Beating Caro-Kann Sidelines

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This is a guest post from James Fazzolari. Thank you, James!

Short & Sweet Guide to 5 Caro-Kann Minor Sidelines

I recently spent time preparing for a five-day, nine-round Classical tournament. I normally feel comfortable with my mainlines for such an event since they come up all the time, and I am very familiar with the ideas, so I like to do some revision for minor sidelines which rarely come up since many of them have quite some bite if you are not well prepared. After speaking with Matt, we thought sharing some of this preparation could help some of our readers at their next OTB event!

The Blackmar-Diemer Gambit

1 e4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 dxe4 4 f3

I lost a very frustrating OTB Classical game in this line, after which I undertook some research and found an easy-to-remember system that promises Black a small advantage from the opening:

This move offers the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. You can decline with 4… Nf6 if you like, but the following system is easy to remember and strong, so you should accept the pawn.

4… exf3 5 Nxf3 Nf6 6 Bc4 Bf5 7 0-0 e6 8 Ne5 Bg6!

Our last move was important since Rxf5 is winning for White, so I really want you to remember it! For the lost pawn, White leads in development and enjoys the making of a strong attack, but with simple moves, the initiative will be diffused:

9 Bg5 Nbd7 10 Qe2 Be7 11 Rad1 Nxe5!

Simplest. This leads to the following forcing sequence, which leaves Black better.

12 dxe5 Nd5 13 Bxe7 Qxe7 14 Ne4 Bxe4 15 Qxe4 0-0.

After a short think, my computer provides an evaluation of -2.2, so chances for a win are promising.

The Gambit Which Shall Not Be Named

1 e4 c6 2 Nf3 d5 3 d3 dxe4 4 Ng5 exd3 5 Bxd3 Nd7!

I do not know if this line enjoys a name yet – it remains unnamed in my database. I have seen this line recommended in a few places and have faced it three times in Blitz. There is 1 Master game in my database, too, so it could certainly show up at your next event!

Now, what White was hoping for was a move like 5… Nf6, after which there follows 6 Nxf7! Kxf7 Bg6! and it’s impossible for the Black King to defend the Black Queen, so Black is lost. Therefore, Nd7 prepares Nf6 by shielding the Black Queen from the discovered attack and comes with its own nasty positional idea.

White will now typically continue in one of two ways:

a) 6 0-0 Ne5! 7 Bxh7 Qxd1 8 Rxd1 Nf6 9 Bd3 Nxd3 10 Rxd3 Bf5 (-1.7).

Black leads in development with better minor pieces. While just a sample line, since White can continue in many ways, the critical idea I wanted to showcase was Ne5 followed by Nxd3 if White allows it – you’ll almost certainly want to play Nxd3 after any non-forcing move from White.

b) 6 Nxh7 Ne5 7 Nxf8 Nxd3+ 8 Qxd3 Qxd3 9 cxd3 Kxf8 (-0.5).

An unusual position to be certain, so I wanted to give some guidance as to how to proceed:

  • The Knight should develop via h6 to f5 and then d4; we do not want to block our f-pawn
  • Black should take space in the center with f6 and e5, which will support our knight
  • The light square Bishop will probably come to f5, where it targets the isolated pawn
  • You can finish development with Rae1, facing off against the isolated pawn.

In this Queen-less middlegame, the King in the center is a strength, not a weakness.

The Goldman Variation

1 e4 c6 2 Nc3 d5 3 Qf3

This offbeat line is by no means unsound and could certainly catch someone unawares if they have never seen it before. That is a good one to know because Grandmaster Naroditsky plays it on his stream.

Much like the last variation, White hopes to catch you if you continue 3… Nf6. Black’s other options (dxe4, d4, and e6) score quite well. I have selected dxe4 as it should lead to positions similar to those from the Chess Goals Caro-Kann course Tartakower chapters.

3… dxe4 4 Nxe4 Nf6 5 Bc4 Nbd7 (5 Nxf6 exf6 6 Bc4 Bd6= is just a Tartakower where White misplaced their Queen) 6 d4 Nb6!

A key move to remember. In the database, Black normally continues with 6… e6, after which White retains the opening advantage (+0.3), but after 6… Nb6, Black is slightly better (-0.6).

7 Bd3 Qxd4 8 Ne2 Qe5N (-0.7).

Before our last move, which is an unplayed novelty so far, we were following Trent, L – Mendoca, Leon Luke, ½-½, 2022, which continued with the natural 8… Qd7, with equal chances for both sides.

Accelerated Bronstein Variation

1 e4 c6 2 Ne2 d5 3 e5

The Bronstein variation is reached after 1 e4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 e5 Bf5 4 Ne2, where the Knight will go on to harass the light square Bishop. By omitting the move d4, White hopes to achieve an improved version of the same.

If I had written this article a year ago, this section would inevitably need to be long since I previously played 3… Bf5 in the Advance, so I want to do the same, playing directly into White’s plan. From experience, Black should be fine in the line which continues     4 Ng3 Bg6 5 h4 h6 6 h5 Bh7 7 e6 fxe6! 8 d4 Qd6! but it’s uncomfortable and unnecessary now that I have switched to 3… c5 in the Advance variation, which I can now recommend here too.

3… c5! 4 d4 Nc6 5 c3 e6

We reach a position similar to some lines in the Chess Goals Caro-Kann course Advance variation with 4 c3 chapter. I recommend the move 5 e6 because Bg4 is ineffective with the Knight on e2 rather than f3, and Bf5 allows White to unfurl with tempo after Ng3.

6 Nd2 Qb6 7 Nf3 f6! (+0.1)

Black can continue Nxf6, Bd6, 0-0 and look forward to pushing his pawns in the center. White’s development will be incredibly slow, so finding good moves should not be too difficult.

The Apocalypse Attack

1 e4 c6 2 Nf3 d5 3 exd5 cxd5 4 Ne5!?

Saving the best-named variation for last, of course.

White intends to win the Bishop-pair with Bb5+, at the cost of time. White can insert this move early or later, but the result is the same. I recommend allowing this trade since Black equalizes with the time afforded, but if facing the Bishop-pair is not your liking, try 4… a6.

4…Nf6 5 d4 Nf6 6 Bb5 Bd7 7 Nxd7 Qxd7 8 c3 e6 (7.. a6 is fine too) 9 0-0 Bd6 10 Nd2 0-0 (+0.1)

Reaching a generic position from the Caro-Kann Exchange variation. Now Nf3 can be strongly met with Ne4 and f5 when Black will have some attacking prospects on the Kingside. If that’s not to your liking, the minority attack is available, too, and will come with tempo. Chances are about equal.