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Defending against 1.d4 - the Modern Benoni

Many players I have talked to used share a common uneasiness with me: What to play against 1.d4? Whilst everyone has his pet line against 1.e4, it seems hard to decide how to counter 1.d4. This may be partly due to the fact that many so-called closed openings are interlinked and can be arrived at via various move-orders, starting with 1.d4, 1.c4 or 1.Nf3, so one's repertoires against these first move should be compatible with each other. Another reason may be that play after 1.d4 tends to be less forced, but instead of helping the second player, this fact seems to make it harder to reach full equality. If then you'd prefer to have a dynamic balance of play and counterplay rather than plain dull equality (if reached at all), being up against 1.d4 becomes a real challenge.

Obviously there are all kinds of viable systems for Black out there, and everyone needs to find his or her weapon of choice. The top GMs seem to prefer 1...d5 at the moment, which is supposed to be safest in terms of equality. This doesn't mean the game can't get entertaining, if both sides (and especially White) are willing. For us mortals to copy them means having to keep up with current theory at least in the sharp lines, while playing the black side of 1.d4 d5 doesn't have to suit everybody's taste. I'd like to give a short summary of what I have tried and found for myself without claiming that my conclusions have to be the best for everybody else.

My first two defences to 1.d4 were the Queen's Indian which I played without really knowing anything about it and the Volga-Benkö gambit which I knew slightly more about. I had a few games with the latter which according to my standards deserved the predicate "good", but the first black opening I actually really studied a bit was the Tarrasch defence of the QDG. The Tarrasch isn't confined to being a QDG defence but can be employed against other Closed Games like the Réti and the English as well. I learnt this opening in a stadium of my "development" where I tried to play "classic" chess, including 1.e4 as White and the symmetrical 1.d4 d5 as Black. In many of my openings I would try to get to play IQP positions, as I had given them a bit of study. Probably you know that the IQP is a typical feature of the Tarrasch defence, amongst others. It is not easy to play and can be quite tedious especially against lower rated opposition if your opponent simply refuses to take great risks. Consequently I had to recieve a few painful beatings before the Tarrasch started to pay off and gave me some of my most beautiful games. After several good years with this defence I started looking for something else though, because I realised I got into cramped positions against strong opposition too often and also had too much trouble winning my games against lower rated players who just tried to hang on to the draw as White.

What I ended up trying out was the Modern Benoni (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6), which is an uncompromising counterattacking system employed by such players as Mikhail Tal and the young Kasparov. One of today's most prominent Benoni players is Veselin Topalov, although he follows fashion these days and usually plays 1...d5 now.

When I told a friend of mine about my plans to take up the MB, his comment was: "Well then you can certainly kiss goodbye to the idea of a flawless game!", and indeed the only word which seems suitable to describe most MB games is "messy". The strategical grounding is simple enough: Black says: "Ok, you get central space, but I'm going to block your precious centre and launch my own queenside majority at you, supported by my pieces and especially a strong bishop g7." Evidently such an ambitious concept cannot be put in action against something as solid as 1.d4 without a price, so the second player has to take rather great risks in order to proceed with his plans: his d-pawn is often weak, he may be submitted to a fearsome kingside attack, and often it is far from easy to get his single most important pawn thrust in: b7-b5.

John Nunn has said about the Benoni: "Black relies fairly heavily on tactical ressources to vindicate his opening play. Usually there will come a moment when Black will have to continue tactically to justify his play, for otherwise his pieces will be pushed back from their active squares and he will be reduced to permanent passivity." As John Watson has pointed out in his great book on the Modern Benoni (Gambit 2001), these tactical ressources keep popping up with surprising persistency.

The diagram below is meant to show you the typical pawn structure, so you can imagine what I am talking about in the previous paragraph as well as the following ones:

 

As you can see, the pawn structure hints at the direction play might take: White will want to get the e4-e5 break in, which, if executedly correctly, will cause disruption in Black's camp, almost cutting it in two halves. Black in turn relies on his queenside majority, which he usually tries to mobilize by achieving b7-b5. Of course both sides have means available to thwart the opponent's intentions, as well as more or less subtle maneuvres changing to another plan or to carry out the main idea after all.

