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Games from the 2006 Unification Match
Chess Opening Survey


Did all of the openings in the 2006 Kramnik - Topalov World Championship Unification Match look similar to you? If so, you are not alone. One reason for this is that the same initial move was used throughout the match. Another reason is that both players used the same openings as both White and Black.

Even experienced players who don't play a particular opening can have trouble distinguishing the differences between variations of that opening. This is true not only for the openings used in the unification match, but for all openings. Small differences in similar positions can mean big differences in the subsequent play. This is one reason why chess is such a difficult game to master.

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4. The same first move was used in all the games of the match, except the forfeited game 5, a total of 15 games.

It was the first World Chess Championship where all games started with 1.d4. The only preceding match where 1.e4 was never played was Petrosian - Botvinnik 1963, although 1.c4 was used by both players in about one-third of the games.

Of the 15 games in the 2006 match:

  • 12 games continued 1...d5 2.c4 c6

  • 3 games continued 1...Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3

1...d5 2.c4 c6

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6, the Slav Defense. The position was reached 12 times in the unification match.

The opening first saw extensive World Championship action in the 1929 Alekhine - Bogoljubow match, where it was used by both players. It was also used frequently by both players in the Alekhine - Euwe matches of 1935 and 1937.

Of the 12 games in the 2006 match that saw the Slav Defense:

  • 10 games continued 3.Nf3 Nf6.

  • 2 games continued 3.Nc3. In fact both of these games quickly transposed into the same variations seen after 3.Nf3. Game 2 continued 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3, while game 4 continued 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e3 e6 5.Nf3.

3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3. As we saw in the preceding step, the position after 3...Nf6 was seen in 10 games. The diagrammed position, with 4.Nc3, was seen in 6 games, while the continuation 4.e3 was seen in 5 games.

How is it possible that a position arises in 10 games, and after the next move we find 11 games? By the fact of transposition, an important weapon in the opening repertoire of all experienced players.

After 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6, the continuation 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 was played in 10 games. The continuation 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3, which is the same position, was played in a single game. Thus we have 11 games where the same position was reached after White's fourth move.

Of the 6 games in the match that saw the diagrammed position:

  • 3 games continued 4...e6.

  • 3 games continued 4...dxc4.

This split underscores an important choice in the strategy of this opening. The move 4...e6 limits the further development of Black's light squared Bishop on the c8-h3 diagonal, but continues the guard on the e4 square. The move 4...dxc4 leaves open the Bishop's development, but abandons the guard of e4.

4...e6 5.e3 Nbd7

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7. The position after 4...e6 was seen in three games, while the position after 5.e3 was seen in four. The reason for this is again transposition, just as we saw for an earlier position.

The move 4...e6 marks the opening as a Semi-Slav Variation, where the move ...dxc4 becomes a real threat. Of the 4 games in the match that saw the diagrammed position:

  • 3 games continued 6.Bd3.

  • 1 game continued 6.Qc2. This was the second tiebreak game (the 14th game of the match), which continued 6...Bd6 7.b3 O-O 8.Be2 b6 9.O-O Bb7 10.Bb2 Re8. Kramnik, playing White, won on the 45th move.

6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5. It was reached in three games, once by Topalov playing White and twice by Kramnik playing White.

The position after 6...dxc4 and the subsequent play is known as the Meran Variation. One of its first appearances was the game Capablanca - Bernstein, St.Petersburg 1914, where Capablanca failed to appreciate its strength.

Of the 3 games in the match that saw the Meran:

  • 2 games continued 8.Be2, both with Kramnik playing White.

  • 1 game continued 8.Bd3. This is considered the sharpest move in the position and was played in the fourth game by Topalov as White. The game continued 8...Bb7, when Topalov tried the less studied 9.a3. The game was drawn on the 54th move after a hard fight.

8.Be2 Bb7 9.O-O

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Be2 Bb7 9.O-O. The move 8.Be2 was played twice by Kramnik and is less tactical than 8.Bd3 as played in one game by Topalov.

The difference between the two eighth moves highlights the opposing playing styles of the two champions. Kramnik, known for a positional style, chose the quiet continuation. Topalov, known for a tactical style, chose the sharp continuation.

Of the 2 games in the match that saw the diagrammed position, one was won by White, the other by Black.

  • The game won by Black was game 8. Topalov continued 9...b4, and won after 52 moves.

