27 May 2012

Why I Play the Caro-Kann

As was mentioned in the original discussion of openings selection, after playing a large number of informal games with a variety of different defenses to 1. e4, I settled on the Caro-Kann prior to starting tournament play.  It wasn't a question of emotional attachment to its aesthetics or a desire to model myself after professional players who used it; rather, it was a highly practical choice.  At the time, the other defenses I had seriously tried out - the Ruy Lopez (both Closed and Open), Sicilian, Alekhine, and French - didn't fit as well with my abilities and approach to the game.  I'll be the first to admit that my abilities at the start of my amateur career were modest (low Class C range) and my approach to the game was not very coherent.  But then again, one has to start out somewhere.

Speaking of starting out, here's my first tournament game with the Caro-Kann, my sixth tournament game ever. In it I hold a Class B player to a draw, despite the 200 rating point difference.  The opening variation is the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, which transposes by move 7 to a tabiya (common position across different openings) usually classified as a Semi-Tarrasch Defense (which is reached from 1. d4).  Although Black doesn't play optimally, he is able to easily handle White's limited threats and then reach a drawn endgame.

It's been over twenty years since that game and I remain happy with using the Caro-Kann as my primary defense.  I've found it to be rich in ideas that are understandable and usable by an amateur player, which was one of the primary considerations for my original selection of it to use in tournament play.  I initially did quite poorly with tactics and instead fancied myself as a "positional player" (whatever that means).  In any event, the semi-open nature of the defense helped limit my exposure to complicated tactics, while allowing me to focus on one or two key ideas at the board.  This becomes a real advantage when the opponent does not properly identify or know how to respond to these ideas.

Over the years, I've found the defense to have enough depth in its position-types and ideas so that my handling of it has readily improved along with my own overall level of training and performance.  In other words, I've been able to evolve my opening repertoire choices within the various sub-variations, as my understand of the opening has grown, especially in reference to key middlegame ideas and plans.  My commentary on the ABC of the Caro-Kann mentions the main variations of the defense, for those interested.

I believe players should choose whatever openings interest them most, as long as they provide positive results for them, so have no real desire to convince others to play the Caro-Kann.  However, I do feel a need to comment on some of the naysaying about the opening that occasionally can be grating.  I've run across things like:
  • It's not appropriate for Class players and will only retard your growth because of its lack of tactics.
  • It's boring.
  • Nobody interesting plays it.
For example, NM Dan Heisman has some excellent advice for Class players, but for some unknown reason goes out of his way to badmouth the Caro-Kann repeatedly.  It appears to be allied to his general attitude towards opening study, which I've commented on elsewhere.  While there's a certain logic to not choosing the Caro-Kann if you want to focus on being a tactician - pick the Sicilian for that - tactics are hardly eliminated from the board after playing 1...c6 and, as with most openings, it largely depends on White how tactical or quiet things get.  One could make a similar argument about the Sicilian if White always played the Closed Sicilian or the 3. Bb5 variations.

As far as interesting vs. boring goes, it's a matter of taste.  There are very few gambit continuations in the Caro-Kann - although one of the main answers to the Advance Variation involves a pawn sacrifice - so gambiteers should definitely go elsewhere.  Otherwise, the variety and depth of the opening variations are comparable to any other main-line opening.  It's true that players who are interested in different aspects of positional play (isolated queen pawn positions as in the above game, executing key pawn breaks, queenside minority attacks, etc.) will probably get more out of the opening than tactical specialists.  Also, it's important to realize that the opening is solid rather than unbalancing, which means that a draw is a likelier result than with an unbalanced opening.

Finally, although it's not a major reason for choosing to play the opening, I've certainly enjoyed studying and playing over games from world champions who have employed it as Black: Capablanca, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrosian, Karpov, Kasparov, and Anand.  I've also particularly enjoyed Kortchnoi's games with it and will close with one of my favorites, a game in the Classical Variation that features opposite-side castling and attacking play on both wings.


  1. A Goole search on "Heisman Caro Kann" did not yield any bad mouthing! From a practical point of view, given that the Caro Kann is working for you, it is not worth spending time studying anything else. There is a widely held view that players learn faster by playing 1...e5. Nigel Davies said that switching to this move was the key ingredient for his getting to GM. Heisman recommends MCO for players up to 1700. It is criticise this strongly, because generations of chess players got by with only a thinner version of that book! MCO recommends that weaker players play something other than 3...a6 in reply to the Ruy Lopez.

  2. Hello Bright Knight, thanks for stopping by and for the comments.

    Mr. Heisman's comments can be found in the PDF archive Novice Nook articles at ChessCafe (and therefore are not indexable by Google). The articles themselves are a treasure trove of good info for improving players, but the Caro-Kann specifically receives an unfair amount of bashing, IMO.

  3. That search does pull up a Novice Nook article on the first page, so Google does at least partially index these articles.

  4. I love playing against the CaroKann! Specifically I have my own home brewed/prepared line/s in the Bayonet (g4) version of the Advanced CaroKann. This leads to very exciting, attacking & aggressive games and not many CK players seem to be used to it as I even often capture black's light squared bishop early on. Until I started playing this way I did find the other CK variations quite dull but this is an exciting variation. It seems to come as a bit of a shock to defensive minded CK players who find themselves under attack early on in the game when they wanted solidity/passivity.
    This bayonet variation I think is a little known & little used line against the CK and home preparation & practice with it is certainly worth it from my point of view! Even if I lose with this I will always have had an exciting, interesting & challenging game (which imho cannot be said of many of the other CK lines I have tried & faced). I'm very glad I found this line as I now enjoying playing against the CaroKann when before I found it I found the CK quite boring!
    Happy chess & caroKann playing :-)

  5. I realize I'm commenting 2 years late, but I wanted to say that Heisman does not "bash the Caro-Kann". I too noticed that he brings up the C-K a lot in his writing, but it's not to bash that opening system per se. He's bashing the type of player who is rated 1200, loses to simple tactics all the time but only wants to discuss a novelty on move 9 of the C-K. You can substitute whatever opening you want in its place. Given that the C-K seems pretty rare, I suspect he had a specific incident(s) with a student who was a C-K player so he uses that as an example all the time.

    I play the C-K and I've gone over several games with Dan and not once has he ever mentioned that he thinks the C-K is inferior and I need to change. In fact, one of my first conversations with him, I asked about the point BrightKnight makes above as to whether he thinks beginners should stick with classical d5/e5 systems when learning and he said absolutely not. The opening doesn't matter, just pick something you want to play and learn it.

    1. Thanks for the firsthand insight. I went through something like 60 of NM Heisman's "Novice Nook" articles in a row and was struck by the number of times he cited the Caro-Kann as a negative example of studying openings, while not naming other openings similarly. Many masters do give the standard "you must play the open games" advice, so perhaps he could have conveyed his sentiments more broadly and not given that impression in print. As I've posted elsewhere, his general advice on studying openings is pretty good, i.e. don't worry about detailed analysis of lines if you're weak tactically and don't have a good grasp of fundamentals, since those will get you farther in your chess.