The Benoni Defense was first mentioned – and got its name – from an 1825 manuscript by Aaron Reinganum, Ben-oni, or the Pawn-Sacrifice Defense in Chess. The word “benoni” means “son of sorrow” in Hebrew. According to the manuscript, the author suffered from depression and studied the opening beginning with the moves 1.d4 c5 2.d5 (the original Benoni) as a refuge from his sadness. This version of the origin of the opening, while romantic, is debated. It has also been claimed that the opening was originally named after a player named Benoni, who played the opening in the early nineteenth century. In any case, I have no way of knowing which story is the truth. But a mysterious beginning surely must be apt for such a mysterious opening.
The term “Benoni” encompasses many openings which all contain a pawn structure with a white pawn on d5 and a black pawn on c5. This pawn structure necessarily gives White a space advantage from the first few moves. Most of the older versions of the Benoni, such as 1.d4 c5 2.d5 f5?! (played in the ancient Staunton – St. Amant match of 1843!), and 1.d4 c5 2.d5 e5, are seen less often nowadays. The most common is the Modern Benoni, which involves the trade of the white c-pawn for the black e-pawn, reaching the following pawn structure:
The main elements of the pawn structure are the rival pawn majorities – White’s in the center, and Black’s on the queenside, and the backward d6 pawn. On the plus side for Black, the long a1-h8 diagonal will be an excellent diagonal for the dark-squared bishop, and the White e-pawn on an open file is also not immune from pressure. It can be solidly defended by playing f2-f3, but this leaves the e5 square as an excellent pivot point for the black pieces.
In general, the Modern Benoni pawn structure can be characterized as half-closed. The pawn structure is very rigid and often persists in the same form into the endgame. However, it is far from a blocked position – the games are characterized by rapid piece play, usually not long maneuvering struggles.
As far as I can tell, I first played the Benoni in a 1999 game against GM Walter Browne. Apparently I never played it when I was growing up. It is hard to believe that I had never played the Benoni in a tournament game at that point. Of course, at that time I had just left Alaska and had basically no tournament experience, so I was completely outclassed.
For years I have struggled with a question –what to play against 1.d4? I rarely considered the Benoni to be my main defense to 1.d4. Usually I alternated between trying to make the King’s Indian work and trying to find something more solid. Nevertheless, it somehow ended up that I played the Benoni the most. For some time I even played a twisted version of it with 1.d4 e6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 exd5 4.cxd5 d6, followed by later developing the Ng8 to e7.
There have been many proclamations by good players that the Benoni is somehow an inferior opening. There is some justification to this – Black takes on some positional problems right from the beginning. Nevertheless, he has his compensation. Chess is a rich game, and even at the top level playing a position that suits one’s style is more important than abstract theoretical correctness. Can you really assert that the Benoni is inferior to a Queen’s Gambit Declined, where Black can have trouble even managing to develop? In any case, a slightly inferior position of a kind that you know like the back of your hand is better than a slightly better – but foreign – position. Note that Azeri grandmaster Vugar Gashimov is consistently playing the Modern Benoni at the highest level, with success – despite the fact that his opponents have the chance to prepare thoroughly, with computers.
How do you learn an opening? It is trite – but true – to say that you should not focus so much on memorizing individual moves, but rather learning ideas and learning to solve the problems that develop from the opening. The Benoni is one of the sharpest openings there is, but its sharpness comes more from the unbalanced nature of the position, rather than some kind of forcing lines that arise from it. In fact, there are very few long forcing lines in the Benoni. However, the Benoni has a very stable pawn structure, and this pawn structure dictates a number of standard plans, which a player should learn.
How do you learn to “feel” the type of position that comes from the opening? First of all, experience is crucial. This includes both tournament games and blitz games. Blitz games can be very useful for developing the feel for an opening. You will begin to see what kind of things your opponents can throw at you. Naturally, it is best if you take some time to actually analyze your games.
Beyond this, studying games in the opening by its best practitioners is a way to develop a better understanding. The top practitioners of the Benoni include Mikhail Tal, Bobby Fischer, Vugar Gashimov, Veselin Topalov, Dragoljub Velimirovic, and Lev Psakhis. Playing through their games is good, but best of all is to devise a method to try to guess their moves. Take an annotated game – e.g. from the Chess Informant, or some other source – which was won by one or anther “Benoni Hero”. Try to pretend you are playing a real game, think for the Black side, and write down the move you would play. Then compare them to the move actually played, play White’s response, and repeat. When you get to the end of the game you can compare your thoughts to the annotations. You will find that it gets quite interesting to compare your moves to the notes, and you look forward to seeing the annotations with anticipation. Naturally this can be done with any opening, and should improve your chess in general, not just your understanding of that one opening.
I did that with the following beautiful and tough struggle between Psakhis and GM Spiridon Skembris, from the Olympiad, held in 1990 in Novi Sad (the city where I live!). So I will show you the game.
I really liked this varied, adventurous game. It contained several phases, each separated by explosive combinations. First White apparently had some positional pressure, but Psakhis' resourceful, cagey play (in particular, 18...Qe7) suceeded in muddying the waters. Then there was the combinational explosion with 21...Nxd5. White met Black's blows, and the position settled down to a fight between the black knights and white bishops for some time. Psakhis seemed to get the upper hand, and then came another combinational explosion, starting with 28...d5. After forcing play it became a battle between the black queen and white pieces. With accurate play Black was able to finally crash White's position.
I also like the fact that you can easily imagine seeing the moves up to - let's say - move sixteen in an opening book, with an evaluation of "advantage for White", or you could probably find some games with a weaker player as Black not finding any decent response to White's Nb1-d2-c4/b4 plan and losing a depressing game. After losing such a game you might conclude that 13...Qc7 is the culprit, or even that the whole Benoni is incorrect. But here we see that with imaginative play such as Psakhis displayed with 18...Qe7 and 20...Bd4, suddenly things don't look so depressing or cut-and-dry. Shows the richness of chess, I think.
[Ed: Readers interested in the Benoni will find more excellent material from Bryan in this course]