Today I’d like to discuss an opening situation that’s largely flown under my radar until now: playing against the Caro-Kann. At top-level, Caro-Kanns make up less than 10% of the “big four” responses (1…c5, 1…e5, 1…e6, 1…c6) to 1. e4, and Sicilians make up the vast (even by Sicilian standards) majority of responses to 1. e4 in my own games (it’s interesting how some trends get magnified at lower levels of play!).
However, chances are that you’re bound to see just about everything after playing high-level competition long enough. Two years is hardly near the threshold, but one of the first indicators is that I’m starting to see more Caro-Kanns. Good for them!
Unsurprisingly, the problems with facing the Caro-Kann highly resemble the reasons I play it as Black. Resource limitations also play a large role, as it’s not so easy to siphon complex opening ideas from database statistics or raw game scores. For example, almost all my theoretical knowledge about the Caro-Kann is from the book by Schandorff, whose recommendations are a little more dynamic than what I’m historically used to.
Honorable Mention: Fantasy Variation
There’s a weird candidate that deserves mention: the aptly-named Fantasy Variation (3. f3). I play this in bullet a lot, but mostly because everyone tends to play into the exciting 3…dxe4 4. fxe4 e5 5. Nf3 lines. In more serious play, I’d be more likely to get slower, French-like lines such as 3…e6 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Bf4 Ne7 6. Qd3 b6 7. Nge2 Ba6 8. Qe3.
This is actually the most likely for me to switch to (though interestingly, I’m not sure what I’d play as Black against 3. f3). The above is certainly viable and interesting for White (due to opposite-side castling), but I’m also considering resource limitations (Schandorff only discusses 3…dxe4) and my phobia of allowing …c5 with a knight on c3.
Finding the One
Ultimately, the decision came down to the question of which position was easiest to play for White. For example, I eliminated the Panov (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4) early on, though it’s understandably very popular at the amateur level, I tend to favor the static nature of Black’s prospects in the isolated queen pawn positions. Eliminating the Classical (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3) was a little more complicated; I’d actually like playing both sides of the opposite-side castling positions I talked about in my last post, but unfortunately the “boring” 12…Qc7 turned me off the line (not to mention Black’s other options on move 4). White has some decent deviations, but they don’t tend to promise much and certainly run the risk of petering out.
The easiest of the Advanced Variation (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5) options to eliminate was 4. Nc3, which is, with all due respect to Shirov, surprisingly unreliable (Schandorff made a great case for this). Below is a “typical” example after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nc3 e6 5. g4 Bg6 6. Nge2 c5 7. h4 h5!? 8. Nf4 Bh7 9. Nxh5 Nc6 10. dxc5 Bxc5 11. Nxg7+ Kf8.
The “ease of play” criterion came back into play for the rest of the options. I don’t intentionally shy away from positional maneuvering lines, but most of the positional options didn’t seem particularly challenging for Black, who starts slightly cramped, but invariably untangles and challenges the center with …c5.
However, Black’s less-mobile position (at least initially) is fairly characteristic of the Advanced Variation; maybe there’s a way to take advantage of it without being unreliable.
The Short Variation
It’s a fairly simple idea. White gears up for a fight with some more intuitive development and dares Black to catch up, as can be seen fairly quickly after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 c5 6. Be3.
However, my impression is that it’s gone fairly overlooked, despite being a regular guest at top level. It’s possible White players (and by extension, Black) can’t be bothered with the theory at lower levels of play. However, as I turn to facing stronger opposition this can’t be counted on. I stumbled upon the 6. Be3 Short while going over study material for Black, and was surprised at how dangerous the positions were. It certainly involves theory, but most resembles the reliably active option I’d been seeking.
White’s lead in development allows him two possible luxuries. One is the fairly overt threat of blowing open the center. The other, a bit more materialistic, can be seen from a plausible rookie mistake, 6…Nc6?.
