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The Openings Explained

Abby Marshall


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Dangerous Weapons: The Nimzo-Indian

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The Classical Nimzo-Indian Defense [E38]

This month we examine a variation from the Classical Nimzo-Indian Defense, 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 c5 5.dxc5 Na6, for Olivier Mathieu of France, who after a thirty year absence from chess wants to know whether it is still playable. He writes,

"Indeed, after 6.a3 Bxc3 7.Qxc3 Nxc5 8.b4 Nce4 9.Qb2 Black's position looks difficult. Is there any hope with 9...Nd6 or should I forget the 5...Na6 move?"

I am grateful for the request because the variation leads to very interesting positions with plenty of tactics.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4

The Nimzo-Indian Defense, named after the great Aron Nimzowitsch, is extremely popular. The immediate 4.e4 is not possible and throughout this system Black will try to prevent White from getting a big pawn center.


The Classical Variation.

4.e3 is the main alternative and is called the Rubinstein Variation: 4...0-0 5.Nf3 d5 6.Bd3 c5 7.0-0 Nc6 8.a3 Bxc3 9.bxc3 is the basic starting position.

4.a3 and 4.f3 are also played.


Black has a few choices here. 4...d5, 4...0-0, and 4...Nc6 are other possibilities.


5.e3 can transpose to the main 4.e3 line.

Choosing not to defend d4 with a pawn gives Black good play. 5.Nf3 cxd4 6.Nxd4 Nc6 7.e3 and Black can either castle or play 7...d5 with a good game.


The Openings Explained
[FEN "r1bqk2r/pp1p1ppp/n3pn2/2P5/1bP5/
2N5/PPQ1PPPP/R1B1KBNR w KQkq - 0 6"]

This is the line in question and it is definitely playable. Since Black plans on recapturing on c5 with the knight, this almost certainly means that Black will cede the bishop-pair with ...Bxc3.

5...Bxc5 is more usual. 6.Nf3 Qb6 7.e3 Qc7 The point of 6...Qb6 was to provoke 7.e3, which blocks the c1-bishop. 8.b3 b6 In this line Black continues with the plan to fianchetto the light-squared bishop.

5...0-0 6.a3 Bxc5 7.Nf3 b6.


This is the most forcing and critical move.

6.g3 It seems that the bishop will be strong on g2, but leaving the e-pawn on e2 makes the e-file attractive to Black. 6...Nxc5 7.Bg2 0-0 8.Bd2 d5 Black has no problems. 9.cxd5 exd5 10.Nxd5 White gets an extra pawn, but Black has plenty of compensation in the form of active pieces and open files. 10...Nxd5 11.Bxb4 Nxb4 12.Qxc5 Qb6 Trading queens increases Black initiative since now ...Nc2 is a threat. 13.Qxb6 axb6 14.Be4 (14.0-0-0 Rxa2) 14...Re8 15.Bb1 Be6 16.Nf3 Bd5 17.Kf1 Rac8 18.e4 Bxe4 19.Bxe4 Rxe4 20.Rd1 Nxa2 21.Rd7 h6 22.Nd4 Rc4 Black eventually won this game in Arencibia Rodriguez,W (2521)-Nyysti,S (2410),Bled 2002.

6.Nf3 The knight actually ends up a target here. 6...Nxc5 7.e3 b6 When the bishop comes to b7, the white light-squared bishop has to stay on e2 defending the knight.


Black loses no time and the white queen will be a target on c3.


The Openings Explained
[FEN "r1bqk2r/pp1p1ppp/n3pn2/2P5/2P5/
P1Q5/1P2PPPP/R1B1KBNR b KQkq - 0 7"]

Taking back with the pawn is just bad. The c-file is already going to be painful for White, because the c4-pawn is a target on the half-open file.


If Black castles here, then 8.b4 and there is no transposition to the main 5...0-0 line.


8.f3 takes away the e4-square from the black knights. 8...d5 Black cannot play 8...b6 now since 9.b4 would kick the knight to an awkward spot. (8...a5 is more popular, but less straightforward to play. 9.e4 b6 10.Be3 Qc7 Black is probably okay here, but I favor the open after 8...d5.) 9.cxd5 b6!? White cannot accept the sacrifice.

The Openings Explained
[FEN "r1bqk2r/p4ppp/1p2pn2/2nP4/8/
P1Q2P2/1P2P1PP/R1B1KBNR w KQkq - 0 10"]

A) 10.Bg5 exd5 11.Rd1 0-0 12.Bxf6 gxf6 13.b4 (13.Nh3 is much stronger. Black has to prevent 14.Nf4-h5. 13...Ne6 14.Qc6 Ba6 15.Rxd5 Rc8 Black has enough for the pawn. 16.Rxd8 Rxc6 17.Rd1 Rc2) 13...Ne6 14.Qc6 Bd7 15.Qd6 White takes a lot of trouble to get the queen to the kingside. 15...Ba4 16.Qg3+ Kh8 17.Rd3? With the kingside sleeping, it is White's own king that is in trouble. 17...Rc8 18.Nh3 Rc4 19.f4 a5 20.Qf3 axb4 21.axb4 Qe7 22.Qxd5 Qxb4+ 23.Kf2 Nc5 24.Re3 Ne4+ 25.Kg1 Qb1 26.g3 Rc1 27.Rf3 Bc6 28.Qf5 Qa1 0-1, Lamprecht,F (2410)-Lugovoi,A (2520),Hamburg 1997.

B) 10.dxe6? Bxe6 11.e4 Rc8 As we have seen, active pieces and open files are worth a pawn.

C) 10.b4 Na4

The Openings Explained
[FEN "r1bqk2r/p4ppp/1p2pn2/3P4/nP6/
P1Q2P2/4P1PP/R1B1KBNR w KQkq - 0 11"]

C1) 11.Qc2 b5 12.e4 a6 13.dxe6 Bxe6 14.Qc6+ This is the option 11.Qc2 provides. 14...Nd7!? (14...Bd7 is safer. 15.Qd6 Be6 White can repeat for the draw or trade queens and Black's activity is good compensation.) 15.Bg5 Qxg5 leads to wild play. 16.Qxa8+ Ke7 17.Qxh8 If White accepts the double rook sacrifice, Black gets a good game. (17.Qa7, stopping the check on e3, is stronger. The situation is still very dangerous for White. 17...Rc8 18.Ne2 Nb2 19.Kf2 Qd2 Otherwise White can play 20.f4 shutting out the black queen. 20.Kg1 Rc2 21.Qd4 Nd3 22.h4 N7e5 I feel very good as Black now. Black can even retreat the rook to c6-d6.) 17...Qe3+ 18.Be2 (18.Ne2 Nb2 19.Rd1 is the better choice for White.) 18...Qc3+ 19.Kf2 Qd4+ 20.Kf1 Qxa1+ 21.Kf2 Qd4+ 22.Kf1 h6 Black gets a strong attack after ...Nc3 and won this game many moves later. 0-1, Nikolov,M (2550)-Ivanisevic,I (2645),Plovdiv 2012.

C2) 11.Qb3 b5 12.e4 a6 13.Bd3 0-0 14.Ne2 exd5 15.e5 Nd7 16.f4 Qh4+ 17.Ng3 Ndb6 The knights can regroup after ...Nc4 and ...Nab6.


Black gains tempo on the white queen.


9.Qd4 looks like the strongest for White. 9...d5

The Openings Explained
[FEN "r1bqk2r/pp3ppp/4pn2/3p4/1PPQn3/
P7/4PPPP/R1B1KBNR w KQkq - 0 10"]

A) 10.cxd5 exd5 Black has a strong knight in the center and enough pieces are on the board to make the isolated pawn strong. 11.Bb2 0-0 12.e3 a5 I do not like the exchanges this initiates. (12...Nd6 13.Nf3 Bf5 I like this plan for Black. The bishop usually goes to e4 and the rooks go to the e- and d-files.) 13.Bd3 axb4 14.axb4 Rxa1+ We look at what happens in the first illustrative game.

B) 10.c5 h6 I like this the best. (10...b6 has been played a few times. 11.f3 bxc5 12.bxc5 0-0 13.fxe4 0 Nxe4 The plan is ...f6 and ...e5 taking over the center. I have trouble believing this.) 11.f3 Ng5 12.h4 (12.Bf4 0-0 13.e3 Re8 14.Bd3 Nd7 It is obvious Black is under some pressure. 15.Bd6 e5 16.Qxd5 e4 17.fxe4 a5!? With well-timed pawn breaks that accent the power of the knights and blockade the bishops, Black is okay.) 12...Ngh7 13.Bf4 0-0 14.Rd1 Bd7 15.e3 Re8 16.Be5 Nf8 17.g4 (17.Ne2 Even if White had a kingside attack, development is nearly always better.) 17...Ng6 18.Bd6 e5 19.Qb2 d4 Now of course Black has everything and is a little better.

9.Qd3? d5 Black is already better. Leaving open the a1-dark squared diagonal is a big mistake as we will see in this silly game. 10.cxd5 Nxf2 11.Kxf2 Ng4+ 12.Kg3 Qf6

The Openings Explained
[FEN "r1b1k2r/pp3ppp/4pq2/3P4/1P4n1/
P2Q2K1/4P1PP/R1B2BNR w kq - 0 13"]

13.Nf3 (13.Rb1 Qf2+ 14.Kxg4 h5+ 15.Kh3 exd5+ 16.g4 hxg4#) 13...Qxa1 14.Bd2 Nf6 15.e4 exd5 16.exd5 0-0 17.Bc3 Qxc3 0-1, Thomas,G-Winter,W,London 1927.


The Openings Explained
[FEN "r1bqk2r/pp1p1ppp/3npn2/8/1PP5/
P7/1Q2PPPP/R1B1KBNR w KQkq - 0 10"]

9...d5 is more reliable. 10.c5 (10.cxd5 exd5 Like in the previous variation, the isolated pawn is strong here.) 10...h6 11.f3 Ng5 12.Bf4 Nh5 13.Bd6 f5 Black has a fine game.


10.c5 is strongest. 10...Nf5 11.g4 Nxg4 12.e4 Ne7 The piece sacrifice 12...0-0 has also been tried, but I do not believe it. 13.Qxg7 Rg8 14.Qc3 While definitely playable for both sides, I am worried that White's bishop-pair will become very strong. As long as Black keeps the king safe, Black will be okay.

10.Qb3 b6 If White just hangs back, then Black should fianchetto this bishop.

10...b6 11.Qe5 Qe7

We will pick this up in the second illustrative game. Black has different options at several points in this variation, which is a sign that it is open to a lot of innovation!

Volzhin, Alexander (2510) – Nekrasov, Vladimir
Zepter op Minsk (3), 27.04.1998

This game shows that even when White catches up in development and puts pressure on Black, Black can still hold without much difficulty.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 c5 5.dxc5 Na6 6.a3 Bxc3+ 7.Qxc3 Nxc5 8.b4 Nce4 9.Qd4 d5 10.cxd5 exd5 11.Bb2 0-0 12.e3 a5 13.Bd3 axb4 14.axb4 Rxa1+

This is where we left off.


The Openings Explained
[FEN "2bq1rk1/1p3ppp/5n2/3p4/1P1Qn3/
3BP3/5PPP/B3K1NR b K - 0 15"]

The exchanges have made it harder for Black. Nonetheless, even in this less-than-ideal situation, Black has enough activity to keep it even.

15...Be6 16.Ne2

The knight is best here to pressure the pawn on d5.

16...Qe7 17.0-0 h6

17...Rc8 18.Nf4 Nd6 is better to target the c4-square and c-file.

18.Rd1 Ra8

The rook has no future here and ends up going to c8 in a few moves.


19.Nf4 I am more afraid of this move. Because of all the time Black spent 20.f3 and 21.e4 are going to be very strong and I cannot find a way for Black to defend.

19...Nd6 20.Bb2 Rc8

Now things are more equal for Black.


21.Ne2 White should reorganize his pieces to the best squares.


The Openings Explained
[FEN "2r2k2/1p2qpp1/3nbn1p/3pQ3/1P6/
2NBP3/1B3PPP/3R2K1 w - - 0 22"]

The threat was 22.Nxd5.


22.f3 Nc4 23.Bxc4 dxc4 24.Ne4 Qc7=.

22...Nc4 23.Bxc4 Rxc4

23...dxc4 is more ambitious. 24.Ra1 Qd7 25.f3 Qd3 Black is fully equal and has some chances, though it will likely be drawn.


The threat of 25.Ba3 and 25.Ra8+ force Black to regroup.

24...Qd8 25.h3 Kg8 26.Ra7 Qc8 27.Ra4 Rxa4 28.Nxa4 Qc4 29.Qb8+ Kh7 30.Bxf6 Qxa4 31.Bb2 Qxb5 ½-½

The Openings Explained
[FEN "1Q6/1p3ppk/4b2p/1q1p4/8/
4P2P/1B3PP1/6K1 w - - 0 32"]

White could have made it harder for Black, but by using the active knight and open c-file Black made an easy draw.

Matthiesen, Martin (2289) – Palo, Davor (2325)
DEN-chT 0102 Denmark (1.2), 04.11.2001


In contrast to last game, with some creative maneuvering Black makes everything go nearly perfectly.

1...Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 c5 5.dxc5 Na6 6.a3 Bxc3+ 7.Qxc3 Nxc5 8.b4 Nce4 9.Qb2 Nd6 10.e3 b6 11.Qe5 Qe7

Here we are.

12.Nf3 Bb7 13.Bb2 Rc8

The Openings Explained
[FEN "2r1k2r/pb1pqppp/1p1npn2/4Q3/
1PP5/P3PN2/1B3PPP/R3KB1R w KQk - 0 14"]

Both sides make sensible developing moves.


