Review: The Caro-Kann

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Review: The Caro-KannAfter so much (Dutch) football subjectivity over the past weeks (yeah yeah, Spain won deservedly), it's a delight to read something objective again: Lars Schandorff has written an extremely solid and honest book on the Caro-Kann in the Grandmaster Repertoire series from Quality Chess.

I've never really liked the Caro-Kann. As White, I find it an extremely tough opening, and as Black, I find it so much less attractive than the Sicilian or even the French. But of course I'm wrong, as Danish GM Lars Schandorff convincingly shows in his monograph The Caro-Kann, which, although it is officially a repertoire book for Black, is highly recommended for serious White players as well. Here's an example.

Suppose you're one of those chess players who kind of hates the solidity of the Caro-Kann: you can bet your life that Black players who employ the Caro-Kann often know their theory better than you do, so you're looking for something funny to get Black to think for himself right from the start.

Suppose you're considering playing the line 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Nc5!?

This is a rare sideline that, according to my database, has nevertheless been played by giants like Fischer, Shirov, Morozevich and Carlsen. Surely this is an interesting choice for White? Well, Schandorff is not impressed. Instead of the automatic 5...b6, he recommends:

5...e5!? A radical attempt to benefit from White's extravagance and solve all Black's problems in one blow.

6.Nxb7 Retreating with 6.Nb3 makes little sense. After 6...Nd7 Black is already somewhat better.

6...Qb6 7.Nc5 exd4 The most natural choice. The other way of regaining the pawn, 7...Bxc5 8.dxc5 Qxc5, might in fact also be playable. On first sight the position after 9.c3 looks slightly better for White due to his bishop pair. Closer inspection reveals that it is maybe not so simple. Consider something like 9...Nf6 10.Be3 Qe7 unclear, as in Riemens-Hoogendoorn, Netherlands 1994. Black's bishop is very active and his knight can harass the white bishop from d5.

8.Nb3 Bb4+ Basic chess knowledge: Black exchanges the dark-squared bishop before putting his pawns on dark squares.

9.Bd2 Nf6

Black certainly has no development problems, and the far-advanced d-pawn can be protected by c6-c5, so it can hardly be called a weakness. Not surprisingly, White has had difficulties proving any advantage at all. (...)

I think such a fragment is interesting for both sides: Black players will certainly gain confidence that such a sharp variation is theoretically more than OK. Also, Schandorff explains the essentials of the position (however unusual it may look) from an objective point of view, explaining that even seemingly-obvious judgements may not be so obvious after all. And White players may want to look hard for something concrete in this line, otherwise it's absolutely useless to study. (Actually, my engine suggests the weird but at least consistently-weird 8.Na4!?, which may be worth a try.)

Schandorff's treatment of the Classical Variation (3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5) is one of the highlights of the book. It's clear from every page that he thoroughly understands the position, which he explains in a systematic and rigorous manner. Here's another example where he combines objectiveness with a distinct opinion:

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Nf3 Nd7 8.h5 Bh7 9.Bd3 Bxd3 10.Qxd3 e6 11.Bf4 Qa5+ 12.Bd2 Bb4 13.c3 Be7 14.c4 Qc7 15.0-0

Castling to the wrong side. This is quite complicated and of course playable, but come on - it can't be better than castling long!

15...Ngf6 16.Rfe1 The most natural. We can have a quick look at a couple of alternatives [16.d5 and 16.Qe2] (...).

16...0-0 17.Nf5

An important tactical idea that is frequently seen in the Caro: rook to the e-file followed by a knight to f5.

17...Bd6! I prefer not to compromise my pawn structure and am therefore reluctant to take on f5, although some strong players have tried it. 17...exf5 18.Rxe7 Qd8 19.Re2 Ne4 seemed pretty solid for Black in Browne-L.B.Hansen, Philadelphia 2006, but I suspect White is more comfortable.

