Grand Prix with Na3!?

By Michael Goeller

I have been playing the Left Hook Grand Prix with a3 (that is pawn to a3), and I know that fellow expert Matt Pullin has tried it on occasion himself, since he says as much in a couple of videos he posted online a while back. So I was very intrigued when I saw a game where he played Knight to a3 in the Grand Prix to win a pretty miniature that helped him take first in his section at the recent 1st North American Amateur Closed Championship. This is a great example of amateur opening innovation and deserves some attention.

Matt Pullin (2034) - Brian Villarreal (1805) [B23]

1st North American Amateur Closed /Skokie, IL USA (8) 2010

1. e4 c5 2. f4

The line in this game seems inspired by Zvjagintsev's 2. Na3 which can lead to Grand Prix type of set-ups, for example: 2... Nc6 3. Bb5 g6 (3... Qc7 was Khalifman's interesting choice against Zvjagintsev, to discourage f4 while protecting c6 with apiece) 4. f4!? (White can also prevent Nd4, blunt the Black Bishop, and make room for the Knight with 4. c3 Bg7 5. d3 Nf6 6. f4 O-O 7. Nf3 as in Zvjagintsev - Ponomariov, Sochi 2006, which seems like a good set-up) 4... Bg7 5. Bxc6 bxc6 6. Nf3 Ba6?! (6... d5! was Motylev's better idea vs. Zvjagintsev) 7. d3 Rb8 8. Rb1 Nf6 9. O-O O-O 10. c4! d6 11. Qe1 Nd7 12. b3 e5 13. f5! (13. fxe5 Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Bxe5) 13... gxf5 14. exf5 Qf6? and now in 1-0 Popelyshev, I-Trofimov,V/St. Petersburg, RUS 2010 (28) White should have played 15. Bg5! Qxf5 16. Be7.


2... g6

This move and 2...Nc6 seem to be Black's most popular responses to 2.f4, even though theory prefers a quick d5 advance:

a) 2... d5 is the Tal Gambit and is widely considered Black's best. White can get a decent game with Mark Hebden's 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 typically followed by Nf3, g3, Bg2, b3, and Bb2. There are alternatives, of course, and I'm curious what Pullin would play (I was not able to find any of his games with the line).

b) 2... e6 (a French set-up) 3. Nf3 d5 4. e5! leads to the Labourdonnais - McDonnell Attack against the French, which has been analyzed at the Kenilworth site. It is thematically similar to the 2.Na3 line, so it is not surprising that it has been played by Zvjagintsev himself. Pullin played this line in three games during the tournament with good results (that should have been even better).


3. Nf3 Bg7 4. Na3!?

Zvjagintsev's idea via a Grand Prix move order. I found a few games from the Russian expert player Igor Popelyshev with this line in the database (via 2.Na3), but I think Pullin deserves more credit for this fascinating move order. The Knight is more flexibly deployed here than at c3 because it leaves open the possibility of a pawn advance to c3 to keep control of the important d4 square. Meanwhile, as Zvjagintsev showed, the Knight has a flexible future (not a grim one), redeploying to c4, c2, or even b5 depending on how Black responds.


4. Nc3 Nc6 5. a3!? is my favorite Left Hook Grand Prix, which Pullin commented on in two videos at his Green Castle Knight channel at YouTube. And White also plays 5.Bc4 or 5.Bb5 of course.


4... Nc6

Probably what 9 out of 10 amateur players would do, but Black probably has better:


a) 4... Nf6 5. e5 Nd5 6. d4 cxd4 7. Nxd4 (7. Qxd4! Nc7 8. Be3 Nc6 9. Qd2) 7... Nc7 8. c3 (8. Nc4!?) 8... Nc6 9. Nac2 O-O 10. Bd3 d6= 1/2-1/2 Popelyshev,I-Gulkov,I/Dubna RUS 2007 (10).


b) 4... d5 5. exd5 (5. e5!?) 5... Nf6 6. Bb5+


I'm interested to see what alternatives develop in this line if it becomes more popular.


