Surprising a Friend in the Caro-Kann

Hidden under the struggles of a large and Chicago Open is an unusually tense game (from an earlier Chicago tournament) that I narrowly managed to win against my good friend Megan Chen. With some free time at home in Indiana, I suppose now’s a good time to finally put that game to rest, or else Megan will be bothering me throughout next week’s National Open.

In the spirit of my last post, the game shows again, to some extent, openings only matter so much and continually seeking chances even in unpleasant positions can be very useful. This game, in many respects, is unremarkable: I wasn’t having a very good tournament, and certainly didn’t deserve more than a draw (having nursed a rather mediocre endgame for a long time – a product of some subpar plans in the opening).

However, this game in particular occurrs under somewhat special circumstances, Megan and I having known each other for a long time (since before our days of serious chess). The mentality is always interesting for opponents who are very familiar with each others’ specialties (especially for a first encounter). On paper, it must have looked like a fairly one-sided matchup (given the rating difference), but there were a few confounding factors at play. For instance, there is Megan’s exhaustive study of the Caro-Kann, which as you might guess, we both find to be borderline unbreakable. Since I figured Megan had long ago made a thorough analysis of what I play against the Caro, I decided to play a sideline in the Classical (3. Nc3) lines that I hadn’t, and probably won’t, play again.

I’d like to focus on my opening thoughts for a moment. The main line (not just in this line, but in the Caro-Kann) is usually considered to be 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. Bd3, where after trades White obtains a developmental advantage against a nonetheless solid setup for Black.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 1.04.17 AM
After 5…Bg6

However, White has a decent sideline in 6. Bc4!?, where White usually tries to harass Black’s light-squared bishop with other pieces. This often takes the form of a trick in which White tries to upset the kingside pawn structure of an unwary Black, e.g. 6…e6 7. N1e2 Nf6 8. Nf4 Be7? 9. h4!, threatening to trap the bishop and forcing 9…h6 10. Nxg6 fxg6. Ouch!

However, White can take a totally different path with (6…e6 7. N1e2 Nf6) 8. O-O, which at first glance looks harmless.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 1.43.07 AM
After 8. O-O

However, if Black does nothing, White has the simple plan pushing f2-f4-f5 on the kingside which isn’t exactly pleasant for Black. Fortunately, Black has several reasonable ways to discourage this. One is to distract White on the b8-h2 diagonal as Megan did in the game. Another is to facilitate the trade of light-squared bishops followed by …g6, e.g. 8…Nbd7 9. f4 Nb6 10. Bd3 (10. Bb3 Qd7 prevents f4-f5) 10…Bxd3 11. Qxd3 g6. However, this doesn’t completely rule out f4-f5 as White can still consider pushing the pawn if he’s up for sacrificing a piece. The immediate 12. f5?! is probably a bit speculative (the more methodical plan is 12. b3 followed by Bb2, c2-c4, slower buildup) but White can consider this in several lines, and although it’s not always objectively sound, it’s difficult to tell how dangerous each case will be for Black. After 12. b3, Schandorff (in his Grandmaster Repertoire on the Caro-Kann) already considers 12…Bg7 13. f5! exf5 14. Nxf5 gxf5 15. Ng3! to be effective for White.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 1.54.01 AM
A promising attack for White

However, as is usual when I study openings, I later discovered this was not the most common continuation of this line. Naturally, I was on my own, and didn’t manage to get in f4-f5 fast enough. I got what I thought was a promising position, but my horribly misplaced pawn on f4 caused a lot of trouble later on.

As I mentioned before, I was fortunate to survive a fairly long ending, and eventually swindled a win in the end. But as I’ve said before, these don’t happen out of nowhere – they’re a product of staying focused and watching for chances as they come!

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