Chess Opening Basics: The Caro-Kann Defense


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Playing the Caro-Kann

The Caro-Kann Defence is one of the most solid and reliable ways of meeting 1 e4. Black replies with 1 …c6.

Caro-Kann Defence

The Caro-Kann Defence

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Lifetime Repertoires: Caro-Kann

Unusually, this opening is named after two people, namely Horatio Caro and Marcus Kann. Caro was English (born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and Kann was Austrian (born in Vienna). They analysed the chess opening together, which is why it bears both of their names.

Challenging the Centre

As we know, it is beneficial to occupy or control the centre of the board as soon as possible. With 1 …c6 Black is inviting White to create the classic pawn centre with 2 d4, but an immediate challenge is then issued with 2 …d5.

Challenging the centre of the board

White now has to decide which line to play into.

These include:

The Exchange Variation, with 3 exd5.

The Panov-Botvinnik Attack, with 3 exd5 cxd5 4 c4.

The Advance Variation, with 3 e5.

The Fantasy Variation, with 3 f3.

White can also omit 2 d4. The most common such deviation is 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3, known as the Two Knights Variation.

All of the above will be covered later in the week.

Caro-Kann: The Main Lines

Today we focus on the classical move, 3 Nc3, which defends the e-pawn. In fact even here there is a choice. Some players prefer to play 3 Nd2 instead, which is an insignificant deviation after Black’s standard reply of 3 …dxe4, as 4 Nxe4 will follow in both cases.

The point is that after 3 Nc3 Black can steer clear of the main lines of the Caro-Kann with 3 …g6, which heralds the arrival of the Gurgenidze System.

Gurgenidze System

This is a cross between a Caro-Kann and a Modern Defence (1 …g6). It has never been a popular choice, but some players as White prefer to keep the option of play c3 to bolster the support of the pawn on d4, which can come under fire by the bishop on g7.

The main lines of the Caro-Kann Defense occur after the standard moves 3 …dxe4 4 Nxe4.

Caro-Kann Main Lines

Heading into the main lines

The Solid Caro-Kann

Black can now play:

4 …Bf5

Caro-Kann 4 ...Bf5

This is the Classical Variation and it is usually associated with players who prefer very solid positions as Black, such as José Raúl Capablanca, the third world chess champion.

Black develops a minor piece and challenges the central knight. This is a very solid variation. Common now is 5 Ng3 Bg6. The knight is protecting the squares the bishop may wish to move to and the bishop is doing exactly the same controlling job on the knight.

It is normal for the game to head into the endgame in this variation.

The Creative Approach

4 …Nf6
Caro-Kann 4 ...Nf6This way of challenging the central white knight leads to more unbalanced positions than 4 …Bf5. Black has to accept the doubling of his pawns.

After 5 Nxf6+ there is a further choice of 5 …exf6 and 5 gxf6.


5 ...exf6

This is the Tartakower Variation, named after the creative chess thinker, Savielly Tartakower. Black obtains a large mass of pawns in front of his king. In the endgame Black will stand worse, as White has the automatic plan of creating a passed pawn on the queenside, utilising the pawn majority in that part of the board.

Black’s pawn majority will not be as effective as White’s because the presence of doubled pawns makes it much harder to create a passed pawn.

However, the big mass of kingside pawns will protect the king and they also cause White problems when they roll forward as an attacking mass in the middlegame.

5 ...gxf6

The Bronstein-Larsen variation (named after two especially free chess spirits, David Bronstein and Bent Larsen).

Black will typically castle on the queenside and utilise the half-open g-file with their rook. If White castles on the kingside there is the risk of a speedy attack by Black.

This variation of the Caro-Kann can be particularly effective at club level, where White might not know the best ways to prevent Black from building up an automatic attack.

We don’t see it very often at the highest levels, where Black’s position continues to be treated with suspicion.

Caro-Kann: The Champions’ Choice

If Black doesn’t like doubled pawns and still wants to challenge the white knight with a knight rather than a bishop, then the ultra-solid 4 …Nd7 is to be recommended.

This variation is named after Vasily Smyslov, the seventh world champion of chess and a player notorious for being extremely difficult to beat.

Anatoly Karpov – the 12th champion of the world, consistently used 4 …Nd7 as one of his main weapons at the highest levels of chess, which is further evidence on the extreme solidity of the variation.

5 ...Nf6

The point is that after 5 Nf3 Ndf6 6 Nxf6+ Black can keep the pawn structure intact with 6 …Nxf6. Even though White retains a slight space advantage, there are no weaknesses in the Black position and the development of their position will continue smoothly.

This post shows the very basics of the Caro-Kann’s main lines and clearly demonstrates the flexibility of the defence. Black can play very solidly, extremely aggressively or in highly creative fashion.

It is unusual for an opening to offer the second player such a range of approaches.

Why not try each variation in non-competitive games, to see which one best suits your own style?

Even better, get ahead of the game with our brand new course and learn an opening that will last you a lifetime.

Erwin L'Ami Caro-Kann Course

Lifetime Repertoires: Caro-Kann – MoveTrainer™ Course –

Supplement your opening study by learning the tactics that commonly occur in the Caro-Kann.

Give thee Caro-Kann no time to breathe with The Panov-Botvinnik Attack.

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Lifetime Repertoires: Caro-Kann

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