The Caro-Kann: How to Play It as White and Black

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Caro-Kann Starting Position
Table of Contents

This article has been guest written by Matthew Astle. Matt is an editor, translator, and all-around wordsmith with a B.A. in Spanish and Journalism. He is an avid patzer with a regular presence on the Madrid chess scene. 

Introduction to the Caro-Kann

Are you looking for a new reply to 1.e4 as Black? Perhaps you find the symmetrical nature of e5 a bit dull. Maybe you’ve dabbled with the Sicilian Defense (1…c5) but find that the theory is just too heavy. Maybe you’ve played the French (1…e6) and like how the e-pawn supports the thrust into the center of the d-pawn, but don’t like how the light-squared bishop gets trapped.

If any of this rings true, or you’d just like to learn a new reply to 1.e4, then perhaps the Caro-Kann Defense is for you.

The Caro-Kann Defense is an opening falling into the category of “Semi-Open Game”. If this sounds foreign to you, just know that it means a reply other than 1…e5, which would classify the game as an “Open Game”. Black immediately breaks symmetry by declining to play 1…e5 in response to 1.e4.

The Caro-Kann is named after English player Horatio Caro and Austrian player Marcus Kann, who analyzed the opening in 1886. It has been around for just as long as the French, but failed to receive any attention until well into the 19th century.

It started to gain popularity when two of the most famous players of the 20th Century, José Raúl Capablanca and Aron Nimzowitsch (who both contributed greatly to modern chess theory) began to play it in the 1920s and 1930s, but even then, it had an undeserved reputation as being “drawish”. It was not until the 1980s did 1…c6 start to get some recognition as being a serious reply to 1 e4. Today, it enjoys a high level of popularity and is one of the most reliable replies to 1 e4.

Caro-Kann Starting Position

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Lifetime Repertoires: Caro-Kann

Is the Caro-Kann Good for Beginners?

The reputation the Caro-Kann has as a solid and principled opening makes it a good choice for beginners and a great alternative to the French Defense or Sicilian Defense. Black does not have to book up as heavily as they would in the Sicilian, for instance.

Beginners will take a shine to the Caro–Kann because it is easy to remember where to place pieces, the plans and ideas are clear, and it is suited for dynamic and positional players alike. Furthermore Black has opportunities in all three phases in the game.

By playing positionally and developing naturally, Black is waiting for White to make mistakes, which tends to happen more often at the lower level.

All in all, though, the Caro-Kann is a great tool for beginners and master-level players alike to include in their opening repertoire. Chessable includes it in its list of 10 Chess Openings for Beginners.

What top players have used the Caro-Kann?

Many former world champions have employed the Caro-Kann with great success, such as Mikhail Botvinik, Anatoly Kaprov and Mikhail Tal. Rising star Alireza Firouzja plays the opening regularly. Ding Liren, Hikaru Nakamura, Vladislav Artemiev and David Navara play it on occasion as well.

Fundamental Ideas of the Caro-Kann

Upon first glance, this opening appears similar to the French Defense. Both openings begin by moving a pawn one square. The French moves its e-pawn with an idea to strike immediately at White’s perfect pawn center with 2…d5, while the Caro-Kann does the same but with 2…c6. Unlike the French, since Black supports the central advance with the c-pawn, rather than the e-pawn, they avoid blocking in the light-squared bishop, a common problem in the French.

Though Black has obvious ease in developing the light-squared bishop, the light-squared bishop often becomes an easy target for White.

All in all, this is an opening that gives Black optimal development, in part by letting their light-squared bishop get out of the pawn chain. Black is usually trying to develop this bishop before their knights because they want to have pawns on both e6 and c6. These pawns help Black’s development, and may provide an outpost for one of Black’s knights, for example.

White, now having the ideal center, can be attacked by a timely pawn break, perhaps with c5 at some point.

Ahead we’ll dive into some of the variations deeper to see these ideas in action!

