1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 a6
Today is the feast day of St Lawrence, San Lorenzo to Spanish-speakers and apparently a native of the city of Osca - to give it the Roman name it possessed in his lifetime. In a story unreliable even by the standards of hagiography, he was supposedly burned on a griddle, a martyrdom commemorated each year by a week's worth of fiestas in Huesca, the modern name for Osca and the city in which I lived from March 2006 until the autumn of 2008.
I could add "except when the fiestas were on", since while they were happening I normally preferred to leave the city and not come back until they were over. Once we had moved out into a village some 25 kilometres from Huesca I was able to take a more relaxed view and in 2009 I popped into the city during fiesta week, in order to take part in the annual simultaneous display that takes place in the park. Not, mind you, as one of the players giving the simul, but from the other side of the board.
I took this as an opportunity to experiment. There were three players giving simuls but as the other two were actually lower-graded than me, I correctly assumed I'd be allocated to Javier Fontana, who normally plays 1.e4. However, given that he knew I knew that, and given also that people like to vary a bit in a simultaneous, I read up a couple of different things, one for 1.e4 and one for 1.d4. For the life of me I can't remember what my 1.e4 plan was, but he gave that move a miss and we had a Chebanenko Slav instead.
I've played Javier twice OTB - once before the simul, once after - and drawn both games. You'd think I'd have done better in the simul. What with my preparation and all. You'd be wrong.
WHY I PLAYED IT:
What this is about is the Drawish Dilemma. As Black, you can choose: either you can play something which allows White to head for a very drawish type of position (if not actually a forced draw) or you can play something this is probably not entirely sound.
There is no way out. If there were, we would know about it by now. Come to that, we would have known about it in 2008, when I played the Chebanenko Slav for the first and so far only time. Or indeed by the mid-Nineties, when my period of changing my openings like Imelda Marcos' shoes really kicked off. Or, for that matter, long before I was born.
Although I know this, this has never stopped me thrashing about trying to resolve the unresolvable problem, and, regrettably, I suppose it never will. It has caused me stupidly to abandon openings I have liked and enjoyed, and just as stupidly to take up openings that I never should have touched.
In the case of 1.d4 it caused me to give up the Queen's Gambit Accepted (as mentioned here) even though I had been faring pretty well with it. Why not keep it and take up a second opening? Why not play two defences, one sounder, one more risky? Probably I should have. But it wasn't so simple, albeit there was rather more madness than method in my approach.
The problem was, and is, that the case of queen pawn openings is complicated by the fact that if you want to play a defence with 1...Nf6, you have to find two active defences. One for the position 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 and one for 3.Nf3. (This isn't entirely true, but it's probably true if we extend "active" to mean "both active and sound".)
So if you want to play the Nimzo-Indian and the Queen's Gambit Accepted, you in fact have to play the Nimzo-Indian and the Queen's Gambit Accepted and something else on top. Which, it's always seemed to me, involves spreading yourself too thinly.
So in practice, what I've done has been to swing from one choice to the other: either selecting a defence with 1...d5, or two defences with 1...Nf6, with one being the Nimzo-Indian and the other not. With occasional forays, as against 1.e4, into the realms of the dubious. I also mentioned in OWE V that because 1.d4 was (and remains) more rare among club players than 1.e4, I had more time in between games to change my mind. Which I did. And did. And did.
I last played the QGA in 1997. Later that year I gave the Slav with 5...Na6 - realms of the dubious, probably - a try. (But a try that only lasted one game, so it should probably appear in this series at some point). I also had a couple of goes with the Modern - realms of the dubious, definitely - which for reasons that I cannot fathom I chose to play only against 1.d4, thus negating the point of employing a universal system. In 1998 my rather more sensible selection was a main line Slav, though I also had a go at the Nimzo-Indian. (What I had decided to employ against 3.Nf3 I will never recall for sure. Possibly the Queen's Gambit Declined.) In 1999 I thought the Chigorin - those realms again - would be a good idea but by the following year I had obviously realised it wasn't, returning to the Nimzo and combining it with a couple of Modern Benonis.
