Why playing the Caro-Kann?

Caro-Kann is an opening with some extraordinary features:

1. Overall Quality
Caro-Kann is part of many a 2700-player’s repertoire. Personally, I don’t know any line which gives White a substantial advantage. This is really a tough nut to crack for the 1.e4-players!

We know that Alphazero considers/considerd the Berlin Defence as the best answer to 1.e4. A chess friend recently told me, that the Caro-Kann was a close competitor for this position, as can be seen in the protocols. I didn’t check this information, but it appears plausible to me.

2. Solidity
The Caro-Kann stands on the solid ground of the classical chess principles. To start with, Black directly fights for the center. While it is true that he will give up his stronghold d5 after 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4, this doesn’t mean that he will lack central control. The squares d5 and f5 are covered by pawns, while the pieces will deal with the squares e5, e4 and c5. White’s d-pawn is under pressure along the file and might be attacked by the pawn-breaks …c6-c5 or …e6-e5, while a pawn on c4 can be challenged by …b7-b5, when appropriate.

By eliminating the mighty pawn e4, Black’s minor pieces, first and foremost the notoriously problematic queen’s bishop, will be liberated and easily find good destinations for their deployment. This is demonstrated by the diagram below, which displays one of the tabiyas of the main line.

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Nf3 Nd7 8.h5 Bh7 9.Bd3 Bxd3 10.Qxd3 e6 11.Bf4 Qa5+ 12.Bd2 Bb4 13.c3 Be7 14.c4 Qc7 15.0-0-0 Ngf6

From the weakness perspective, which is normally my first approach for scanning a position, Black is doing extraordinarily well. His structure is very compact.

3. Simplicity/Robustness
White can choose between different set-ups, when fighting the Caro-Kann. But whatever he does, he won’t be able to impose very difficult structures upon you as it may happen in the Sicilian. That’s why this opening is suitable even for players with only one or two years of chess experience.

Overall, Caro-Kann is a pattern opening and doesn’t consist of many forced lines. You don’t need to be blessed with a photographic memory. If you compare the Caro-Kann with 1..e5, another solid choice, you will see that the body of theory is considerably smaller.

One aspect of robustness is the ability to play the Caro-Kann unprepared, for instance in the first round of an open tournament or if your are facing an unexpected opponent in a team match. By contrast, if you play theory-heavy high-tech Sicilians, you better bring the lines in your short-term memory before the game, which is only possible, if you exactly know which variation to expect.

4. Versatility
Everyone, who is versed in playing sharp Sicilian lines knows that this is effective in the majority of cases. However, there is a group of players against which you might want to look for a different approach. These are the fearless attackers, good in calculating lines and often equipped with the latest theory. In this case, the Caro-Kann would be an excellent alternative. If you pick your lines cleverly, you will succeed in staying away from situations, where your king is in the center of the attention.

Also, from a general perspective it is a good idea to play more than one opening. If you have the feeling that your opponents are generally well prepared against you (this depends on your playing level), you might want to become a more versatile player. Now, your opponents can only devote half of their preparation time to each respective opening of yours.

5. Winning Potential
There is this notion of the Caro-Kann being solid, but boring or drawish. While it is true that the Caro-Kann has less of a punch than the Sicilian, this doesn’t mean that you lack winning potential. Most lines lead to demanding structures with imbalances, automatically providing you with an idea, where to push your advantage and how to win the game.

Let’s take the main line 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 as an example (see diagram above). The fact that we castle kingside, opposed to the more traditional setup with queenside castling, provides us with good attacking chances against White’s king. There are many games, where Black manages to win in Sicilian style. More often than that, however, Black will be able exploit White’s overextended pawn structure. In some positions, there are four weak pawns to attack (h5, c4, f2 and g2) in addition to White’s exposed king.

6. Stealth Factor
The winning potential is vastly enhanced by the stealth factor. This expression of mine refers to the positional complexity of a position. Obviously, by engaging in the Caro-Kann Master Class, you will be an expert in this opening, having a knowledge advantage over your opponents most of the time. Such an advantage is not worth much, if the position is simple, allowing your opponent to apply common chess logic to navigate. However, if the position is strategically demanding and your potential advantage camouflaged by optical illusions, you will be able to draw the maximum benefit from your thorough preparation. A good example for the stealth factor are Hedgehog positions, where the uninitiated easily underestimates Black’s potential. The Caro-Kann is less complicated, but leaves also a lot of room for obscurity. The moment I really caught fire was, when I continuously stumbled over positions, where the engine gave =+, where I would have initially guessed equality and -/+ where I only assumed a slight advantage for Black. The following is a good example.

In the game Novak-Molkanov, Klatovy 2018 White played a couple of apparently normal, but inaccurate moves. At first glance, the position looks roughly equal, with White having a spatial advantage. However, after the standard pawn break 16..c5 Black already stood clearly better (ca. -1.0 pawn units)! As it turns out, White’s position is vastly overextended. He suffers from weak pawns on h5, c4 and f2 as well as from his exposed king. This over-extension disease is White’s major problem in the main line, but it is unknown to non-experts. You can call it a fundamental positional trap. The good thing is that all Black had to do to achieve this clear advantage was to play solid moves. He didn’t have to sacrifice material or submit his king to too much danger. All he did was unrolling boring routine moves.

7. Static slope
Many opening positions see a match-up between one side having a static advantage and the other side having a dynamic advantage. In the Caro-Kann main line White has a temporary space advantage and, along with it, potential attacking chances on the kingside, which equates to having the dynamic advantage. On the other hand, his position is potentially over-extended, which can be exploited mid- to long-term. The player with the static disadvantage is standing on the static slope. If he fails to use his dynamic assets to bring about positive changes, his static disadvantage will become more obvious with every move that goes by. He is sliding down the slippery static slope. Personally, I find it more easy to play with the static advantage, as it plays itself, whereas the dynamic advantage sometimes calls for drastic measures such as sacrificing material.



Do you want to become a master of the Caro-Kann?

I have a collection of model games, which will provide you with 20 winning ideas Black has available in the main line. This is a good start into your learning program, as understanding the positional logic is key:

  1. Weak pawn h5
  2. Weak pawn c4
  3. Weak pawn duo g2/f2
  4. Multiple weak pawns
  5. Good endgames
  6. Black dominating the d-file
  7. Black attacking in the c-file
  8. Black attacking in the b-file (after the …b7-b5 pawn sac)
  9. The …c5-c4 squeeze
  10. The…a5-a4-a3 attack
  11. The …b5/a5 pawn storm
  12. Black attacking with pieces
  13. The bad knight g3
  14. Good bishop versus bad knight
  15. The favorable gxf6-structure
  16. The favorable /..b5/c5../-structure
  17. The favorable …Qb5/Qxb5 cxb5/-structure
  18. The bad white IQP d5
  19. White sacrifices incorrectly
  20. d-file tactics

My 210 theoretical analyses cover every line in depth and will give you valuable support, where your book or DVD may leave you unsatisfied.

Apart from that, analyzing your (blitz)games together online, will further boost your understanding.

Here is a VIDEO, that will give you a taste of the Caro-Kann.