Not Too Shabby: Shabalov’s 7.g4!? anti-meran semi-slav


The Shabalov Attack is a line in the Meran-Semi Slav. Following the moves 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6 5 e3 Nbd7 6 Qc2 Bd6 7 g4!?, Black is faced with the difficult question of whether to accept the gambit. The g4 pawn thrust is a common attacking move in many Sicilian systems for white, however, the move isn’t seen as often in Queen’s pawn games. With 7 g4!?, white is threatening to boost Black’s knight from its comfortable home on f6 and steamroll on with an early kingside initiative. In his book The Meran System, Steffan Pederson offers four logical replies to the tactical gauntlet implicit in 7 g4:

1. 7…h6 (White wins 45.2% of 93 games, draws 23.7% and loses 31.2%)
2. 7…dxc4 (117 games. 36.8%, 35% and 28.2%)
3. 7…Nxg4 (80 games. 53.8%, 30% and 16.2%)
4. 7…Bb4 (83 games. 43.4%, 30.1% and 26.5%)

Pederson considers Nxg4 the critical reply.
7…Nxg4

After 7…Nxg4, 8 Rg1 f5 (suggested by Kasparov) Black is behind in development, though White’s uncoordinated pieces nearly compensate for this. A suggested line leading to equality following this move continues: 9 h3 Ngf6 10 Rxg7 Ne4 11 Bd2 Qf6 (here, Black can also try to exchange rooks with 11…Kf8, releasing some of the tension in the position—this move is more to my taste than the text move.) 12 Rg2 Nf8 13 0-0-0 Ng6 14 Be2 (consider 14 Kb1 Bd7 15 Ka1? a6? 16 cxd5 Nxc3 17 Bxc3 exd5 18 Bd3+-) Bd7 15 Rdg1 0-0-0 16 Be1 Kb8 17 Kb1 Ka8 18 Ka1 Qe7 with equal chances Soffer-Wells Budapest 1994. Here is a game collection in this variation:

7…h6

Perhaps the best way to answer the Shabolov attack is to follow what Shabalov himself does when faced with his own idea. In the following game, Shabalov reaches equality easily. 7…h6 8 Rg1 Qe7 9 h4 dxc4 10 e4 e5 11 g5 Nh5 12 Bxc4 exd4 13 Nxd4 Nb6 14 Be2 Nf4 15 Be3 h5 16 0-0-0 g6 17 Kb1 Bd7 = Nakamura-Shabalov Foxwoods 2007 0-1.

7…Bb4

The move 7…Bb4 is recommended by Pederson, and seems to be at once a fighting and positional response to the Shabalov. The Bishop develops to a logical square, where it pins the knight and raises the tension in the center to a fever-pitch. This gives Black enough counter play to parlay White’s kingside initiative. Personally, 7…h6 seems more natural, and I feel more comfortable in the positions that arise following that move. However, the adventurous may prefer the sophisticated 7…Bb4.

Here is a game collection in this variation: