Review: Positional Gruenfeld Repertoire - Part 1 by Mihal Marin (Modern-Chess.com)
My first review was generally well received and even the author himself, Grandmaster Boris Avrukh had said that the review was more difficult to digest than the survey itself! That was of course tongue in cheek but nevertheless, I now have the opportunity to review another piece of work written by the famous chess author, Romanian Grandmaster Mihail Marin.
Mihail is extremely well-known in the chess circle for several highly acclaimed works such as Learn from the Legends & his 3-volume series on the English Opening. The Gruenfeld is one of the lines in my black repertoire so I am naturally very curious to see his recommendations and compare them with relatively recent works such as Pavlovic's, Svidler's and Avrukh's. Additionally, I also have his Chessbase DVD on the White side of the Gruenfeld and I wanted to see how he would contest his own recommendation.
Mihail comes across as an old-school and philosophical type of trainer/writer. Much of his prose revolves around chess strategy, deep manoeuvres and positional understanding. As such, you don't expect to see long computer variations in his works although he does delve deeper in lines where he deems fit. There might be some people who might find this sort of thing unnecessary and dull but I personally find it extremely entertaining. An example can be seen from the very first game of the database:
If you have not seen this position before, you need to start reading a bit more! And yet, in a position where most authors will simply start discussing the various options at White's disposal, Mihail began the article with a study of possible pawn structures with this:
"White's space advantage would make a dogmatic like Tarrasch suspicious about Black's chances, but decades of practice have shown that he can get counter-chances by attacking d4 with all available resources (starting with ...c7-c5 and Nc6). True, White has several ways of dealing with the increasing pressure against his centre, but how to make use of the d4 and e4 tandem remains an open question. ***Abstractly, we can identify three main approaches: 1) playing e4-e5, 2) playing d4-d5.
***This article will deal with the first situation.
***It doesn't take a skilled eye to understand that e4-e5 is White's most commital plan. After the exchange on d4 Black gets a perfect blocking square on d5 while most of the endings are bad for White as his central majority is immobile while Black's queenside majority can advance unhindered. ***Advancing the e-pawn usually makes sense if Black has previously played ...e7-e6 or, due to the threat e5-e6, he needs reacting this way to e5-e4. The weakened f6-square offers White chances for a slow attack based on Be3-h6 and h2-h4-h5 followed by either h5-h6 or an exchange on g6 followed by somehow doubling the major pieces along the h-file. Sometimes, the knight transfer to d6 or f6 is possible, but since White has to use the transit e4-square Black can usually prevent this plan with Bb7xe4.
***Another thematic idea is breking the blockade with d4-d5. In order to be effective, White typically needs his knight on f4 while Black's queenside minor pieces should be placed far from the d5-square (for instance the bishop on c8 after general rook exchanges on the c-file and the knight on a5).
***For Black, a good control on d5 is essential in order to maintain the equality or even take over the initiative. Another important aspect is the status of the g7-bishop. After e4-e5 its direct pressure on d4 dissapears and in many cases Back's usual "pride" in the Gruenfeld can become the most passive piece. In manoeuvring games the bishop is supposed to look for new horisons with Bg7-f8, but this can happen only if there are no immediate kingside dangers. Alternatively, tactical blows on e5 or d4 are possible but even if Black's coordination is superior.
***We will start with a few games illustrating some of White's main ideas."
Mihail then went on to analyse no less than 27 instructive games that illustrate the characteristics, typical motifs and dos and don't for the 4 different pawn structures that can arise from the above diagram. The examples are instructive and perfectly illustrate the key points that he was trying to convey. For instance, consider the following 2 positions:
Here, Carlsen played 17.e5! which is the prelude to a lasting attack on the kingside.
In this lesser known example, White again played 25.e5! and soon obtained a crushing attack. In both examples, White's pieces were ideally placed, with the Queen on d2, Bishops on d3 & e3, and the White knight on e2 while Black's pieces were not able to fully utilise the attractive d5 square.
After illustrating the potential dangers, Mihail went on to speak on behalf of the Black side and showed some examples where Black's pieces were better coordinated than White's although it might not have been that apparent. For example, consider the following position:
Here, White played 18.e5?! which Marin did not like as White's pieces, such as the queen and the dark square bishop were not ideally placed to start a kingside attack. Play continued 18...Bf8 19.a4 Qb4 20.Qa2:
Black to play, what would you have played?
White's last move is trappy but Black solves all his problems with an extremely elegant solution. I'll invite readers to find this on their own.
And so it goes on. The pre-theory section is chocked full of great examples and in many ways constitute a mini-article on its own. Here's a couple that I like:
Here is an example where White is ill-advised to advance with d4-d5. How many of us will now rush to play ...Ne8-d6?
This position arose in the game Shaked - Kasparov, Tilburg 1997. After the game, Kasparov famously said that he regretted using a particular novelty in the game that he had prepared for Karpov because it felt like using an atomic bomb to kill birds! Ouch!
