Want to play the Slav and don’t know where to start? Try Kramnik’s old move. It’s still good and avoids a ton of theory

When this opening survey first appeared on reddit almost two years ago it was meant as an easy and quick guide to be solid against the Slav Mainline. This heavily updated version has gotten almost as out of hand as Slav Mainline theory (sorry, couldn’t help it), but the original idea remains more than viable.

slavkram.png
Illustration: Willum Morsch

It will still only require two hours of work, and you can safely take 9…Bg6 and Kramnik’s 12…Qa5 into tournament play. All you have to do is look at some grandmaster games in which White hasn’t played the critical 13.Na2 to get an idea of how Black’s play works. After that you can use this survey to become familiar with the tactics involved after the concrete 13.Na2 Bd6 which seem complicated, but are not too hard to grasp: sacrifice on e5, then rook lift, then mate him – once you have these three key points down, you’re good to go.

As usual I have put all the lines and evaluations below into a Lichess study for you to replay and analyze more conveniently.

In case you’re looking for more general explanations on the Slav I’d like to refer you to our recent Survey on the Sokolov Slav. I didn’t want to repeat the basics that are covered there.

Now on to the original introduction, followed by the updated survey:


 

„This has always been my approach against the Slav main line in OTB chess. As far as I know it is still perfectly fine while not being recommended anywhere. And it’s easy to play.

The line is not exactly hot and brandnew, on the contrary, this has already been played in the 80s, until people stopped to play it because the White players had come up with two pawn sacrifices (13.Na2!?, 13.e4!?) that looked promising. But it seems that noone seriously checked them, especially the more dangerous 13.Na2. The results for White are good, but if you know what you are doing 13.Na2 isn’t a problem for Black.

The position at move 12 you will basically always have on the board. How to continue from there will require two hours of work, and you are good to go. Invest one hour to become familiar with the Black plans if White plays a „normal“, positional 13th move, invest the second hour into checking the tactics after 13.Na2 with the help of an engine.

My best memory from OTB chess in this line comes from a simultaneous game against a 2.640 grandmaster (back in the day, when 2.640 meant top 50 player). The guy wasn’t too familiar with the position at move 12, went 13.Bd2, and even someone as weak and slow as me managed to outplay him within 35 or so moves. Recently I’ve tried it again in correspondence twice (to make sure my old pet line is still good), people went 13.Na2, and I made two comfortable draws.

Good luck with it, have fun.“

1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6

slav1.jpg

3. Nf3

(3. cxd5 cxd5 The Exchange Slav is a good reason to not use the Slav as your exclusive weapon against 1.d4. In the Exchange variation White is happy with a microscopic edge in a symmetric and static structure. For him, but even more so for the black player it will be difficult to generate winning chances. That’s not something you want against a player weaker than you who could use the Exchange in order to get away with a draw.)

3… Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4

slav2.jpg

5. a4

slav3.jpg

(The old gambit 5. e4 used to be dead, but has experienced a spike in popularity lately when new approaches for White popped up. In fact this line has silently redeveloped into one of the hotter Slav chapters that we may dedicate a separate survey to in the near future. On club level all of this is less relevant probably, but people playing competitive chess should be aware of what a prepared opponent may try in order to surprise you. 5… b5 6. e5 (6. Be2 e6 7. O-O Bb7 8. b3 was introduced by young Russian grandmaster Daniel Dubov in March 2018. White claims to have compensation due to his center and potential pressure on the queenside.) 6… Nd5 7. a4 e6 8. axb5 (Playing it calmly (while being a pawn down) via 8. Be2 Bb7 9. O-O is another one of the new approaches championed by Arab grandmaster Salem Saleh.) (8. Ng5 Be7 9. h4 h6 10. Nge4 b4 11. Nb1 Ba6 (11… c5!?N) 12. Qg4 would be the modern, more direct try to bring this line back to life.) 8… Nxc3 9. bxc3 cxb5 10. Ng5 Bb7 11. Qh5 g6 12. Qg4 Be7 (diagram) is the traditional line in which White barely has enough for the pawn. He may even face a black pawnstorm on the queenside if he can’t make something happen on the dark squares or the kingside. It was somewhat popular in the 1950s to 80s when guys like Smyslov, Petrosian, Hübner saw this position from the black side.)

