1.d4 Nc6 and the Philosophy of "Odd" Openings
member UNiMEDia asked:
I’m writing about 1.d4 Nc6. I work with a man who is presently obsessed – and I do mean obsessed, in that I have to listen to him rant and rave about the plusses of this opening every time I see him. We are of more or less equal strength, but he has beaten me several times with this opening. Nevertheless, I still insist that the opening is bad and not played by contemporary GMs. What are your thoughts about this opening? How would you play against it? Are you aware of any GM that plays this?
You’ve run into the very thing that drives many players to ritualistic seppuku and makes other players fall to the floor in pure ecstasy. Whichever side of this fence you live on (“pro-crazy openings” or “death to all crazy openings”), you still need to prove your point with something other than over-the-top zealotry or righteous indignation. This means the following things:
* Both sides still need to work hard on these lines so they can defend their stance in over-the-board contests and/or postal games.
* Blitz players often get real benefits from playing lines like this since they will be familiar with its ideas, while the opponent will be clueless (and due to the lack of time, he’ll be unable to figure out how best to deal with it). In fact, many players who are serious about both over-the-board and blitz have two different repertoires – one for “serious” games and the other for blitz.
* In the end, it has to be treated with the same respect you give other openings. And that means study, research, or ask me and see if I give you a detailed answer or simply cop out and run for the hills (and trust me when I say that I love the safety of those hills!).
I very much liked what Grandmaster (and 3 time U.S. Champion) Nick de Firmian said in MODERN CHESS OPENINGS, 15th Edition about 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6: “The prevailing opinion, however, is that a well prepared opponent could present difficult problems. At the club level this is not a major concern.”
This pretty much sums up the problem with most “side” openings – They are often better than most people think, but don’t quite hold up to a grandmaster’s close scrutiny (which explains why most GMs won’t touch them … or only use them for surprise value). However, since 99.9999723% (yes, that’s an exact figure) of the world’s players are not grandmasters, any reasonably sound system can be an effective weapon in the right person’s hands.
I should add that the grandmaster usually views “strange” openings with mistrust for other reasons too:
* The GM knows that he has a good chance at gaining an advantage as White, while also understanding that even if Black equalizes he can still outplay his opponent or, at worst, still make a draw. This is how high level tournaments are won. So why would he want to play some risky gambit or some strange setup (with the White pieces) which immediately gives Black far more chances than he would normally have? Of course, this does happen, but not too often (the Evans Gambit, which actually has a lot going for it and deserves respect, is a good example of top players giving a white gambit an occasional outing).
* As Black, the GM usually strives to equalize with classic, sound systems (Caro-Kann, Queen’s Gambit Declined/Accepted, Petroff Defense, Nimzo-Indian, etc.), or try for a more dynamic battle with things like the Sicilian or King’s Indian Defense (both of which carry a certain amount of risk). Leaping off that “risky but not too risky” precipice by playing a Latvian Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5) isn’t something a modern grandmaster would do in a serious tournament game (if he did, it would be an extreme rare occurrence). On the other hand, an opening like the Schliemann (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 f5) rests somewhere in between the “risky but not too risky” and “leaping headfirst off the precipice” mindsets. As a result, grandmasters with a desire for adventure will occasionally employ it.
Okay, now I envision the Latvian Gambit aficionados falling all over themselves, faces red and puffy and outraged, screaming for an immediate fatwa. Please read what I wrote, and not what your emotions are somehow making you see. I’m talking about over-the-board grandmasters, not a non-master who uses the Latvian to beat countless weaker players and then claims it’s 100% sound due to those results. Nevertheless, let’s take a look in my database at all (all I could find – I’m sure I’m missing a few) over-the-board Latvian Gambit games from 2001 to the present which feature the black player having a rating over 2300 (far below grandmaster):
Juan Becerra (2104) - Gilberto Valderrama (2308), Cali Continental 2007 (white won).