Looking up 2001 I find I played 1...d5 again, but the game didn't continue with 2.c4. Maybe I had a Chigorin in mind? Who knows, because my next game against 1.d4 was a Queen's Indian Defence. By 2002 I was back on the Benoni (and also selected 2...c5 a couple of times against 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3, by which idea I am still tempted every time I play ...d5 and meet the London System). I also played, and lost, a sort-of Queen's Gambit Declined against Richard Palliser, but as this was with Nf3 and 4.Bg5, and I then preferred 4...dxc4 to 4...Be7, I don't think my intention was to play the QGD as such, but to play the Semi-Slav against the normal 4.Nc3. Which is what I started doing the following year.
This combination of Nimzo and Semi-Slav seemed to suit me, and it probably did. Probably I should have stuck with it beyond the three years I actually managed to do so. Probably I should still be playing it now. Probably I will, at some point in the future.
But, as ever, it started getting frayed at the edges and, as ever, instead of patching it up properly I went looking for something new. I remember that at Oban in 2004 my Nimzo got badly beaten by 4.f3 as it was again, in early 2006, by 4.Qc2 in a Czech tournament. At the same time, I was finding that I didn't much like 5.Bg5 in the Semi-Slav.
So in 2006 I started playing the main line Slav again, and have done ever since, with the exception (if we exclude email games, where I often used to experiment) of one more Nimzo in 2008. It's not exclusively the Slav, often it's the Semi-Slav instead, but it's always been one kind of Slav or another, and the Slav itself for preference when I'm up against stronger players.
Which brings its own problems, of course, and if I go into them at any length then I will only increase the extent to which, as if this were a folk song, the introduction has become the longest part of the piece. So we'll mention only briefly that there's a question of what one should do against 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3, rather than 3.Nf3, which is that if 3...Nf6 then 4.e3 rules out your intended 4...dxc4 and may put you in an opening you didn't want to play. There's also a question of how to meet 6.Ne5 (after 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5) which poses different and perhaps harder problems than does the older 6.e3.
But while we will briefly return to those questions later, just for now we'll just mention that they exist and move straight on to the problem of 3.cxd5.
Which can be really difficult to play against if you're trying to win, but impossible to avoid if you want to play a Slav. With the Semi-Slav, you can play 2...e6 - which I have sometimes done - if you're prepared to play against the Marshall Gambit (3.Nc3 c6 4.e4). This is something that I will do if I absolutely have to, but have never yet been asked to do. I don't particularly relish the prospect.
Or you can find some way to whip up some play against the Exchange Variation. On which I won't dwell here, though one day I may try and squeeze a whole series out of it, as we've done with the Exchange French. Suffice to say that some think that the best way to give yourself a chance of mixing it up against the Exchange Variation is by 3...cxd5 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bf4 a6!?
which is, of course, the same as 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 a6 - the Chebanenko - 5.cxd5 cxd5 6.Bf4 Nc6.
Once you realise that, and are attracted by it, you also notice that if you played the Chebanenko, you wouldn't have to worry at all about 4...dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5. Then you notice that the Chebanenko has a certain pain-in-the-backside quality (by which I mean something different from having your backside kicked, which was my experience in the game). Partly the aspect of being hard-to-break-down, partly the aspect of being a waiting move, partly the aspect of being less studied and less theoretical than the alternatives at move four.
All of these are aspects that I like. I don't much like the way Black's pawn structure looks like draughts. But I was interested enough to try it out in a simul to see how it went.
I'd also played against it a couple of times. Once in Bury St Edmunds (I tried 5.a4) and once in Port Erin (5.c5, which I also tried in an email game). I found it hard going to play against. If you have that experience, it's always liable to nag at you.
WHERE I FOUND IT:
I don't think I even knew the opening existed until I saw it in Matthew Sadler's 1997 Everyman book The Slav.
