GM Joel on the Caro-Kann Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
June 28, 2008
Hi Joel, 
Greetings and Congratulations to being inducted into Chess Hall of Fame.  Wish I could trade places with you.  I am a Class C player - hoping to make Class B by the end of the year.  Since I am a member of the Arlington Chess Club I get to play against the likes of Lawrence Kaufman and Oladapu Adu on occasion.  I have three related questions:
1. Why is the Caro Kann played so rarely these days - has the g4 Bayonet attack spelled the end of the Caro?  One rarely sees it played at tournament level and even in GM games.  And yet this was a mainstay for Tal, Botvinnik, Karpov, Anand etc. 
2. The popularity of the Sicilian Najdorf is distressing - one sees an overabundance of it in tournament games so much so that even 10 year old Level D and E are being instructed to memorize and play it.  I feel this is detrimental to chess overall. 
3. What are your feelings towards the Caro- as Black and White?  Does it have a future?  I find this defense an aesthetic relief from Sicilians etc. 

William Franklin


There is no question that we have a trickle-down effect when it comes to opening choices.  Games of the top GMs tend to be noticed by more fans, who often want to emulate them.  Since the Najdorf is not only played by so many grandmasters, but was also the favored defense of the two best players of all time, Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, it’s popularity among recreational players is understandable.

Personally, I don’t mind any players as low as 1000 taking up the Najdorf, if they already have a reasonable foundation in classical chess (1.e4 e5).  As long as they (and their coaches/parents) put the focus on understanding the strategy and not on coldly memorizing moves, kids can learn as well with the Najdorf as any other opening.

I don’t know if there is any specific line that troubles Caro-Kann players, but I do think there are a few reasons why the Caro is struggling to achieve widespread adoption.

   1. It isn’t very exciting.  The Caro-Kann offers good chances to equalize, but grandmasters want to have a defense that can offer them more winning chances.  Club players often don’t think the Caro will be fun to play.
   2. White has too many good options.  The main line (3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2) poses enough problems for Black, but Caro-Kann players have to be equally prepared for the Advance (3.e5, which offers White several approaches as well), and the Panov Attack (3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4), which requires knowledge of isolated queen pawn positions.  Even the Exchange Variation (3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3) offers White some prospects for winning with almost no risk of losing.
   3. Nobody big is championing the Caro-Kann at the moment.  We saw a lot more Caro-Kanns when Karpov was in action and leading the way for defenders.  If someone like Kramnik shifted from the Petroff to the Caro, we might see a popularity swing take shape.

I don’t know if I see anything particularly aesthetic about the Caro-Kann, but I do believe it is a solid opening and will hang around for a long time, with an occasional boost in popularity from time to time.