After move 10 in the main line of Caro Kann, black has already moved its light-squared bishop four times, while white manages to develop quite a bit.

What exactly is blacks compensation for the lack of development?

[fen ""]
[Startply "21"]

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3
  • I think 4... Nf6 is becoming more popular recently, maybe Super-GMs are also not seeing the compensation
    – user134593
    Sep 17 at 17:47

At a basic level, what we want from an opening and a defense, is: we want to be fighting for the center squares (1), we're trying to develop our pieces and get good squares for them (2), and thirdly, we want to have a safe king (3). This is as modest a expectation as one can have for a good opening.

Now roughly speaking, there are two types of defenses (say e.g. against 1.e4): First type: we attack the pawn on e4, like the Scandinavian, the French, and the Caro-Kann,..., in other words, any defense where we immediately set out to immediately attack the pawn on e4 is the first type of defense. The second type of defense is to leave the e4 pawn alone and basically, black's saying I'll go and take my fair share of the center, typical example is the Sicilian (1...c5 first dark-square claim).

In diagram you've posted, we see a typical Caro-Kann structure where black's trumps are:

  • we have successfully managed to exchange one of white's central pawns (e4), which was the primary goal of our defense.
  • There's definite prospect for challenging white's 2nd central pawn (d4) with a timely c5 or e5 advance in the middlegame. And the d5 square is a nice post for a knight.
  • In case white aims for c4 to control d5, then d4 being in a semi-open file, becomes a bit of a soft spot which black can target, and the extra expansion on the queenside by white means their queenside castling is less likely or at least less safe.

So it's fair to say expectation (1) is ticked off. Now onto (2):

  • Black is clearly behind in development: white has 5 developed pieces (pawns and nonpawns), black has 3, moreover, white's ready to castle kingside and 1 tempo away from queenside castling whereas black's kingside castle is at least 3 tempi away.
  • However, thanks to our successful neutralisation of the e4 pawn, the central struggle has quieted down, and our path to finishing development is rather clear (and resolved for the most part), namely: e6-Nf6-Be7-O-O.
  • It's not just that we are finishing development, but we are in fact achieving decent piece activity: most importantly, the knight on f6 which plays both a very important defensive role for the king, and provides good central control. The d5 square could in certain cases be a good outpost for either the knight or even sometimes the queen. In case of the former, then f6 square becomes free for our d7 knight to jump to.
  • The knight on d7 is not poorly placed as it is ideally placed to eye both c5 and e5, the two pawn advances black will be aiming for next in order to challenge white's d4 pawn (dark-square control).
  • Same holds for the bishop, which more importantly, is not hemmed-in inside our own structure.

These points tick off expectation (2). Now onto (3):

  • As said, we have no trouble in castling kingside, where the king will be well protected by our minor pieces (knight on f6, bishop e7 and knight on d7 which can go to f8 if need be).
  • Thanks to white's over-advancement of the h pawn all the way to h5, their prospect of exploiting our hook h6 on the kingside is not so easy anymore. Ideally, to exploit the h6 advance when pushing against the king, is to have the h4-g4 setup. All to say, tempo-wise, white is sufficiently away from amassing a major threat on our kingside.
  • Last but not least, white has no means of decoying our minor piece defense on the kingside, and the somewhat weakened light squares are less of a concern since the respective bishops have been traded off.

These points all suggest that we have in fact a solid structure and our kingside castling remains safe, so (3) is ticked off as well.

In conclusion, we have seen why the structures that emerge from Caro-Kann (in particular for the posted variation) are solid and more importantly, we see that black's opening has successfully achieved our 3 basic expectations, so we can give ourselves a tap on the back and claim to have played a successful defense.

Extra bonus aspects about the position:

  • The queen can easily swing over to the queenside b6 or a5 and create threats, in general you want to be inducing additional pawn advances from white on the queenside to make it more difficult for them to castle safely on the queenside. So manoeuvres like Qa5 and Qb6 are much needed!
  • The d-file is semi-open for black, which gives us a pressure point and rook activity.
  • The c5 advance (and sometimes e5) should be a part of your middlegame strategy in order to neutralise white's remaining central pawn and dark square control.
  • The h5 pawn can sometimes be a real weakness, that you can easily target.
  • A queenside expansion is almost always perfectly valid.
  • Last but not least, I highly encourage you to study Caro-Kann games for inspiration. For example, look into the games of Vassily Ivanchuk, Jovanka Houska, Yasser Seirawan or Aleksandra Goryachkina, who've produced many instructive Caro-Kann games.
  • Thank you so much for this extensive and detailed explanation of what's going on. I just began to look more into caro kann and this helped a lot! I was also recommended to look into Karpovs games of caro kann.
    – d4zed
    Jan 15 '20 at 10:51
  • @d4zed Glad you found it to be helpful! Oh definitely, Karpov's games are truly the classics and a must study! The ones I recommended will give you a more diversified set of positional approaches to playing the Caro-Kann, and all of them have made a strong impression on me.
    – Ellie
    Jan 15 '20 at 11:10