5… Bf5

slav4.jpg

6. e3

(6. Nh4 Bc8!? is another way to avoid theory and be solid at the same time. I like the main move 6…e6 and the resulting, somewhat special structure after the exchange on f5, but I feel drawn to 6…Bc8 because of the funny …Lc8-f5-c8-g4-c8 back and forth that may appear on the board. (6… e6 7. Nxf5 exf5 8. e3 is well worth some study time, but be ready for a fight if you get into it. 6…e6 leads to complex, imbalanced positions that are challenging for both sides.) 7. e3 (7. e4?! e5=+) (7. Nf3 Bf5) 7… Bg4 8. f3 Bc8 and Black is fine, while the Nh4 looks stupid. Black threatens …g5, and neither after 9.f4, 9.e4 nor 9.g3 White should have much. But of course there’s still a lot of chess to be played.)

(6. Ne5 Most people on all levels of play 6.e3. However, 6.Ne5 is the more ambitious, more challenging move. You can check our survey „A wonder weapon against Sokolov’s Slav?“ to find some general Slav stuff and ideas for both sides after 6.Ne5. The most pleasant thing about 6.Ne5 on amateur level is the frequent 6… Nbd7 7. Nxc4 Nb6 The „Sokolov Slav“. 8. Ne5 a5 9. f3 Nfd7 10. Nxd7 Nxd7 11. e4 Bg6 12. Be3?! which seems natural for White, but is already very pleasant for Black.)

6… e6 7. Bxc4 Bb4 8. O-O

slav5.jpg

This is the first position in which current grandmaster play and your Slav book or annotated game of choice may start to overwhelm you with a mountain of theory. The book may tell you that 8…Nbd7 followed by 9…Bg6 is the more flexible way to play. It’s true, the book line even prevents Black from playing against a pair of bishops in many cases, but there is an easy alternative.

8… O-O 9. Qe2

e3-e4 is coming. Again, 9…Nbd7 will be the recommended „flexible“ main move anywhere. But let’s go with the old, but Kramnik approved approach instead.

(9. Nh4 Nbd7 10. h3 (10. f3 Bg6 11. e4 e5 12. Nxg6 hxg6 13. Be3= loooks thematic, but White has given up a tempo by playing e2-e3-e4. Black is fine.) 10… Nb6! The most precise. (10… Bg6 11. Nxg6 hxg6 12. Qb3 Qb6 13. Rd1 isn’t much of anything for White objectively, but results indicate that White often manages to make his pair of bishops count in the long run.) 11. Bb3 Nbd5 12. Nxf5 exf5 and Black was fine in Le,Q (2698)-Ni,H (2637), Ho Chi Minh City 2012, draw (64).)

(9. Qb3 is a move Slav players often encounter here and in similar positions. It just seems natural for White players who are not overly familiar with Slav structures: covers the weak b4 square, attacks a bishop that is pinned to the b7 pawn. But the queenside is not where White wants to make progress. In order to get an advantage he has to go e3-e4 sooner rather than later. …Qe7 is the usual standard response to Qb3, also in this case. However, the Qb3/Bc4 configuration opens White up for an untypical way to get counterplay. 9… c5!? Now …Nb8-c6-a5 is in the air. In fact, against every reasonable 10th move by White …Nc6 will be the answer except 10. dxc5 a5! (10… Nc6 11. Nd4+=) 11. Rd1
Qe7=)

9… Bg6

slav6.jpg

Black manages to delay e3-e4, but will have to give his pair of bishops.

10. Ne5

(10. e4?! Bxc3 11. bxc3 Nxe4 has been seen several times, but this version of the typical pawn sacrifice doesn’t scare Black at all.)

10… Nbd7 11. Nxg6 hxg6

slav7.jpg

White has the pair of bishops, Black has no weaknesses. It’s all good.

12. Rd1 Qa5

slav8.jpg

Kramnik’s move. 12…Qa5, most times followed by 13…e5 gives Black a good game. It’s important to not panic if White answers …e5 with d5. Just keep the tension, maybe put some pressure on d5 via …Nb6 and make White play dxc6. The exchange dxc6 bxc6 almost always favours Black who then controls the key square d5 and can organize play on the b file. If White plays d6 instead, that pawn will die sooner or later. In the cases in which Black doesn’t follow up with …e5 quickly there is a nother point to 12…Qa5: The queen may switch to h5 and initiate play against the white king.

