Game Spotlight: Critical Variations

As we’ve seen, there’s a way to organize to best learn a new opening.  First, start off with the most fundamental variation, and get used to the middlegame ideas involved, while respecting the ideas your opponent has.  (If you’re going to bail on the opening, it would be after getting enough practice here that you can be sure the opening is not for you.)  The question now is, what next?

It depends on the opening.  As we’ve been looking at the King’s Indian Defence, it provides a good illustration of an important type of variation to study fairly early on.  These “critical variations” contain some important idea, without which you can’t understand the opening.  In our example, that would be the Exchange Variation:

A good way to tell you’re looking at one of these is if you can ask the question, “Why doesn’t this player just do…?”  (“Why doesn’t White just take my e-pawn?”)  Among the reasons to study this kind of thing, these kinds of variations tend to get played by less experienced players — they don’t know not to go down that road.  So if it’s not simply a blunder, you need to know how to play the variation.

As it happens, the Exchange Variation is useful to study for another reason.  There are variations of the King’s Indian Defence where White does trade pawns like this, and is correct to do so.  Understanding why this is a good strategy in other variations and not here comes down to the Queens.  White wants to fight for control of the open d-file, as well as control of the a6-f1 and a7-g1 diagonals, particularly the c5 and d6 squares.  Since some of these ideas involve files and some involve diagonals, the Queen is key to holding everything together (it’s the only piece that can do both).  With Queens off, White runs into trouble:

Note that while this variation gets slightly better results for Black, it’s usually considered drawish.  All the more reason to know it well — there are times when it’s useful for the White player to play for a draw.  If you’re Black, you probably don’t want to let them succeed.

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