Dynamic Anti-Catalan Repertoire
Preview by GM Davorin Kuljasevic
Catalan Opening is one of the most popular closed openings on all levels. For White players, its main appeal is in its general soundness and flexibility. White usually expects to nurture a slight positional advantage in the middlegame or even well into the endgame, which is not something that black players typically enjoy. Moreover, White have several different move orders, combining moves d4, c4, g3 and Nf3 in different sequences, to get their favourite Catalan positions.
Thus, I decided to create a 'Dynamic Anti-Catalan Repertoire for Black' with two main goals in mind:
1. To provide an opening repertoire that leads to dynamic positions in Catalan.
2. To address all the important move orders that White players typically use in this opening.
Now, the first point should be taken with a grain of salt since Catalan is a very solid opening in which White can often stir the game into a quiet positional or technical battle. So, we cannot always get a dynamic position with Black at will. That being said, the repertoire that I will propose here was designed to maximize the number of dynamic options and positional imbalances that you can get playing against the Catalan.
As we will see, White may sometimes avoid such scenarios, but it often comes at the price of playing a less principled continuation, giving Black an easier game. Thus, if White would like to put the pressure on his opponent in the opening, they generally need to enter positions in which, as they say, 'all three results are possible'.
The cornerstone of the dynamic repertoire that I will propose is the 'Keres variation', namely: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 c6!?
We will discuss the details of this fairly rare, yet increasingly popular, variation shortly.
As far as various Catalan move orders are concerned, I have identified the five most important ones and they will be discussed within the ten chapters that follow. At this point, I suggest that we make a quick overview of these move orders, as well as the opening repertoire that I am about to suggest against them.
Some players prefer to start with 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2
White postpones the move d2-d4. The idea is to avoid variations with Bb4+, as well as to be more flexible in case that Black takes 4...dxc4, compared to the main variation where d4 has already been played. Black has several good ways to meet this popular setup and my suggestion is 4...d4!? grabbing space in the centre and aiming for a Reversed Benoni type of structure. This is an ambitious approach for Black, seeking to immediately create a positional imbalance, that typically leads to dynamic middlegame play after 5.0-0 c5 6.e3 Nc6 7.exd4 cxd4 8.d3 Bd6
Black is ready to solidify the centre with ...e6-e5. White now has two important continuations that are covered in their separate chapters: 9.Na3, together with some sidelines is covered in Chapter 1 while 9.Bg2 is the topic of Chapter 2.
After 1.d4 Nf6, some of the Catalan aficionados prefer to postpone the move c2-c4. This can be done in two ways. Firstly, White could begin with 2.Nf3 e6 3.g3. Here I recommend a dynamic approach: 3...b5!?
Black is stopping c2-c4 and trying to get the 'improved' Queen's Indian Defence by extending the bishop's fianchetto by one square. Of course, it is a slight overstatement to say that this is indeed an improved version of the QID since this approach carries its risks, too. The pawn on b5 is an easy target for White pieces, usually providing him with some extra tempi for development. Yet, if Black plays his cards correctly, White rarely manages to develop his knight to the most active c3-square, which is typically a small positional victory for Black considering how important the control over e4 and d5 squares in the Catalan structures is.
I have divided the theoretical material in this variation into two parts. In Chapter 3, we deal with a plethora of sidelines, such as 4.Bg5, 4.a4, 4.Qd3, and 4.e3.
In Chapter 4, we look at the main line that usually continues 4.Bg2 Bb7 5.0-0 c5. My conclusion is that Black manages to solve all his problems.
A fairly rare, but rather cunning move order is 2.g3
White eliminates the queen's fianchetto option that I recommend against 2.Nf3 e6 3.g3. No worries, though, as we can answer this with 2...d5 Since White has already shown his cards with the g3-move, we can take advantage of the fact that we haven't played ...e6 yet to develop our light-squared bishop to f5, instead. After typical developing moves 3.Nf3 Bf5 4.c4 e6 5.Nc3 h6 6.Bg2 c6 7.0-0 Be7!? we usually reach a position that is more akin to the Slav Defence than the Catalan.
Yet, I believe that it should not be difficult to understand how to play it with Black even if one is not a Slav Defence player. Black's setup is harmonious and solid, with only one apparent weakness - the b7 pawn. White usually tries to exploit that with 8.Qb3. This approach is covered in Chapter 6. Beside it, White has several alternatives, such as 8.Nd2, 8.b3, and 8.Ne5 which are discussed in Chapter 5, together with a couple of earlier sidelines.
After dealing with White's different move orders, I get back to the main Catalan position which arises after 1.d4 Nf6
At this point, Black has many options. The most popular variations on the highest level are 4...Be7 and 4...Bb4+ since they lead to very reliable positions for Black. However, since our plan is to dynamize the game from the start, the most natural move is 4...dxc4. Here, White can either gambit the pawn for a while with 5.Nf3 which is the most common continuation, or recapture it immediately with 5.Qa4+
As a matter of fact, I have covered this move in my previous Catalan for Black repertoire for Modern Chess, dating back to 2018. Since then, there have been some new developments in this variation, so I will address them here in Chapter 7, though my basic recommendations essentially remain the same.
After 5.Nf3, my suggestion is 5...c6!?
This is only the eight (!) most popular choice in the position. Yet, it has been getting increasingly more popular over the last couple of years with the likes of top GMs Andreikin, Harikrishna, Anton Guijarro, Vitiugov and many other 2600+ GMs playing it more than once. The first strong player to ever play it was Paul Keres back in 1947, so I decided to name the variation after the great Estonian.
Black's idea is obvious - he would like to protect the c4-pawn with 6...b5. White has three principal reactions. The most ambitious one is 6.Ne5. This line is dealt with in Chapter 8. My suggestion is 6...Bb4+
White can cover his king with both 7.Bd2 and 7.Nc3. After 7.Bd2, I believe that Black ought to retreat 7...Be7. After 8.e3, I believe that it was the discovery of GM Parimarjan Negi: 8...b5! that lead to acceptance of Keres variation on the GM level. Otherwise, White would recapture the pawn on c4, with a typical slight Catalan edge. The idea behind this move is much more enterprising - to maximize the activity of black pieces by sacrificing the exchange after: 9.Nxc6 Nxc6 10.Bxc6 Bd7 11.Bxa8 Qxa8
In return, Black obtains excellent control of the light squares and typically is able to provoke further weaknesses in White's position with the e5-break. So far, black players have done well in practice, being able to prove full compensation for the exchange in a dynamic position.
In the case of 7.Nc3, Black should play 7...Nd5.
In Catalan, this is a typical way to barricade the long diagonal and win a tempo with the attack on c3. White usually protect the knight with 8.Bd2 when both 8...b5 and 8...Nb6 give Black a comfortable play.
In Chapter 9, we focus on the true Catalan gambit option 6.0-0 b5