Note: This essay on the Caro Kann Two Knights has first been published in September 2016 on r/chess (remember MVL having climbed to 2.819 Elo?).
Poor MVL. 70 games without a loss, then he blundered away a superior position against Anand. Their recent encounter in St Louis caught my interest not only because MVLs run of invincibility ended, but because it touched two recent posts of mine.
Do you remember this opening puzzle from a few weeks ago?
Now MVL and Anand had exactly this position on the board after six moves.
I wonder how long I will stick to the traditional 3…Bg4 in the Caro Kann Two Knights. The topical (and critical) 3…Nf6 everybody and their mother (and Anand!) plays these days leads to much more lively play. It’s a cool line, somewhat risky though.
In either case, 3…Bg4 or 3…Nf6, White has to make the fundamental choice if he wants to go for the e5 push or not. In fact 3…Nf6 even invites White to go for it immediately.
Let’s look at the position after 3…Bg4 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 Nf6 first.
Black provokes e4-e5 with the reasoning that 6.e5 would be a bit anti-positional. After 6…Nfd7 7.d4 (7.e6?! isn’t anything at all) 7…e6 followed by …c5 Black has not simply reached the much-vaunted „improved French“ with the Bc8 off the board. Additionally, White’s extra tempo has been spent on the useless h2-h3.
This is why White does not play e4-e5 in this structure. Usually he keeps the center fluid with d2-d3 rather than e4-e5 and d2-d4.
In the MVL-Anand line after 3…Nf6 things are a bit different.
With 4.e5 now practically forced Black insists that White will be overextending somewhat and also will have to invest some tempi in order to get rid of the Ne4 that Black is about to plant in the middle of White’s camp. Black is so happy about this, he even agrees to lock in the Bc8 with a later …e6 (in a Caro Kann that is designed to get it out actually!). Make sure to look at the annotations after Black’s 6…e6. 6…Bg4? instead would fail tactically.
For me 3…Bg4 works well, and just lately it has awarded me with a beautiful win in a correspondence game you already know. Just for the sake of fun and variety I may give 3…Nf6 a shot soon, but I will have to make sure what to do in this critical position after White’s 10th move:
10…Ne4 or 10…Nf7?
I’m not sure which is best, but games in each of them illustrate that Black needs to know what he is doing in order to not get bulldozed. Anand chose 10…Ne4 and was in trouble soon. However, a few years before that MVL himself (in one of his rare Caro Kann games) went 10…Nf7 against Dominguez and didn’t do especially well either.
Whatever, enough with the preface. Let’s see the game.
Update, June 2018:
The critical position after White’s 10th move is still critical two years later.
10…Ne4 or 10…Nf7?
We’re not sure yet. …Nf7 is what the majority of people play, but …Ne4 nets much better results.
Vachier Lagrave, M. (2,819) – Anand, V. (2.770)
Saint Louis 2016, Caro Kann Two Knights
1. e4 c6 2. Nf3 d5 3. Nc3
The two knights variation, a good way to fight the Caro Kann.
Highly topical. 3…Nf6 has been trending on the highest level in the past years. Black provokes White to go knight hunting with 4.e5.
(3… Bg4 Still the main move, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Here you find some general ideas and a bit of theory on this line. I still play 3…Bg4, mainly because I hope to have Matthews Sadlers‘ 8…b5 on the board again one day in order to produce another spectacular beauty like the one in the link.)
4. e5 Ne4 5. Ne2
If you want to hunt the knight, you have to take care of its opportunities to exchange itself.
5… Qb6 6. d4
Occupying the centre, controlling the escape square c5 and enforcing control over g5.
Sure, the Ne4 has run out of escape squares, but as long as White can’t attack it Black doesn’t care and continues development. Note that 6….Bg4 is answered be 7.Nfg1! and Black is in trouble already. If Black plays like this, the Bc8 will have to stay locked in.
Threatens f2-f3, catching the knight.
Secures the g5 square.
(8.h4? Would be too much knight hunting. Black simply goes 8…fxe5, winning.}
8… Ng5 9. exf6 gxf6 10. f4
The crucial crossroad in this line. 10…Ne4 or 10…Nf7? Probably both are playable, but I’m not sure. MVL-Anand and Dominguez-MVL suggest that Anands‘ …Ne4 may be the better choice. Had Anand gone 10…Nf7 Maxime would have played against himself, and with the help of the engine I can guess where he would have headed in order to improve on Dominguez‘ play.