Caro-Kann

With 1…c6, Black cedes control of the center to White, in exchange for optimal development. White’s most natural (and by far, most popular) reply is 2.d4, establishing an ideal pawn center. Black’s idea is to play 2…d5 and immediately strike at the e-pawn..

The most common position arising after 1.e4 e6

Of course, White is by no means obligated to play 2.d4, and there are many sound alternatives. For example, other reputable second moves White can play are 2.d3, 2 Nc3 d5, 3.Nf3 (or 2.Nf3 d5 Nc3), and 2.c4

Going back to 2.d4 d5, White has multiple replies, which result in very different types of games.

Firstly, White can play the Advance Variation. As you might imagine, White plays 3.e5, grabbing space. Black has no trouble developing their light-squared bishop, unlike in the French.

Also popular is the Exchange, with 3.exd5 cxd5, appearing on the surface like a Queen’s Gambit Declined Exchange Variation with colors reversed, that is if they do not fight for central control immediately with the Panov attack with 4.c4.

In the Fantasy Variation, White fights for the center and opens up lines with a move that on the surface looks a little strange, 3.f3.

Main Caro-Kann Lines and Ideas Behind Them for Both Sides

Let’s take a look at the main plans for each side with the main lines after 1.e4 c5 2.d4 d5.

Caro-Kann Defense: Classical Variation

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4

One of the more common replies you’ll see as Black is the Classical Variation.

In this variation, White keeps the tension, lets Black capture and develop their queenside knight to its most natural square.

Why does Black capture on e4? Are they not making a concession and allowing White more control of the center?

Yes! But with reason. Black cedes control of the center in order to get their light-squared bishop out with 4…Bf5 (and also attacking the knight on e4).

Caro-Kann Classical

4…Nf6 and 4…Nd7 are also possible and popular moves by Black here. Both of these moves challenge White’s knight on e4.

5.Ng3

White’s most common and soundest reply, otherwise it would be Black the one winning tempi on the e4 Knight. Black follows up here with 5…Bg6 so that the Bishop is no longer hanging.

Here White has many options on how to play. 6.h4 is probably the most ambitious, going after Black’s favorite bishop.

Why is White playing such a brave move here? This is because the Caro-Kann is so positionally sound for Black that if White develops normally, Black really has no issues. That’s why a move like 6.h4 is played! White must get creative to hit at Black in an attempt to punish them for slow and automatic chess!

So let’s say White keeps developing in a “normal” manner. Black does the same. Black can find a pawn break later on c5 and gets an extra center pawn (e6), which is quite beneficial for Black as they can now stop White from placing pieces on valuable center squares.

Black should respond 6…h6 to provide a home to tuck the bishop away at on h7. Note that 6…h5 is no good, as the pawn is weak (and also g5!) and becomes a big target for White!

After 6…h6 7.Nf3 Nd7. Careful!

Nd7 is to stop any shenanigans by White moving their knight into e5. If Black plays the seemingly natural developing move 7…Nf6, while possible, White can play 8.Ne5, challenging the Bishop once more (which Black does not want to lose and destroy his kingside pawn structure!), and after 8…Bh7 9.Bc4 e6 10. Qe2, White’s attack looks menacing! 10…Be7 11.Nxf7 Kxf7 12. Qxe6+, and the position looks quite scary for Black. However, the engine gives this position near equality, so it’s not so clear. Even so, White certainly looks to be causing Black some problems with that very active queen and bishop battery! It is certainly not the most comfortable situation.

Caro-Kann Tough Position

So remember, 7…Nd7 to protect that e5 square!

Deviations from 6.h4

A couple other main moves White employs instead of 6.h4 here are:

6.Nh3 or the Flohr Variation. This also is an attempt by White to challenge Black’s light-squared bishop, but instead of chasing the bishop with the h-pawn, White is looking for Nf4. Black needs to play 6…e6, and should let White waste a few tempi going after the bishop and start developing!