  • Despite the loss, Kramnik was not afraid to repeat the variation and the position occurred again in the fourth tiebreak game. This time Topalov tried 9...Be7 10.e4, and only now 10...b4. Kramnik pressed hard and Topalov resigned on the 45th move, after a blunder that hastened the loss. The game was the last of the match. By wining it, Kramnik took game, match, and a unified World Championship title.

4...dxc4 5.a4 Bf5

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5. It occurred in three games, Topalov playing White in each game. One game was won by by Black, and the other two were drawn.

You might think that a score of +0-1=2 in the diagrammed position means that the variation is an outstanding success for Black. In fact it is often misleading to draw conclusions from statistical analyses of chess openings, especially when they are drawn from such small samples. In the game won by Black, Topalov missed a crushing move that would have ended the game immediately. The two draws also saw Kramnik under pressure as Black; his outstanding resourcefulness allowed him to escape witha draw in both games.

Of the 3 games in the match that saw the diagrammed position:

  • 1 game continued 6.Ne5. This move is not just an attempt to regain the c-Pawn with Ne5xc4. More importantly, it liberates the f3 square in preparation for f2-f3 and e2-e4. This is exactly how Topalov continued: 6...e6 7.f3 c5 8.e4 Bg6 9. Be3 cxd4, when the players exchanged Queens on d4. The game was drawn on the 31st move, making it the shortest game in the match.

  • 2 games continued 6.e3. Both games continued 6...e6 7.Bxc4 Bb4 8.O-O Nbd7 9.Qe2 Bg6 10.e4 O-O 11.Bd3 Bh5 12.e5 Nd5 13.Nxd5 cxd5 14.Qe3, when it was Kramnik who deviated. Game 2 continued 14...Bg6 15.Ng5 Re8, while game 13, the first tiebreak game, continued 14...Re8.


The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3, which was seen in five games. Topalov played White in four of those games. The outstanding characteristic of the move is that it prepares to recapture immediately on c4 with the Bishop.

Of those 5 games:

  • 4 games continued 4...Bf5, followed by 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nh4 Bg6. We'll look at those separately.

  • 1 game continued 4...e6. This was followed by 5.Bd3 dxc4 6.Bxc4 c5. Note that Black has not hesitated to move the c-Pawn a second time to challenge White's center and to prepare for the development of the Knight on c6. The game was drawn on the 60th move. Kramnik, playing Black, had an extra Pawn, but was unable to get his King off its back rank.

4...Bf5 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nh4 Bg6

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bf5 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nh4 Bg6, which was played in four games.

  • 3 games continued 7.Nxg6 hxg6. In game 9 Topalov played the unusual 8.a3, stopping ...Bb4 and preparing b2-b4 followed by c4-c5. Kramnik abandoned the center a few moves later with ...dxc4, found himself in trouble, and resigned on his 39th move. In his next game with White, game 11, Topalov repeated the opening, then played another unusual move, 8.Rb1, this time preparing c4-c5 to be followed by b2-b4. This time Kramnik allowed the c-Pawn to advance, played accurately, and it was Topalov who found himself in some trouble. The game was finally drawn on the 66th move.

    In the next game, game 12, the last of the games at standard time controls, Kramnik played the same opening with the White pieces. He played the more classical move 8.g3 and although the game became very sharp, it was drawn after 47 moves.

  • The last appearance of the diagrammed position was game 15, the third tiebreak game. This time Topalov played 7.Be2 and overpowered Kramnik for what would be the Bulgarian's only win in the tiebreak games.

1...Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3

Of the 15 games played in the match, only three started with an opening other than a Slav Defense. Those three started 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3, the Catalan System of the Queen's Gambit Declined, with Topalov playing Black. The same opening sometimes starts 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6.

  • The first game of the match continued 4...dxc4 5.Bg2, when Topalov played 5...Bb4+. He lost on the 75th move, but only after overpressing his position in a slightly advantageous game. Two games later he varied with 5...Nc6 and drew after 38 moves, although Kramnik looked somewhat better for much of the game. After having lost the first two games, it was Topalov first non-negative result.

  • Topalov then switched to the Slav until game 10, when, leading in the match for the first time, he returned to the Catalan. This time he played 4...Bb4+. Kramnik continued forcefully and gained an advantage. Under pressure, Topalov blundered on his 24th move and eventually resigned. The match was tied again.

 Related Resources (offsite)
  Suggested Reading:
• 2006 World Championship Unification Match
• Opening Tutorial : Slav Defense