 

 

As is common in other modern openings as well, play happens on the whole board, not only in one restricted area like the kingside, the centre or the queenside. Nontheless I will try to give you some typical ideas:

Planning for White:

  • As has already been pointed out, White wants to play e4-e5 to further cramp Black's position. This can be achieved by launching as many pieces as possible at the e5 square while trying to divert the black defenders. More commonly, the help of the f-pawn is used as well.
  • With a pawn on f4, another dangerous plan can be put in action: e4-e5 d6xe5 f4-f5, followed by a vicious kingside assault. Mind that in this case Black can't use the e5 square for his pieces, as it is locked by his own pawn, so often he is best served by returning the pawn by e5-e4.
  • The move f2-f4 can either be played early on in some of the pawn storm systems, or it may become possible as a result of a premature occupation of the e5 square by Black's forces. In this case the move usually wins a tempo, adding momentum to the white attack.
  • White can try to put direct pressure on Black's weakest pawn: d6. The typical means for that is the knight maneuvre Nf3-d2-c4, often in connection with Bf4.
  • In most cases White will try contain Black's queenside pawns for as long as possible. For example, Black's a7-a6 is almost invariably answered by a2-a4, sometimes followed by a4-a5 making sure there will be no b5+c5 phalanx. This procedure has other drawbacks, which will be mentioned in the next section.
  • White doesn't have a real problem piece in this opening, but putting the light-squared bishop to good use can be a difficult task, as it is often hampered by its own centre pawns.
  • Often White plays h2-h3, restricting Black's problem bishop and avoiding the pin Bg4, which would lessen White's control of e5.
  • Especially after Black has achieved b7-b5, White can try to force him to lock the queenside by a well timed b2-b4, usually preceded by a2-a3 and Rb1. This would give him time to stir up trouble elsewhere, even if Black gets a protected passed pawn on c4.

Planning for Black

  • Black needs to be constantly aware of White's central pawn thrust e4-e5. The most common way to prevent this is to put as much firepower on the e5 square as possible, for example Nd7 and Bg7 (after the f6 knight has moved away), Re8 and often Bg4, pinning the f3 knight even if that often means conceding the bishop pair by a subsequent exchange.
  • A more subtle way to prevent White's e5 is to put pressure on d5 instead, so that the d5 pawn is lost if it is denied the support of its central colleague. This can be done by putting knights on f6 and c7 and some heavy pieces into the d-file which will be opened in the event of e4-e5 d6xe5. In case b7-b5 has been successfully played already placements like Nb6 and Bb7 come into consideration as well.
  • Black's most important pawn lever is b7-b5, activating the queenside pawn majority. Usually White goes to great lengths to prevent this by adding as much firepower on b5 as possible. Sometimes Black has to resort to ressourceful maneuvring to bring equivalent support to b5. Maneuvres like Nd7-b6 followed by Bd7 and Nc8-a7 (after a7-a6) are quite typical as well as Nf6-e8-c7 and of course Rb8. In case of ...a7-a6 a2-a4 followed by a4-a5, Black won't be able to form a pawn phalanx on the queenside, but he will most certainly get to play b5, as his support on b6 is usually sufficient not to lose a pawn. In case of axb6 e.p. the b-file is opened, which tends to give Black strong counterplay. In some cases after a4-a5 Black can even forego his typical b-pawn advance and use the b5 square as an outpost for his pieces instead: A bishop can get there from d7 and a knight via c8-a7 or c7.
  • Black's problem piece in this opening is the queen's bishop, despite technically being a good bishop. If possible it is often moved to g4, to be exchanged for the knight f3 even if that means ceding the bishop pair. In other cases Black leaves the bishop on c8 and plays around it, for example by a7-a6 and b7-b5 (or b7-b6) followed by Ra7 and transferring the rook to wherever it needs to go. Sometimes Black tries to solve his bishop's problem by playing b7-b6 and Ba6, exchanging it for something on the a6-f1 diagonal.
  • The next typical pawn lever is f7-f5, which may serve various purposes: In some rare cases a direct kingside attack ensues, not unlike the King's Indian. More often f5 is played to inconvenience the e4 pawn, forcing it to move or be exchanged, in turn weakening the pawn d5. The obvious tradeoffs are a drafty king and the weak e6 square.
  • More rarely still Black plays g6-g5, seizing control of f4, often followed by transferring a piece there, either by Nf6-h5 or Nd7-e5-g6, often in conjunction with moves like Be5 and/or Qf6. If Black manages to to get such a concentration of forces to the kingside, a direct mating attack by his pieces can become available.
  • Another typical pawn move can be c5-c4, with or without b7-b5. If played at a wrong point of time it will cede the d4 square to White's pieces, but in the right circumstances the prospects of one or two knights galloping towards d3 via c5 and e5 can be quite daunting for White.