Black does not actually mind losing their light-squared bishop as Caro-Kann positions can be quite closed. What good is a bishop without freedom to move? The c6 and e6 pawns cover light squares, generally, further illustrating how it is not a problem for Black to trade this bishop.

Also, with supporting pawns on c6 and e6, Black has some strong squares to place their knights!

6.Nf3 is the probably the least challenging way for White to play. Again, Black goes e6 and White challenges Black’s light-squared Bishop with Bd3. Black can let White take here on their own terms and open up the h-file.

Don’t let 5.Nc5 scare you!

Nc5 might look scary with the threat it puts on Black’s b-pawn, but not to fret! Black is better if they know how to respond. 5…e5 is the best and most ambitious follow-up!

6.Nxb7 Qb6

7.Nc5 Bxc6

8.dxc5 Qxc5

And White has not a single piece developed!

The Advance Variation

For many years, 3.e5 was not taken seriously in the Caro-Kann camp, so theory on it is all pretty recent. New as it may be, the Advance Variation is the most popular choice by top-level players and is arguably White’s most serious attempt at fighting against the Caro-Kann.

3…Bf5 Getting that light-squared bishop out!

White has many options here, and their goal is often to take advantage of their easier development and space. With this, they can open the position and attack, or even cramp Black’s position stopping Black’s f6 and c5 breaks.

4.Nc3 is White’s sharpest way to proceed, hopìng Black plays 4…e6, leaving the bishop with no retreat. White launches an attack with 5.g4 Bg6 6.Nge2.

Caro-Kann Advance

White looking for 7.Nf4 followed by 8.h4 or an immediate 7.h4.

If Black creates a square for their bishop with h6 or h5, White exchanges on g6, and Black is left with a weakness on g6.

Going back a bit, even though Black must reckon with the possibility of losing their light-squared bishop, they’ve created a beautiful pawn triangle.

Though 4.Nc3 offers some sharp possibilities for White, the most popular way to proceed is the subtle and sound 4.Nf3, known as the Short Variation named for GM Nigel Short. It’s a move that was not even mentioned in books before 1990.

Black again plays 4…e6, and we see more calm, principled developing moves rather than the sharp moves seen after 4.Nc3. 5.Be2, White prepares to castle and 5…Nd7 is played by Black. Nd7 is not strictly necessary, but Black can do this to prepare a strike on White’s central pawns with c5.

Black of course can play more aggressively with an immediate 5…c5, followed with 6.Be3 cxd4 7.Nxd4, and Black will want to defend the bishop with 7…Ne7, hoping White’s knight takes it as it helps their development

4.h4. The Tal Variation

White gets aggressive, fast. They want to trap Black’s bishop, which can certainly be done if Black is not careful. If Black goes automatic here and plays 4…e6, White goes 5.g4 and, boom, the bishop falls. The only way to prevent this by Black is 4…h5.

The Exchange Variation

3.exd5 cxd5

White wants to begin a civil game here, no outright aggression to start. They would just like to develop normally.

White can make life difficult for Black with 4.Bd3, as now Black has trouble developing their light-squared bishop to an active square, one of the main ideas of the Caro-Kann to begin with!

The idea for White here is to play c3, Nf3, castle and have a safe and solid position. Black plays 4…Nc6, 5.c3, which is better than Nf3, so as to disallow Bg4.

In contrast to what we’ve just explained, the move order continues 5…Nf6 6.Bf4. You might expect 6.h3 to disallow Bg4, but there are other things to consider here. 6.h3 does not help White develop, and Black has an opportunity to punish White with 6…e5 7.dxe5.

Black takes a lead in development, allowed by White’s slow play!

6.Bf4 does allow Bg4, but this leaves Black with a vulnerable queenside, specifically the b7 pawn.

7.Qb3

Note that although Bg4 was allowed, White may simply move out of the way with Qb3. Had Nf3 been played first, Black could take the Knight and mess up White’s kingside pawn structure by creating doubled pawns on the f-file, in addition to leaving White’s king exposed should they want to castle kingside.