Its major function in that work, as far as I was concerned, was to allow me to skip a lot of pages, which was also largely true of Burgess' then-comprehensive and still-useful 2001 effort, albeit that book had a couple of pages on the 6...a6 line in its section on the Exchange (still the best I've seen in any Slav book). But I was still some years off taking any real interest in it...
...or maybe only two years, since in 2003 Glenn Flear produced an Everyman book on the ....a6 Slav, in which I must have been interested enough to buy it. But it's not a book I particularly rate - like most of that particular Everyman series, I never felt the illustrative games approach helped the reader follow what was being recommended and why - and both the book and the opening stayed on the shelf for another half-decade.
But Bologan's 2008 New In Chess work was a lot better. I believe I got my copy for review purposes, courtesy of Kingpin, but you are in fact allowed to read your free book as well as review it, and this seemed like one of those times when the right book comes out at the right time to read it.
It's flawed, and no masterpiece, and suffers from the inconsistencies and errors of production which afflict a lot of New In Chess books. (For example, on page 23 you'll see, in the first column, an idea mentioned "on the white side of the Sicilian", but what that system actually consists of is never stated: while in the second column, Flear's 2003 book is bizarrely dated 1983.) I often like NiC books, but they're not as well produced as they should be.
But it's a good book nevertheless. I thought it was a good place to start out from. It probably still is.
WHY I STOPPED PLAYING IT:
Because I got pasted, would be one answer, though the game didn't matter too much at the time (indeed, that was the whole point of choosing that game to experiment in). But I was playing a tournament later that same month, and had the trial gone well then I might easily have given it another go. But I didn't: as it turned out I played my usual main line Slav in the last round of the tournament, and got wiped out by the Geller Gambit.
Try playing 5.e4 against the Chebanenko and see how far it gets you.
5.e3 b5 6.cxd5 is not played much now, because it's rather more harmless than I showed it to be. In the game, I never got to grips with it. In retrospect not castling and then playing ...b4 was pretty stupid. (Of course I missed 15. a5, a theme I also overlooked in more than one variation in this game). I thought if I castled White would roll me over with the sort of Colle-style attack I used to lose to in my early teens, but in fact once Black sticks a knight on e4 I don't think that should happen. Then again I've never handled that sort of Stonewally position with knights on e5 and e4 at all well: I've never known when to exchange their knight and whether to let my own be exchanged.
So, the game itself was an exercise in demonstrating that I didn't know what I was doing. It might have been an unusual variant, but that's the way the cookie crumbled. It was a one-off trial, and it didn't go well.
CHANCES OF MY PLAYING IT AGAIN:
Nevertheless, I'm more likely to give this line another go than any other line we've had in the series so far. Perhaps more likely than any line in the series to come, though presently the Berlin Wall is still eligible for a slot and I'm not sure I'll be able to resist that particular pain-in-the-backside for my entire chessplaying life. I like the cussedness of both openings, just as I like it in the Breyer.
Also, I can imagine myself transposing into the Chebanenko, even if I don't play it in its normal form. After 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3, if I don't fancy 3...e6 (the Marshall Gambit) or 3...Nf6 4.e3 e6 (Meran) or 3...dxc4 (slightly frowned-on Slav) then there's an option of 3...Nf6 4.e3 a6
probably transposing into the 5.e3 line against the Chebanenko, which despite my 2009 disaster is not a line than particularly unnerves me.
For now, though, I prefer the other two options at move four.
But in the future, who knows? Funny thing is, though, that having been attracted by the Chebanenko, in the first place, by its capacity to offer an option against the Exchange Variation, I don't actually like it much in that line. Certainly not if White prefers 7.Rc1. (Though I'm not so worried by 7.Qc2 as played in Michell-Sultan Khan here!)
It can't exactly be fatal, otherwise everybody would whip off the d5-pawn as soon as they saw 4...a6, but I don't like it much. And I've never liked ...a6 much in Exchange set-ups. You can't leave your queen on b6 and the Black squares on the queenside all look like outposts for White knights.
I'd play it as White, I think. But as Black? That'll have to wait. May never happen.
[Once was enough index]