Playing the Semi-Slav: White’s 5th Move Alternatives

So far in this series I have been looking at the various ways to reach the basic starting position of the Semi-Slav, which arises after 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6. Now I’ll turn my attention to this key position, and the main lines that arise from it.

White’s two main moves here are 5 Bg5 and 5 e3, which I’ll examine in later posts. In this post I’ll be considering White’s main alternatives, which are the moves 5 Qb3, 5 g3 and 5 cxd5.

The move 5 Qb3 hopes to improve on 5 e3 by defending against Black winning a pawn by 5…dxc4 followed by 6…b5, while at the same time not blocking in his queen’s bishop. White will either follow up with Bg5 or Bf4, or aim for a Catalan-like formation with g3, without gambiting a pawn.

The classic main line against 5 Qb3 is the straightforward 5…dxc4 6 Qxc4 b5 followed by 7 Qb3 Nbd7 or 7 Qd3 Nbd7. Black aims to strike with the classic Semi-Slav break …c5, usually prepared with …a6. If White plays e4, then Black will usually counter with …b4, undermining the e-pawn.

Another possibility is 5…Be7. This intends to continue with the same plan against Bg5 or Bf4 (6 Bg5 dxc4 7 Qxc4 b5 or 6 Bf4 dxc4 7 Qxc4 b5), but to neutralise 6 g3 with the clever 6…b6 7 Bg2 Ba6, an idea of Mikhail Gurevich. The point of 6 g3 b6 7 Bg2 Ba6 is that White has to exchange with 8 cxd5 cxd5, when his options have been restricted to breaking with e4. After 9.Ne5 O-O 10.O-O Bb7 11.Bf4 Nfd7 12.Nxd7 Qxd7, Black is comfortable, and can continue with …Nb8-c6-a5-c4.

The move 5 g3 is bolder than 5 Qb3 followed by g3, in that White is prepared to gambit a pawn. White is hoping to reach classic Closed Catalan positions where Black is a little passive, and White as a result enjoys a slight advantage. Black’s most interesting response is to take up the challenger by accepting the gambit with 5…dxc4. White can then pull out of full-blooded gambit play with 6 a4, but then 6…Nbd7 7.Bg2 Be7 8.O-O O-O 9.e4 e5! gives Black good counterplay:

  1. 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.dxe5 Ng4 12.Qxd8 Rxd8 13.Bf4 g5 leaves Black on top.
  2. 10.d5 cxd5 11.exd5 Bb4 is equal.
  3. 10.dxe5 Ng4 11.Bf4 Qa5 12.e6! (not 12.Qd4 Rd8 13.Qxc4 Ndxe5) 12…fxe6 and White doesn’t seem to have anything better than 13.e5 Ndxe5
    14.Nxe5 Nxe5 15.Qh5 Bd6! 16.Ne4 Rf5 17.Qe8+ Rf8 18.Qh5 Rf5
    19.Qe8+ with a draw in Topalov – Kasparov, Sarajevo 2000.

Instead 6 Bg2 is more aggressive. The natural response is 6…b5, aiming to hold onto the pawn. White then has a choice of plans:

  • He can advance in the centre with e4-e5, looking to set up an attack on the kingside.
  • He can attack on the queenside with a4, most likely keeping the long diagonal open to create tactical difficulties for Black.

After 6…b5, White has tried both 7 Ne5 and 7 0-0. The move 7 Ne5 is met by 7…Nd5, while 7 0-0 is met by 7…Nbd7. The resulting positions are difficult to assess and are out of the scope of this overview.

A quieter alternative to 5 Qb3 and 5 g3 is the transposition to the Exchange Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined with 5 cxd5 exd5. This is regarded as innocuous, as Black can develop his queen’s bishop without difficulty, because White has played Nf3 too early. This is obvious in the line 6 Bg5 Be7 7 Qc2 g6 8 e3 Bf5 9 Bd3 Bxd3 10 Qxd3 Nbd7 11 0-0 0-0, where Black has developed comfortably and equalised.

Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to playing the Semi-Slav as Black.
This entry was posted in Opening Analysis, Playing the Semi-Slav, The Semi-Slav Defence. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Playing the Semi-Slav: White’s 5th Move Alternatives

  1. Ton Dulk says:

    “White’s two main moves here are 5 Bg5 and 5 e3, which I’ll examine in later posts.”
    After I very much enjoyed your 1.Nf3 blog, I was thinking about playing the Semi-Slav, besides my usual Slav. Unfortunately you did not continue this blog, or did I miss something?

    • James Mansson says:

      Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time then to work on this series further, so there weren’t any more posts in it. I may pick it up at some point in the future, when I have run out of my own recent games to annotate.

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