This diagram shows the most important beginning position reached from the exchange.

Clearly Black cannot cover the b-pawn with the rook, as White’s bishop is covering the b8 square!

If Black tries to cover the vulnerable b-pawn with 7…Qd7 or 7…Qc8, White can play 8.Nd2 e6 9.Ngf3, and Black’s left with a pretty sad looking queen, which is for the moment relegated to defense of the b-pawn. This leads to an important advantage for White. White will look for a kingside attack, based on Ne5. Black here needs to focus on a long-term plan for a queenside assault with b5–b4.

The Panov Attack

3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4

In the Panov or Panov-Botvinnik Attack, White fights directly for the center with this ambitious strike at the d5 pawn. White is playing in the spirit of the Queen’s Gambit when launching 4.c4. This is the most aggressive way to take on the Caro-Kann.

The Panov is sort of a place where the principles of 1.e4 and 1.d4 converge.

Following is 4…Nf6 5.Nc3. White would like to see Black take on c4, as after 5…dxc4 6.Bxc4 e6 7.Nf3, Black is trying to avoid complications. Plenty playable, but hardly thrilling chess.

Black should maintain the tension and defend the pawn on d5 with 4…Nc6. White plays 5.Nc3 and Black plays 5…e5, closing down the center. It’s slightly passive for Black, but is the most solid way to approach the Panov.

The Fantasy Variation

3. f3

Here White wants it all, a fantasy world where they can develop everything to their ideal squares.

This move probably looks poor at first glance, and violates many an opening principle. (Ben Finegold’s “never play f3!” springs to mind).

Black usually takes on e4, and White maintains the perfect center with an idea of attacking down the f-file. This comes at a cost though, as they have compromised their king’s safety.

This is also good for White due to the opening of the f-file and the diagonal for the queen. White, in their ideal “Fantasy” world, will develop their knights and bishops to their most natural squares (Nf3, Nc3, Bg5, Bc4). Upon castling, White’s rook stares directly down the f-file, ready to attack.

Black must follow up here with 3…e5, as 3…Nf6 lets White bully the knight with 4.e5 Nd5, and 5.c4.

After, 3…e5 if White captures with 4.dxe5, …Qh5+ and White is suddenly entering a world of pain.

Ouch!

Alternatives to 2.d4

King’s Indian Attack

With 2.d3 d5 3 Nd2, White is playing the King’s Indian Attack, just as they would in many other openings. It is a deviation of the Breyer Variation (2.d3).

A King’s Indian Attack setup

While the system is the same for White as in the French, the position arising after 1.e4 e6 2.d3 d5 3.Nd2 differs quite significantly the King’s Indian Attack employed in the Caro-Kann, as Black has the opportunity to take even more control of the center with either 3…e5

If White is looking for a more system-based approach to the Caro-Kann (one that also works with the French), then the King’s Indian Attack is a good option.

Check out Chessable’s opening basics on the King’s Indian Attack!

Black’s top defense to the Two Knights is 3..Bg4, and after 4.h3 a closed position looking like a King’s Indian Attack arises beginning with 4…Bxf3 5.Qxf3.

Again, with a more or less closed position, Black fares pretty well without the bishop pair. Remember, as we said, pawns will usually occupy the c6 and e6 squares (which are light squares!), so no love lost when trading off the light-squared bishop!

Tactics abound. Razor sharp!

Black’s top defense to the Two Knights is 3..Bg4, and after 4.h3 a closed position looking like a King’s Indian Attack arises beginning with 4…Bxf3 5.Qxf3.

Again, with a more or less closed position, Black fares pretty well without the bishop pair. Remember, as we said, pawns will usually occupy the c6 and e6 squares (which are light squares!), so no love lost when trading off the light-squared bishop!

