The Caro-Kann: A History

The Caro-Kann: A History

| 23 | Opening Theory

We turn our attention to a defense that has been known for its solidity from the very beginning: the Caro-Kann Defense.

Surely the moves 1.e4 c6 have been played in casual games long ago -- probably soon after the modern rules of chess were instituted. However, the first recorded games with the Caro-Kann that I have found occurred in the 1800s.

The first games where the Caro-Kann defense was used in my database were played in Calcutta, 1856, by a mysterious Indian chess player named Somacarana against John Cochrane. Here is one of them.

John Cochrane was a Scottish lawyer who frequently traveled to India. He appears to have been a bit of a chess fanatic, who recorded and published many of his offhand games -- hence these games remain for posterity.

Little, on the other hand, is known about Somacarana -- most likely he originally knew a different version of chess than what he played with Cochrane. Nevertheless, he was able to compete on equal terms with Cochrane, who in turn frequently played and defeated the best players of the day, Louis-Charles Labourdonnais, Pierre de Saint-Amant, and Howard Staunton.

However, according to chess historian Edward Winter, this is not the earliest Caro-Kann. He mentions an 1845 game between unknown opponents from Edinburgh. The game may not look much like what we know as the Caro-Kann, but the first move nevertheless was 1...c6.

I have relied on Edward Winter's column for this game and various other information in this article.

What is the origin of the name "Caro-Kann"?

Horatio Caro (1862-1920) was a British chess master who lived most of his life in Berlin.


Caro, standing fourth from left, via wikipedia.

There are numerous references to him as one of the first to analyze the move 1...c6.  In fact, this appears to have happened in his own magazine, Brüderschaft, in 1886. There he examines some variations arising after 1...c6 and also shows a game played against Curt von Bardeleben in the Cafe Royal.

Throughout the following years, Caro published more games and analysis of 1...c6 in his magazine. Thus it is clear why his name is associated with the opening.

Marcus Kann was an Austrian amateur player. It appears that his name is connected to 1...c6 largely as a result of his 17-move win against Jacques Mieses in the fourth German Chess Congress in 1885.

Kann's name was mentioned frequently in the earliest references to 1...c6, so it is possible that he used the move in other games that were unrecorded or disappeared in the mists of time. All of his games must have been played before Caro's 1886 article, since he died that year.

The first instance of the hyphenated name "Caro-Kann" being used was in an 1890 article by von Bardeleben in the Deutsche Schachzeitung. Interestingly, in that article von Bardeleben recommended the move 3.f3 (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.f3) -- what is now known as the "Fantasy Variation." He came to that conclusion by deciding that neither 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6, nor 3.e5 offered any advantage for White.

Who were some of the earliest masters to use the Caro-Kann? Before the opening even had a name, Max Weiss used it four times at the Third German Congress, in Nuremberg 1883.

Another early master who used the Caro-Kann frequently was Francis Lee. He lost a spectacular game with the defense against Emanuel Lasker. This sacrificial king hunt has gone down in history as among Lasker's best games.

Moving a little further ahead in history, we find that Aron Nimzowitsch and Jose Raul Capablanca were some of the first great players to pick up the Caro-Kann.

Nimzowitsch, however, was the victim when the two players battled in the Caro-Kann. As White, he adopted the advance variation with 3.e5, and the game resulted in a smooth, strategic win for the world champion.

This game put the Advance Variation under a cloud for over half a century, until first Alexei Shirov showed the validity of the attack 3.e5 Bf5 4.Nc3 e6 5.g4!?, and then Nigel Short showed that slow, strategic play with 3.e5 Bf5 4.Nf3 followed by Be2 was promising.

Now that we have learned about the earliest beginnings of the Caro-Kann, next week we will focus on its modern adoption and White's various attempts to combat it.


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