With this huge amount of possibilities, no side can prevent the opponent from implementing any of them in the long run. As early mass exchanges are next to impossible to start with, there will usually come a moment where the position just explodes, and sometimes Black will have to sacrifice an amount of material to shame any gambit opening, just in order to stay active. This is where things get really messy, and the game all the more enjoyable.

The obvious reason why this turns up in my blog is that I have recently played a number of nice Benoni games and I wanted to share them. Since the post has reached quite a size already, I will discuss the games in a seperate one and just hope that my little overview will encourage some of you into playing this marvellous opening as Black!

Comments


  • 3 months ago

    Ambassador_Spock

    Benoni Counter-Blast is looking for a few good Benoni players.
  • 3 years ago

    jwalexander

    great article, thank you for your fine effort.

  • 3 years ago

    Torkil

    If you are using the 2...e6 3.Nf3 c5 move order as I do as well, your options against the English Anti-Benoni are somewhat limited. Those who play the move order 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 have to put up with all of White's systems within the Benoni, but after 3.Nf3 cxd4 4.Nxd4 they have a much wider choice, among others:

    • 4...e5, a gambit continuation popularized by Kasparov.
    • 4...b6 for all those who like to play hedgehog positions against the English
    • 4...e6, with lines similar to those that can be reached in the 2...e6 move order

    After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.Nc3 cxd4 5.Nxd4 our choices are limited, but both 5...a6 and 5...Bb4 are scoring very well for Black. Especially for Nimzoindians 5...Bb4 is a good choice. I trust you know the most beautiful attacking game played in this line?

     

     

    Of course White doesn't have to fall so quickly, but Black does have his share of play...

  • 3 years ago

    hicetnunc

    I've dabbed in the Modern Benoni myself, but I've always been scared of white's tries with an early f4.  What do you think of those lines - it seems that black is struggling to hold in those variations.

    As Torkil explained, there is the option to play the Ben-oni only against 3.Nf3 (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5), and to play either the Nimzo or the QGD against 3.Nc3

    It's my repertoire choice (I play Nimzo) and this is quite comfortable, because you can decrease the amount of theoretical study needed, and avoid both the popular Taïmanov and the Nge2-f3 systems. 

    edit : and the Modern Main Line ! 

  • 3 years ago

    hicetnunc

    "Club level... Laurent, that sounds like it's no good for serious competition, like some dubious gambit or some such"

    That's not at all what I meant !  Smile 

    Quite the opposite actually : I think the Ben-Oni is the kind of opening  that is extremely rewarding at amateur level, despite being slightly unpopular among professionals. I do play it and I have two team-mates that play it also. I think it's sound, offer good counterchances, and being less popular than the KID or slav, our opponents are often less prepared or experienced playing against it.

    I guess professionals don't like it because GMs are better at exploiting space advantage and stifling counterplay.

    I'm a simple club player and I do appreciate what works well at my level Smile That's also why I was mourning against the Anti-Ben-Oni : if my opponent pushes d5, I know there will be a fight, but a slightly weaker opponent playing it safe with 4.Nf3 makes it difficult to play for a win (at least for me !)

  • 3 years ago

    Torkil

    Yes, some early f4 lines can look pretty dangerous for Black, and have put off quite a few players - especially the system called the Taimanov Attack. Personally, I feel fine with all the pawnstorm systems, and in otb chess I have had quite a few nice games with an early ...Qe7.

