Caruana Rattles Vachier-Lagrave with 3.h4!?, Joins Leaders

Caruana Rattles Vachier-Lagrave with 3.h4!?, Joins Leaders


GM Fabiano Caruana was the sole winner of round three at the Superbet Classic Romania 2023, demolishing GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with the radical 3.h4―tossing classical opening principles to the wind. He joins GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, GM Richard Rapport, and GM Wesley So in a four-way share of the lead. 

This round also featured another combative chapter in the clash between the recent world championship challengers, Nepomniachtchi and GM Ding Liren.

The first leg of the Grand Chess Tour continues with round four on Tuesday, May 9, starting at 5:00 a.m. Pacific/14:00 CEST.

See what happened

You can watch live games of the Superbet Chess Classic on our Events Page. The rounds start each day at 5:00 a.m. Pacific/14:00 CEST.

Nepomniachtchi vs. Ding

All eyes were on Nepomniachtchi vs. Ding, facing each other again so soon after their thrilling, hard-fought world championship match. Despite Ding’s recent success, Nepomniachtchi still has a slight lead in their classical head-to-head with six wins vs. five losses along with 16 draws.

Beyond his hopes for vengeance, Nepomniachtchi had another personal stake in the result: His live rating entering the game was 2797―inches away from joining Carlsen as the only other player in the world over 2800. Despite his setbacks, he’s made it clear that he will not give up on his aspiration to become the very best. 

In the Queen’s Gambit Declined (a surprising switch from Nepomniachtchi’s predominant choice of 1.e4 in Astana), the world champion played the unexpected 6…Bf5, originally prepared for their match. An early queen trade on f6 left Ding with doubled, isolated f-pawns. Nepomniachtchi pressed at the weak points of Ding’s position, but Ding responded resourcefully, balancing defense with creating counterplay. The game was a fascinating fight from start to finish that ended with king vs. king.

The indomitable Nepomniachtchi has a score to settle. Photo: Lennart Ootes

Firouzja vs. Rapport

GM Richard Rapport out-prepared GM Alireza Firouzja, neutralizing White’s advantage in the Petroff with ease with the rare 8…Bf5. 

Though Firouzja castled to the opposite side and advanced his h-pawn with aggressive intentions on the kingside, massive exchanges occurred when all the rooks were traded on the open e-file and Rapport’s queen ventured into White’s queenside. The players reached an even same-color bishop ending and soon drew.

After the game, Firouzja admitted that he was thrown off by his opponent’s vast repertoire: “He plays everything, so it’s impossible to prepare against him. It’s really amazing. I expected the French and of course, I expected the Sicilian… He surprised me with …Nc6 and …Bf5. I couldn’t remember my preparation. I just played some random stuff, and it didn’t work out.”

He plays everything, so it’s impossible to prepare against him. It’s really amazing.
-GM Alireza Firouzja 

Caruana vs. Vachier-Lagrave

Caruana and Vachier-Lagrave are two players that know each other well with a long history of classical games between them. Caruana has nearly double the victories at 9-5 with 25 draws.

Caruana opted for the enterprising 3.h4 vs. Vachier-Lagrave―propelling his flank pawn forward without any developed pieces. Commentator GM Yasser Seirawan viewed this approach with bewilderment:

“When I started playing chess, my opening move was h4 and Rh3 and a4 and Ra3. When my opponents started capturing my rooks, you know, I had to alter my strategy. 

Later, when I became a 1200 player, the h4 move was altogether frowned upon. You just couldn’t play h4.

I see this move today, and I go: ‘My goodness, that’s a beginner’s move. Why is it not a beginner’s move? Why is it suddenly incredibly popular?’”

Fortunately, games like these don’t mean that all other chess players must throw out everything they thought they knew about the game and begin surging their kingside pawns forward in the opening with confidence. 

My goodness, that’s a beginner’s move. Why is it not a beginner’s move?

-GM Yasser Seirawan

The very top players search outside of the box for fresh ideas because all of their opponents are so well-prepared for the standard developing moves and plans. Both sides have such a strong grasp of what it means to play “inside the box”―all the core principles and main plans in an opening―that they know where they can test out something unusual. 

This is the basis of creativity: building upon a strong foundation of understanding with a new idea. 

Caruana’s unconventional approach paid off. Incited by his opponent’s bold kingside advance, Vachier-Lagrave countered with a Benko-style pawn sacrifice on the queenside and then gave up the basis of his center, both his e- and d-pawns, to leap his knights into the heart of White’s position. The American grandmaster eagerly mopped up all the material, dodged his opponent’s venturing knights, and created an unconquerable center with pawns on d5 and e5, causing Vachier-Lagrave to wave the white flag on move 23. 

This dynamic battle of ideas is our Game of the Day, analyzed by GM Rafael Leitao.

In his post-game interview, Caruana shared: “Today I feel like I calculated well. To be fair, I think Maxime was playing far from his best today. He missed Bxe7, he said. This was a sign that he was really not in good form today. But I did what I had to do.”

Along with joining the tie for first, this victory moved Caruana up a spot in live rankings just ahead of fellow competitor, GM Anish Giri

Duda vs. Deac

In a Rossolimo Sicilian, GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda gained a clear edge vs. GM Bogdan-Daniel Deac. Supported by a clever tactical idea, Duda forced his opponent to take on an isolated d-pawn. Can you spot White’s response if Deac had avoided the isolated pawn by capturing on e4 with a pawn instead of his queen?

Through the middlegame into the ending, Duda pressed the frozen, isolated pawn with his more comfortably-placed pieces. Eventually, Deac gave up the pawn to activate his rook to the second rank. Making time control with an extra pawn, Duda saw the chance at victory on the horizon, and at that moment, on move 41, he made one inaccurate move that let his advantage slip away. With the passive 41.Ndc1 to defend his extra pawn on b3, White allowed the black rook to get behind the passer, stunting its potential. 

So vs. Giri

GM Wesley So vs. GM Anish Giri was a nuanced and balanced duel in the Berlin Defense that ended in a drawn opposite-color bishop ending after 56 moves. 

Results – Round 3


Nepomniachtchi 1/2 – 1/2 Ding
So 1/2 – 1/2 Giri
Firouzja 1/2 – 1/2 Rapport
Caruana 1 – 0 Vachier-Lagrave
Duda 1/2 – 1/2 Deac

Standings – Round 3

Exciting clashes are ahead in round four when all the leaders face off. Caruana will have the first-move advantage a second time in a row, this time vs. Nepomniachtchi. In addition, Rapport has a chance to let his creativity flow with the white pieces vs. So.

Though the two youngest competitors, Firouzja and Deac, have gotten off to a rough start, their upcoming matchup gives one the opportunity to right the ship while leaving the other even further lost at sea. 

Pairings – Round 4


Caruana Nepomniachtchi
Rapport So
Vachier-Lagrave Giri
Ding Duda
Deac Firouzja

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