Playing the Semi-Slav: The Meran and Anti-Meran

In the basic starting position of the Semi-Slav, which arises after 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6, White has two main options: 5 e3 and 5 Bg5. In this post I will be taking a look at the lines after 5 e3 from the perspective of Black.

Black usually responds to 5 e3 with 5…Nbd7, which is the most flexible move. White has various replies, of which the most important are 6 Bd3, 6 Qc2 and 6 Be2.

The Meran (6 Bd3)

The move 6 Bd3 is the traditional main line, known as the Meran Variation. Black should then capture on c4 and follow up with …b5, which is one of the key points of his system. After 6…dxc4 7 Bxc4 b5, White’s main move is 8 Bd3, but he has two alternative Black needs to know how to meet: 8 Be2 and 8 Bb3.

8 Bb3 is generally regarded as inferior; Black should then play 8…b4. Then:

  • 9 Na4 (to prevent …c5) is met by 9…Ba6, stopping White from castling at once. White is forced to go through some convolutions to castle, which allow Black the time to develop actively, e.g. 10 Bd2 Be7 11 Rc1 0-0 12 Bc4 (12 Rxc6 is met by 12…Qa5) 12…Bb7 13 0-0 Ne4.
  • 9 Ne2 Bb7 followed by …Bd6 and …0-0 leaves Black well placed to aim for …c5.

8 Be2 is a more solid option, but after 8…Bb7, one downside is revealed, as 9 e4 can be met by 9…b4, as the bishop on e2 cannot defend the e-pawn in the way a bishop on d3 would. More sensible are:

  • 9 0-0 Be7 (this is better than d6 as the bishop won’t be exposed to a quick e4-e5) and 10 e4 can again be met by 10…b4.
  • 9 a3 is met by 9…a5, preventing White from clamping down on …c5 with b4. Then 10 0-0 is again met by 10…Be7 (intending 11 e4 b4), and 10 e4 by 10…b4.

After 8 Bd3, Black needs to decide on which defensive set up to adopt:

  • 8…Bd6 is the solid mainline option, looking to castle quickly.
  • 8…Bb7 is the sharp mainline option, not worrying about the king staying in the centre.
  • 8…b4 is a sideline advocated by Sveshnikov which is worth consideration.

A more detailed look at these lines is out of the scope; see the Bibliography for more information. Note:

  • 8…Bd6 is advocated by Shankland in his Chessable Course.
  • 8…Bb7 is analysed by Dreev and Schandorff in their books, and advocated by Sethuraman in his Chessable Course.
  • 8…b4 is advocated by Cheparinov in his Modern Chess Course.

The Anti-Meran (6 Qc2)

The main alternative to 6 Bd3 is 6 Qc2. White holds back on moving the bishop on f1, so Black will be reluctant to capture on c4 yet as White will recapture on c4 in one move rather than two, as in the case after 6 Bd3. Black’s usual response is 6…Bd6, but there is an alternative option in 6…b6 which is worth considering. White has various approaches possible after 6…Bd6, the most prominent of which are:

  • 7 g4. This aggressive thrust was once popular, but sound defences to it have been established. The move 7…h6 is the most widely advocated (e.g. by Dreev, Schandorff and Shankland), although Cheparinov has argued the case for 7…Nxg4. See the reference material in the Bibliography for more information.
  • 7 b3 is a more positional option; then, after 7…0-0, 8 Be2 is most accurate, as 8 Bb2 and 8 Bd3 can both be effectively met by 8…e5. Against 8 Be2, Black can develop solidly with 8…b6, with a comfortable position.
  • 7 Bd3 is the main line. After 7…0-0 8 0-0, the usual recommendation is 8…dxc4 9 Bxc4 b5; play develops along the lines of the Meran variations after 6 Bd3 dxc4 7 Bxc4 b5 8 Bd3 Bd6, and indeed the two lines can reach the same positions. Dreev, Schandorff and Shankland recommend these lines. Cheparinov advocates instead the interesting 8…e5, while Schandorff examines the alternative possibility of 8…dxc4 9 Bxc4 e5 as well as 9…b5.

The above lines after 6…Bd6 are all covered by Dreev, Schandorff, Cheparinov and Shankland; Dreev and Sethuraman cover 6…b6.

A Cunning Move Order (6 Be2)

The move 6 Be2 would superficially seem no different to 6 Bd3, in that after 6 Be2 dxc4 7 Bxc4, we reach the same position as after 6 Bd3 dxc4 7 Bxc4. However, White’s idea is to meet 6 Be2 dxc4 with 7 a4, preventing Black from expanding with …b5, and intending either to recapture with the bishop (Bxc4) or knight (Nd2xc4). Black is therefore advised to develop in a similar fashion as against 6 Qc2. For those that meet 6 Qc2 with 6…Bd6, the same is recommended against 6 Be2, those who play 6 Qc2 b6 should also play 6 Be2 b6. See the coverage by Cheparinov, Sethuraman and Shankland for more details.

Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to playing the Semi-Slav as Black.
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