Look who is back on e4.
(10… Nf7 11. Nf3 Bg7 12. Ng3 O-O 13. Nh5 e5 14. Nxg7 Kxg7 15. fxe5 fxe5 So far Dominguez Perez, Leinier – Vachier Lagrave, Maxime 1/2-1/2 (54 moves), FIDE World Cup 2013. Here White may just grab a pawn. With the white king in the centre 16.dxe5 looks shaky at first, but if you imagine White going Qd2 you realize that the black king may be even more shaky. 16…Nxe5 White can’t take back due to …Qf2#. Nevertheless 16…Nxe5 is extremely risky according to the engine. 17. Qd2 (diagram). It’s not easy to let this sink in, it requires further analysis (which I haven’t done), but the machine says that White is much better.)
The guy on e4 needs to be eliminated, for good this time.
When I quickly played through the game initially this is where I stopped first because 11…Bd7 looks somewhat weird. But with Black planning to march his king to the queenside …Bd7 makes sense. Should White go Qh5+ at some point, after …Kd8 Black now has the option of going …Bd7-e8(-f7 or -g6) with tempo, developing the bishop. 11…Bd7 is not even a new move.
(11… Nxg3 12. hxg3 only helps White.)
(12. Qh5+ Kd8 13. Nf3 c5 14. c3 Kc7 15. f5 Nxg3 16. hxg3 cxd4 17. fxe6 Qxe6+ 18. Kf2 dxc3 19. Nd4 Bc5 20. Bf4+ Kc8 21. bxc3 was somewhat better for White in Lukasova, Alena – Balta, Mihai 1-0 (63 moves), correspondence game 2013)
Now Black starts dreaming to transfer a knight to d5, move his king to safety and develop some play on the kingside based on the g file and his e4 outpost. A sound and solid approach, but too slow as the game shows.
13. c3 Na6?!
This guy stays on the rim for quite some time, and when 15 moves later it finally reaches its designated d5 square it gets immediately exchanged, and White is close to winning. No impressive maneuvre. Yes, this is Anand playing, so I’m hesitant to put a „?!“ here, but Stockfish shows a convincing alternative after which Black seems to be fine.
(13… c5! Immediately looking for active play and enabling the Nb8 to go to its natural square c6. It’s not easy to come up with a white move except the obvious try 14. d5 exd5 15. Qxd5 (15. Qh5+ The king wants to march towards b8 anyway, so why help it? 15… Kd8 16. Qxd5 Kc7 17. Qxe4?! This is now taboo. 17…Nc6 with an overwhelming black initiative.) 15… Nc6 16. Qxe4+ Ne7 (diagram) Black has plenty of compensation for the pawn for his advantage in development alone. He can even go 0-0-0 now! „Unclear“ is what the engine says, but in a practical game I’d take Black every day.)
14. Qh5+ Kd8 15. Bc4 Kc7 16. a4
Threatening a5. If White can play this with most of his guys still on the back rank, something must have gone wrong for Black. And indeed, it has. The next 15 moves are just torture. Black tries to free himself and untangle somehow, but he can’t quite do it.
16… c5 17. Ne2 Rd8 18. Be3 f5 19. O-O Kb8
Not bad, but a bit unimaginative. Transferring the queen to f2 instead is strong, developing enormous pressure on Black’s clumsy king position (compare the notes to move 30).
20… Nc7 21. a5 Qc6 22. Qf6 Bd6 23. dxc5 Bxc5 24. Nd4 Qd6 25. b4 Qe7 26. Qh6 Bd6 27. Rad1 Rhf8 28. Bf2 Rf6 29. Qh4 Nd5
Finally the knight reaches its desired quare.
Anand has held is position together so far, but he was still under pressure. Now MVL blunders, overlooking a zwischenzug that was easy to miss.
(30. Bxd5 exd5 31. Qh3 planning Qe3 .31.. Qg7 32. Qe3 and Black continues to be in trouble. What is he going to do about a7?)
30…Bxe6 31. Bxd5 e3!
32. Bxe3 Bxd5 33. Bxa7+ Kxa7 34. Qf2+ Bc5 35. Qxc5+ Qxc5+ 36. bxc5 Rd7 37. Rfe1 h6 38. Kf2 Kb8 39. c4 Bc6 40. Rxd7 Bxd7 41. Rb1 Ra6 42. Rb6 Rxa5 43. Rxh6 Rxc5 44. h4 Rxc4 45. g3 Kc7 46. h5 b5