A wonder weapon against Sokolov’s Slav?

Slav6So there is this brandnew killer line against the Slav in which Black has experienced nothing but pain since its invention in 2015. White has scored >80% with 9.h4 (>70% as of June 2018), and instead of fighting it many Black players avoid the critical line (7…Nb6, sometimes called the „Sokolov variation“ after Dutch grandmaster Ivan Sokolov) by deviating. Even the opening gurus from chesspublishing.com awarded an „!“ to 9.h4 and claim a white edge after 15.Qa7 (see below).

Do I want to fight it or deviate as well? I badly needed to update my files on this line to make sure. I did, and now I’m ready to fight White’s new wunderweapon. As far as I am concerned Black is ok after 7…Nb6. I have compressed my opening file on this into a consumable form and added some annotations. The not so ambitious player who just needs something against the Slav should find some ideas from the white perspective (note the annotations to the main line 9.f3, I have pointed out a White mistake that I see again and again), and the ambitious tournament player can use this to make sure he knows his stuff when playing Black.

Edit, June 2018:

This survey has been published in late 2016 for the first time, but its conclusion still stands. In the updated version below I have included two relevant developments. Istratescu-Sebag was a highly interesting, but somewhat independent game. Most notably theory nerd Anish Giri when confronted with 9.h4 in Leuven 2017 chose 9…e6. Anish may know better, but we still consider 9…e6 a playable, but substandard compromise for the unprepared.

Let’s also note that there seems to be a tendency to play 9.h4 in Leuven, given the Anand and the Giri game in this survey. With Leuven 2018 starting today we might see more developments.

1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nf3 dxc4

Slav1.jpg

Now it is a classical Slav. 4…e6 (Semi Slav) and 4…a6 (Chebanenko) were possible as well. Black takes the pawn instead and intends to keep it if possible. Should White continue gambit style with 5.e4, Black is ready for 5…b5.

5. a4

Slav2.jpg

Prevents Black from playing …b5 and prepares to cramp the black queenside via a4-a5, a maneuvre that Black often avoids by going …a7-a5 himself, further strengthening his control over b4. That is the downside of 6.a2-a4: It weakens the key square b4, around which most of Black’s counterplay will evolve.

5… Bf5

The starting position of the Classical Slav.

6. Ne5

Slav3.jpg

The old main line 6.e3 has lost most of its bite (if it ever had any). Still it is the most played move in this position, especially on amateur level. 6.Ne5, however, is more ambitious and more critical. White intends to build a big centre via f2-f3, e2-e4 and kick Black’s light squared into insignificance in the process.

6… Nbd7

(6… e6 is another big chapter, 6…Na6 a playable sideline.)

7. Nxc4

Slav4.jpg

Black has reached a crossroad, 7…Nb6 or 7…Qc7 now?

7…Nb6 is the classical, solid way to play this. Black longs for relief by exchanging a pair of knights. For now he won’t fight White’s ambition to build a big centre. Black will establish some grip on the queenside instead by going …a5. Only after White has played f2-f3 and e3-e4, downgrading Black’s light squared bishop, Black thinks about attacking White’s central formation with …e5, …c5 and sometimes even …f5.

Morozevich’s 7…Qc7, preparing an immediate …e5, is the modern approach that actually doesn’t fit most Slav players attitude well. Slav players are structure guys, and 7…Qc7 followed by Morozevich’s aggressive 11…g5 is all about piece play. But with the traditional 7…Nb6 being constantly under fire many people have switched to Moro’s move.

7… Nb6

Slav5
Black can choose between Morozevich’s 11…g5 or the solid …f6.

(7… Qc7 Should you occasionally watch John Bartholomew’s videos, you probably have seen him play this from the black side. John exclusively goes 7…Qc7. I’ve never even heard him acknowledge the existence of 7…Nb6, although the latter, more solid move should suit his style. 8. g3 e5 9. dxe5 Nxe5 10. Bf4 Nfd7 11. Bg2 (diagram) The tabiya of the 7…Qc7 complex. Two decades ago Alexander Morozevich’s aggressive approach 11…g5 caught attention. 11…f6 is the more solid alternative.)

8. Ne5 a5 9. h4!?

Slav6.jpg

After being invented by Ukrainian grandmaster Anton Korobov in 2015 many strong grandmasters suddenly started to play 9.h4, and the results are devastating for Black ever since. The main idea is simple, but not easy to counter: After f2-f3 White wants to immediately threaten g2-g4 and h4-h5, catching the bishop on f5. 9.h4 may be the reason why 7…Nb6 has exeprienced another drop in popularity while even more guys started to go 7…Qc7. But I don’t think the results after 9.h4 reflect the evaluation of the position. Black is ok.

Slav7
White needs to know the 9.f3 line up to this point in order to avoid 12.Be3?!.

(9. f3 The main line. 9… Nfd7 10. Nxd7 Nxd7 11. e4 Bg6 (diagram) If you want to play this from the White side you need to know the line up to this position in order to avoid a mistake. After the seemingly natural 12. Be3?! Black gets very good play with the somewhat counterintuitive 12…Qb6, followed by …e5 or with the immediate 12…e5. I’ve seen White go 12.Be3?! in countless blitz games. If you are more ambitious as a White player you may want to open your database and look deeper into the position after 11… Bg6. This chapter of the Slav defense is still wide open, and the white players keep coming up with new, critical ideas to fight the black setup.)