Game analysis

Jan-Krzysztof Duda vs Alireza Firouzja

In this game analysis, we’re looking at a game from Norway Chess 2020. Even though it was played recently, it is already a classic and thrilling Caro-Kann game.

We start off with a Classical Variation.

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3

Black gets their light-squared bishop out early before creating the pawn chain with e6, attacking White’s knight in the process. White goes Ng3 and in turn attacks Black’s bishop.

5…Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Nf3 Nd7

There’s something interesting about move 7 though. Why Nf3 instead of playing 7.h5 directly?

The reason is because after 7.h5 Bh7, if White goes 8.Nf3, Black’s bishop isn’t on g6 anymore so it isn’t attacked by the knight.

“So what?” you might be asking yourself.

Well with a few prep moves by Black such as e6 and Nf6, Black can consider a timely c5 and opens up the c6 square, i.e. the ideal development square for its Queenside knight! So Nd7 is played to stop any Ne5 business!

8.h5 Bh7 9.Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3

Black’s bishop controlled a pretty sweet-looking diagonal, and it would have been uncomfortable to castle queenside. Besides, the f1 bishop didn’t have much future of its own so White forced a trade with Bd3.

10…e6 11.Bd2 Ngf6 12.O-O-O Be7 13.Kb1 O-O 14. Ne4 c5

We’ve got opposite-side castling, strap in, this usually means quite a tactical game. Both sides are gonna push at each other’s opposite sides.

With 14…c5, Firouzja strikes directly at the center, trying to open up the c-file.

15.Be3

White makes a slight inaccuracy here. Duda applies further pressure to the c-pawn with Be3.

What White should have done was give up some material of their own by launching an attack with 15.g4. This would give up the g-pawn but would open up lines on Black’s kingside

15…Nxe4 Black removes White’s e4 knight, White’s best piece. White recaptures with 16.Qxe4. White is threatening to take the b7 pawn, but rather than defend it, Black improves their Knight position with 16Nf6.

17.Qxb7 White accepts the sacrifice, but Black has White’s queenside in their sights. Remember when I said White should give up their knight pawn to open up lines? It is Black who has done this, and thus it is Black who attacks!

17…Nd5 is already generating a threat.

If Nc3+ and bxc3, White’s queen may be pinned by Black’s rook! Otherwise White’s rook and king are forked!

18. Qa6 Rb8 19.Bd2 cxd4 20. Nxd4 Bf6 21.Nb3 Qc7

White is up a pawn but Black has plenty of compensation. Look at Black’s bishop staring down that diagonal. The b-file is completely open to mount more pressure on White’s b2 pawn. And if that a-pawn ever gets a chance to chase White’s knight off? Well, let’s just say it’s not looking good for White. White’s knight is pinned. Meanwhile, White has no attack of their own going on. Their pieces are relegated to defense or simply have no activity. It is a sad state of affairs.

22.Rhe1 Rfc8

Firouzja now has his rooks and queen pointing like cannons at Duda’s kingside.

23.Rc1

Ouch, White’s pieces are forced to defend, and this rook is losing what little activity it had with this sad-looking move.

23…Nb6

Black’s Knight is heading to c4.

24. Re4 Nc4

Nc4 is a beautiful piece, with two different squares to check on as well as applying additional pressure to the b-pawn.

25.Bf4 Qb6

26.Qxb6 Rxb6 27.Be3 Rb4 28.f3

Queens off the board, but Black still has pressure on b2

28…a5 Looking to push that knight off!

29.Rxc4 Rcxc4 White has to relieve pressure somehow, so they give up an exchange. Black now has a material advantage.

30.Bd2 Rb5 31.Bxa5 Rxh5 32.Rg1 Rb5 33.Bd2

After all this we move to a position with Black still applying pressure on White’s b2 pawn and their knight pinned. White has three connected passed pawns, but they’re still at their home base and are not going anywhere anytime soon. How does black progress? Can their rooks make any useful moves? Advantage for Black is clear, but how to convert?

33…h5.

