Game of the week
Two German players, Horatius Caro (1862-1920) and Marcus Kann (1820-1886), introduced this defence into competitive practice in the second half of the 19th century. It took a while for this opening to gain acceptance, and for many years it was considered passive and maybe even a bit inferior!
All that changed in the early 20th century when dynamic, young masters such as Tartakower , Nimzovitch and Duras introduced many interesting new ideas and concepts into the opening. Then when Capablanca decided to take up the opening, the Caro-Kann was given the stamp of respectability!
Today the Caro-Kann is considered one of the most reliable defences to 1.e4 and virtually every major international tournament sees atleast one or two games in this opening. New ideas are constantly being discovered and surprising twists in the evaluations of some of the critical lines are not uncommon. The Caro-Kann has become a match and tournament work horse!
2. d4 d5 A well known position!
Allow me to digress a bit: I started to play the Caro-Kann only in my 30’s. In the winter of 1987/88 I had to decide what opening to play against Andrei Sokolov’s 1.e4, for the upcoming Candidates Matches to be held in St.John at the World Chess Festival. In early 1987 Andrei Sokolov was ranked number 3 in the world, and was very much like a modern day Alexander Grischuk!
Sokolov’s 1.e4 was a real monster in those days and many players compared his results with Tal’s results in the mid 1960’s. Karpov had once played the Spanish against him in a Linares tournament and poor Anatoly was completely outplayed and crushed! Kasparov played the Sicilian and also lost, painfully, in one of his favourite lines. I myself had played the French against Sokolov several years earlier in the Montpelier Candidates Tournament (1985) and never equalized.
I realized that if I was to have chances to compete against Sokolov, then I needed to find an opening with Black that I could count on.
So while I was considering various opening options to play (the Modern defence was a real possibility, especially since I considered playing the Sicilian against Sokolov to be suicide!), Andras Adorjan (my second) suggested (no, insisted!) on playing the Caro Kann!
Andras Adorjan was one of the strongest grandmasters in the world in the early 80’s. He was also the best analyst that I knew and was a great opening theoretician. Andras’ list of successes was long and prestigious: Candidate for the World Championships (1979/80), Hungarian super champion (1984), and long time trainer/second of Kasparov (1984-1986) .
Adorjan’s reasoning was this: earlier in the year (1987) , in the Candidates Final (Karpov vs Sokolov) Karpov had relied on the Caro-Kann as his main defence , and he was able to resist everything that Sokolov had thrown at him: infact, Sokolov did not win a single time, even though he came close a couple of times! Adoran’s plan was to not necessarily repeat Karpov’s success, but to cause Sokolov problems in the opening.
And so Adorjan and I spent an entire month in preparation before the match with Sokolov , mostly working on the Caro-Kann. Since neither of us (!) were Caro-Kann players at the time, we had to learn everything from scratch. And we did great work, and I felt confident, but when the match started I lost the very first Caro-Kann that I played!
For the next several years I continued to play the Caro-Kann, with normal results. But then since I was not scoring better with this opening than with any other opening I had played, I stopped playing the Caro-Kann. I never considered myself an expert on this opening anyway, and I was getting bored with it!
Years later, in the winter of 1995 I was sitting in a restaurant in Geneva flipping thru some opening books that I had just purchased…one of these books was a german book on the Caro-Kann: Die Caro-Kann Verteidigung, by Hagen Tiemann.
Though I don’t read or speak German, I understand enough chess-german to get by. And I was very surprised to see that in the introduction my name (der Kanadier Spraggett) was listed as one of the experts of the Caro-Kann!
Returning to the actual game:
This move and 3.Nd2 are interchangeable, and constitute the classical approach to playing against the Caro-Kann. Also very popular today , at all levels of play, is the advance variation: 3.e5 And let us not forget about the Panov Attack! Essentially, what variation you play depends on your style and mood…
When I was younger I used to often play 3. ed cd 4. Bd3 (diagram) which is what Fischer played to defeat Petrosian in the first game of the historic USSR vs World match of 1970 (photo below). I was so impressed with this game that I took up the line!