This is a dream scenario for Black and the game in fact ended 2 moves later. I was reminded of one of my own games where the pawn structure f3-e4-e5 came under severe pressure from hyper-active Black pieces:
I think such introductions are extremely useful in certain openings like the Grunfeld where one's understanding and handling of the resulting pawn structures is often critical in deciding the result of the game. However, this will probably not be as usual for openings such as the Sicilian Najdorf where concrete opening moves are more important in the absolute mainlines such as 6.Bg5 or the English Attack. More examples can be seen from this link:
In this volume, the following lines are covered:
Now, I don't know about you but as a Gruenfeld player, I am often annoyed with the Be3 lines as well as the Be2 and Rb1 exchange variations. White often does not need to know a lot and Black had to reply precisely to equalise. As such, I will jump straight into the deep-end of the pool by exploring the mainlines with 7.Nf3 and 8.Be3.
Mihail has this to say about the above:
"This system became popular in the late '70s, causing Black lots of problems proving the viabiity of the gruenfeld defence in general, and it has not lost its actuality up to today. White intends keeping the integrity of his centre hoping that this will offer him a stable advantage in the middlegame. Earlier, all these systems with Nf3 were considered inoffensive because of the possible ...Bg4, which was due to a static evaluation of the position. Decades ago, the young Kasparov was the main hero of this system, but then Karpov took it up into his repertoire to play it in his matches with Kasparov himself. Over the past decades another great K, Vladimir Kramnik, became the main specialist with white."
Mihail's choice is different from Svidler's, Avrukh's and Pavlovic's and he had chosen the refreshing ...Bg4 lines which I've always felt to be slightly dubious.
A quick check on the database indicates that 10...Bg4 is the 3rd most played move in this position. 10..Rd8 and 10..Nc6 were by far the most popular lines while both Svidler and Pavlovic recommend entering the endgame lines with an early ...cd4. Perhaps, these lines are the best equalising lines but I like the fact that these ...Bg4 lines can be quite tricky for someone unfamiliar with the theory. I had the chance to witness this firsthand when my roommate at the recently concluded Zone 3.3 Championships demolished his very experienced Grandmaster opponent.
Pretty crushing stuff! But what happens if White knows what to do?
After 10..Bg4, Mihail describes 11.Be2 as "slow", and "allowing Black a tempo for building up his counterplay". He recommends 11..e6 12.d5 ed 13.ed Nd7 14.c4 Qxd2 15.Nxd2 Bxe2 16.Kxe2 f5 with comfortable equality.
I had the opportunity to play out this position from a blitz game with a good friend and my impression is that even though the position is objectively equal, Black still has to be a little careful given that his potential counterplay on the queenside is stymied. In fact, I went wrong very quickly:
White won on time in the game but it doesn't really matter. Perhaps I am a little demanding but I would have liked the analysis to go a little deeper until the position is more clarified. In all fairness though, it is often not easy to decide where exactly to stop one's analysis and I don't want to be over critical. My main point is that the position seemed innocuous but Black still has to play carefully.
The position after 10..Bg4 11.d5 (the main move) Nd7! (11...Bxf3 is inaccurate as shown in the above game and also in Mihail's notes) is critical:
Mihail analyses the main move 12.c4, 12.Be2 and 12.h4 but for some reason omitted the logical looking but rarely played 12.Ng5. It is a little surprising given that this move is the 2nd choice of the computer and that it was played in a recent high level game between Ragger and Socko. Fortunately, Black should be fine as can be seen from my analysis here:
Instead, the position arising after 12.c4 Qa3 is probably the most critical one in the entire line with 10...Bg4:
Here, Mihail again covered the most critical and by far the most popular move which is 13.Be2 but both 13.Ng5 and 13.Bd3 are interesting possibilities for White. The former is particularly dangerous whether it is played on this move or the previous one. Again, I checked the position and concluded that Black is fine but he has to be precise:
Mihail analysed the stem game, Kramnik - Grischuk, Stavanger 2014 in considerable detail with the fair conclusion that Black is fine and he even has practical chances given that Kramnik himself eventually lost the game.
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed the pre-theoretical section and the deep discussion on pawn structures and the presentation of instructive examples. I also like his choice against the Be3 Exchange variation given that it has not been covered in detail by any of my other resources and Mihail showed that his recommendation gives Black ample chances to play for the win. The most critical lines are covered in considerable detail although there are a couple of omissions here and there. As such, players who are of master level will need to do their fair share of work in order to make sure that this repertoire is bullet-proof and comprehensive. I honestly cannot wait to start tackling the other lines covered in this volume as the lines all seemed to be a bit more direct and aggressive as compared to the lines that most authors prefer.
As it appears to be the norm for "databases" on the Modern-Chess site, test positions are given at the end of the survey for the reader to see if he has digested the material properly. Some people might find the pricing a little on the high side, given that Part 1 alone will cost 20 Euros. However, I understand that the 3 parts will come with a package price of 40 Euros which seems fair and affordable. One also should take into consideration the fact that you will receive PGN files and that will save you invaluable amount of time when you need to review or analyse the lines in greater detail. I am really looking forward to Part 2 of this series and if you enter the promo code "Avrukh", you will enjoy a 20% discount.