Friday, December 28, 2007

Leningrad Investigations I

When does an opening or a variation deserve a name? Obviously it does when it’s popular enough to be recognized by everybody. If you refer to the Marshall gambit in the Ruy Lopez, most players of any strength will know what you are talking about and you save a lot of time compared to giving the first nine moves of the opening. But even for rare lines it may make sense to designate a name if you are going to discuss it or write about it, and I spent some time contemplating a good name for the variation that’s the subject of this entry (see also my previous entry on this line). From my database it seems that Anic, Apsenieks, Danner, Gazic, Haub, Kostic, Ragozin, Szabolcsi and Zwaig (in alphabetic order) for slightly different reasons all seem to be candidates for eponymous fame. If one or more of them have published analysis of the line or in any way propagated it, their candidature will be considerably strengthened. For the moment I will stick to ‘the ...c6 Leningrad’.
1.d4 f5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.0–0 0–0 6.c4 c6!?
This is a highly transpositional move. And in order to fully appreciate it, you must see it from White’s perspective. He almost certainly has prepared something against 6...d6 - most likely 7.Nc3 and then a reply to Black’s most common 7th moves: 7...Qe8, 7...c6 and 7...Nc6. But 6...c6 is a seemingly modest move he may have overlooked. It would be very convenient for him if Black’s rare move proved to be only a feint, so 7.Nc3, hoping for 7...d6 is a likely (and good) reply:
7.Nc3 (Dia)

The main strength of this move is that it keeps White guessing whether Black is still planning to return to normal Leningrad lines with a delayed ...d6 or not. More independent moves are 7...Qb6, 7...Ne4 and 7...d5.
If Black immediately plays 7...d6 (returning to one of the 6...d6 mainlines) White’s most popular move is 8.d5 but also other moves have their followers. Against most of these moves (8.b3, 8.Qc2 8.Rb1 and 8.Re1) 8...Na6 is a respected reply. Most probably White now is trying to make up his mind: Should he play the move that he would have played against the ‘normal’ 7...d6 - again hoping for transposition after 8...d6 - or should he try to pick one of the moves against which ...Na6 isn’t popular?
This move makes sense as a delayed ...d6 now would lead to a line where White is scoring very well. You should however bear in mind that White quite likely had prepared 6...d6 7.Nc3 c6 8.d5 against the Leningrad and now is slightly outside his normal repertoire.
Black cannot stay completely uncommitted forever. This move is to some extent connected with a ...d5 set-up but White cannot be completely sure about Black’s intentions.
a) 8...d6 9.b4 transposes to the line 6...d6 7.Nc3 c6 8.Rb1 Na6 9.b4, which (as already mentioned) scores rather poorly for Black.
b) 8...Kh8 is a flexible move but may also prove a waste of time. 9.b4 Ne4 10.Qb3 d6 11.Bb2 d5 12.Nxe4 fxe4 13.Ne5 Be6 14.cxd5 Bxd5 15.Qa4 Nc7 16.h3 Nb5 17.Qc2 Nd6 18.f3 exf3 19.Bxf3 Bxf3 20.Nxf3 Qc8 1/2–1/2 Novikov-E.Ragozin, St Petersburg 1995.
c) 8...d5 is fairly solid but Black suffers from a certain lack of counter-play: 9.cxd5 Nxd5 10.Qb3 Nac7 11.Bf4 Kh8 (11...Ne6 12.Be5 f4 seems to create a little more counter-play) 12.Be5 and White’s advantage was fairly clear in Littke-Bernadet, North Bay 1994.
White has also tried:
a) 9.Bf4 d6 10.Qc1 Nxc3 11.bxc3 Qa5 12.c5 dxc5 13.Qe3 Nc7 14.c4 Ne6 15.d5 cxd5 16.cxd5 Nxf4 17.Qxf4 Qd8 =+ Graf-Bartel, Kusadasi 2006.
b) 9.Qb3 Kh8 10.Bf4 d6 11.Nxe4 fxe4 12.Nd2 Bxd4 13.Nxe4 Qb6 14.Qd1 Bf5 15.b4 Bg7 16.Be3 Qd8 17.b5 cxb5 18.Rxb5 b6 = Bruzon Bautista-Bartel, Calvia 2006.
c) 9.c5 b6 10.cxb6 axb6 11.Qc2 d5 12.Rd1 Be6 13.Ng5 Bd7 14.f3 Nxg5 15.Bxg5 Qe8 16.e4 fxe4 17.fxe4 Bg4 = Glyanets-E.Ragozin, Orel 1992.
9...d6 10.Rd1
10.Nxe4 fxe4 11.Ng5 d5 12.cxd5 cxd5 13.Qb3 e6 would have been unclear.
10...Qe8! (Dia)
This looks more active than 10...Nc7 11.b4 h6 12.Bb2 Kh7 13.d5 Nxc3 14.Bxc3 of Shuklin-Poletaev, Kazan 1995 which nevertheless might have been playable for Black if he hadn’t blundered with 14...e5?? which allowed 15.dxc6 bxc6 16.Bxe5 and a winning advantage to White.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where White goes wrong in this game. This looks like a more active way to exclude Black’s ...Nb4 option than 11.a3 but now the weakness of the c-pawn becomes a factor.
11...Qf7 12.Na4 Be6
Every opening has its distinct personality but few are so peculiar as the Leningrad. Black’s piece deployment would seem strange by any standard except the Leningrad Dutch, yet he is probably already better.
White experiences similar problems after 13.b5 cxb5 14.cxb5 Rac8, e.g. 15.Qb2 Nc7 16.b6 Bd7 17.Qb3 Nd5 and Black’s play in the c-file promises him the better chances.
13...cxd5 14.cxd5 Bd7 15.b5 Rac8 (Dia)
Here, in Lacrosse-Murey, Bethune 1998 White already resigned. That certainly was a bit premature and my guess is that White, depressed by the development of the game, miscalculated the line 16.Qd3 (16.Qb3 leads to much of the same) 16...Nac5?! 17.Nxc5 Rxc5 and overlooked the resource 18.Ng5! Nxg5 19.Bxg5 Rc3 20.Qd2 which is fairly equal. Instead Black gets a clear (but hardly winning) advantage after 16...Nc7! 17.Be3 (17.a3 Qe8 18.Nd4 Nxd5 19.Nxf5 Bxf5 20.Bxe4 Bxe4 21.Qxe4 e6 22.Qd3 Nf6 23.Qxd6 Ne4 24.Qb4 Nxf2 isn’t better) 17...Qe8 18.Nd4 Nxd5 19.Nxf5 Rxf5 20.Bxe4 Nxe3 21.Qxe3 Rxb5.

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