Miniatures to Memorize: Catalan System – 1: V. Kramnik vs A. Karpov (Zurich 2009)

Miniatures to Memorize is a series of short games (30 moves or fewer) that I highly recommend beginner- and intermediate-level players to commit to memory during their opening preparation. Some games show how to quickly punish your opponent’s natural-looking but inaccurate moves, while others demonstrate how easily you can go wrong and completely blunder your game. Presently, the series covers my favourite openings: the London and Catalan Systems for White and the French, Dutch, and King’s Indian Defenses for Black. I hope you enjoy and learn from these as much as I did.

I strongly urge you to follow along on a physical chess set. In case that is not convenient, and only in that case, use the lichess interface below. In case the interface does not load, you can go directly to the study linked in the appropriate section below.

Sharp Enough to Cut a Boa Constrictor

Two Russian legends of positional play, World Champion Vladimir Kramnik and World Champion Anatoly Karpov face-off against each other in a rapid game. It makes all the noise in the chess world when Karpov resigns in only 17 moves. Nicknamed “the Boa Constrictor” for his space-controlling style that completely paralyses the opponent’s play, Karpov goes for a signature Karpovian queenside-expansion in this game as well. However, the position is so sharp, the Boa bleeds fast and heavy.

Why should you memorize this game?

As White

The Catalan System can give rise to sharp middlegame positions, requiring deep and precise calculations. It is one of the few openings that offer opportunities for zwischenzugs (in-between moves), which can give significant dynamic, and sometimes (as you’ll see in this game) long-term material advantage. No wonder the theory of the Catalan is so deep that even players who frequently employ it as White are not always aware of all the hidden possibilities. This game demonstrates how even a former World Champion – someone known for his deep understanding of middlegame positional play – can overlook the nuances of this opening.

I choose this game to kickstart the series since it offers two positions with instructional value: The first requires creating a subtle strategic imbalance in the position, and the second, an aggressive tactical combination. And both, in my opinion, are difficult to commit to even if you find the idea over the board. You might need the calm guts of a World Champion to play them.

As Black

With the Catalan System, it is predominantly Black who decides the nature of the middlegame – whether to keep the position closed (making it a slow maneuvering game), or to open it up (leading to sharp tactical play). So, should you choose to open the position, you should be familiar with all the latent attacking possibilities available for White. While most of Catalan theory encourages Black to gain space on the queenside, it also warns against premature expansion, especially when piece-harmony is less-than-ideal. This game demonstrates how easily you can get this part wrong.

Now, let’s jump into the game.

Pull out your chess set

If you don’t have one, or it is super-inconvenient right now, you can use the lichess interface below. In case you can’t see it, go to the study page directly.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 Entering the Catalan System.

3…d5 4.Bg2 Be7 Black prefers to keep the center closed till he castles to safety.

5.Nf3 O-O 6.O-O dxc4 With Kings safe, now Black goes for the undefended pawn, opening the position.

7.Qc2 Developing the Queen and immediately pressuring the c4 pawn.

7…a6 Black decides to give up the pawn for a queenside expansion with tempo on the White Queen.

8.Qxc4 White accepts the waste of time to rebalance material.

8…b5 9.Qc2 Bb7 Challenging the powerful Catalan bishop on g2. Also, in many lines, with the Knight controlling the e4-square, the Bishop can put pressure on the c2 Queen.

10.Bd2 A common Catalan maneuver, clearing the c1-square for the Queen, from where she can continue to control the semi-open c-file and pressure the backwards c7 pawn. This maneuver also leaves White the opportunity to put the Bishop on the long diagonal without committing the a- and b-pawns to light squares. This retains control over the dark-squared real estate on the queenside.

10…Bd6 This is where the game becomes really interesting. As the Bishop moves to a square where it can have attacking prospects, it leaves behind a key defensive role it was playing. Protecting the f6 Knight.

11.Bg5 White immediately puts pressure on the newly created weakness. White can create an advantageous positional imbalance by trading the dark-squared Bishop for the Black Knight, as a majority of his pawns have dominant control of the dark squares in his position, blunting Black’s dark-squared Bishop.

11…Nbd7 Overprotecting the Knight once more. If White takes, Black can recapture with the Knight, which will then continue to play the key defensive role of protecting h7.

12.Nbd2 White brings in another attacker to pressure the f6-Knight.

12…c5 Black decides to gain more space, probably confident that he has two defenders of the c5-pawn (d7-Knight and d6-Bishop) to White’s two attackers (d4-pawn and c2-Queen). A trade will be advantageous to Black. However, this is a critical positional mistake.

13.Bxf6 The d7-Knight is overloaded! If it recaptures on f6, his c5-pawn will fall. So, he’s forced to recapture either with the g7-pawn (compromising his King’s safety) or the Queen (misplacing it on an awkward square).

13…Qxf6 Black decides to go with the option that seems visually better. But again, this is a critical error. This time, it’s tactical. Can you find White’s idea?

14.Ne5 White strikes! Two of Black’s pieces are undefended: the b7-Bishop and the d7-Knight. With one move, White immediately attacks both. What’s more, either of White’s captures will come with an attack on the major pieces.

14…Bxg2 15.Nxd7 Forking the Queen and the Rook.

15…Qxd4 This is probably the variation Black had in mind when he allowed the 14.Ne5 tactic to play. Black argues here that with Rooks of both sides hanging, Black will be a pawn up if a trade happens. If, instead, White takes the g2-Bishop, the d7-Knight is as good as trapped after Rfd8 and Rab8.

16.Kxg2 Rfd8 As planned. However, he misses that White actually has a way of retaining that Knight. After White’s next move, Black resigns.

17.Nf3 1-0 Black resigns. Why does Black resign here? Because there’s no good square for the Queen that doesn’t allow White’s d7-Knight to escape. 17…Qb4 is the best try. Other options fail almost immediately. [17…Qg4 18.Nxc5 White is happy to trade down even further. Other tries: 17…Qd5 Walks into a fork. And 17…Qa4 allows the Knight to escape via b6 to either a4 or c4, after a Queen-trade on a4.] 18.Qxa4 bxa4 19.Nb6 18.Ng5 (threatening mate on h7.) 18…g6 (defending mate but freeing up f6 for the d7-Knight.) 19.Nf6+ Kg7 20.Nfe4 and the Knight escapes. White will consolidate his position and win being a piece-up.

From my Chess Preparation Journal, dated 13-January-2021.

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