This exercise was taken from Jeremy Silman’s Reassess Your Chess Workbook. The proposal provided is of my own without the help of external assistance; after producing it, I look at Silman’s solution and compare each.
As usual, going through the seven imbalances breaks down a position and leads to a logical decision based on a plan. In the opening, it can actually clear a lot of ambiguities up: eliminating moves that appear to ‘develop’ a piece by bringing it from the first rank, when in actuality they’re in a surprisingly worse position.
The most important thing you can do is not look at the candidate moves first. This is the last step of the thinking process. I did not even consider the incorrectness of 4. Nc3, 4. c4, or 4. Bd3 until I elaborated the following:
Superior minor piece: White’s dark bishop appears to be limited by the white pawn at d4. Similarly, so is black’s light bishop by black’s pawn at d5. White can trade his dark bishop with Bf4 expecting …e6, …Bd6. If …Nf6-h5, it can simply retract to the e3 square. Well-placed outposts exist for white at e5 and black at c4. It would help to keep a knight for such a cause.
Pawn structure: The pawns can be played at c3 and …e6 to support the central pawns at d4 and d5, respectively. This would keep the position closed; black would play for a minority attack on the c-pawn with b7-b5-b4, and white would do the same with f2-f4-f5. This plan would conform with the direction of those pawn chains. In case of an exchange of white’s d-pawn for black’s e-pawn, the white dark bishop can blockade the isolated d-pawn by controlling d4. White can also, similarly, place a knight there, perhaps maneuvering to c5 after …a6, …b5.
Space: Both sides have established central presence. Still, black has a kingside majority now whereas white has a queenside majority.
Material: White’s e-pawn has been exchanged for black’s c-pawn. Control of key files, ranks, diagonals: Black’s c-file has become open, but so has white’s e-file. This will support the minority attack for both sides. Black now has the option of Qb6 due to the availability of the a5-d8 diagonal, and white can try Bd3, Qh5 attacking h7. Black can also mount pressure on the c-pawn with …Qc7, …Bf5, Nc6-b4, and b7-b5-b4. White can do the same to black’s e-pawn with O-O-Re1, Nf3-g5, f2-f4-f5, and Qg5.
Development: White will achieve quicker development because of the two open diagonals for his bishops. The light bishop can be developed to d3, preventing …Bf5, …Nc6-b4. It will also support f2-f4-f5.
Initiative: Both sides will attempt to put their plan in action, but white can play Bd3 straight away preventing Bf5.
Now Silman presents us with the choice of three moves, one of which is clearly incorrect: Nc3, c4, or Bd3. We’ve discussed the use of the latter in detail – preventing Bf5, watching h7, and supporting f2-f4-f5 – so that is not an incorrect move.
Now, either Nc3 or c4 supports the plan or it does not. White is playing for the e6 square, and black is playing for c3. With c4, white attempts to eliminate the only outpost black has, so black will play e6. Still, this makes a minority attack for him impossible anymore because he won’t have a minority: both sides will have 3 pawns on the queenside, but white will still have a minority on the kingside. White also gets good development after 4… dxc4 5. Bxc4 Qc7 6. Qe2 Clearly, c4 supports the plan by nullifying black’s.
However, Nc3 does not support white’s minority attack or eliminates black’s. It also allows 4… Bf5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. Bd3 Qd7 7. O-O Bxd3 8. Qxd3 Nb5 9. Qd1 Qf5, and now white has lost the c-pawn.
Verdict: Nc3 is not a good move.
The move 4. c4 is known as the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, one of white’s best lines against the Caro-Kann because it puts pressure on d5. With 5. Nc3, d5 is put under even more tension.
With 4. Bd3, white places his bishop on an active square and stands by to support a kingside attack.
However, Nc3 is “simply bad.” White appears to develop without a plan, which is worse than no development at all (because the latter assumes you’re moving the pawns to gain space, for example). White blocks his c-pawn, which rewards d5 easily to black. The knight also doesn’t have a clear destination, and less now that’s it’s on c3. The square b5 is not a possible destination because …a6 is always possible.
Bear in mind there’s many ways to accomplish the same plan, such as 4. Bd3 or 4. c4 in the above exercise. If a move brings you one step closer to accomplishing your plan, it is not an incorrect move. There may be many moves, but there is only one plan. Plans may change once a larger weakness has been discovered on the enemy’s end.
Lastly, a move that doesn’t support the manifestation of your plan – i.e., an incorrect move – is worse than moving the same pawn twice, such as e2-e3, e3-e4. You may have to move the incorrectly positioned piece back to the original position, so you’ve wasted not one but two moves.