27 May 2012

Why I Play the Caro-Kann

As was mentioned in the original discussion of openings selection, after playing a large number of informal games with a variety of different defenses to 1. e4, I settled on the Caro-Kann prior to starting tournament play.  It wasn't a question of emotional attachment to its aesthetics or a desire to model myself after professional players who used it; rather, it was a highly practical choice.  At the time, the other defenses I had seriously tried out - the Ruy Lopez (both Closed and Open), Sicilian, Alekhine, and French - didn't fit as well with my abilities and approach to the game.  I'll be the first to admit that my abilities at the start of my amateur career were modest (low Class C range) and my approach to the game was not very coherent.  But then again, one has to start out somewhere.

Speaking of starting out, here's my first tournament game with the Caro-Kann, my sixth tournament game ever. In it I hold a Class B player to a draw, despite the 200 rating point difference.  The opening variation is the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, which transposes by move 7 to a tabiya (common position across different openings) usually classified as a Semi-Tarrasch Defense (which is reached from 1. d4).  Although Black doesn't play optimally, he is able to easily handle White's limited threats and then reach a drawn endgame.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Fritz/Houdini"] [PlyCount "90"] [EventDate "1985.??.??"] {D41: Queen’s Gambit Declined: Semi-Tarrasch with 5 cxd5 - transposition from Caro-Kann} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6 {the most solid treatment of the line.} 6. Nf3 Be7 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Bb5 {Bd3 is now overwhelmingly played, although the text move was more popular prior to the 1950s, it seems.} Nc6 9. Ne5 Qc7 $146 {if Black wants to move the queen, b6 is a good square instead.} (9... Bd7 {is the most obvious and strongest move, reinforcing c6 with a minor piece. Having White exchange off the centralized Ne5 for the Bd7 would also be a net plus for Black.}) 10. Nxd5 $14 exd5 11. Qa4 Bd7 (11... O-O {is preferred by Houdini and sacrifices a pawn in order to keep White’s king in the center.} 12. Bxc6 bxc6 13. Qxc6 Bb4 14. Bd2 Bxd2 15. Kxd2) 12. Bf4 {White apparently overlooks Black’s idea; O-O would avoid the check and spirit White’s king away to safety. } Bb4 13. Kf1 Bd6 $11 14. Rc1 (14. Nxc6 Bxc6 15. Re1 Kd7 16. Bxd6 Qxd6 $11) 14... Rc8 {this maintains equality.} (14... O-O {obvious and best, according to the engines.}) 15. Bg3 (15. Nxc6 {is a possible drawing line for White.} bxc6 16. Re1 Be6 17. Rc1 Bd7 18. Re1) 15... O-O $15 {Black finally gets his king to safety and activates the rook in the process.} 16. Nxd7 Qxd7 17. Bxd6 Qxd6 {White’s simplification has produced a rather drawish position, with a completely symmetrical pawn structure.} 18. g3 a6 {this essentially forces the minor piece exchange on c6.} 19. Bxc6 (19. Be2 {would be the best alternative, but this allows Black far too much leeway.} Qe6 20. Rc3 Qh3 21. Kg1 Rfe8 22. Qd1 Re4) 19... Rxc6 (19... Qe6 {is a useful in-between move found by the engines, threatening Qh3. The Bc6 cannot run away due to Rxc1}) 20. Rxc6 $11 Qxc6 21. Qxc6 bxc6 {a drawn endgame position. Black has the only structural pawn weakness, the backward c-pawn, but White cannot generate enough pressure on it for this to matter.} 22. Ke2 Rc8 23. Rc1 Kf8 24. Kd3 Ke7 25. Rc5 Kd6 26. b4 Rb8 27. Kc3 Rb5 28. a4 Rxc5 29. bxc5 Kd7 30. Kb4 Kc7 {now a completely drawn position, as White cannot threaten anything on the kingside with pawns alone and Black’s king will be able to defend when necessary.} 31. f4 h5 32. f5 g6 33. fxg6 fxg6 34. h4 Kb7 35. Kc3 a5 36. Kd3 Kc7 37. Ke3 Kd7 38. Kf4 Ke6 39. Kg5 Kf7 40. g4 hxg4 41. Kxg4 Kf6 42. Kf4 Kf7 43. Kg5 Kg7 44. h5 gxh5 45. Kxh5 Kf6 1/2-1/2'/>

It's been over twenty years since that game and I remain happy with using the Caro-Kann as my primary defense.  I've found it to be rich in ideas that are understandable and usable by an amateur player, which was one of the primary considerations for my original selection of it to use in tournament play.  I initially did quite poorly with tactics and instead fancied myself as a "positional player" (whatever that means).  In any event, the semi-open nature of the defense helped limit my exposure to complicated tactics, while allowing me to focus on one or two key ideas at the board.  This becomes a real advantage when the opponent does not properly identify or know how to respond to these ideas.

