Winning after 17 moves against Aronian: an expansion on our Caro Kann survey, forced by fabulous Fabi

It’s nice to publish something relevant once in a while. We weren’t even aware until several readers pointed it out: The new, critical line 10.Qh4 in the 5…Qc7 Caro Kann Exchange is not to be found in any book on the opening. The boys from Chessable had it exclusively in their commercial Caro Kann repertoire until it appeared for free in our survey a few days ago.

Illustration: Willum Morsch (@WillumTM)

There have been very recent developments that force us to expand. Despite our urgent recommendation to play 5…Qc7 the big boys in the St. Louis rapid and blitz torunament went for a different line three times in a row. Fabiano Caruana (in one of his rare Caro Kann games) even managed to be winning with Black against Levon Aronian’s new love affair 1.e4 after 17 moves!

Notice that we particularly recommend 5…Qc7 when there’s a good chance to catch the opponent unprepared. For other cases it’s always good to have a second weapon in your arsenal. 5…Nf6 and 7…Qd7 as played by Caruana should do the trick. Black aims to offer a pawn sacrifice in this line that, when accepted, may lead to a quick win (as it did against Aronian). If White declines, Black should be totally fine nevertheless.


This one is not as extensive as the first survey, but it should work as a starting point for your exploration of 7…Qd7. We put all the lines below into a Lichess study for you to copy them, do some drilling and further analysis.

Also, enjoy the game. What a beautiful attack.

Aronian, Levon (2.767) – Caruana, Fabiano (2.822)
St. Louis, August 2018, Caro Kann Exchange Variation

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. Bd3 Nc6 5. c3


5… Nf6

(5… Qc7 preventing 6. Bf4 should be everybody’s move of choice as long as there’s a good chance the opponent hasn’t specifically prepared for the game. An unprepared opponent will most likely play 7.f3/8.Bf4 and experience trouble after 8…e5! 6. Ne2 Bg4 7. O-O (7. f3 Bd7 8. Bf4 e5 is pleasant for Black.) 7… Nf6 8. Qe1 e6 9. f3 Bh5 10. Qh4 is the critical line Black needs to be aware of, leading to an unclear and often messy fight. The resulting positions are so uncommon that most games will probably go in favour of the player who is more familiar with them. For details check our survey from a few days ago.)

6. Bf4 Bg4 7. Qb3


7… Qd7

“This is of course much better than 7…Qc8 since it’s the more active move”, said GM Alex Yermolinsky when analyzing this game during his Youtube show “Every Russian Schoolboy knows…”. We were surprised to hear that because …Qd7 often leads to similar positions like …Qc8. But since Uncle Yermo emphasized in this same show that he doesn’t belive in men having walked on the moon, we can take his judgement “much better” with a grain of salt. He has a point, though. What Yermolinsky means with “more active” becomes apparent very soon.

(7… Na5 8. Qa4+ Bd7 9. Qc2 is the old, but still playable main line.)
(7… Qc8 8. Nd2 e6 9. Ngf3 Be7 10. O-O Bh5 is the main alternative to 7… Qd7.)

8. Nd2 e6 9. Ngf3


9… Bd6

This is the main difference to 7…Qc8. 7…Qd7 enables Black to offer a pawn sacrifice, that, if accepted, seems to give him exellent chances.

(9… Bxf3 Black fears 9…Bd6 10.Ne5, so he exchanges on f3 first. This has been played hundreds of times by Kazimdzhanov, Riazantsev, Saric, Capablanca, Reti and many others, but seems to be a minor inaccuracy nevertheless. Black’s point is that in case of 10. Nxf3 Bd6 11. Ne5 Qc7 12. O-O Nd7 13. Nxd7 Bxf4 14. Nc5 he is doing well. He can even try the bold 14…O-O-O!? and be fine. Also the pawn sacrifice after 11.Bxd6 and 12.Qxb7 works out well for Black. But if White decides to go 11.Bxd6 or 11.Bg3 (11.Be5 may be interesting as well), doesn’t take on b7 and plays a “boring” Karlsbad structure with not much going on at the moment instead, his unopposed light squared bishop gives him something to work with long term.

10. Bxd6

(10. Ne5 Qc7 11. Nxg4 (11. O-O Nd7 12. Nxg4 This guy is misplaced and a mark to play against at the same time. 12… Bxf4 13. Nf3 h5 14. Ne3 g5 and White has reasons to worry already.) 11… Bxf4 12. Nxf6+ gxf6 with an unclear position in Granda Zuniga,J (2653)-Swapnil,S (2532), Douglas 2017, draw (35).)

10… Qxd6


11. Qxb7

(Shakh Mamedyarov faced the Exchange twice in St. Louis after the Aronian-Caruana game. He opted for 7…Qd7 as well, but having seen Aronian being blown off the board by Caruana his opponents decided to not take on b7 both times. On of these opponents was Aronian himself who surely didn’t want to repeat the Caruana exeprience. But Shakh didn’t have any trouble against a calm approach either: 11. O-O O-O 12. Rfe1 (12. Rae1 Rab8 13. Ne5 Lots of solid choices for Black at this point.. …Tfc8 is fine, so is the typical …Bg4-h5-g6 or …Bf5 even. 12… b5!? 14. Bxb5 a6 15. Bxc6 Rxb3 16. axb3 Bf5 17. b4 ended with a draw after 37 moves in Aronian,L (2767)-Mamedyarov,S (2801), Saint Louis 2018.) 12… Ne7 13. Ne5 Bf5 14. Bf1 Rab8 15. a4 with an equal position in Anand,V (2768)-Mamedyarov,S (2801), Saint Louis 2018, draw (45).)