Black might be surprised at first by 7. dxc5!, but it’s clear that Black has no reasonable way to regain the pawn due to lack of kingside development, e.g. 7…Qc7? 8. dxc5 Nxe5?? 9. Nxe5 Qxe5 10. Bb5+ is brutal, or even more immediately (as my acquaintance tried against me in the Cleveland Open blitz last weekend) 7…Qa5+? 8. c3 and the pawn is White’s for good.
Li (2157) – Martin (1903)
For an example of the first type, we turn to a rare bright spot in last weekend’s Cleveland Open. My opponent and I both had a really rough tournament, but at least I got to finish with a flash.
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 Nd7.
This is actually slightly more popular than 5…c5, and intended to lead to a slower game. In fact, Schandorff is really pushing White’s buttons with the dynacism, choosing to cover only 5…c5.
6. Be3 h6 7. Nbd2.
This was an attempt to combine my recently picked-up bit of the 5…c5 6. Be3 Short theory and positional attempts by White to stall …c5 (e.g. 4. Be3 followed by 5. Nd2 instead of 4. Nf3). I initially thought 6…h6 was too slow, but Black’s doing okay as long the center stays closed, i.e. avoid…
At best, Black is playing with fire, basically playing the dangerous Short lines from earlier down a tempo or two. 8. c4! would have been most forcing, but there’s not too much wrong with the game continuation.
8. O-O Qc7
Unsurprisingly, Black is a reluctant to admit the mistake, so to speak. 8…Ne7 runs into the dxc5 problems from earlier, but is probably the lesser of the two evils.
9. c4 Ne7 10. Rc1 dxc4? 11. Bxc4?!
My 11th move was based on thinking Black would stick to the fairly overt intention of an immediate …Nd5. We both overlooked the obvious 11…Nc6 after which 12. d5 isn’t nearly as treacherous as the game. However, Black would have been better off with simply 10…Nc6, as 11. Nxc4! Nd5 12. dxc5 Nxe3 13. fxe3 Bxc5 14. Nd6+ is curtains; White’s ruined e-pawns are irrelevant.
Instead, Black rolled along with 11…Nd5?? 12. Bxd5 exd5 13. dxc5. It may be a little dramatic to say the game is over, but Black is at least a move from castling kingside or regaining the c5-pawn or e5-pawn (e.g. 13…Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Qxe5 15. Re1). Black actually decided he couldn’t get out of the center fast enough and castled queenside (!) into a bone-crunching attack, resigning on move 28.
Holding Off On …c5
It’s pretty clear Black has to be careful about …c5. But if Black refrains from …c5 until reorganizing, it’s natural to wonder if the game just turns into one of the positional lines I tried to avoid earlier.
For example, in the 4. Nd2 line, White could try something on the kingside, ala 4…e6 5. Nb3 Nd7 6. Nf3 Ne7 7. Be2 Nc8 8. O-O Be7 9. Ne1 Bg6 10. f4.
After something like 10…O-O, White can try 11. g4 but at worst after 11…f5, White can lock up the position with 12. g5 (in which Black has the usual queenside action) or open the g-file, which looks sketchy with Black (almost) fully developed.
In the Short Variation, Black could try to get something similar with (after 5. Be2) 5…Nd7 6. Be3 Ne7.
7. O-O and 7. Nbd2 look like they’ll transpose to earlier lines after 7…Nc8. Instead, White could try for the relatively uncharted 7. Nh4!? possibly followed by 7…Bg6 8. O-O.
8…Nc8 might be okay for Black, but after 9. Nxg6 it’s a different game than the 4. Nd2 line. 8…Nf5 9. Nxf5 Bxf5 10. g4 Bg6 11. f4 has been played a few times, with success for White within that bubble.
One difference is that with the knight exchange and omitted Nd2-b3 maneuver, White is up a tempo on the kingside compared to the previous line. More importantly, White has a lot more room to generate queenside play. The computer likes White’s chances after 11…Be7 (or 11…c5) 12. c4 and whether or not that’s important, the position is a far cry from the free hand Black has in the first position.
So it’s safe to say in the Short Variation, there are always some ways for White to drum up some differences from safer lines.
And that’s the beginning of my attempts to break down my primary Black response to e4.
Any interesting ways you’ve countered your favorite openings? Let us know in the comments!