However, I gave the line up (after many successes!) when it became well known just how to take the sting out of White’s play…
4… Nc6 5. c3 Nf6 6. Bf4 Bg4 7. Qb3 Qc8! ( better than the older 7… Na5 8. Qa4 Bd7 9. Qc2 e6 10. Nf3 Qb6 11. a4 Rc8 12. Nbd2 Nc6 13. Qb1 Nh5 14. Be3 h6 15. Ne5 (Fischer – Petrosian 1970) when White built up a strong central position (diagram)
3… dxe4 4. Nxe4
4… Bf5!? Known as the classical variation
Though I have played this solid move myself from time to time, I have never been a big fan of it. Against Sokolov in the Candidates Match in 1988 I played only 4…Nd7, and while I can not complain of my results , I never felt entirely comfortable with the Black positions that arose after the critical 5.Ng5!?
A line that I have recently studied in depth and which I firmly believe in is 4… Nf6!? 5. Nxf6 ef!? diagram ( I have played 5… gf many times in the past, even defeating Andrei Sokolov in a wonderful game in France in 1989, but today everyone knows the best way to play for White: 6. c3 Bf5 7. Nf3 e6 8. g3!, and the position is not to my taste.)
5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4!?
Not the only move seen in master chess, but considered the mainline by most experts. White’s plan is to gain space on the King side and provoke a weakness in Black’s pawn structure (…h6). Most of the work in popularizing this line goes to former world champion Boris Spassky, who achieved great success with this plan in the 60’s and 70’s. His games are models of how White should play. Curiously, in the latter part of his career he prefered the less ambitious and more drawish plan of leaving his pawn on h2 and castling short!
6… h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3
All of this is theory and can be easily understood, even by beginners. White has gotten rid of the Black Queen Bishop and has gained space on the King side. Since he is a bit weakened on the King side, however, it seems logical for White to castle long. Tens of thousands of games have been played from this position in the past 50 years or so, and results have tended to favour White slightly. However, Black has a super solid position.
Returning to the actual game:
11. Bd2!? A natural move. Many masters play 11. Bf4 but Black has sufficient counterplay after the tricky 11… Qa5 12. Bd2 Bb4!? (diagram below)
Not a simple position for either side. If White wants to castle Queen side then he must first weaken his pawns (c3) and then drive away the Black Queen from a5. In the meantime, Black threatens to just develop his pieces and keep the option open of castling on either side of the board.
11… Ngf6 12. O-O-O Be7
13. Qe2!? The most successful move today according to the databases.
White removes his Queen from the d-file before proceeding. In some lines he will want to play Ne5, without allowing the exchange of Queens (on d3). In general, in this opening the Queen is most effectively posted on e2.
No one really knows for sure what Black’s best move is in this postion, but certainly castling can not be wrong, just on general principles! Note that 13…Qc7 is a bit imprecise after 14.Ne5 and 15.f4 since White would get everything he wants without having to work for it!
However, many experts on the Black side of the Caro-Kann (Riazantsev, Motylev, Akopian and Magem, to name those that come immediately to mind) prefer to play the immediate 13…c5!? leading to a very sharp and critical position:
13… c5!? 14. Rhe1 O-O (14… cd 15. Nxd4; 14… Rc8 15. d5!?) 15. Nf5!? (diagram)
Ofcourse, you only play this way if you have worked everything out at home! But it appears that ,with perfect play, Black has little to fear, even though White will have an interesting piece sacrifice at his disposal.
15… cd! It is now known that after 15… ef 16. Qxe7 Qc7 17. dc Rfe8 18. Qd6 Qxc5 19. Rxe8! Rxe8 20. Qxc5 Nxc5 21. Be3 (diagram) White has the better ending. Black has drawing chances, of course, but it is an unhill struggle.
