I would like to present you with an excerpt from one of the last emails that I sent to my Inner Circle. In case you would like to receive this kind of emails, please use the friendly yellow form on the right to subscribe.
Enter the Caro-Kann. If I have to explain why, I’d say that it has to do with the inherent solidity of the structures. The Berlin is also solid (I have also prepared that one at depth!) but the Caro feels more compact. After all, the pawn doesn’t go that far, only 1 square ahead!
When studying Fischer’s games I noticed that he played all the lines against the Caro-Kann (except the Advance, which at that time was considered completely harmless). Compare that to his almost exclusive use of the Sozin against all Sicilians. My impression was that he wasn’t sure which line was best against it, so he kept varying. In the last 5 Caro-Kanns he played, all in 1970, he played 3 ed in game 1 against Petrosian in the Match of the Century, 3 Nc3 in game 3, and three times he played 2 d3 (against Marovic, Hort and Hubner).
Curiously enough, the same situation of almost all lines being more or less equally playable applies to today. But here’s the thing that attracted me to the idea of the Caro – almost all of them can be easily solved.
Let’s start one by one. The Panov is practically sterile after 5…Nc6 (after 3 ed cd 4 c4 Nf6 5 Nc3) even though the other lines 5…e6 and 5…g6 are perfectly playable too. The Exchange Variation after 3 ed cd 4 Bd3, successfully used by Fischer in that famous game 1 of the Match of the Century, is rather toothless nowadays. Black has nothing to fear there after playing logically 4…Nc6 5 c3 Nf6 6 Bf4 Bg4 7 Qb3 Qc8. In the reverse Carlsbad structure with the bishop out on g4 the position is as safe and solid as possible.
2 d3 can be met either by the fianchetto (2…d5 3 Nd2 g6 4 Ngf3 Bg7 5 g3 e5) or the central development of the bishop after 2…d5 3 Nd2 e5 4 Ngf3 Bd6. I would go for the former, in order to avoid 5 d4 in case of the latter, but it is largely a matter of taste.
The Two Knights, an early Fischer favourite, can be met in various ways. My preference would be the established 3…Bg4 4 h3 Bf3 5 Qf3 e6. What can possibly go wrong there?
And so we arrive at the main lines. Nowadays there are two critical ways to tackle the Caro – the Advance Variation (in particular Short’s plan with 4 Nf3 e6 5 Be2) and the Main Lines with 3 Nc3 de 4 Ne4.
It is actually the Advance Variation that bothered me when thinking about the Caro-Kann for Black. It looks unassuming and not really threatening, but that space advantage White has becomes annoying as the game goes on (I suffered some unplesant losses in several training games I played). And also there was the problem of choice of lines. There are so many plans and move orders to choose from and I found them rather confusing because I couldn’t see a clear-cut plan behind them.
And then an obscure line appeared. It was the absurd-looking check 5…Bb4 (Black can also play 5…Nd7 first and then 6 0-0 Bb4). It was a game by Carlsen that drew my attention to it – he used this line to beat Giri in a rapid game last year. True, he also used this line to famously lose to Sjugirov in 2010, but then I wasn’t paying attention.
The reason why I became attracted to the idea is that here Black’s play had purpose – the bishop will drop to c7 to attack e5 after …f6, or to b6 to attack d4 after …c5. On the kingside there was also a clear way how to place the pieces – Black plays …h6 to secure the Bf5, plays …Ne7 and castles. Then he tries to achieve …c5 and/or …f6. And that’s it! Very simple and straight-forward. The line is becoming popular as after Carlsen it was Mamedyarov and Andreikin who continued to use it on a regular basis. There is, however, some hidden danger in these lines when White plays Nh4 and Nh5 and for now this seems to be the best way to play for White.
The main lines after 3 Nc3 de 4 Ne4 Bf5 (I was never really attracted to 4…Nd7 or 4…Nf6) 5 Ng3 Bg6 also looked uncomfortable. If the sidelines like 6 Nh3 or 6 Bc4 can be dealt with, the main line after 6 h4 h6 7 Nf3 looked problematic. I always had the hunch that here 7…e6 should be played, instead of the more popular 7…Nd7. Not because it is the better move, but because it is somewhat less common and gives Black some additional options later on, such as playing …c5 and …Nc6. Again it was Carlsen who employed this first at a top level – he used it in the first black game of his match with Anand in 2013. Refinement came several years later, when Black learned not to give the check on b4 on move 11 and play 11…Be7 immediately – the point being the pawn on d4 hangs now.
The crucial games were played by Giri and Mamedyarov: Wei Yi-Giri from this year’s Wijk and Saric-Mamedyarov from Baku’s Olympiad. Both of them suggest that Black is in excellent shape!
You can download the lines mentioned above here. They are far from conclusive, but they can serve as a good starting point for creating a Caro-Kann repertoire. Who knows, maybe soon enough I will use them myself!
But there is also Part II of this Repertoire and it can come directly to your Inbox on Saturday if you join my Inner Circle before then!