Speaking of starting out, here's my first tournament game with the Caro-Kann, my sixth tournament game ever. In it I hold a Class B player to a draw, despite the 200 rating point difference. The opening variation is the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, which transposes by move 7 to a tabiya (common position across different openings) usually classified as a Semi-Tarrasch Defense (which is reached from 1. d4). Although Black doesn't play optimally, he is able to easily handle White's limited threats and then reach a drawn endgame.
It's been over twenty years since that game and I remain happy with using the Caro-Kann as my primary defense. I've found it to be rich in ideas that are understandable and usable by an amateur player, which was one of the primary considerations for my original selection of it to use in tournament play. I initially did quite poorly with tactics and instead fancied myself as a "positional player" (whatever that means). In any event, the semi-open nature of the defense helped limit my exposure to complicated tactics, while allowing me to focus on one or two key ideas at the board. This becomes a real advantage when the opponent does not properly identify or know how to respond to these ideas.
Over the years, I've found the defense to have enough depth in its position-types and ideas so that my handling of it has readily improved along with my own overall level of training and performance. In other words, I've been able to evolve my opening repertoire choices within the various sub-variations, as my understand of the opening has grown, especially in reference to key middlegame ideas and plans. My commentary on the ABC of the Caro-Kann mentions the main variations of the defense, for those interested.
I believe players should choose whatever openings interest them most, as long as they provide positive results for them, so have no real desire to convince others to play the Caro-Kann. However, I do feel a need to comment on some of the naysaying about the opening that occasionally can be grating. I've run across things like:
- It's not appropriate for Class players and will only retard your growth because of its lack of tactics.
- It's boring.
- Nobody interesting plays it.
For example, NM Dan Heisman has some excellent advice for Class players, but for some unknown reason goes out of his way to badmouth the Caro-Kann repeatedly. It appears to be allied to his general attitude towards opening study, which I've commented on elsewhere. While there's a certain logic to not choosing the Caro-Kann if you want to focus on being a tactician - pick the Sicilian for that - tactics are hardly eliminated from the board after playing 1...c6 and, as with most openings, it largely depends on White how tactical or quiet things get. One could make a similar argument about the Sicilian if White always played the Closed Sicilian or the 3. Bb5 variations.
As far as interesting vs. boring goes, it's a matter of taste. There are very few gambit continuations in the Caro-Kann - although one of the main answers to the Advance Variation involves a pawn sacrifice - so gambiteers should definitely go elsewhere. Otherwise, the variety and depth of the opening variations are comparable to any other main-line opening. It's true that players who are interested in different aspects of positional play (isolated queen pawn positions as in the above game, executing key pawn breaks, queenside minority attacks, etc.) will probably get more out of the opening than tactical specialists. Also, it's important to realize that the opening is solid rather than unbalancing, which means that a draw is a likelier result than with an unbalanced opening.
Finally, although it's not a major reason for choosing to play the opening, I've certainly enjoyed studying and playing over games from world champions who have employed it as Black: Capablanca, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrosian, Karpov, Kasparov, and Anand. I've also particularly enjoyed Kortchnoi's games with it and will close with one of my favorites, a game in the Classical Variation that features opposite-side castling and attacking play on both wings.