Back in late 2015, I made the argument that despite his record against Magnus, Hikaru Nakamura was the player most in form going into the Candidates Tournament. I even boldly went so far to claim he would beat Magnus in a match with the way he played that year. Things didn’t pan out as a slow start in Moscow put a kibosh on Nakamura’s Challenger aspirations, but it is worth mentioning that shortly after the Candidates he did net his first win against Carlsen in Bilbao.
While Hikaru’s current standing among the world elite won’t be the focus of today’s article, I did want to revisit a game I analyzed in my aforementioned article.
An Opening Reborn: 8. Rb1
Millionaire Chess 2 pitted Nakamura against young Grandmaster Sam Sevian early, in which we reached our tabiya for today.
If you aren’t familiar with the game, you should quickly look over it here, as it will give you an idea as to White’s main ideas in this line. This win was particularly attractive for me as an English player, and for a short time, I even incorporated it in my opening repertoire.
The underlying idea is pretty simple! With an early b2-b4 thrust, White intends to make Black choose between a having a weaker center, or letting White expand quickly on the queenside. If Black isn’t familiar with White’s ideas, these positions are quite dangerous. I remember a particularly euphoric win I had on chess.com against WGM Camilla Baginskaite (granted it was bullet, but the quality of chess was reasonable), after which I decided that this move 8. Rb1 was a legitimate weapon and sideline.
A year removed from this game, its been really interesting to see how Black’s play has evolved at the Grandmaster level, and I thought the development of this line would make for a fascinating conversation today. For such a minor sideline to evolve so quickly, I can only imagine the headache it is to catch up with Najdorf or Grünfeld theory!
Origin Story: 8…g5!?
As the last sub-title suggests, 8. Rb1 was not Nakamura’s creation – in fact, Kasparov even played it in 2001! However, Nakamura’s win against Sevian (and later Topalov) played a huge role in its return to prominence. So why did this line disappear among Super GMs in the first place? White’s plan seemed so easy – why would English players not play 8. Rb1? My best guess is because of the complications the crazy move 8…g5?! caused.
There’s actually quite a number of games here. Black’s intent is to quickly throw everything at the kingside and punish White for a slow 8. Rb1. This line was first really fashioned in 1993 in a clash between then top Grandmasters, Grigory Serper and Viktor Kortschnoj. Kotschnoj blew White off the board, and this move 8…g7-g5 really took off from there. I did a quick search by ChessBase in this line by Black’s rating, and was amazed by Black’s results.
So it makes some sense that 8. Rb1 went out of fashion – this move really gave White a headache. But there’s a story untold here – Black’s wins in this line for the most part predate the development of super computers like Stockfish and Houdini.
I took a quick look at the Almasi-Wang game played in 2011, and White managed to solve his opening problems (though his game was spoiled later on – perhaps thanks to the rapid time control). Since this game, 8…g5 has been played only ten times, with White scoring a splendid 7.5/10.
Black Starts Digging with 8…a5
Nakamura has most certainly looked at 8…g5, and for him to play 8. Rb1 means that he’s found something satisfactory for White as well. While this sideline had been played by GMs prior to Nakamura, his games accelerated the evolution of this line. As we see below, many of the strongest players who tried their hand at 8. Rb1 tried it after 2015, this putting it in the brief spotlight of Grandmaster level chess.
So what can Black do? As we’ve seen in each of these games so far, Black failed to come up with an intuitive solution to 8. Rb1 and was punished for it. However, with 8. Rb1 starting to catch the eyes of strong players, it didn’t take long to find Oleg Romanishin’s tries in 1993 – 8…a5!
This move simply asks White why the rook is on b1! This is the most simple move for Black, and moves us to the next chapter of opening evolution. Luckily for us, this move was featured three times in the Paris leg of the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, starting with Topalov’s try against Nakamura.
Topalov’s idea of simplifications in the center backfired, leaving the American a position where he could play for two results. Vesilin actually liked this game so much he tried 8. Rb1 as White later in the same tournament against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and won! We’ll get to that game later as it will be the starting point of a future chapter.
Unfortunately for me, I did not learn about 8…a5 through this game, but rather three months earlier in an over the board game against my Pitt teammate John Ahlborg!
John hadn’t studied this 8…a5 line, but found it over the board and the game was smooth sailing for him from there. After the tournament, I started looking into this 8…a5 line and decided to stop playing 8. Rb1 entirely. It’s a great weapon against someone unfamiliar with theory, but with a little time, there’s not reason a strong player can’t find 8…a5 and play from there.
Of course, opening theory evolves beyond my understanding, and its been an interesting journey to watch how 8. Rb1 progressed. Just ten days before I played John in the Pittsburgh Open, Russian Grandmaster Evgeny Tomashevsky neutralized White playing 8..a5, and needless to say, had I analyzed this game, I would have reconsidered playing 8. Rb1 in my own game.
Trades on b6, a Last Gasp?
Now we’ve seen 8..a5 a few times, it would be easy (like I did) to dismiss the 8. Rb1 line altogether, but one of the great things about opening evolution is that Grandmasters are always looking into new ideas!
In each of the losses against 8…a5, White tried Bxb6 at some point, giving up the bishop pair for control of the b5 square. Topalov, as I briefly mentioned before, also tried this idea but with a lot more success against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave!
Black seemed powerless in that game! The novelty MVL came up with 11…Qd7 hardly challenged White, and the game quickly went into a lost endgame. So perhaps giving up the bishop pair for control of b5 is the right approach! Of course Black had some solutions too, and when a nearly 2600-rated Grandmaster went for 8. Rb1 against Sergey Karjakin in the recent World Blitz Championships in Doha, Karjakin quickly put an end to the shenanigans.
I think this 8. Rb1 line is a fun line to try, especially in shorter time controls, but having played it myself, I don’t think I would advise it as a primary weapon. As we’ve seen through the evolution of this line, whenever Black’s found ideas to slow down White’s play, its become difficult for White to find ways to improve the position.
Objectively, I think White surrenders his opening advantage if Black plays 8…a5. At some point the rook will have to move from b1, costing White a critical tempo, as a b2-b4 push is no longer really possible.
On principle alone, we could say this violates moving the same piece twice, and White therefore fails to maintain the initiative. This is not necessarily to say that 8. Rb1 is a bad move – just not the most effective when trying to prove an advantage against 2000+ rated players. While I’m sure White may come up with new ideas in the future with this line, Black will always have solutions given his extra tempo in development.