One Summer with the Gruenfeld
In recent years an old side-line has gained considerable popularity against the Gruenfeld: the move 7.Qa4+ in the classical exchange variation has appeared with increasing frequency at the top level since 2011. It has been played by Kramnik against Giri, by Morozevich against Aronian, and by Carlsen against Caruana. Clearly it is worthy of some consideration. In this post I have decided to focus on its use by one player during one summer against three top Gruenfeld specialists.
In 2013 the Ukrainian grandmaster Alexander Moiseenko had a series of very impressive results. He won the European Individual Championship, scored impressively to help his team win the Ukrainian league, came close second in the Indonesian Open, and tied for first in Biel before coming second in the ensuing four-way tiebreaks. He then performed well at the World Cup but was eliminated by Boris Gelfand, who was continuing to play very strongly in the wake of his world championship match against Anand.
In mid-June, the newly-crowned European champion opened his campaign to win the Ukrainian national championship with the white pieces against the Gruenfeld specialist Alexander Areshchenko. For this game, Moiseenko adopted the line 7.Qa4+ in the classical exchange variation. His opponent had in fact already faced this line the previous month in the European championship, where Igor Lysyj had played it against him - a game which had ended in a draw, but in which white had emerged with a decent edge from the opening before ending up worse in the middlegame and then finding his way into a drawn endgame. Moiseenko had prepared an improvement on Lysyj's play in the opening, one which he may have seen played already a couple of times earlier in the year. But before looking at the game in more detail, it may be helpful to explain the basic idea behind the development of white's queen on move seven.
The adventurous sally of white's queen to a4 is designed to interrupt the harmonious development of black's pieces into positions that allow him to counter-attack against white's strong Gruenfeld pawn-centre. Though it shares this with the line 7.Bb5+, the most common continuation in the latter case, 7...c6, has less force here because the queen is not forced to withdraw with tempo. On the other hand, the response 7...Bd7, though playable, risks giving white a powerful edifice in the centre - Svidler offers the line 8.Qa3 Nc6 9.Nf3 e5 10.d5 Ne7 11.c4. Instead, Areshchenko chose the most popular continuation, 7...Nd7. This has the drawback that black tends to prefer developing his knight to c6 to support the assault on white's centre, but the knight can soon find an active role, as we shall see. Alternatively, an increasingly popular line has been to play 7...Qd7, offering an endgame in which black hopes to be able to undermine white's centre and get a good game; white's normal response is to decline the trade and argue that black's queen is now out of place on d7. The best introduction to the ideas in these lines that I am aware of is in Yelena Dembo's book on the Gruenfeld published by Everyman in 2007, though this appeared before the recent resurgence of interest in and investigation of the whole set-up.
Returning to the game at hand, Moiseenko managed to keep an edge out of the opening and to enter a complex endgame with the advantage of the bishop pair. Areshchenko got counterplay by advancing his 2-1 queenside majority, and, after exchanging into an opposite-coloured bishops endgame, had good drawing chances. White, however, secured two passed pawns on opposite wings and black's solitary bishop could not contain them adequately. The victory was a fine beginning to Moiseenko's summer exploration of 7.Qa4+:
A solid set of results brought Moiseenko fourth place at the Ukrainian championships, but the next occasion on which he chose to further his investigation of the 7.Qa4+ variation was in July at Biel. In a key game against Maurice Vachier-Lagrave, one of the world's top Gruenfeld experts, he decided to assay the line again. MVL responded with the Qd7 set-up and fianchettoed his light-squared bishop on b7. A tense and tricky struggle evolved after Moiseenko introduced a novelty on move 14 to improve on an earlier game by Markus Ragger against MVL, but once again it was through endgame subtleties that he managed to triumph:
For an excellent analysis of this game, see:
Moiseenko had now scored two successive wins against leading Gruenfeld specialists in what quickly seemed to be becoming his pet line. Thus it is not surprising that when he found himself facing Ian Nepomniachtchi at the ACP Cup in Riga in September he tried his hand again. This time, however, his own minor variation in move-order allowed Nepomniachthi to strike quickly against the centre and Moiseenko was never able to secure a clear advantage. An early queen-exchange led to a tense positional struggle which was eventually resolved into a drawn rook endgame:
Moiseenko's successes in the summer of 2013, and his continued use of 7.Qa4+ in 2014 against Svidler and Fedoseev, have helped to encourage the recent popularity of this whole variation. Already in the first few months of this year, Vachier-Lagrave, Cheparinov and Fier, amongst others, have faced this set-up. As happens with side-lines, it is becoming increasingly refined in top-level theory. But since it is still not covered extensively (or even at all) in most opening books on the Gruenfeld, it may well be worth trying it out in the near future in your games.