16. N3xd4 Bc5 (16… Kh8 is possible, but Black must be prepared to defend against the dangerous 17. Nxg7!? Kxg7 18. Qe3 Ng8 (18… Rh8 19. Qg3 Kf8 20. Rxe6) 19. Bc3 Bf6 20. g4 Re8 21. Rg1 Kh8 22. Nb5 with many threats and good compensation for the material sacrificed) 17. Nxh6!? (the piece sac mentioned above) 17… gh 18. Bxh6 Re8 19. g4
Returning to the actual game:
14… c5!? A logical reaction: hitting the centre.
But is this move the best move? Some think so, but I have my doubts….
Returning to the actual game:
15. g4! White wastes no time in preparing this move. 15. Rg1 is too slow
The die is cast! White plays for the jugular and wastes no time in the process. Although very crude, White’s attack has a lot of venom in it.
15… cxd4 !?
Note that taking the g-pawn (15… Nxg4) would allow White to play 16. Rg1 with a great game along the g-file.
16. g5 ! Gung Ho!
In this variation it is imperative to fight for the initiative! There is less of a priority to immediately recapture the pawn on d4. Timing is everything in chess. The curious thing about chess is that checkmate ends the game: it does not matter who has an extra Queen or what not.
16… hxg5 necessary
Note that the in-between move 16… d3 would not really change much after 17. Qxd3 hxg5 18. h6 g6 19. Bxg5, with more or less the same position.
The critical position. White has opened the g-file and can further open things up by advancing his h-pawn. Black must play with extreme care here.
17… Qa5?! A weak idea that quickly backfires on Black.
There will not be enough time for Black to develop a serious initiative on the Queen side and the absence of the Queen will be felt over on the King side. I don’t know if Black is indeed lost after this move, but he is close to the edge!
In my opinion, the last serious chance for Black to try to put up real resistance is with 17… Nd5 !? (diagram) By seeking exchanges Black can reduce White’s Kingside attack; he also gains some squares for his pieces.
20. Ne3 (20. h6! might even be stronger; 20. Kb1 has been played) 20… Qh6 21. Kb1 N7f6 22. Nxd5 ed 23. Ne5 Rae8 24. f4 (diagram) Spraggett – Malakhatko , Cala Mayor 2008 ,Spanish Team Championship.
White has the freer position; and Black’s Queen seems offside. Even so, it is still a tough fight. (I played an excellent game, profitting from my opponent’s later inaccuracies; I built up a close to winning position before becoming victim to time trouble …and even managed to lose!)
Returning to the actual game:
18. Kb1 necessary
White must lose a tempo to defend against Black’s direct threat. Playing 18.a3 would just give Black an easy target.
18… Nc5?! After this weak move Black finds himself with a lost position. I suppose Black simply under-estimated how dangerous White’s attack was.
The Black Knight was needed to help defend the King position.
19… Rfd8 There is nothing better at this point.
20… Qb6 The alternative 20… Qb4 is essentially the same after 21. a3 21. Ne5!
This strong move clears the way for the White Queen to move to the King side. Now White need only find the right moves and his attack will win, regardless of Black’s defence. But note that it was not too late for White to go wrong: 21. Qe5? would allow the strong 21… Na4! and Black would be back in the game with a vengence!
21… Na4 A desperate try in a desperate position.
Threatening mate on b2 and sometimes the fork on c3. Unfortunately , none of this disturbs White since his attack over on the King side decides the game immediately.If instead Black had played 21… Qc7 then White continues with the simple 22. Nd2 (connecting the White Rooks!) threatening to win immediately with 23. Rh8 Kxg7 24. Bxf6 Bxf6 25. Qg4 and so on as in the game.
22. Rh8 ! White has a forced mate. The finish is very pretty!
Black is helpless: all of his important pieces are on the other side of the board and can not stop the White pieces from flooding in on the King side.
23. Bxf6! Kxf6 Also insufficient is 23… Bxf6 as after 24. Qg4 Kxh8 25. Qh5 mates quickly. This theme (Qh5ch) re-appears each move.
24. Rh6 Kg7 White to play and win!
25… Kf8 Or 25… Kg8 26. Qg4 is winning; Or 25…KxR 26.Qh5ch mating in a few moves