Over the years, I've found the defense to have enough depth in its position-types and ideas so that my handling of it has readily improved along with my own overall level of training and performance.  In other words, I've been able to evolve my opening repertoire choices within the various sub-variations, as my understand of the opening has grown, especially in reference to key middlegame ideas and plans.  My commentary on the ABC of the Caro-Kann mentions the main variations of the defense, for those interested.

I believe players should choose whatever openings interest them most, as long as they provide positive results for them, so have no real desire to convince others to play the Caro-Kann.  However, I do feel a need to comment on some of the naysaying about the opening that occasionally can be grating.  I've run across things like:
  • It's not appropriate for Class players and will only retard your growth because of its lack of tactics.
  • It's boring.
  • Nobody interesting plays it.
While there's a certain logic to not choosing the Caro-Kann if you want to focus on being a tactician - pick the Sicilian for that - tactics are hardly eliminated from the board after playing 1...c6 and, as with most openings, it largely depends on White how tactical or quiet things get.  One could make a similar argument about the Sicilian if White always played the Closed Sicilian or the 3. Bb5 variations.

As far as interesting vs. boring goes, it's a matter of taste.  There are very few gambit continuations in the Caro-Kann - although one of the main answers to the Advance Variation involves a pawn sacrifice - so gambiteers should definitely go elsewhere.  Otherwise, the variety and depth of the opening variations are comparable to any other main-line opening.  It's true that players who are interested in different aspects of positional play (isolated queen pawn positions as in the above game, executing key pawn breaks, queenside minority attacks, etc.) will probably get more out of the opening than tactical specialists.  Also, it's important to realize that the opening is solid rather than unbalancing, which means that a draw is a likelier result than with an unbalanced opening.

Finally, although it's not a major reason for choosing to play the opening, I've certainly enjoyed studying and playing over games from world champions who have employed it as Black: Capablanca, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrosian, Karpov, Kasparov, and Anand.  I've also particularly enjoyed Kortchnoi's games with it and will close with one of my favorites, a game in the Classical Variation that features opposite-side castling and attacking play on both wings.

[Event "Schuhplattler Veterans vs Ladies"] [Site "Munich"] [Date "2000.07.06"] [Round "3"] [White "Galliamova, Alisa"] [Black "Kortschnoj, Viktor"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B19"] [WhiteElo "2526"] [BlackElo "2620"] [PlyCount "128"] [EventDate "2000.07.04"] [EventType "schev"] [EventRounds "10"] [EventCountry "GER"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2000.10.18"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nf6 8. Ne5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Nbd7 12. f4 Be7 13. O-O-O c5 14. Bc3 O-O 15. Nxd7 Qxd7 16. f5 Qd5 17. b3 Rac8 18. dxc5 Qxc5 19. Bd4 Qa3 20. Kb1 Nd5 21. c4 Nb4 22. Qe2 b5 23. f6 Bxf6 24. Bxf6 gxf6 25. Nh5 f5 26. Nf6 Kh8 27. Rd2 Rfd8 28. Qe3 Kg7 29. Nh5 Kg6 30. Rh3 Rxc4 31. Rg3 Rg4 32. Rxg4 fxg4 33. Nf4 Kf5 34. Qc5 e5 35. Rxd8 Qxa2 36. Kc1 Qxb3 37. Rd2 Na2 38. Rxa2 Qxa2 39. Nd5 Qc4 40. Qxc4 bxc4 41. Kd2 a5 42. Kc3 Ke4 43. Nf6 Kf4 44. Kxc4 Kg3 45. h5 Kf4 46. Kb5 e4 47. Nd5 Ke5 48. Ne3 g3 49. Kxa5 f5 50. Kb4 f4 51. Ng4 Kd4 52. Nxh6 f3 53. Nf5 Kd3 54. h6 fxg2 55. h7 g1=Q 56. h8=Q Qb6 57. Ka4 Qa6 58. Kb4 Qc4 59. Ka3 Qc5 60. Kb3 Qb5 61. Ka2 Qxf5 62. Qh1 Qf2 63. Kb3 g2 64. Qh3 Ke2 0-1'/>

1 comment:

  1. I love playing against the CaroKann! Specifically I have my own home brewed/prepared line/s in the Bayonet (g4) version of the Advanced CaroKann. This leads to very exciting, attacking & aggressive games and not many CK players seem to be used to it as I even often capture black's light squared bishop early on. Until I started playing this way I did find the other CK variations quite dull but this is an exciting variation. It seems to come as a bit of a shock to defensive minded CK players who find themselves under attack early on in the game when they wanted solidity/passivity.
    This bayonet variation I think is a little known & little used line against the CK and home preparation & practice with it is certainly worth it from my point of view! Even if I lose with this I will always have had an exciting, interesting & challenging game (which imho cannot be said of many of the other CK lines I have tried & faced). I'm very glad I found this line as I now enjoying playing against the CaroKann when before I found it I found the CK quite boring!
    Happy chess & caroKann playing :-)

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