11… Rb8 12. Qa6


12… O-O

(12… Rxb2? 13. Bb5 is good for White.)

13. Bb5

Closes the b file, fights for the e5 square and an opening advantage, but transferring further guys to the queenside may be the first serious misstep already. At this point there’s no advantage for White to fight for anymore

(13. O-O Rb6 looks fine for Black. There is one potential inaccuracy he should be aware of, though. After 14. Qa3 (14. Qa4 Rxb2 with good play for Black.) 14… Qxa3 15. bxa3 it looks tempting to double on the b file via 15…Rfb8 (like some people did already), but that’s a pointless endeavour. 15… Rc8! with immediate play against c3 is more precise. 16. Rab1 Bxf3 17. Nxf3 Na5 and Black was happy in Ovod,E (2364)-Girya,O (2484) St Petersburg 2017, draw (101).)

13… Rb6 14. Qa4 Ne7


15. Ne5

The consistent move after 13.Bb5, but things go downhill quickly now.

(Objectively 15. O-O is better, fighting for an equal game, but that’s not something you want to do with the white pieces after 15 moves. The Qa4 and the Bb5 look completely misplaced.)

15… Ng6!N

Having lured the knight to e5 Black puts it to the test immediately. He doesn’t mind having the Bg4 exchanged since a black knight on g4 will immediately be coordinated with the rest of the troops in order to hunt down the white king.

16. Nxg4 Nxg4


17. h3?

The losing move already.

(17. g3 doesn’t look pretty, but is the only move to keep things stable.)

17… Nf6?


(17… Nxf2! -+ It’s surprising that Caruana missed this shot which also represents the consistent move in line with …Ng6 and …Nxg4 before. We can assume that the …Nc6-e7-g6 plan was part of his preparation, so how could he not have had this on the board beforehand? Whatever it was, it’s understandable, though, that he wouldn’t go for this unprepared in a rapid game. Even for a 2.800 player the consequences may not be calculatable, it’s something he would have to play “by feel” which always involves a risk when going for complications. And after the move played in the game Black is just better anyway – not yet winning, though: 18. Kxf2 Rfb8 19. Be2 Rxb2 (diagram) and White has no defense.


If the Nd2 moves now, …Nf4 will decide the game, so he has to try something else: 20. Qd1 (20. Rhd1 Qf4+ 21. Nf3 h5 The weak spot g3 wins Black the game. 22. Rac1 h4 23. Rc2 Qg3+ followed by …Nf4 winning.) (20. Rad1 Qf4+ 21. Nf3 h5 Same story as in the line before. Black wants to invade via g3 and follow it up with …Nf4.) 22. g3 Rxe2+! 23. Kxe2 Qe4+ 24. Kf2 (diagram) 24… Ne5!! winning) 20… Qf4+ 21. Nf3 Qf5! Black’s position is so good, he has time for this, planning …Nf4 winning in the first place. 22. g3 e5 and White needs to give up too much material.)

18. Nb3?


Closes the b file, but now the Bb5 and especially the Qa4 look even more unhappy. Also White draws another piece away from his unprotected king in the centre.

(18. c4 Qb8 19. O-O is given by the machine as the only chance to stay in the fight.)
(18. O-O Rfb8 19. c4 Qf4 20. Nf3 a6! 21. Bc6 Qf5 followed by …Nf4 and Black is winning.)

18… e5?!

Gives White another chance to survive.

(18… Rfb8 and Black wins. In case of 19.Bf1 there’s 19…Qf4 and White won’t castle ever. If the bishop moves somewhere else there’s 19…Nf4.)

19. O-O?

(19. O-O-O! and White may find ways to make it messy at least.)

19… e4


With the 6th rank being open for a potential rook lift White is toast. All black pieces play in the upcoming attack, while the white guys on the queenside can only watch from a distance.

20. Rfe1

Wants to go Bf1 and stabilize, but that’s too late.

20…Nh5 21. Bf1 Nh4 22. Qa5


White would like to tie the black queen to d5…

22… Qg6!

…but the black attack already crushes through. No need to count pawns.

23. Qxd5 Nf3+ 24. Kh1


24… Ng3+!

(24… Qg3??! It’s a pity for Caruana that this one doesn’t work. It would have become this century’s gold coin game played by an American. 25. gxf3 Qxf3+ 26. Bg2 Qxg2+ 27. Kxg2 Nf4+ 28. Kg3 Nxd5 29. Rxe4 wins for White unfortunately.)

25. fxg3 Qxg3


26. Qe5

The only way to not get mated immediately, but it comes at a great price.

(26. gxf3 Rg6 winning.)

26…Nxe5 27. dxe5 Qxe5


Queen versus two minor pieces is just too much material. And the black attack goes on even.

28. Rad1 f5 29. Rd7 Rd6 30. Rxa7 Qg3 31. Rb1 f4 32. Nc5 Qe3 33. b4 f3 34. Re7 fxg2+ 35. Bxg2 Rh6


Aronian resigned.


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