There are other ways to respond to the knight move. We do not need an alternative, but it is useful to understand White's standard tactical ideas: 17...Rfe8 is always a good option, when 18.Rxe6!? fxe6 19.Nxg7 is spectacular, but after 19...Bf8 20.Nxe8 Rxe8 21.Re1 Bg7 the piece looks more valuable than the pawns, Jonkman-Kroeze, Netherlands 2006. (...)

18.Nxd6 The sacrifice 18.Nxh6+ gxh6 19.Bxh6 Rfe8 should of course be checked, but it doesn't look so scary (...). White should probably settle for the quiet 20.Qd2 with some compensation after 20...Bf8 21.Bxf8 Rxf8 22.Qh6.

18...Qxd6 19.Qb3 19.Ne5? is an instructive mistake. After 19...Nxe5 20.Rxe5 Ng4 -/+ the king is not at all well placed on g1, Omarsson-Kjartansson, Reykjavik 2007.

19...a5!? with counterplay. Often it makes sense to push the a-pawn. (...)

While this is great stuff, I didn't find Schandorff's explanations that clear throughout the entire book. For instance, the chapter on positional lines (4.c3, 4.Be3 and 4.Nd2) in the Advance Variation (3.e5 Bf5) left a lot of questions unanswered in my head.

One of the lines that has become popular in recent years is 4.Be3 followed by Nd2-b3 with the idea of blocking the c5 square. However, after 4...e6 5.Nd2 Nd7 Schandorff lists the alternatives to 6.Nb3 but doesn't explain the basics of the position very clearly.

For example, after 6.Ngf3, why doesn't Black instantly 'punish' White for not playing 6.Nb3 (which is the main line) by playing 6...c5 himself? I suspect this may seem totally obvious to Schandorff or others players of his calibre, so perhaps it doesn't need an explanation - but interestingly, according to my database, the move 6...c5 is Black's second most popular move in the position, even though it has never been played by anyone rated over 2200!

I think this indicates there is a sustantial gap in knowledge between how strong and weak players understand this position - or even the Caro-Kann in general. Schandorff, unfortunately, doesn't help us out in this case.

Actually, I've always found this one of the most intriguing aspects of these position lines of the Advanced Variation: White seems to want to prevent c6-c5 by all means (Be3, Nd2-b3), but then when Black gets the opportunity to play it, he doesn't do it! In fact, Black often doesn't play c5 at all, as Schandorff nicely shows:

6.Nb3 Ne7 7.Be2 Nc8!?

Once you see this idea you can't get it out of your head. It will take a trained psychotherapist to delete it. 7...Bg6 with the idea ...Nf5 is standard and of course is also fully playable.

8.f4 Be7 9.Nf3 0-0 Black finishes his development with the minimum of fuss and without compromising his position at all. That's the beauty of this simple idea. By temporarily putting the knight on the back rank everything is made possible and Black demonstrates that his lack of space isn't necessarily fatal. There is no practical evidence from this position, but I am sure Black is okay. Well, that's not the whole truth. Black is okay, don't worry, but there has been one game, albeit only a blitz game by me. Since there is nothing else, we will look at a few moves of my blitz effort.

10.0-0 a6 11.Rc1 b5! 12.c3 Ncb6

Black is already somewhat better because of my active play on the queenside. (...)

No c5, but b5! Useful though such a fragment may be (it certainly is an eye-opener to chronical dogmatists such as myself), Schandorff doesn't in the end reveal the true mystery behind this type of play. His final conclusion that "if White tries to play a slow manoeuvring game then Black is well prepared", immediately raises the question why 4.Be3 and 4.Nd2 are so popular of late. While Schandorff does admit that "where the elite leads, the masses follow", he forgets to tell us why the elite prefers this road.

But perhaps this is an unjust complaint. After all, the series in which The Caro-Kann was published, is called 'Grandmaster Repertoire'. It really is a very high-level book, for serious club players and beyond. I think it's fair to say that it doesn't have much to offer to amateurs and casual readers. But if you want to incorporate the Caro-Kann Defence into your tournament repertoire, or find out why it's so bloody difficult to prove anything against it, Lars Schandorff is your man.


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