The point is not just to defend the c4-pawn, but also the e4-square.


A) 14...Nxc4 15.Bxc4 Bxf3 (15...Rxc4? 16.Qb8+) 16.gxf3 Rxc4 17.Rg1 is actually not so good for Black.

B) 14...Nde4 15.0-0 0-0 16.Qf4 d6 is alright for Black.


The Openings Explained
[FEN "2r1k2r/pb1pqppp/1p2pn2/4Qn2/
1PP5/P3P3/1B1N1PPP/R3KB1R w KQk - 0 15"]

Black maneuvers the knight to kick the active white queen.

14...0-0 15.Bd3 Now 15...Nf5 is impossible and White gets to play e4 at some point anyway.


White does not have to play this, but it gives Black the most problems.

15...Nh4 16.Qg5 Ng6 17.Qe3

This is not the best. Now Black gets the initiative.

17.e5 must be the move. 17...Ne4 18.Nxe4 Bxe4 19.Qg3 0-0 20.Rd1 Honestly, White seems a little better here because of the bishops and space advantage. Maybe Black should try castling at move thirteen and putting a knight on e4.

17...Ng4 18.Qg3 f5

This is a strong plan to gain a bit of space and utilize the bishop on b7 to attack the center along with the f-pawn.

19.Be2 0-0 20.0-0

20.Bxg4 fxg4 21.Qxg4 d5 Black easily gets back the pawn and has a lot of open files to use.


The Openings Explained
[FEN "2r2rk1/pb1pq1pp/1p2p1nn/5p2/
1PP1P3/P5Q1/1B1NBPPP/R4RK1 w - - 0 21"]

Black is better here because of the pressure on the center and White's inactive pieces on the second rank.


This makes Black's task easier.

21.e5 f4 22.Qb3 Nh4 or 23...Nf7 are very strong.

21...fxe4 22.Bxg6 hxg6 23.Qxg6?

This wastes two tempi.

23.Rae1 Nf5 24.Qxg6 d5 25.Be5 is more defensible.

23...Rf5 24.Qg3

24.h4 does not help. 24...Rf4.

24...Rg5 25.Qh3 Rg4 26.g3 Qg5 27.Rae1 Nf5

Black keeps things as simple as possible.

27...Qxd2 28.Bc1 Qd3 29.Bxh6 Qf3 and the c4-pawn will fall next.


28.f3 exf3 29.Nxf3 Bxf3 30.Rxf3 Rgxc4 is also pretty grim for White.

28...e3 29.f3

29.fxe3 Nxg3!.


This is not the best.

29...Nd4 wins right away. All the pawns start to fall. 30.Bxd4 Rxd4


The Openings Explained
[FEN "2r3k1/pb1p2p1/1p2p3/5nq1/1PPr1P2/
P3p1PQ/1B1NR2P/5RK1 b - - 0 30"]

At first this looks terrible because it gives the bishop on b7 more range, but it also opens space for White's pieces.


30...Qf6 31.Nf3 Bxf3 32.Rxf3 Rd1+ 33.Rf1 Rxf1+ 34.Qxf1 Qg6 Black is still obviously better, and probably winning, but White has alleviated the immediate pressure from the two black rooks.


31.fxg5 Rxe2 32.g6 Rg2+ 33.Qxg2 Bxg2 34.Kxg2 Rxc4 is winning.

31...Qe7 32.Rc2 Qd6 33.b5

33.g4 Qc6 is pretty hopeless.

33...Qd3 34.Rfc1 e2 35.Rc3 Qd4+ 0-1

Black used active pieces on both sides of the board, including the fianchettoed b7-bishop, to destroy the white king.

Lessons Learned

  • What I find especially interesting about this line is that despite letting White have the bishop-pair, and relying on the activity of the black knights, Black actually wants to keep the position open, which normally favors the bishops. Black plays ...d5 and sacrifices pawns to open files. The activity of the black pieces and vulnerability of White's queen make an open position desirable.
  • In many positions, Black ends up with an isolated pawn. If White can trade some of these active pieces, then White is a little better.
  • Each line requires a slightly different scheme of development depending on whether White plays aggressively with b4 or just develops. Black usually ends up developing the light-squared bishop to b7 and a rook to c8. The knight tries to stay on e4.


  • William Winter was a British player and one of the top players in the world in the early twentieth century. He wrote several chess books and favored classical strategic positions.
  • Vladimir Nekrasov is a strong master from Belarus.
  • Davir Palo is a grandmaster from Denmark, was the 2013 Danish champion, and the author of an Internet blog.

Further Reading

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The King's Indian Attack:
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