The Fianchetto Grunfeld and Must-Win Situations

Here’s the second article I wrote for Informator 120

The Fianchetto Grunfeld and Must-Win Situations by GM Aleksandar Colovic

The last round of the Shamkir super-tournament saw a very exciting situation – Caruana had to beat Carlsen with black to win the tournament. Even though they were equal on points he needed a win because he had an inferior tie-break. So the first question was how he would approach the opening in this delicate situation.

Caruana showed his aggressive intention as early as move 5 when he offered a pawn for central domination. He could have taken on d4 instead and transposed to the well-known exchange variation of the Fianchetto Grunfeld, known for its solidity and drawing tendencies – it served Kasparov well in his matches with Karpov as he never lost a game in it. But certainly this isn’t the way to play when you need to win. Or is it?

Let’s go back in history a bit and see what happened in another elite game in a similar situation. Round 12 of the Palma Interzonal in 1970 saw the clash of the leaders – Geller was sole first with 8/11 ahead of Fischer with 7.5/11. He was white and a draw would have kept him in the lead, so he started with 1 Nf3, 2 c4 and 3 g3, similar to what Carlsen did against Caruana. Admittedly, the situation in Palma wasn’t as critical as in Shamkir, as a round 12 game in a 23-round tournament shouldn’t be that important, but here it was a principled fight – Geller had been Fischer’s bete noire, beating him in their last three encounters, so even though the tournament victory didn’t depend on this one game, we do know that for Fischer every game was a must-win situation. So how did he react to Geller’s obvious intention to sit and make a draw? He did not lunge forward like Caruana and calmly went into the exchange variation of the Grunfeld. Geller must have misinterpreted this as he offered a draw as early as move 7, the moment he took on d5. A big psychological mistake, but he was probably thinking that he was putting Fischer under pressure with the offer, as if telling him “if you don’t want a draw, try to beat me in this symmetrical and most solid position.” Fischer laughed at the offer and simply continued as if nothing had happened. This seemed to get Geller out of his comfort zone and soon he lost a pawn, but he defended well and should still have drawn, if not for his blunder on move 71. Eventually, Fischer’s decision proved to be right.

In the 44 years since the Palma Interzonal theory has advanced immeasurably, so I am pretty convinced that if white really wants to make a draw in the Fianchetto Grunfeld, he can do that rather comfortably. So Caruana was probably right not to go there. But where did he go?
After Carlsen took on c5 and both sides castled we were actually in yet another Fianchetto Grunfeld variation, but with colours reversed (and hence a tempo up for white) – now it was Carlsen playing the Grunfeld! This line was used (rather unsuccessfully, as he drew one and lost one game with it) by Romanishin in his match against Anand in 1994. White (or in Carlsen’s case black) sacrifices a pawn in order to establish a powerful centre and have chances for an attack. But if Anand was able to difuse the line with black, certainly Carlsen was in much better situation being a tempo up? He used that tempo to land a knight on d6 to obtain an advantage and win a good game.

Was Caruana’s choice on move 5 right? I’d say yes and now. Yes, because he avoided a probable draw in case of taking on d4 and gave himself a fighting chance to try and outplay Carlsen; no, because the position objectively was better for white, a whole tempo up compared to a line which is considered good for black when a tempo down. And giving Carlsen a pawn and a tempo is rarely, if ever, a good idea.
Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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