The Modern Caro-Kann Antidote to the Two Knights

GM Illingworth
Why is the main trend at GM level against the Caro-Kann currently the Two Knights Variation?

It may well be because of the 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6 exf6 variation covered in my previous post - along with White's difficulties proving an advantage in the Advance Caro-Kann - that the main trend against the Caro-Kann has shifted to the Two Knights' Variation - 1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3, as played many times by Bobby Fischer in the past.

However, in this case, we can play the same idea of 3...dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6 exf6, making the case that we have an improved version of the line we considered in yesterday's post, as the knight on f3 can be pinned with a later ...Bg4. 

The model game for Black in that case, for showing the kingside attack in practice, can be found below:

The modern approach, however, is to bring the knight to f8, like we saw before. Here we have a fantastic game by Magnus Carlsen to show how Black can outplay White with manoeuvring:

This game is a great example of the concept that the position may be equal, but it will be generally easier for one side to play. In this case, that player was Black. 

I also had to include the following game, just to show the 'chunky' pawn structure with two sets of doubled pawns next to each other. This pawn square really set Black up well for the big win! 

White does have a couple of other tries in the Two Knights version. 6.Bc4 Bd6 7.Qe2 is likely to transpose to the version with d4 after ...Qe7 or ...Be7. 

A more serious try is 5.Qe2, trying to keep the tension between the knights, and avoid the ...exf6 pawn structure. I had a bit of a hard time choosing between Black's options at first, but I ultimately think that Goryachkina's choice of 5...Nxe4 6.Qxe4 Qa5, with the idea of preparing ...Bf5, is the most reliable option for Black: 

Meanwhile, if White plays 7.Qf4 to anticipate ...Bf5, we should play 7...Qf5!, offering an exchange of queens with a solid position. 

Having said that, I am not sure that Black fully equalises if White plays 8.Qe3!, keeping the queens on the board for now. Taking the pawn on c2 is far too risky on a practical level: 

Therefore, Black should force the trade of queens with 8...Qe6, although in this case, White does get a nice pawn structure after the fxe3 recapture. Black did win the game below, although he was struggling a bit in the early part of the queenless middlegame:

I would suggest 12...Bf5 or 13...exd4 as possible improvements for Black, though White keeps a small pull in either case. 

As an alternative, I share a nice win by Anand, who found a different way to reach a marginally worse but very solid endgame for Black. 

White can deviate with 7.d4, but then 7...Qd5 8.Be3 Nd7 9.c4 Qe4 10.Rc1 h5! seems to be playable for Black, despite his pieces being in a somewhat weird position, as White has a hard time untangling his kingside. 

In conclusion, we can play the same way against 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3 as against 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 - giving us a solid, reliable and surprising two-in-one Caro-Kann system, that can set problems for the opponent, even at high levels of play. Granted, White may objectively be a little better in the Two Knights Variation with 3...dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Qe2!, but Black has a few ways to force an only marginally worse endgame, where Black can gradually equalise with good play. 

What did you learn from this blog post?

Are you going to start playing this system as Black in your games?

What have you learned about doubled pawns from this post and the previous post? 

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