7

With every other middlegame formation, I know more or less what I would do if I were given a load of free tempi, and thus, what I should aim for in the present. However, concerning a highly defensive Semi-Slav still with "fangs," it seems like there's not much I can do but twiddle my thumbs and hope Black opens up the position for me (which is of course a terrible strategy):

r1bq1rk1/ppn1bpp1/2p1pn1p/8/3P3B/2NBPN2/PPQ2PPP/R3K2R w KQ - 6 13

Black currently has five (!) defenders locking down d5, with the possibility of bringing in an additional rook or fianchettoed bishop if the current defenders were relocated/exchanged. Thus, I wouldn't have any idea how to launch a successful central takeover (in particular, whenever I push e3-e4 in these situations, my center pawns only seem to turn into a liability for me).

As well, the kingside is without any real defect to exploit, and starting a kingside pawn storm would (afaict) be to bet my whole position on an attack with less-than-ideal odds.

So, it seems to me that at present the queenside is White's best option to secure a weakness-free advantage. Let's say I get the opportunity for free to push my pawns and reposition my rook. The issue is that it seems Black often has the ability to liquidate the queenside at his will in his favor, for example:

[FEN "r1bq1rk1/ppn1bpp1/2p1pn1p/8/PP1P3B/2NBPN2/2Q2PPP/1R2K2R b KQ - 0 1"]

1... a5 2. bxa5 Ncd5 3. Nxd5 Nxd5 4. Bxe7 Qxa5+ 5. Nd2 Nxe7

Usually, however, Black commits to some expansion before White has the time to engineer a true queenside pawn storm, often in the form of a fianchetto for his weak bishop. This in turn tends to create a weakness on c6 that, personally, I'm glad to see, because it's at least something for White to begin to target.

But from my tabiya in the first diagram, how does White ideally want to take advantage of Black's position in the Semi-Slav, without giving himself weaknesses in the process, and without relying on Black's cooperation to loosen his own position?

  • I don't play this myself, but I believe the idea is to play on the c-file and to push d4-d5. Note that the knight on c7 might be lose if the pawn on c6 is removed. Did you check how grandmasters deal with such positions? – user1583209 Dec 14 '16 at 14:44
  • Making this a comment due to brevity; full disclosure - I am NOT a titled player. As someone who frequently plays the (Qd8) Scandinavian as black, I often have similar structures. Most of my opponents that give me a hard time tend, in very broad terms, to either aim at my b7 pawn or to chip away at either the c6 or e6 pawns aiming at some center action. The situation isn't 100% the same, though, as my h-pawn is rarely advanced, and they often have a light-squared bishop on f3 to help provide pressure on the diagonal. – Ghotir Dec 14 '16 at 14:44
  • Also black would usually want to play c5 or e5 in order to free himself from that somewhat cramped position. So it is not like white has to do all the work to make something happen in the centre. – user1583209 Dec 14 '16 at 16:27
  • You're looking for a "weakness free" advantage, usually those aren't available unless the opponent has made a large error. There are always tradeoffs. – RemcoGerlich Dec 15 '16 at 14:12
  • Also the knight on c7 is very strange, how did this game start? – RemcoGerlich Dec 15 '16 at 14:14
5

The position you are looking at is indeed very common in the semi-Slav defense and the solid control of the d5 square is exactly the underlying idea for Black, often after having played ...dxc4 at some point in the opening. Looking at White's piece placement, in particular at the e pawn on e3 and the White dark squared bishop on the king's side, this seems to have originated from the classic Moscow variation, namely

[fen ""]
[Event "Merano defense, Moscow variation"]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 dxc4

At this point White has to play aggressively to avoid Black keeping both the pawn and maintaining the initiative: the standard continuation for White is 7.e4 (that you have not played) to threaten the knight on f6 and force Black to play 7...g5 and weaken their king's side. Playing 7.e3 instead gives Black the possibility to continue developing their pieces calmly; they played possibly something like 7...Be7 but could have played instead 7...b5, pushing on the queen's side and threatening ...b4 at some point.

However, given your position on the board, White usually pursues the plan of the minority attack on the queen's side rather than going for control of the d5 square, pushing the a and b pawns to threaten b5 or c6. In order to do so it is fundamental to give rook support on the c-file with something like 0-0 followed by Rfc1. Stockfish gives the following idea, after castling:

[fen ""]
[Event "Merano defense, Moscow variation: Stockfish analysis"]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 dxc4 7.e3 Be7 8.Bxc4 Na6 9.Bd3 O-O 10. Qc2 Nc7 11.O-O b6 12.Rfc1 Bb7 13.Ne5 Rc8 14.a3 Nce8 15.b4

and White can play trying to break on the b-c files somehow. Perhaps you want to play 12.Rfd1 instead, to avoid ...c5; dxc5 and already having control of the d-file instead.

