Olympiad Opening Ideas - Round 1

Olympiad Opening Ideas - Round 1

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Reflections On Aronian's Olympiad Game


You saw it, right?


It's Round 1 of the biggest chess festival of 2022 - The Chess Olympiad in Chennai - and FM Daniel Silva of Angola gets a winning position against the Board 2 of USA, Levon Aronian.


The game ends in a draw after a well-timed draw offer from Aronian...and that's the challenge you think we'll solve in today's post, right?⁣


Getting that confidence to turn down a draw against a much higher-rated player, and having the technique to boot to convert your decisive advantage into a win?⁣


The real way to solve that challenge is to have the coaching conversation, where I ask you the questions to properly understand the root cause of the problem (lack of confidence) rather than giving pills for the symptom (accepting the draw). ⁣


So let's return to the game, which started 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5 Nd7 4.c3 Ngf6 5.Bd3 - accelerating the 'Ruy Lopez' approach of Bc2/d4 for White that is the most common way for White to avoid the Najdorf after 1.e4 c5.


What makes this situation practically challenging for some players, is that those playing 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 typically want a sharp/unbalanced/complex position, but this interpretation of 3.Bb5 strives to keep the position simple, with clear and natural plans.


You all have access to very powerful engine analysis for free, so I will not waste your time with my old 'this is the best move, and the position is equal', but rather, look at the position from the more 'practical' lens of - how can we make things difficult or tricky for the opponent?


A. Let's start with the move 5...Ne5 6.Nxe5 dxe5, played by Aronian. We can say, based on past games, that this approach is more one used to achieve a solid draw (by clamping down on the d4-square) than playing for a win, because Black does not have so much flexibility with his structure, and is in a sense opting for a more 'defensive' or 'restrictive' setup.


To be fair, Aronian's exchange sacrifice was not technically incorrect, and his problems arose more from following it up incorrectly (not to mention that Black would have been better after 17...Qc7 and preparing the ...f5 break). But we can say that 5...Ne5 leads to exactly the sort of position White wants - very strategic, with clear plans and where it is hard for Black to generate long-term pressure.


B. My next idea was playing 5...a6 with the idea of transposing to 4.0-0 a6 5.Bd3, but actually, we can refine the idea with 5...e6, with the point that 6.Bc2 can now be met with 6...b5 (we no longer need to prepare ...b5 with ...a6) 7.d4 Bb7 8.Nbd2 Be7 9.0-0 Qc7 10.Re1 0-0, and Black is a tempo up on a line already considered to be almost fully equal for Black.


That is why 6.0-0 is better, when Black can choose between transposing to the main lines with 6...a6, and playing creatively with 6...d5 7.exd5 Nxd5 to reach a standard 'queenside majority' structure after the coming Bc2/d4 that is not worse for Black.


C. If one wants to employ the ...Ne5 idea, the best version is to start with 5...g6 6.0-0 Bg7 7.Re1 0-0, when 8.Bf1 Ne5 9.Nxe5 dxe5 and 8.Bc2 Ne5 9.Nxe5 dxe5 are both superior versions of the Silva-Aronian game, due to White spending a tempo on the rather useless Re1. This is actually enough to tip the scales into making this a legitimate winning approach for Black, as a 2020 correspondence game showed.

While all these ideas allow Black to maintain the balance, they don't disrupt the flow of the game that much (perhaps except for the delayed ...Ne5) and they certainly don't put White under early pressure.


D. So the most practically difficult move for White is actually 5...g5!?, which is the move that entered my head on my bus trip earlier today.


But you don't need to visit 'Planet Ivanchuk' to come up with such ideas.⁣


In fact, the Opening Explorer shows this to be the best scoring move for Black. It scores 4/6 among 2500+ rated players, and that score holds at lower ratings, too.


But you can't just use the Explorer 'blindly', or else you would play 5...Qc7, seeing the even higher score (over 7 games), only to wonder why you are constantly ending up in worse versions of other lines.


...g5 is not a totally new idea in the Bb5 Sicilians, by the way. You may recall that Topalov used 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5 Nd7 4.0-0 a6 5.Bd3 Ngf6 6.Re1 b5 7.c4 g5!? to defeat Magnus Carlsen in the 2015 Sinquefield Cup.


You can even make a whole ...g5 repertoire around 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5 Nc6, intending 4.0-0 Bd7 5.Re1 Nf6 6.h3 a6 7.Bf1 g5 and 6.c3 a6 7.Bf1 e5 8.h3 g5, though it comes with the disclaimer that you will be clearly worse playing this way against a fully-prepared opponent. (Ironically, I used to think 4.Bxc6 bxc6 5.0-0 e5 6.c3 g5 was the worst version of the ...g5 plans in these systems, but it's probably the best of the three!)


Returning to 5...g5 though, White really should play 6.h3 to stop ...g4, though honestly it would not have been my move, if faced with this move on the bus in a blindfold game. I would probably have gone with 6.0-0 g4 7.Ne1, but then Black goes 7...h5 8.Bc2 h4 9.d4 h3 10.g3 b5 to achieve the long-term advantage of the thorn pawn on h3 before reverting back to normal development.


That's right, to successfully play very creative chess like this, you need to be strong on your fundamentals, because the key to making creative plans work is knowing when to revert to 'normal' play, having achieved the objective of our 'unusual' plan.


The position after 6.h3 Rg8 7.Bc2 h5 8.d4 g4 9.hxg4 hxg4 is clearly better for White according to engines, but in practice, Black has a plus score. GM Viktor Bologan actually found the best move, 10.Ng5!, in a game vs. GM Bogdan-Daniel Deac (who also came up with the 4.g4 gambit against the Queen's Indian). But even so, Black was able to win the game after White went in a bit too fast in the centre.


White is also better after 10.Nfd2, but only if he recognizes that after 10...b5, he needs to play 11.Nf1! and bring the knight to g3, neutralizing Black's play. From a classical perspective, this doesn't really cut it for Black, but in blitz/rapid, the position is complex enough to get away with such moves.

Here is the PGN file with all these moves:


In any case, this post is a good example of the distinction between how I perceive different situations, and following the engine automatically (which is what nearly everyone else is doing).


I am pretty confident that, had Aronian played 5...g5, the spectators online would have grilled him for playing 'unprofessionally', but his opponent would have not handled the surprise in the best way, and Black would have won comfortably.

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