To become familiar with how to play this there are, among others, some instructive old games with Kramnik handling the black side. And a tip (that also goes for the critical 13.Na2 line): 9…Bg6 is the pet system of Argentinian GM Ruben Felgaer, and that guy knows what he is doing. If you see a Slav game played by him, don’t scroll, click it.

13. Na2

Very few people on amateur level will come up with this over the board. However, this supposedly critical position is where you need to put a a bit of work in. Your machine will tell you to accept the sacrifice and play 13…Qxa4, but you better don’t. It’s dangerous at least. I like 13…Bd6 instead due to the nice tactics involving a piece sacrifice (see below), but 13…Be7 may be equally good.

(13. e4 isn’t that critical, but accepting the sacrifice is dangerous. Go 13…e5 instead, and Black is fine. 13… e5 14. Na2 With 13.e4 e5 inserted this is less challenging than the immediate 13.Na2. (14. d5 Nb6 15. dxc6 bxc6 16. Bd3 Rfd8 and White couldn’t find anything better than to repeat moves. 17. Be3 Bc5 18. Bd2 Bb4 19. Be3 Bc5 20. Bd2 Bb4 Bacrot,E (2594)-Almasi,Z (2676), Szeged 2000, draw (20)) 14… Be7 15. b4!? Qc7 16. f4!? exf4 17. e5 Nd5 18. Bxd5 cxd5 19. Bxf4 Qc6 (19… Nb6 20. a5 Nc4= is an easy way to an equal game.) 20. Rac1 Qe6 21. Rc7 Rfc8 22. Rxb7 Rc4 with exellent play for Black in Illescas Cordoba,M (2607)-Felgaer,R (2636), Barcelona 2005, draw (48). The Rb7 has gone lost and will have a hard time to find a way back into the game. …Qc6 is a strong idea for Black, and in case of 23.b4 there is 23…Nc5!.)

(13. Qc2 By far the main move next to 13.Na2, but it only pretends to prevent Black from playing an immediate …e5. 13… Rad8 Played by Felgaer, Anand, Caruana, but there is half a dozen of other reasonable moves for Black that should be fine as well. At this point play has no forcing character anymore, so it’s better to study the position after 13.Qc2 by looking at sample games instead of drilling lines. Here we only investigate some of the forcing stuff that may happen or be relevant at least, depending on which of the many possible 13th moves Black choses.

(13… e5 14. Qxg6?! Bxc3 15. bxc3 Qxc3 16. Qd3 Qxa1 17. Ba3 Nc5! 18. Bxc5 Qxa4=+)

slav9.jpg(13… c5 is given as best by Stockfish at depth 40+ with a 0.00 evaluation. The machine may be wrong, though. 14. Na2 cxd4 15. Nxb4 (15. Rxd4 invites 15… Bc5 (15… Be7 is nice for Black as well given the disharmony in the white camp.) 16. b4 Bxd4 17. bxa5 Bxa1 and the pair of rooks is preferable over the queen.) 15… Qxb4 16. Rxd4 Rac8 (16…Qe1+ Stockfish at depth 52 (!) insists this is 0.00, but I don’t believe so. 17. Bf1 Rfc8 18. Rc4 (18. Qd2 Qxd2 19. Bxd2 Nc5=) 18… Rxc4 19. Qxc4 Nb6 20. Qe2 (20. Qd4 Nxa4!=) 20… Qxe2 21.Bxe2+= and Black is about to be massaged for a long time.) 17. Qe2 Qb6 18. a5 Qc7 19. a6 e5 20. axb7 exd4 21. bxc8=Q Rxc8 22. b3 (diagram) So far Kramnik,V (2799)-Sebag,M (2510), Enschede 2008, 1-0 (49). Here the French player missed 22…d3! 23. Qxd3 Ne5 24. Qe2 Nxc4 25. bxc4 Qxc4 with an endgame neither side should win.)

14. Na2 Bd6 15. b4? Played Loek van Wely twice already. We can predict he won’t do it a third time 😉 15… Bxh2+! 16. Kxh2 Qh5+ 17. Kg1 Ng4 with a huge black initiative.)

(13. Bd2 e5 14. d5 Rad8 15. dxc6 bxc6= Karpov,A (2780)-Kramnik,V (2715), Monte Carlo 1995, 0-1 (41).)

