The Dreaded g2-g4

Contents
0. Tl;dr
1. Classical Caro-Kann, Feisty Version
2. Good and Bad News
3. False Start
4. But Could Black Have Castled?
5. A Blowout
6. Don't Even Try Nxg4
7. Less Intuitive
8. Parting Thoughts

Tl;dr

Lately, I’ve decided to start trying to make sense of more dynamic positions. I’ll use the g2-g4 storms in the Classical Caro-Kann as an example, but I encourage you to extend something similar in any defensive positions of interest. This is a little bit of a disorganized journey, but it has to start somewhere.

And if nothing else, you’ll get to see me getting crushed by an 11-year old 1800 in under an hour.

Classical Caro-Kann, Feisty Version

First, a quick overview of the Classical Caro-Kann for those who aren’t familiar with it. The Classical almost always begins with 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 (or 3. Nd2) 3…dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 02.06.22
The real starting position of the Classical Caro-Kann.

In this post, we’ll examine some positions that occur after 11. Bd2. An equally popular continuation for White is 11. Bf4, which looks more active at first glance but can be countered with checks on the a5-e1 diagonal. Instead, after 11. Bd2, naturally 11…Ngf6 12. O-O-O follows.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 02.19.56
Kingside or queenside?

The Caro-Kann owes much of its solid-yet-boring reputation to the traditional Classical continuation: 12…Qc7 followed by queenside castling. Black isn’t particularly active, but White has no structural targets to take advantage of.

A more interesting (and trendy as of late) option is to brave opposite-side castling with 12…Be7!.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 02.30.23
Be bold!

I first learned of this through one of my two opening books, the Grandmaster Repertoire book on the Caro-Kann by GM Lars Schandorff, who proclaims, “Often, White will burn his bridges in his eagerness to attack, and if we are not mated, then we will win the endgame!” Indeed, in the long term, Black benefits from the thematically sound Caro-Kann structure, hoping for White’s h5-pawn to stick out even more.

Good and Bad News

But in the short term, Black shouldn’t be crowing about the placement of the h-pawns in front of his/her castled king, for fairly obvious reasons. Unsurprisingly, a common theme in this line is White’s ability to quickly rush the g-pawn, often as a sacrifice.

Black could run into this if oblivious enough:

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 03.07.16
Black should’ve paid a little more attention.

On the other hand, as I like to remind people, a pawn is a pawn. It’s always important not to confuse a scary-looking attack with proof that it actually works, so don’t be too quick to go, “OH NO, THE G-FILE IS OPEN! RUN!” The above disaster is just one of many possibilities involving the g-pawn rush in the Caro-Kann. Others range from just as dangerous to completely harmless.

Many good players are prone to underestimating defensive resources, but as I’ve learned firsthand, it’s just as easy to do the opposite. Unsurprisingly, these dynamic positions tend to be difficult to calculate in the short-term and long-term.

Despite the “Grandmaster Repertoire” label, the aforemtneiond Caro-Kann book is remarkably good at the conceptual level. However, as someone who is much more used to slower positions, I feel there’s some overall explanation on the “g4 positions” to be desired. Schandorff dismisses some dangerous positions as “g4 is coming”, while the supposedly harmless positions (including the scores of possibilities not mentioned, although this is hardly the fault of the book) are a different story at the expert-level, since we’re far from perfect at both attack and defense.

So even though I’ve read through most of the relevant part of the book, there’s certainly room for long-term study, if for nothing else than to get a feel for the potency of White’s kingside ideas.

False Start

The easiest way to tell that White’s attack won’t succeed is that there’s nothing to attack.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 00.04.35
Narkeeran (1777) – Li (2058)

In a Pittsburgh club game from last February against local 11-year old Madhavan Narkeeran, Black has just played 12…Be7 as usual. Now, one of the good things about playing Black is knowing exactly what White’s planning after moving the g3 knight, e.g. 13. Ne2.

So does Black castle into the attack or not? In my case, I’d just come back from an exhausting US Amateur Team East trip that morning. Thus simply avoiding the chance of a bone-crunching attack for the moment, in this case with 13…c5 preparing queenside counterplay, was a no-brainer, especially since Black’s king is in no danger at all.

I was promptly rewarded by the eager 14. g4? and only after 14…Nxg4 and only then did White realize he had no time to shift to the open kingside, due to 15…Nxf2.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 00.23.13

As expected, White promptly defended f2, but was forced to simply play the rest of the game down a pawn after I shuffled the knight back and castled queenside.

But Could Black Have Castled?

Instead, suppose Black just plays (after 13. Ne213…O-O 14. g4 Nxg4.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 00.30.47

First, two general scenarios emanating from these positions can be identified easily:

  • If White allows Black a completely free tempo in the beginning, Black is likely better.
  • If Black allows White to regain the pawn, White is likely better, since the newly lost Black pawn is likely to be one of the kingside pawns.

Similarly to the original game, but if White meekly defends f2, Black retreats, plays …Kh8, and can heavily defend everything on the kingside at a moment’s notice. More interesting is to simply forge ahead with 15. Rdg1!?.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 01.24.48

Black only has three plausible options: 15…f5, 15…Ndf6, and 15…Nxf2. However after 15…f5 16. Nf4 wins the e6-pawn by force, and although the game is far from over, Black has simply given the pawn back and created more weaknesses. 15…Ndf6 is immediately met by 16. Rh4, and Black can snag another pawn and a rook for the two knights, e.g. 16…Qd5 17. Rhxg4 Nxg4 18. Rxg4 Qxh5 but the combination of three minor pieces, a rook, and a queen is still quite enough to cause trouble on the wide-open kingside.

Instead, Stockfish evaluates 15…Nxf2 at slightly better than +1 (for Black), but as usual, the evaluation doesn’t tell the whole story. Indeed, when Black is about to be up at least an Exchange and two pawns but still only scores +1, there’s some trickery going on. After 16. Qb3 Nxh1 17. Bxh6, we see another thematic issue for Black: White being able to “reload” on g7 with both the bishop and h-pawn, e.g. Bxg7 and h5-h6 is a possibility no matter what (on the other hand, 16. Qe3?? Nxh1 17. Qxh6 blows out to 17…Bf6 and White has no follow-up for being down so much material).

Even now, we have quite a few possibilities after 17. Bxh6. The first one that came to mind was 17…Kh7 18. Bxg7 Rg8 19. Qd3+ f5 20. Nf4 Nf8.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 01.47.46

At this point I switched off Stockfish so that my phone would last for more than 15 minutes, but a natural follow-up seems to be 21. Nxe6 Qd5 and perhaps White is running out of steam; Stockfish settled at around -2.2 (for White) here.

However, Black might also want to worry about 18. Bxg7 Rg8 19. h6 after which the threat of 20. Qd3+ f5 21. Nf4 isn’t as easy to repel.

Of course, Black should be willing to calculate far more in a real game than I am at the moment, but the point was to show how hairy things can get even in a fairly non-critical try (13. Ne2/14. g4).

A Blowout

In the larger picture, Madhavan is a highly promising junior player. He’s been giving the established Pittsburgh players a lot of trouble, but a win over an expert has eluded him… until last Tuesday.

This certain expert is probably not going to relax too much against any of these kingside attacks anymore, no matter how unsound they seem.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.19.15
Narkeeran (1800) – Li (2157)

At the 12…Be7 tabiya, Madhavan deviated from our previous game with the common 13. Kb1, and we blitzed through 13…O-O 14. Ne4 Nxe4 15. Qxe4 Nf6 16. Qe2 Qd5. White has attempted to clear the path for g2-g4, while Black attempts to trade into a comfortable ending via …Qe4. We’re still in well-trodden theory.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.26.45

It turns out that White doesn’t have a great way to start the attack. 17. g4?! is a dubious sacrifice with Black’s queen so active, e.g. 17…Qe4 18. Be3 Nxg4 19. Nd2 (19. Rdg1? Nxe3 20. fxe3 Bg519…Qf5 20. Rdg1 Nxe3 and Black gets the free tempo and blocks the g-file pressure easily.

17. Be3, which Madhavan played, is one of the harmless moves as labeled by Schandorff, but is White’s last chance to avoid …Qe4.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.32.32

An interesting idea from the book is 17…Bd6!?, seemingly placing the queen awkwardly but preparing …Qf5 and …Bf4 if need be. By now, the role that dark-square control plays in the defense is becoming clearer.  And Madhavan immediately whipped out the strange 18. Nh4?!.

One problem with skepticism is that it extends too far beyond the first move. My instinct was that this was too contrived to be correct, and it should have stayed that way – instinct. Since I now thought I could play basically anything reasonable and hold, I stuck with my first impulse to trade queens with 18…Qxh5. Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to play the resulting position than I realized, and in fact 18…Nxh5! threatens to completely stall White’s play on f4 (especially if 19. g4?) and probably would have won with much less trouble.

Naturally, White’s response to 18…Qxh5 was to immediately sacrifice another pawn with 19. g4!.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.48.10

In lieu of my above comments, it’s not surprising that my reaction was basically, “well, kids like to sac pawns galore; also, no one sacrifices two pawns here, so…”

Of course, instead of the nearsighted 19…Qxg4? there’s also 19…Qd5 but that completely defeats the purpose of 18…Qxh5; after something like 20. Rdg1 preparing g5, Black is still walking a fine line with White fully developed.

