Introducing the Exchange Grunfeld (Be3 and Bc4)

GM Illingworth

How do you set problems against the Grunfeld Indian Defence?

This is one of the main questions that 1.d4 players face when constructing their White repertoire.

Fortunately, the 2020 FIDE Candidates tournament gave us some clues as to what might be the most promising approach.

In fact, when you look at the opening repertoires of the best players, you will see that they don't just play 1.d4, but will sometimes play 1.Nf3 and 1.c4, mainly to avoid openings like the Grunfeld and Nimzo-Indian, while still having the option to transpose back into 1.d4 systems, as desired. We saw that happen many times in the Candidates, but this is something I explore more deeply in my private Facebook group. 

So, if we want to keep maximum flexibility against the King's Indian Defence (which is more popular at the amateur level), we play 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3, and then what, after 3...d5?

As a junior, one of my absolute favorite variations was the 7.Be3 Exchange Grunfeld, where I was inspired by the following Kramnik game that my coach at the time, IM John-Paul Wallace, shared with me:

Peter Leko was one of my favorite chess players at that time, so seeing him get outplayed so handily made a great impression on me!
Continuing through the notes JP had given me, I saw another nice Kramnik win, in what was considered the mainline at that time:
Finally, I had bought a book on the 2000 Kasparov-Kramnik World Championship Match, and when I checked the first game, this is what I saw:
Like Kasparov, I had also initially assumed that the ...Bg4 was quite annoying (which is why I liked the 7.Be3 c5 8.Qd2 Qa5 9.Rc1 move order as a child), so seeing Kramnik punish it so convincingly, and against Kasparov no less, was really cool!

Later on, I read Vishy Anand say in a post-World Championship interview that, when it comes to opening preparation, it's not just about getting a good position, but being confident in that position - that if you honestly believe in the strength of your preparation and lines, you will play them better.

As a junior, I didn't think the Grunfeld was a very good opening, because Kramnik beat it so convincingly - and while that was not an objective opinion at all, it is probably why my results were so good as White - most opponents couldn't handle the sheer confidence I exuded at the board! 

Of course, theory moves on, and this endgame line I showed is now considered fairly harmless - though, Kramnik did beat Svidler in the 2013 FIDE Candidates with 14.Kc2!?, which you may like to explore in your own time:
By the way, all four of these great games are well annotated in Mega Database. I can't share them here for copyright reasons, but if you have this database, you could study these annotated games and know the positions better than your opponents, at least at the amateur level. 
As much as I love the Be3 Exchange Grunfeld, I have to admit that there's an even more promising option for White, at least according to current theory. 

And that is the 7.Bc4 Exchange Grunfeld:

This line has recently replaced 7.Be3 as the main trend against the Grunfeld in the last 1-2 years, and with good reason - White is winning quite a few games at the highest levels! 

I recently shared some ideas about this variation in 'The Chess Improvement Group', and I share a sample of my analysis in the screenshot below:
As you can see, the modern approach to this variation is to play in 'AlphaZero' style with h4-h5, usually after first developing the major pieces with Qd2, Rac1 and Rfd1. The idea is not so much to play for a mating attack (though that's not out of the question if Black messes up), but rather, to set up a 'thorn pawn' with h6. 
The following position from later in this Caruana-Nepomniachtchi game shows very clearly why the thorn pawn can be very unpleasant for the opponent. For maximum instructional value, decide on what move you'd play as White, before reading my explanation below. 

White to play
In the game, Caruana played an inaccurate 28.Qc2, which ultimately allowed Black to escape (I explain how in detail in my full annotations in my group). 

But instead, White could play 28.Qd1!, keeping the queen behind the passed d-pawn, to support Bf4 and d6 (indeed, 28...Qxa2? loses to 29.d6 and the d-pawn can't be stopped without material loss). Now, if the h6-pawn was back on h3, say, Black would block the d-pawn with ...Bd6 or even sit on the position with some other move and have no problems. 
But with the pawn on h6, Black essentially has two weaknesses - the weakness of his king (Qd4-g7 is a constant concern, tying up the f8-bishop and with it, the g8-king) and the passed d-pawn, which is currently tying up Black's bishop and queen. Therefore, 28...Bd6 runs into 29.Qd4! Bf8 (only move) 30.Bf4, and once again, the d-pawn can't really be stopped. 

Black has to meet 28.Qd1 with 28...Qd6, but then 29.g3! is strong, setting up Bf4 to break the blockade. That's why the bishop is, in principle, a better blockader - because it is less valuable than the queen - but the weakness of g7 forbids this otherwise preferable option. For what it's worth, Black is not necessarily lost after 29...f6! 30.Bf4 Qd7, but it is clear that White is pressing, and has prompted a concession from Black. 
I suspect that a lot of players (myself included, in the past) would dismiss this game as 'just a draw', and in doing so, would miss this important lesson on the thorn pawn, and the principle of two weaknesses at play. Yes, the other 7.Bc4 Exchange Grunfeld game in the Candidates, Wang Hao-Vachier Lagrave, was also a draw, but here too, Black was very close to defeat - and White also used the early h4-h5 in this game:
It is Black to move. White should win with correct play, but he misplayed it in the game. Perhaps this position (or after the game's 32...Bc8) can serve as a good 'Drill' on, for training our endgame technique?
Now that you've got a taste for this variation, and seen how White wins games in practice (beyond just getting a good position), I'd love to give you an opportunity to go deeper and be part of a community of chess experts and chess improvers, who discuss chess together to learn more, and improve faster, by working together. 

The screenshot from before was a sample of the daily content I share in The Chess Improvement Group, which is just the tip of the iceberg.
And you saw how just one tip from my old coach, John-Paul, took me from being clueless against the Grunfeld, to playing several hundred points above my rating against the Grunfeld as a junior. 
What could tips like these, shared every day (and not just from me, but the rest of our community), do for your chess game? 

Join my Chess Improvement Group, join our discussions about chess and improvement, and let's find out.