One of the more interesting phenomena in modern opening theory is the unabashed g2-g4 push on seemingly arbitrary (at least to the unfamiliar) opening occasions.
Predictably, most of these shots are based on more dynamic intentions, and since each situation is different, it’s hard to pin down a lot of general principles here. The Shabalov-Shirov (who else?) line of the Meran Semi-Slav is perhaps the most famous (and theoretically heavy) example, demanding specific knowledge and tactical foresight to play at a high level. Black can accept the gambit (note the hanging pawn on h2), flout White’s attack completely (castling into some potentially open kingside lines), or play it safe with …h6 (as is somewhat more common), but all give White compensation in various ways.
Since each situation is different, discussing g2-g4 in general is more of a thought exercise (at least if you’re lazy or don’t study many openings, like me). Still, the potential of such a bold gesture is clear in many of these situations, compensating for what is often a gambit or positional gamble.
(By the way, g2-g4 can happen much earlier than move 7; for example, as 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3 Bb4 4. g4!? or even 1. d4 f5 2. g4!? if you’re willing to relax your definitions.)
In a game I skimmed over last month, a young 1900-rated player chose an early-looking g2-g4 that I was vaguely familiar with due to having seen it in a book. The author, being a Caro-Kann expert, is a fairly no-nonsense player and I, feeling similarly, didn’t think too highly of the early g2-g4.
In this position from the Three Knights Caro-Kann, White has just played 8. g4!?. Admittedly, this makes much more sense than I thought at the time (since an ambitious White was probably going to castle queenside and his queen is fairly well-placed for any kingside action), but since I hadn’t castled kingside and had played pretty reasonable moves to reach this position, I didn’t feel like White should have much here. Black has three possible reactions to a potential g4-g5:
- Ignore it.
- Curb it with 8…h6.
- Prepare for it in some other way.
According to a very limited sample of games from chess.com, the obvious continuation of the third type, 8…Nfd7, is very reasonable. Obviously, any further kingside pawn pushes are stopped for the moment, and Black can easily maneuver the other knight to c7.
8…h6 is an obvious candidate, but this creates an obvious target if Black ever castles kingside. Queenside is not the safest option in the world at the moment and White has plenty of power for say, an f-pawn push to break open the center, as in this crushing win for White.
From my previous comment, you can probably guess that I went with the first choice. Again, since I’d played logically up to that point, it’s reasonable to expect Black shouldn’t be too afraid of White’s primitive-looking attack. However, I chose to do this in a rather awkward way, tangling the knights with 8…Nbd7? 9. g5 Ng8, after which White is not as extended as I hoped in most reasonable continuations.
Interestingly though, there are ways to decline this without tangling all the Black pieces on the first two ranks. 8…Na6 has been played, after which White had little to show for the moment after 9. g5 Nd7 10. h4 Nb4 11. Qd1. Even 8…O-O looks dangerous, but White still has work to do before breaking in after moves like 9. h4 or 9. g5 and Black will have chances on the queenside when White castles. An interesting battle is in store once the opposite-side castling is declared.
Even for someone who doesn’t think terribly highly of them, the myriad g2-g4 possibilities are still pretty intriguing to me. Feel free to give a shoutout to any particularly interesting (or early) ones.