    However, if you want to avoid some of the more unpleasant White tries like the Taimanov and the Modern Mainline (h2-h3 in connection with e4, Bd3 and Bf4), you can also pair the MB with the Ninmzo-Indian: Many high level players play the move order 1.d4 Nf6 2.e6 c4 3.Nf3 c5, as after White has committed himself to Nf3 an early f4 is impossible while the move 3.Nf3 is a bit to early to reach the most favourable versions of the Modern Mainline. In case of 3.Nc3 however they would just play 3...Bb4 and enter the Nimzo-Indian.

  • 3 years ago

    hapahauli

    A very interesting article - I've dabbed in the Modern Benoni myself, but I've always been scared of white's tries with an early f4.  What do you think of those lines - it seems that black is struggling to hold in those variations.

  • 3 years ago

    _Rascian_

    Aldo I am 1.d4 player myself ,strangly enough I did had problems as black to counter 1.d4 players.Adding Benoni in repertoire by taking your advices really help'd and brought some really nice results.

    Cheers

  • 3 years ago

    Torkil

    Club level... Laurent, that sounds like it's no good for serious competition, like some dubious gambit or some such. I beg to differ: The MB may not be mainstream fashion at the moment, but it is definitely a tournament weapon used by former world champions as well as current top class players.

    @ nate23 + hicetnunc: Yes, there are some nasty things among the Anti-Benonis, just as there are Anti-King's Indians and of course Anti-Sicilians Yell Some players simply always spoil the fun. I am planning to write another - probably shorter - article on how to integrate the MB into your repertoire and what to do about White's attempts to bail out.

    @ ZucchiniMann: Thanks for mentioning the Nf6-g4-e5 maneuvre. It does appear from time to time, but much rarer than one would think, the main reason being that White very often plays h2-h3 in order to keep black pieces out of g4, especially the bishop. Nf6-g4-e5 is much more common in the MB's close relative, the Volga-Benkö Gambit, as might be the queen maneuvre you mention: With all those open queenside files in the Benkö, Black often plays Ra7, Qa8 and Rfb8 to put pressure on White's queenside. A typical game you remember may be this one:

     

  • 3 years ago

    MoonlessNight

    I used to play d4 c5 d5 e6 and few people played the most accurate c4! After that move black gets a cramped position and so I stopped playing it.

  • 3 years ago

    hicetnunc

    Ben-Oni is great at club level, but there are Anti-Ben-Oni's too (4.Nf3...) Frown

  • 3 years ago

    SuperCourgette

    I am not alone! Other people share this problem with me!

    Thanks for summing this up. I have tried the Dutch and various other set-ups, even the Blackmar Diemer Gambit, and am still looking for the fitting answer (for me) to 1.d4.

    1. ... c5 is my main answer at the moment.

    In the modern benoni, one manoeuvre worth mentioning for Black is Nf6-g4-e5.

    I vaguely remember a fascinating game where Black put his queen on a8 to great effect. If somebody knows what it could be...please refresh my memory!

    And keep the faith, some day the d4-square will disappear!

  • 3 years ago

    rednikolaou

    interesting. thanks for the write up

  • 3 years ago

    Torkil

    Those of the games I played on this site can be found below, although there isn't any commentary yet.

    http://www.chess.com/echess/game.html?id=23988715

    http://www.chess.com/echess/game.html?id=25555100

    http://www.chess.com/echess/game.html?id=46876465

    http://www.chess.com/echess/game.html?id=46876466

     

    Czechman, having read your enquiry about what you seek against 1.d4, there may be points you won't like, though:

    • As in any of the Indian defenses, there is a good deal of hypermodernism in the MB.
    • Endgame skills will be required to convert any advantage you might get - compare the games above.

    Those two points aside I guess the MB meets your requirements of an anti-1.d4 defense.

  • 3 years ago

    Czechman

    I'm still trying to find a defense to 1.D4 so this topic is interesting to me. Thanks for posting.

    Got a link to the games you posted?

  • 3 years ago

    Ann_belle

    nice article for opening repertoire :D
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