As an example let us have a look at a famous match Topalov-Kramink, one of the many regarding (semi)-Slav variations and Queen's gambit declined as in the fashion of two amongst the most productive players of those lines:

[fen ""]
[Event "Corus"]
[Site "Wijk aan Zee NED"]
[Date "2008.01.22"]
[EventDate "?"]
[Round "9"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Veselin Topalov"]
[Black "Vladimir Kramnik"]
[ECO "D44"]
[WhiteElo "?"]
[BlackElo "?"]
[PlyCount "89"]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 dxc4 7.e4 g5
8.Bg3 b5 9.Be2 Bb7 10.O-O Nbd7 11.Ne5 Bg7 12.Nxf7 Kxf7 13.e5
Nd5 14.Ne4 Ke7 15.Nd6 Qb6 16.Bg4 Raf8 17.Qc2 Qxd4 18.Qg6 Qxg4
19.Qxg7+ Kd8 20.Nxb7+ Kc8 21.a4 b4 22.Rac1 c3 23.bxc3 b3 24.c4
Rfg8 25.Nd6+ Kc7 26.Qf7 Rf8 27.cxd5 Rxf7 28.Rxc6+ Kb8 29.Nxf7
Re8 30.Nd6 Rh8 31.Rc4 Qe2 32.dxe6 Nb6 33.Rb4 Ka8 34.e7 Nd5
35.Rxb3 Nxe7 36.Rfb1 Nd5 37.h3 h5 38.Nf7 Rc8 39.e6 a6 40.Nxg5
h4 41.Bd6 Rg8 42.R3b2 Qd3 43.e7 Nf6 44.Be5 Nd7 45.Ne6 1-0
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2

The position you are concerned about doesn't qualify as a stubborn Semi-Slav in my opinion. At most, it is a very passive Semi-Slav where the Nc7 lost two tempi to reach a waiting spot, and neither of Black's usual breaks, ...e5 and ...c5, will be attractive in the near future. Moreover, the hook on h6 has provided you with a very nice target.

White has three possible, natural plans:

  • Queenside expansion

This is the continuation you consider, with a4-b4-Rb1. Indeed, in your line, ...a5 come handy notably because your king sitting on e1 makes the weakening of b4 annoying and allows Black to exchange two minor pieces - a relief for him given his lack of space.

You should instead take your time to implement this plan: 0-0, Rfd1, Rac1 or Rab1, a3 if need be, b4, possibly Ne5 building pressure against c6, and then you look for an opportunity to breakthrough with b4-b5 when Black cannot counter with c6-c5. If you keep everything under control this could lead to a serious weakness on c6 and a winning squeeze down the c-file. Even if you don't break through, the completed development and the space gained should be enough to prevent any ...a5 or ...c5 by Black and free your hands for switching to the center with e3-e4.

  • Central squeeze

Maybe the simplest way to enhance your space advantage is to build up in the center with 0-0, e3-e4, Rad1-Rfe1 or Rac1-Rfd1. In case Black offer a bishop exchange with ...Nd7, you decline with Bg3. Then Black is extremely passive and can only hope for c6-c5 to free himself (after b6, Bb7, and maybe some half-useful rook moves but he lacks space so much that it is hard to propose a way for him to finish development). Not only can you try to block c5 (with Rc1, or Ne5-d3, or b4), but even if Black achieves it the opening of the center after dc5, d5, or ...cd4 should rather benefit your more active pieces. Meanwhile, he also needs to be careful that you won't mount an attack on his king (e.g. with a Bb1-Qc2 battery then e4-e5 chasing the Nf6, or with Ne5 followed by a rook lift on the third rank).

  • Direct kingside attack

With the weakness on h6 on the board before you have castled and the stable center, I would really give a go to the caveman approach (aka 'latvian' or 'bayonet' attack) with 11.Rg1 intending g4-g5, Ke2 (or 0-0-0), opening the g-file and mating on move 20. All your pieces can join the attack while Black's Nc7, Bc8 and Ra8 won't be able to help their king before long...

Choosing between the three plans is merely a question of style and taste. In any case, White enjoys a great advantage and will try to avoid piece exchanges.

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