The main reasons it is OK for black is that he is still down only one tempo in piece development, but he has traded off his bad bishop for white's good bishop, and his position is still very solid so he will catch up in development eventually. The downside is that white has more space. Black can eventually fight back with c5 after finishing his development, which is the key to the opening from black's perspective.

I have played the Caro for decades, and it is very solid, but you have to be very patient, and well-prepared, or it is easy to get rolled over due to white's space.

Here are a few examples from the highest level. The first, is black successfully hitting back with c5, breaking up the white center. The second and third are Kasparov showing how white can successfully use the kingside pawns (I am posting these primarily to show that my comment below about h5 not really being weak is accurate).

 [Event "Corsica Masters 5th"]
 [Site "Bastia"]
 [Date "2001.10.30"]
 [Round "2.2"]
 [White "Leko, Peter"]
 [Black "Anand, Viswanathan"]
 [Result "1/2-1/2"]
 [ECO "B19"]
 [WhiteElo "2739"]
 [BlackElo "2770"]
 [FEN ""]

 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bf4 Bb4+ 12. c3 Be7 13. O-O-O Ngf6 14. Kb1 O-O 15. Ne5 c5! {breaking up white's center} 16. Ne4 cxd4 17. Qxd4 Nb6 18. Nxf6+ Bxf6 19. Qe4 Qe7 20. Ng4 Rfd8 21. Nxf6+ Qxf6 22. Be3 Rxd1+ 23. Rxd1 Nd5 24. Bd4 Qf4 25. Qxf4 Nxf4 26. g4 b5 27. Kc2 Nd5 28. Kb3 a6 29. a4 f6 30. Ra1 Rb8 31. axb5 axb5 32. Ra7 e5 33. Rd7 exd4 34. Rxd5 dxc3 35. bxc3 g6 36. hxg6 Kg7 37. Kb4 Kxg6 38. Rxb5 Re8 39. c4 Re4 40. f3 Rf4 41. Rd5 Kf7 42. Rd3 f5 43. gxf5 h5 44. Kb5 h4 45. c5 Rxf5 46. f4 Rh5 47. Rh3 Ke6 48. Kb6 Rh6 49. c6 Kd5 50. Rd3+ Ke4 51. Rh3 Kxf4 52. Kb7 1/2-1/2

The next game shows the structure I mentioned in the comment below. Kasparov did not actually break through on the kingside, but he used the cramping threats on the kingside to eventually attack the queenside! Anand might have been able to draw in a couple of places, but that is no easy feat against the great Kasparov. A beautiful rook ending by Kasparov.

 [Event "Linares 20th"]
 [Site "Linares"]
 [Date "2003.03.01"]
 [Round "7"]
 [White "Kasparov, Garry"]
 [Black "Anand, Viswanathan"]
 [Result "1-0"]
 [ECO "B19"]
 [WhiteElo "2847"]
 [BlackElo "2753"]
 [FEN ""]

 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 Ngf6 11. Bf4 e6 12. O-O-O Be7 13. Kb1 O-O 14. Ne4 Nxe4 15. Qxe4 Nf6 16. Qe2 Qd5 17. Ne5 Qe4 18. Qxe4 Nxe4 19. Rhe1 Nf6 20. g4 Rfd8 21. Be3 Bd6 22. f3 Rac8 23. c4 a5 24. a4 Nd7 25. Bd2 Bc7 26. Bc3 Nxe5 27. dxe5 c5 28. Kc2 Rxd1 29. Kxd1 Rd8+ 30. Ke2 Rd7 31. f4 Bd8 32. f5 Bg5 33. f6 b6 34. Ra1 Rd8 35. Ra3 gxf6 36. Rb3 Bf4 37. Rxb6 Bxe5 38. Bxe5 fxe5 39. Rb5 Rd4 40. Rxc5 Rxg4 41. b3 Rg3 42. Rxe5 Rxb3 43. Rxa5 f5 44. Ra8+ Kg7 45. c5 Rc3 46. Rc8 Ra3 47. c6 Rxa4 48. Re8 Rc4 49. Rxe6 f4 50. Rg6+ Kh7 51. Kd3 Rc5 52. Kd4 Rc1 53. Ke4 Rc4+ 54. Kd5 Rc3 55. Kd4 Rc1 56. Ke4 Rc4+ 57. Kf3 Kh8 58. Rxh6+ Kg7 59. Rd6 Kh7 60. Kg4 Kg7 61. Rd7+ Kf6 62. c7 1-0