5. Bb5 Nd4

a) 5... Nf6 6. Bxc6 bxc6 7. d3 O-O 8. O-O d6 9. Qe1 Rb8 10. Qh4 Qd7!? (with the idea of Qg4) 11. f5?! (White is better after instead 11. e5! Nd5 12. f5! Qxf5? 13. Ng5) 11... gxf5 12. Ng5 (12. e5!?) 12... h6 13. Rxf5!? hxg5 14. Bxg5 Nh7 15. Raf1 f6?! (15... Nxg5 16. Rxg5 f6! 17. Rxg7+!? Kxg7 18. Rf3 e5 19. Qh5 Rf7) 16. Bc1 Qe8 17. Rh5 Qg6 18. Nc4 Be6 19. Ne3 Bf7 20. g4 e6? 21. Nf5! exf5 22. exf5 Qxh5 23. gxh5 Rfd8 24. b3 d5 25. h6 Bf8 26. c4?! (26. Qg3+ Kh8 27. Qc7) 26... Kh8 27. Bf4 Rb7 28. Kf2 a5 29. Rg1 dxc4 30. dxc4 a4 31. Qh3 axb3 32. axb3 Rd4 33. Qf3 Ra7 34. Be3 Ra2+ 35. Ke1 Rd3 36. Rg3 Rxb3 37. Qe4 Bh5 38. Bd2 Ra1+ 39. Kf2 Rb2 40. Rd3 Raa2 41. Ke1 Bxh6 42. Rd8+ Nf8 43. Qe7 Bxd2+ 44. Rxd2 Rb1+ 0-1 Popelyshev,I-Arakelov,I/Dubna RUS 2007 (44).


b) 5... d5!? might still be worth a try.


Interestingly, White could now play 6.O-O!? inviting transposition to known lines in the regular Grand Prix (arising via 4.Nc3 Nc6 5.Bb5 Nd4 6.O-O etc.), but because of the fortunate placement of his Knight at a3 he has even better.


6. Nxd4! cxd4 7. O-O

Unlike the main lines of the Grand Prix, White does not have a Knight at c3 that would now have to move, and so the Bishop at b5 is nicely protected, making castling possible. White is rapidly getting ahead in development and has great prospects for a kingside attack with f5.


7... e6 8. c4!

Another advantage of Na3 over Nc3: White occupies critical central squares and threatens to turn Black's doubled pawns into a permanent weakness. The tactically minded 8. Nc4?! Qc7 9. e5 Bf8! seems to leave White as awkwardly placed than Black.


8... dxc3?!

Exchanging pawns greatly benefits White, especially by opening up the d-file. But not exchanging leaves White with lots of central turf.

a) The c4 advance also took away a good square in the center for Black's Knight: 8... Nf6? 9. e5 Ne4?! 10. Qf3 Nc5 11. b4

b) 8... a6 9. Ba4 Ne7 10. d3 O-O 11. c5!?


9. dxc3 Ne7 10. Be3!

I'm still eyeing 10. Nc4 O-O 11. Nd6 but Pullin's move is definitely stronger, especially considering what follows.


10... a6?!

Moving another pawn not only creates another weak dark square at b6 but also leaves Black dangerously behind in development. White's next exploits both these facts.


11. Qd6!

Also dangerous for Black seems 11. Nc4!? axb5 (11... O-O 12. Bb6 Qe8 13. Nd6) 12. Bb6 bxc4 13. Bxd8 Kxd8 14. Qd6.


11... axb5?

After this, White gets all of his pieces into the attack while Black's forces sit idly by. Of course, 11... Nc6 12. Bxc6 dxc6 13. Nc4 is also ugly but might be more survivable.


12. Nxb5 Ra6

Not 12... O-O? 13. Bb6 Nf5 (13... Qe8? 14. Nc7) 14. exf5


13. Nc7+ Kf8 14. Nxa6 bxa6 15. Bb6

15. f5! immediately looks even stronger.


15... Qe8 16. f5! gxf5 17. exf5 exf5?

17... f6 18. Rae1 Kf7 puts up more resistance, but Black's King looks very insecure.


18. Rae1! Bb7


19. Rxe7! Qxe7 20. Qb8+

and mate follows by force. A satisfying late-round victory for Pullin which helped him to take his section of the tournament. Add this to your list of surprising ways of playing the Grand Prix Attack. I might be giving it a try myself.



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Copyright © 2010 by Michael Goeller