $1 a4 12. d4 Bd6 13. Qc2 {Suddenly, we're in a quiet line of the Slav Defense, with White enjoying his bishop pair and flexible pawn structure.} Re8 14. Rd1 Qc7 15. Rb1 b5 {[#]Similar to Shirov's from the previous game, this decision is understandable: Wesley So didn't cherish the thought of defending passively against Vladimir Kramnik.} 16. cxb5 cxb5 17. Qxc7 Bxc7 18. e4 $1 { A timely shot in the middle.} dxe4 ({Black would have been better off holding his d5-pawn:} 18... Nb6 19. e5 Nfd7 20. Bf1 b4 21. Nf3 Nc4 22. b3 (22. Bf4 f6 $1) 22... axb3 23. axb3 Na3 24. Rb2 Rec8 $14) 19. Nxe4 Rab8 (19... Nxe4 20. Bxe4 Ra6 21. d5 Nf6 22. Bd3 $14) 20. Nc3 $1 Rec8 21. Bf1 b4 22. Nxa4 {Just like that! White is a pawn ahead.} Nd5 23. Bd2 Ra8 24. Nc5 Nxc5 25. dxc5 Be5 ( 25... Rxa2 26. Bc4 Ra4 27. Bb3 Ra5 28. Bxd5 exd5 29. Bxb4 Rb5 30. Ba3 $18) 26. Bg2 Rcb8 27. Bf4 $6 (27. Bxd5 exd5 28. Be3 $16 Rxa2 29. Rxd5 Rxb2 30. Rxb2 Bxb2 31. c6 $18) 27... Bxf4 28. gxf4 Rd8 29. Bxd5 exd5 (29... Rxd5 $142 30. Rxd5 exd5 31. Rd1 Rxa2 32. Rxd5 Kf8 33. c6 Ra1+ 34. Kg2 Rc1 $11) 30. Rd4 Kf8 31. Rxb4 Rxa2 32. Rd4 Rb8 33. b4 Re8 34. c6 Ree2 35. Rxd5 Rec2 36. Rc5 Rxc5 37. bxc5 Ke7 38. Rb8 1-0

To be continued...

Previous articles on World Champions by Alex Yermolinsky

Yermo is enjoying his fifties. Lives in South Dakota, 600 miles way from the nearest grandmaster. Between his chess work online he plays snooker and spends time outdoors - happy as a clam.


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