9… Nbd7

Slav8.jpg

If Black wants to fight for an equal or unclear game this has to be the move. Black can also set himself up with …e6 and …h6, he will be solid after that, but White enjoys a space advantage and can put Black’s light squared bishop out of play.

(9… g6 Curious try by Anand in a blitz game vs Levon Aronian in Leuven 2016. 10. h5 gxh5 (10… Nxh5? 11. g4 +-) 11. e4 If White can play this immediately without being punished, he is better. 11…Bxe4!? (11… Nxe4 12. Qxh5 Bg6 13. Nxg6 fxg6 14. Qe5 Nf6 15. Bd3 Threatening Rxh7, Black is in trouble.) (11… Bg6 as played by Vishy with a small, but stable white advantage.) 12. Nxe4 Nxe4 13. Nxf7 Kxf7 14. Qxh5+ Kg8 15. Qg4+ Bg7 16. Qxe4 Qxd4 17. Qe6+! (17.Qxe7 Rf8 unclear) 17… Kf8 White should at least have sufficient compensation for the pawn, but things are complicated.)

(9… e6 10. f3 Black can try some tricks, but they don’t work. 10… h6 (10… Be7 11. e4 Nh5 12. exf5 Bxh4+ 13. Kd2 Ng3 14. Rh3 Qxd4+ 15. Kc2 Qxe5 16. Rxh4 Rd8 17. Bd3 Nxf5 18. Rh3 and White is better) (10… Nh5 11. g4 Be7 12. Kf2 Bxh4+ 13. Kg2 Ng3 14. Rh3 Bg6 and White is much better) 11. e4 Bh7 12. Be3 Nfd7 A typical Slav position. Black is solid, but space advantage and the black problem piece on h7 should give White an edge. So,W-Giri,A, Leuven 2017, ended 0-1 after 32 moves nevertheless.)

10. Qb3 Nxe5 11. dxe5

Slav9.jpg

11… Nd7

(11…Ng4 12. Bf4 and it is not clear what the knight is doing on g4.)

Slav10.jpg

12. e4

(12.Qxb7 Nxe5 13. Bf4 (13. e4 will transpose.) 13… Rb8 14. Qa7 f6 is an independent mess that was reached in Istratescu,A (2596)-Sebag,M (2488), Chartres 2017, draw (49). The position eludes human evaluation, but a human may very well look at it and ask what the move 9.h4 was good for.)

Slav11.jpg

12… Be6

(12… Bg4 13. Qxb7 Nxe5 14. f3 Rb8 15. Qa7 (15. Qa6?! The megabase has one annotated game on 9.h4. Here the commentator states that the value of the whole line depends on 15.Qa6. But 15.Qa6?! is dubious for the simple reason that Black can now return his attacked bishop with tempo, kicking the queen out of Black’s camp. For now c8 is not a bad square. 15…Bc8 According to the engine Black is better already.) 15… Be6 White may take things slowly from here, he can also immediately storm forward with 16.f4 and 17.f5 and transpose into what I assume will be the main line of this system.)

13. Qxb7 Nxe5

Slav12.jpg

White can try a lot of things at this point, let’s not overload this. But we should quickly check at least if Black lives after White’s most aggressive try f2-f4-f5.

14. f4 Rb8

Slav13.jpg

For now Black saves the c6 pawn from being captured, but in the long run he will often sacrifice it and hope for pressure on the queenside.

(14…Ng4?! 15. Qxc6+ Bd7 This would be a nice puzzle. White to move keeps his advantage. 16. Bb5! +=)

15. Qa7

Slav14.jpg

15… Nd7

(15… Ng4!? We have already left theory. In the two only predecessors 15…Nd7 was played. 15…Ng4 may one day evolve into an independent complex.)

16. f5 Bb3 17. Bf4 Ra8 18. Qb7 e5 19. Bg5

Slav15.jpg

19… Rb8

(19… f6?! Black blunders in a 2015 game between the Italian grandmasters Vocaturo and Dvirnyy. The „Zwischenzug“ 19… Rb8 was required. 20. Qxb3 Nc5 21. Qc4 fxg5 22. Rd1 and White had a significant advantage.)

20. Qxc6 f6 21. Be3 Rc8 22. Qb5 Bb4

Slav16.jpg

We’re following a 2016 correspondence game, played on the LSS by 2.700 (OTB) GM Igor Kovalenko with White against a strong Ukrainian correspondence player. Black has reason to claim that the White extra pawn (on b2) isn’t that significant. Black’s grip on the queenside should make this position unclear. But Black must not stumble into this blindly.

Two vital things the second player needs to take care of:

  • White must be prevented from going Bc4, exchanging the light squared bishops.
  • White must be prevented from transferring his queen to the kingside, initiating an attack. Despite being a pawn down Black actually likes trading queens here!
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