Pawn sac in the Grünfeld

9/6/2021 – Fighting against the Grünfeld (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5), quite a number of players try to make things easier for themselves by going for the sideline 4.Bg5. After all, it threatens Bxf6, followed by picking Black's d-pawn. So, what should Black do about it? "Nothing" is the answer by GM Lars Schandorff. In his article from ChessBase Magazine #203, he recommends to simply reply with 4…Bg7 — a pawn sacrifice employed by Peter Svidler already thirty years ago.

ChessBase Magazine 203 ChessBase Magazine 203

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Pawn sac in the Grünfeld

Lars Schandorff recommends 4.Bg5 Bg7!

In the Grünfeld after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 White often tries to get a controlled game without tons of theory and goes for the direct move 4.Bg5. It is an active develoing move that apparently threatens Bxf6 followed by picking up the black d5-pawn. For a long time Black automatically responded 4...Ne4 when 5.Bh4 is the standard answer. Lately some White players led by Levon Aronian have successfully started to play 5.Bf4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.e3 where White has bolstered his important d4-pawn and can rely on the somewhat easier game. I am not saying that this is bad for Black - it is not! - but when you play the Grünfeld you probably hope for a more complicated middlegame full of active and dynamic possibilities. Fortunately, the Russian star Peter Svidler already back in the 1990s realised that Black is not forced to move his knight and can just continue his development with 4... Bg7! which is the subject of this survey.

Of course it is a pawn sacrifice, but taking the pawn involves giving up the dark-squared bishop with 5.Bxf6 so Black will instantly get some positional compensation and pressure against the d4-pawn. The question is if this is enough and taking the pawn is of course the critical test of 4...Bg7. White has some alternatives though. Please notice that 5.Nf3 transposes to the big line 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bg5, where the right answer is 5...Ne4! The point being that in this case 6.Bh4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 dxc4! is known to be fine for Black. Anyway, this is outside the scope of this survey.

From the diagram, I will concentrate on two continuations for White.

A) A solid move like 5.e3 is met by the active thematic strike 5...c5! Black keeps offering the pawn. Here White has tried different things, but he has been no way near putting any serious pressure on Black who keeps getting his active, dynamic Grünfeld play, even if it means playing a pawn down. As you probably have noticed by now a lot of the lines in this survey involve sacrificing a pawn, so if you are the materialistic type I suggest that you stick with the old 4...Ne4. If not, please join the show. Quickly it becomes apparent that in many of these positions even though a pawn down Black is actually very comfortable positionally speaking.

After 5...c5 White can keep control with 6.dxc5, but after 6...Qa5 Black already threatens ...Ne4 and White is more or less forced to chicken out. He can play 7.Bxf6 Bxf6 8.Rc1, but after 9.Bxc4 0-0 followed by ...Qxc5 Black has no problems as I have witnessed first hand, see Schandorff,L - Atakisi,U ½-½.

The critical test must be 6.Bxf6 Bxf6:

Here White can take the black d5-pawn although it turns out that Black gets excellent play for it. The pioneer of the whole variation met 7.cxd5, but after 7...cxd4! 8.exd4 0-0 he was absolutely fine, Krasenkow,M - Svidler,P ½-½. At first sight 7.Nxd5 looks much better because it not only grabs the pawn but also attacks the black bishop, however, after the cool retreat 7...Bg7! Black maintains strong pressure against d4, see Cifuentes Parada,R - Sokolov,I 0-1.

B) White´s most obvious response to 4...Bg7 is 5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.cxd5 - please notice that 6.Nxd5 Bg7 7.e3 c5 transposes to the above line. Here Black can keep the momentum with another surprising pawn sacrifice 6...c5! that puts White´s centre under immediate pressure:

Black is quite clearly saying that he doesn´t care too much about material equality. He is striving for active piece play and doesn´t mind playing a pawn down for a while. Basically, White chooses between 2a) 7.Nf3, which tries to protect everything, or the more greedy 2b) 7.dxc5. The simple 7.dxc6 cannot be recommended. After 7...Bxd4 8.cxb7 Bxb7 Black has excellent play with his strong bishops, check out another Svidler performance: Popov,V - Svidler,P 0-1.

B1) 7.Nf3 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Qb6.

On 9.e3 Black just takes on b2 with fine play, so 9.Nb3 a5! The most direct, but 9...0-0 followed by ...Rd8 is a decent alternative and actually is the most played move. 10.a4 Or else Black plays ...a4 and takes on b2. After 10. a4 Black has good play for the pawn, either with the positional 10...Qb4, see Schoenbeck,H - Azevedo,J ½-½, or with the tempting 10...0-0, see Garcia Almaguer,J - Arman,D 0-1.

B2) 7.dxc5 Nd7

Typically, Black will win back one of the pawns with ...Nxc5 and have good positional compensation for the other one. White has tried a lot of different things:

8.c6 Tries to keep the big material advantage, but the price is high. After 8...Nc5 White should be careful as in Vallejo Pons,F - Nepomniachtchi,I ½-½.

8.e3 0-0 9.Bc4 Nxc5 10.Nge2 Interestingly, this was Svidler's choice with White when he had to face his own pet variation against the new World Championship challenger. After 10...Qa5 followed by ...Qb4 Black had good counterplay, Svidler,P - Nepomniachtchi,I ½-½. White could have tried a setup with 9.Nf3, but we look at that with the 8.Nf3 move order.

8.Nf3 Probably the best. 8...0-0 Here White can play aggressively with 9.e4 or more restrained with 9.e3. In both cases Black should be fine though. Let´s see: 9.e4 0-0 10.e5 Bg7 The white centre looks impressive, but the e5-pawn is a target and if it drops Black will have great play, see Malakhatko,V - Gopal,G 0-1. The main line is 9.e3 0-0.

The position is complicated, but Black has good compensation for the pawn due to the strong dark-squared bishop. 10.Be2 Qb6 11.Qd2 Bf5 with the idea ...Ne4 was fine in Michalik,P - Van Kampen,R 0-1. And 10.Nd4! Qb6 11.Qd2 Rd8 12.Be2 e6 seems to equalise, see Vallejo Pons,F - Nepomniachtchi,I ½-½.

Conclusion: All in all, the 4.Bg5 Bg7! line works well for Black in practice. Many of the balanced positions are easier to play with Black because his active pieces give him a long-term initiative, while it is hard for White to do anything even though he often is a pawn up. If you play the Grünfeld, try 4...Bg7!

You can find the full atricle with all games and analyses by GM Lars Schandorff in the new ChessBase Magazine #203!

Exclusively for CBM subscribers: Thematic tournament with GM Lars Schandorff on September 15th

Lars Schandorff invites the subscribers of ChessBase Magazine to a thematic tournament on September 15th on And the topic is - of course - Grünfeld-Indian with 4-Bg5 Bg7! Following the blitz tournament, the participants will have the chance to ask our author about details of the variation in video chat! An invitation to the tournament can be found in the booklet of ChessBase Magazine # 203 on page 16.

ChessBase Magazine #203

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