With a 4-2 kingside pawn majority, Firouzja starts to move his pawns.

34.c3 g5

White blunts the diagonal of Black’s optimally placed bishop. 34g5

35.Kc2 g4 36.Nc1 g3

Here Black’s best move would have actually been capturing on f3, as if 36…gxf3 37.gxf3+, Blacks king can pivot to h7 and Black has a passed h-pawn to work with.

37.b3 Rc8 38.a4 Rf5

Counterplay! White starts pushing their queenside pawns. Black’s advantage has narrowed to only -0.3.

39.Ne2 h4 40.c4 e5 41.Be3 Bg5 42.Bxg5 Rxg5 43.Rh1 Rh5

Bishops are now off the board. White is placing pressure on Black’s h-pawn. Black’s rook is undefended and pinned.

44.Kc3

The idea here is to support White’s pawn push. Note that had White taken advantage of the pin with, 44.Nxg3 Black can move 44…Rg5, White’s knight must move and …45.Rxg2+. So another reason for putting the king on c3 is to avoid any such possible checks.

44…f5

45.Nxg3 would not be as effective here as after 45…Rg5 the knight can no longer go to e4.

45.b4 f4 46.a5 h3

At this point, players are tired, errors are inevitable, even for players of this caliber, and Duda’s 46.a5 is one of them.

The pressure is mounting. Duda moves 47.gxh3, and Firouzja’s g-pawn is now a passer.

47…e4

48.fxe4, and there are a whopping SEVEN passed pawns on the board! What’s even more incredible is five of them are White’s, two are Black’s, but Black’s pawns are the only ones posing any real danger.

48…g2 49.Rg1 Rxh3+ 50.Kd4 f3 51.c5 Kf7 52.Nf4

52…f2 and White resigns. Even if White captures the rook on h3, the game is lost.

Delve deeper into Caro-Kann theory

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Lifetime Repertoires: Caro-Kann

If after reading this you feel like the Caro-Kann might be a nice weapon to have in your opening arsenal, or you feel you need to brush up as Whtie to play against it, then Chessable has got you sorted.

For a quick (and free!) intro course to the Caro-Kann, check out Chessable’s course Short & Sweet: The Caro-Kann Or take it to the next level with our Lifetime Repertoires: Caro-Kann. And if you’re interested in White’s side of things, GM Wesley So has some ideas on Cramping the Caro-Kann.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is the Caro-Kann a good opening?

The Caro-Kann is generally regarded as one of Black’s soundest replies to 1.e4. It is not too complex an opening to learn, and offers Black a great way to develop with ease.

What’s wrong with the Caro-Kann?

You’d be hard-pressed to find anything “wrong” with the Caro-Kann. That said, it tends to be more positional in nature, leading some to call it “boring”. Those looking for sharper openings loaded with tactics would perhaps find the Sicilian better suited to them.

Is the Caro-Kann better than the French?

This depends on who you ask! While it is true GMs have a clear preference for the Caro-Kann, a French player would probably say no, and a Caro-Kann player would certainly say yes. Both openings, though similar in nature, do different things. That said, the Caro-Kann has the advantage of allowing Black to develop their light-squared Bishop with ease, in contrast to the French.

Is the Caro-Kann good for White?

The Caro-Kann certainly offers many fighting chances for White. The Advance Variation allows White to grab space and play a somewhat closed position, while the Exchange allows for a position that resembles a Queen’s gambit. The Fantasy Variation permits White to play a more attacking style, which many e4 players will enjoy.

Is the Caro-Kann easy?

The Caro-Kann is relatively positional in nature without having too much theory behind it.(such as with the Sicilian or the Grünfeld). It is considered a relatively easy and natural way of responding to 1.e4.

What is the goal of the Caro-Kann?

The goal of the Caro-Kann is to strike at White’s e pawn with d5 by supporting it first with c6. Ceding initial control of the center allows Black to develop with ease and keeps the diagonal open for their light-squared bishop.

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