This is the Classical Chigorin - as the eponymous master himself played it. Black has tried other moves but none of them are as popular:
a) 11...Nd7, Keres’ variation is Davies’ recommendation in ‘Play 1.e4 e5!’, but has recently run into certain theoretical difficulties. Most likely this is only temporary but it’s Black that’s looking for improvements now.
b) 11...cxd4, I.Sokolov’s favorite is very playable but it appears slightly illogical to allow White the option to develop his knight to c3.
c) 11...Nc6, Borisenko’s variation too is fully playable, but White tends to play 12.d5 when Black doesn’t really have an attractive square for his knight.
d) 11...Bb7, Romanishin’s variation is fully playable but Black will frequently have to return his bishop to c8 in order to re-activate it if White plays d5.
e) 11...exd4, has no accepted name but has been played by Chiburdanidze among others.
f) 11...Re8, Hebden’s gambit line may be theoretically suspect but has been used relatively recently by Gustafsson.
This is played more than ten times as frequently as 12.d5 which is White’s second most popular move. The knight is on its way to g3 via f1 and the e-pawn may soon need protection.
It’s not at all obvious that it’s in Black’s interest to exchange his c-pawn for White’s more modestly placed c-pawn. But the open c-file will ensure that something is happening on the queenside and distract White from his slow but dangerous kingside plans. In addition Black gains temporary access to b4 for his knight.
a) 12...Bd7 is what Marin in ‘A Spanish Repertoire for Black’ calls the ‘Petrosian System’ - or more accurately that’s what he calls the natural follow-up 13.Nf1 Nc4. In my opinion ‘Petrosian variation’ would have been a more appropriate name.
b) 12...Nc6 is what Marin calls the ‘Rubinstein System’ (again I prefer ‘variation’ rather than ‘system’).
c) 12...Re8 could reasonably be called the Donner variation.
d) 12...Rd8 is a sensible move that has been played by many strong players, but it seems Romanov is the most consistent patron.
e) 12...Bb7 I suppose could be called the Panov variation after the strong player who was one of the early practitioners.
f) 12...Be6, 12...h6, 12...g6, 12...Nd7, 12...exd4 are rare moves that have been tried by strong players and that may well be valid tries for equality.
At this point Black only has a very few independent alternatives:
a) 13...Bb7 14.Nf1 transposes to 12...Bb7 13.Nf1 cxd4 14.cxd4
b) 13...Bd7 14.Nf1 transposes to 12...Bd7 13.Nf1 cxd4 14.cxd4
c) 13...Be6 14.Nf1 transposes to 12...Be6 13.Nf1 cxd4 14.cxd4
d) 13...Rd8 is relatively independent and has been played by Shirov, Kasimdzhanov and Bologan among others. Not at all a bad line-up but I could find only 180 games versus more than one thousand with 13...Nc6.
The fact that this move is necessary is one of Black’s small triumphs in the Chigorin. The knight will soon be on its way to the king's wing again but it will cost two extra moves.
The Chigorin variation is extremely solid but also slightly passive. It is hardly a coincidence that the most active sub-variations have become the mainlines. This is Black's choice in almost 90% of the games.
The d-pawn needs new protection so the knight can be released for worthier tasks.
And this natural follow-up is Black's choice in almost 95% of the games.
This is the natural move, even if there actually are 11 games with 16.Nc1 - some of them with quite strong white players.
At this point there again is a split. This is the preferred move in more than 50% of the games but there are alternatives that have been played by world-class players:
a) 16...Nb4 has been played by Adams and Beliavsky among others.
b) 16...Be6 too has been played by Beliavsky in addition to Tkachiev, Sturua and some other GMs.
There can hardly be a more natural move than placing the rook vis-a-vis Black's queen and making room for the bishop on b1. Still 17.a3 is quite a popular move which is fairly likely to transpose at some point.
With this move we reach what I declare the starting point of the Modern Chigorin Mainline in the Ruy Lopez. This is Black's preferred move in 140 out of 217 games in MegaBase 2007. The two main alternatives 17...Rac8 and 17...Rfc8 can both transpose. One reason I choose to stop here is the fact that it's not absolutely clear what's White's main continuation in this position. From the 140 MegaBase 2007 games we have this distribution:
- 18.Qe2: 51 games, with Kramnik and Shirov as the most prominent recent players.
- 18.Nf1: 39 games, with Ivanchuk, Svidler and Leko as recent top players.
- 18.a3: 28 games, with Karjakin and Bologan as leading practitioners.
- 18.Bb1: 18 games with Almasi and Kotronias as recent top players (and Anand with a 10-years old game)
- There also are games with 18.d5 and 18.Bd3 by strong GMs.
I suppose I will return to this position in a future blog.