Lastly, here is a game that made an big impression on me when I first read Kasparov's notes to in in his book, "The Test of Time". How he used the kingside pawns was amazing, and his final move shows how dangerous they are. I will use a few of Kasparov's own annotations for the demonstrative points about the pawn play.

 [Event "EU Team-ch07 Final"]
 [Site "Skara"]
 [Date "1980.01.26"]
 [Round "7.8"]
 [White "Kasparov, Garry"]
 [Black "Vukic, Milan"]
 [Result "1-0"]
 [ECO "B19"]
 [WhiteElo "2595"]
 [BlackElo "2460"]
 [FEN ""]

 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Qc7 12. O-O-O Ngf6 13. Ne4 O-O-O 14. g3 Nxe4 15. Qxe4 Be7 16. Kb1 Rhe8 17. Qe2 Bd6 18. Rhe1 Re7 19. c4 c5 20. Bc3 Nf6 21. Ne5 cxd4 22. Rxd4 Bxe5 23. Rxd8+ Qxd8 24. Bxe5 Rd7 25. Bc3 Qb6 26. g4 Qd6 27. f3 a6 28. a4 Qd3+ 29. Kc1 Kc7 30. Qxd3 Rxd3 31. Rf1 Kc6 32. Kc2 Rd7 33. a5! {+- "the ending, in my opinion, is lost for Black - he is markedly cramped, and the balance of forces remaining on the board is the ideal one for White." - Kasparov} Ne8 34. Re1 Rd6 35. f4 Nf6? {"One can understand Vukic aiming to prevent g4-g5, after which the sacrifice at g7 becomes a possibility in various lines, e .g. 35...Kd7 3 6 g5 Rc6 37 Rdl + Kc8 38 BXg7! But, engaged in a difficult defence, the Yugoslav grandmaster forgot for an instant about the defects of his pawn structure and the unfortunate position of his rook at d6. The retribution followed immediately."} 36. Bxf6 gxf6 37. Rd1 {"Black resigns, since in the pawn ending White creates passed pawns on both flanks."} (37. Rd1 Rxd1 38. Kxd1 Kc5 39. g5 fxg5 40. fxg5 hxg5 41. h6 {wins}) 1-0

This final position, and the ability to create a passed pawn on the king side, combined with the pawn move f6 in the second game to do the same (after gf ef and later g5) is why this structure is very strong for white.


solidity (c6+e6 pawn structure is hard to break down)

h5 pawn can be weak in endgame.

White can have king safety issues if black castles kingside and plays b5 (black has king safety issues too there :) )

  • 1
    Actually, the structure that white usually aims for is e5 (after a common trade of knights on e5), f4 g4 and h5, and it is known to be strong in the endgame. In practice, among decent players, I do not recall black ever being able to get at h5. Jan 15 '20 at 10:05
  • h5 fixes black pawns on the dark-squares, the colors of remaining bishops, this favors white. Another way to look at it, is if pushing the h-pawns didn't favor white, they could've just played Bd3 without the h-pawn push and exchange the bishops that way.
    – Akavall
    Jan 15 '20 at 19:38
  • 1
    I'm well aware this is one of white's big ideas and if white gets in g4 + f4 (or sometimes even f3) he is usually better. I did not say that the h5 pawn was weak, I said it "can" be weak and I have seen this happen plenty of times. An example that took me 2 minutes to find in database : lichess.org/T1bpQjBy
    – Hamish
    Jan 16 '20 at 11:45
  • also your first game @PhishMaster arguably shows that h5 "can" be a liability. Why did white play g4 - to weaken the f4 square for fun? White is still better there of course and this is hardly the biggest feature of this position.
    – Hamish
    Jan 16 '20 at 11:52

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