Carlsen Versus Nepomniachtchi: Will We See Nepo’s Wild Grunfeld?

In November, Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi will be playing in the 2021 World Chess Championship Match, and their choice of openings is a big topic of discussion.

There aren’t many chess openings Carlsen isn’t willing to play while Nepo also isn’t afraid to go his own way.

For a fighting player like Nepo, one of his favorite defenses to 1.d4 is the hypermodern, counter-attacking Grunfeld Defense.

He isn’t alone in liking the Grunfeld Defense because many other strong GMs, including two chess legends – Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer – played this opening.

Among the many notable grandmasters who have played the Grunfeld are Anand, Shirov, and Leko. The most devoted fan of the Grunfeld is arguably Peter Svidler, who has played the Grunfeld his entire chess career with great success.

carlsen versus nepo world chess championship 2021

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The Ideas Behind the Grunfeld Defense Chess Opening

The opening is named after Ernst Grunfeld, who was the first to regularly play this opening. Although introduced to the chess world in the 1920s and 1930s, it didn’t become popular until Botvinnik made it part of his repertoire.

Will the Grunfeld Defense make an appearance in the 2021 World Chess Championship Match?

In the 60s, Bobby Fischer started playing the opening and used it in some high-profile games against Boris Spassky. Twenty years later, Garry Kasparov would have success with it in his matches against Karpov.

The starting position of the Grunfeld Defense is most often reached with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5

Grunfeld Starting Position
Grunfeld Starting Position

The Grunfeld Defense is an opening where piece activity and creating threats are the most critical factors. White can adopt a quieter approach when Black is advised to pick one line that neutralizes White’s system and outplay his opponent from an equal position.

Understanding the plans and ideas in the Grunfeld Defense is crucial even in the theoretical lines.

Generally, the sharper the opening in chess, the more critical knowing your theory becomes, but understanding the opening is always most important. Always look to learn the common tactics and strategies as you explore a particular variation.

"Nowadays the dynamic element is more important in chess" Boris Spassky

Because Black is holding his own in the mainline Exchange Variation, there has been an increase in quieter options within the Exchange Variation like Carlsen’s 5.Bd2 and the Anti-Grunfeld 3.f3.

Considering his success with 5.Bd2 could Magnus think of using it again in the World Chess Championship? Here is his victory over Nepomniachtchi with this variation.

Magnus Carlsen – Ian Nepomniachtchi Skilling Open(2.11), 2020, 1-0

Grunfeld Defense Exchange Variation 5.Bd2 Black Plays 6…Nb6

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bd2 Bg7 6.e4 Nb6

Grunfeld Defense 6...Nb6
Grunfeld Defense 6…Nb6

Because White played 5.Bd2 to capture on c3 with the bishop, it is logical to play a move that doesn’t go along with his plan. Instead of capturing on c3, Nepomniachtchi could have played 6…Nb6.

Interestingly, 6…Nb6 was the move chosen by Magnus Carlsen when he had the Black pieces in this position.

After 7.Be3 0-0 White’s most popular moves are:

  • 8.h3
  • 8.Be2
  • 8.Bb5

8.h3

This move costs White a tempo and allows Black to counter in the center with 8…e5 9.Nf3 exd4 10.Bxd4 reaching the following position:

Grunfeld 10.Bxd4
Grunfeld 10.Bxd4

This is a rich position where both sides have everything to play for as this next game shows.

Le Quang Liem – Artemiev, V., 0-1, 2nd IMSA Blitz 2017

8.Be2

After 8.Be2 an excellent way for Black to play is 8…Nc6 9.Nf3 Bg4 10.d5 Bxf3 11.gxf3

Grunfeld 11.gxf3
Grunfeld 11.gxf3

And here Black can play either 11…Ne5 or 11…Na5.

Andreikin, D. – Korobov, A., 0-1, 2nd IMSA Basque 2017

8.Bb5

This move is played to force …a6 and weaken the position of the knight on b6. This was the move faced by Magnus Carlsen, who played 8…Be6. The game continued 9.Nge2 c6 10.Bd3 Nc4 11.Bxc4 Bxc4

Wang, Yue – Carlsen, Magnus, 0-1, Bazna Kings 4th, 2010 

The Anti-Grunfeld 3.f3

The move 3.f3 invites Black to transpose to one of three other defenses to 1.d4. Black can choose the King’s Indian Defense, Modern Benoni, or Benko Gambit if he likes or strike out with the lesser-known 3…e5

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.f3 e5

Perhaps we'll see the Anti-Grunfeld (3.f3) at the world chess championship 2021
Grunfeld Defense 3…e5

This line is certainly in keeping with the wild ride offered by Grunfeld Defense in the more orthodox move orders. After 4.dxe5 Nh5 White has tried 5.Nh3 and 5.g3.

Playing this line will help reduce the theory you need to know and offer many opportunities to work on a novelty with a chess engine. Black managed a draw and a win in the next two games despite being rated more than 200 Elo points lower than their opponents.

Moiseenko, Alexander – Barbeau, Sylvain, 1/2-1/2, Quebec-ch op, 2006

Of course, Black can continue in similar fashion to the Exchange Variation 5.Bd2 with …Nb6. A similar position is reached after 3…d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nb6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Be3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.0-0-0 f5

Grunfeld Defense 9...f5 was played by Magnus against Wesley So. Could we see Magnus playing the Grunfeld in the world chess championship 2021?
Grunfeld Defense 9…f5

This is the way Magnus Carlsen chose to meet 3.f3 when Wesley So played it against him in 2019. 

So, W. – Carlsen, M., 1/2-1/2, 7th Norway Armageddon, 2019

In Conclusion

There is no doubt the Grunfeld Defense is an excellent fit for Nepo’s playing style but could it prove a little too wild for him to use in his 2021 World Chess Championship Match against Carlsen?

We will find out in only a few months when this epic match begins.

The Grunfeld Defense offers excellent chances to play for a win with Black against 1.d4. This is a chess opening that will lead to many lively and exciting games with either color.

Carlsen’s willingness to play both sides of the Grunfeld Defense shows how much fun this chess opening can be. We are fortunate to have two such strong players showing us to play the Grunfeld Defense.

Take your time to learn this open thoroughly because the better-prepared player is the one most likely to come out on top.

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