(13. h3 Not sure what this move is good for, but since it has been played by Kasparov I include it here. Kramnik had no trouble to equalize against 13.h3, though. 13… Rad8 14. Bd2 e5 15. Be1 exd4 16. Rxd4 Nb6 17. Bb3 Rxd4 18. exd4= Kasparov,G (2810)-Kramnik,V (2725), Paris 1994, 1-0 (86).)

13… Bd6

(13… Qxa4?! 14. e4 Qa5 15. e5 Nd5 16. h4 with a dangerous attack developing quickly.)

14. e4

(14. b4 is a frequent motif after everything Na2. White can’t take the pawn due to a skewer on the a3-f8 diagonal. 14… Qc7 15. g3 e5 16. Bb2 Nb6 17. Bb3 e4 followed by …Nbd5 was comfortable for Black in Moradiabadi,E (2526)-Nguyen,N (2588), Subic Bay 2009, 0-1 (41).)

14… e5

slav10.jpg

15. dxe5

(15. f4!? exd4 16. e5 Rae8 Black is in the driver’s seat already, the next move makes things worse for White. 17. Qf1?! Insisted to win a piece in Chabanon-van der Stricht, 2008, but that is part of Black’s concept anyway. 17… Nxe5 18. fxe5 Qxe5 The first time in this survey we encounter the typical knight sacrifice in the 13.Na2 Bd6 line. Not only does Black collect a lot of pawns, he also enjoys an attack against the white king. Black is better.)

15… Qxe5 16. f4 Bc5+

slav11.jpg

17. Kf1

Ambitious try to prove an advantage, but it comes at the price of giving Black very good counterchances.

(17. Kh1 Qh5 …Ng4 is a strong threat, so White has to take. 18. Qxh5 gxh5 19. b4 Be7 20. e5 Nb6= Both black knights enjoy their perspective. Black is happy.)

17… Qc7!

And now look what happened. White has claimed central space and driven back the black queen, but …Re8, maybe even …g5 is about to come. And once White goes e4-e5 Black will be happy to sacrifice a piece on e5, and after that he will have to deal with rook lifts from the e file towards his exposed king.

(17… Qe7?! 18. b4+=)
(17… Qh5 18. Qxh5 gxh5 19. b4 Be7 20. e5+= is inferior now since a potential black knight on g4 won’t do anything except being poorly placed. Also the white king enjoys being closer to the center compared to 17.Kh1.)

18. e5 Rae8 19. Qf3 Nh5

slav12.jpg

By playing …Nh5 first Black makes sure there won’t be any Bf4 business after he has sacrificed on e5. Whatever White does now, …Nxe5 is coming.

20. g4

On the other hand the Nh5 has run out of squares. But will White ever be able to take it under favourable circumstances?

(20. Nc3 Nxe5 21. fxe5 Rxe5 22. g4 Re6! There is the rook lift, aiming towards f2. 23. Kg2 Rf6 A machine may hold the white position, but a human couldn’t do it in Akobian,V (2653)-Felgaer,R (2564), Tromsoe 2014, 0-1 (38).)

20… Nxe5 21. fxe5 Qxe5

slav13.jpg

22. Kg2

(22. gxh5?? Qxh2-+)

22… Re6

slav14.jpg

Again, the typical rook lift aiming towards f2.

23. Nb4!

A tricky machine move that is directed against the threat …Rf6. It brings the knight back into play and hopes to deflect the Bc5 from the crucial a7-g1 diagonal.

(23. gxh5?? Rf6-+) (23. Bxe6?? fxe6-+)

23… Bd6

(23… Bxb4?! 24. gxh5+=) (23… Rf6?! 24. Nd3+= was the main idea of 23.Nb4.)

24. Rxd6 Rxd6 25. gxh5

slav15.jpg

White has three pieces for the rook, but two of them are lose…

25… Qd4

…and the b2 pawn is pinned to the Ra1 so that it can’t protect the Bc4.

26. Qe2 b5=

slav16.jpg

From a human perspective this looks unclear, but analysis reveals that it should bleed out soon with correct play from both sides. The correspondence game Salzmann,S (2085)-Schormann,C (2213), Lechenicher SchachServer 2016, ended in a draw after 33 moves.

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