And it’s quite embarrassing to note that after White’s 20. Qd2, my first real think of the game – about 20 minutes – produced 20…Qe4??.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.55.18

In some sense, it was just forgetting something after too much time analyzing something else. But the damage was done and even though after 21. Bxh6! Nd5 White gave me a chance to regroup slightly with 22. Qg5?, I immediately squandered it with 22…Qh7?? which was followed by 23. Rdg1 and total carnage (for what it’s worth, 22…g6 was called for, but defending an airy kingside an Exchange down is not on many players’ bucket lists). I ended up getting mated in a few more moves, ending the game after a little under an hour.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.58.36
After 23. Rdg1

On one hand, I just played a bad game, but as I discussed in my previous post, this is not exactly acceptable damage at the 2150 level. Furthermore, there is something to be said about taking into account the possibility of playing worse, when preparing.

So now, it’s pretty clear what dangers lurk in even harmless-looking positions. For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss any others in great detail, but will bring up a few that came up in my exploration of the g4 positions.

Don’t Even Try Nxg4

After 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Ngf6 12. O-O-O Be7, White has a tricky prophylactic idea in 13. Qe2!?.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.07.54

Avoiding the problems of the 13. Ne2 sideline from earlier, as can be seen after 13…O-O 14. Nf1!? c5 15. g4!.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.12.01

After 15…Nxg4? 16. Rg1, Black doesn’t have that tempo due to White’s sneaky 13. Qe2 protecting f2 and has a lovely choice between 16…f5 and 16…Nf6, in each case giving White back a clear pawn and some weaknesses to attack. Of course, Black can settle for 15…Nh7.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.14.07

But this is a long-term concession. White is still willing to sacrifice the g-pawn and can prepare it with an eventual f2-f4. Black’s plan on the kingside is not so obvious and the queenside attack is a little slower than we’d like.

So in general, Black can certainly decline Nxg4, but in many lines this faces the long-term issue of a further push of the kingside pawns.

Less Intuitive

After 12…Be713. Ne4 Nxe4 14. Qxe4 Nf6 is actually most common. Historically, White has usually stuck to 15. Qe2 but 15. Qd3!? is a little devious.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.36.33

After 15. Qe215…Qd5 equalizes fairly easily in a similar manner to one of the earlier lines. However, if Black tries (15. Qd3) 15…Qd5?! suddenly 16. c4 Qe4 17. Qb3! places the queen in a very awkward situation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.38.43

Castling queenside into a bone-crushing attack is out of the question, especially since White can relegate the queen to h7 with Rhe1. Castling kingside (presumably after b7 is dealt with) with the queen so misplaced gets tangly for multiple reasons I won’t go into.

Black defenses to this haven’t been studied that much. 15…c5 has been played a few times and I recall seeing it in a random book I found at a chess tournament in May, but Schandorff considers the best bet to castle into the attack with 15…O-O and prepare.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.43.10

Schandorff’s analysis runs 16. g4 Nxg4 17. Rhg1 f5 (apparently 17…Nxf2 is too dangerous) 18. Qe2 Kh7!?.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.45.29

Not the most intuitive at first glance. But the traded off pieces have made all the difference; with the freer center and rock-solid Ng4, Black can afford to cooly respond to 19. Qxe6 with 19…Qd6. The book analysis continues 19. Ne5 Nxe5 20. dxe5 and while I haven’t studied this in detail, it looks like due to the trades Black is mobile enough to defend everything on the kingside with fairly good chances.

Parting Thoughts

Unfortunately for me, the g4 positions get more difficult than what I’ve posted. But these positions are fairly representative of what one might get at a competent, but less theoretical (i.e. players go out of book sooner) level of play. And while more difficult positions certainly require either more calculation or preparation (depending on when one chooses to be lazy), the above positions have proven to be fairly manageable by considering more positional aspects of the lines. Of course, remembering all of them is easier said than done. But this is where general playing experience and preparation, if I ever get around to it, comes in.

Again, in other defensive setups, similar exploration might be helpful.

It might also prevent some unsuspecting upsets by young players if you do it well!

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3 thoughts on “The Dreaded g2-g4

  1. Very nice presentation. Madhavan plays with a pretty murderous style. I feel like open lines count for more when he’s at the board. In your game with him, it really feels like black should be able to do something that holds the position, but I think your point earlier about Expert (and lower) players not attacking and defending perfectly is an apposite remark to compliment the position after Qxg4, because the game really turns into a minefield.

    These g4 lines are interesting, so thanks for sharing. I haven’t been through Schandorff’s book on the Caro-Kann yet.

  2. anon

    18.Nh4! is most certainly not dubious- it is Negi’s recommendation. 18…Nxh5 is not much better than Qxh5 as White keeps a strong attack after 19. c4 Qe4+ 20.Ka1 Nf6 21.f3 Qh7 22.g4.

  3. Pingback: Pedal to the Medal: Chess, chess, chess! – chess^summit

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