Enrique Garzon (unrated) - Martin Herrera (2360), Buenos Aires 2004 (white won). Guifre Rellver Calaf (2340) - Daniel Santos (2310), Catalunya 2003 (white won).
Laurent Guidarell (2418) - Jean Pierre Le Roux (2345), France 2002 (white won).
Stellan Brynell (2506) - Johan Eriksson (2426), Skara 2002 (white won).
Marcel Becker (2310) - Olaf Heinzel (2374), Julian Borowski 2002 (draw).
Irina Krjukova (unrated) - Sergey Yerofeev (2369), Serpukhov 2002 (white won).
Pablo Leis (unrated) - Juan Domingo Caputo (2321), FAOGBA 2001 (black won).
Vinko Malada (2249) - Ivica Armanda (2331), Karlusic Memorial 2001 (white won).
As you can see, this is not an opening that’s respected at the highest levels, or even at 2300 over-the-board levels. Does that mean nobody should play it? Not at all! As de Firmian pointed out, the vast majority of chess players will do quite well with the Latvian or just about anything that they become proficient with.
My point, once again, is that in the real world just about every opening needs to be given some respect. And that takes us into 1.d4 Nc6, the opening that’s driving Mr. UNiMEDia crazy. 1…Nc6 reminds one of a queenside Alekhine’s Defense (1.e4 Nf6) where Black is hoping that White overextends his center pawns, which will allow a counterattack against them later in the game. There’s nothing wrong with it since it develops a piece towards the center, and since it’s not something most people prepare for, the move has been given a shot by some strong players (Nigel Short being the most notable name).
For those that are interested in playing it, please understand that it usually transposes into other systems. Thus, 1.d4 Nc6 2.e4 can take us into the Nimzovich Defense. In fact, after 1.d4 Nc6 2.e4 d5 White can choose between three main choices: 3.e5, 3.exd5, and 3.Nc3 – this is the most threatening, when Black has a serious decision to make: 3…dxe4, 3…Nf6 (which snakes into further madness after 4.e5 Nfd7 since White has many reasonable choices like 5.Nxd5, 5.f4, 5.Nf3, 5.e6, 5.Nce2, 5.Bg5), 3…e5, and 3…e6.
As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, 1.d4 Nc6 2.e4 e5 gives White the option of transposing into the Scotch Opening via 3.Nf3 exd4 4.Nxd4, which might not be to black’s taste (and means he has quite a bit more opening preparation to make!). The main moves after 2…e5 (other than 3.Nf3) are 3.d5 Nce7 and 3.dxe5 when 3…Nxe5 leaves White with many choices: 4.Nf3, 4.f4, 4.Nc3, and 4.Bf4.
Here’s a sample line if White meets 1.d4 Nc6 2.e4 e5 with 3.dxe5 Nxe5 4.Nf3: 4…Nxf3+ 5.Qxf3 Qf6 6.Qg3 Qg6 7.Qxc7 Bd6! (7…Qxe4+ 8.Be3 Bb4+ 9.Nd2 Bxd2+ 10.Kxd2 Qb4+ 11.Qc3 Qxc3+ 12.Kxc3 left White with an enormous endgame advantage in Lombardy – Ricardo Calvo, Siegen 1970.) 8.Qc4 Nf6 9.Nc3 0-0 when Black enjoys active pieces and a serious initiative for a pawn.
Another transposition occurs after 1.d4 Nc6 2.Nf3 (or 2.c4) 2…d5 when we get a Chigorin Defense, which would take both players into yet another huge theoretical quagmire.
So Black will have his work cut out for him if he wants this to be his main repertoire choice. But there’s another problem with the 1.d4 Nc6 move order: White can play 2.d5! (avoiding all those transpositions!), and this is clearly the most challenging choice! Mr. UNiMEDia, I highly recommend you use this line against your …Nc6 obsessed opponent. Here’s a brief analysis:
2.d5 Ne5 3.e4
Most accurate, but 3.f4 is also more pleasant for White: 3.f4 Ng6 4.e4 e6 (4…e5 5.dxe6 e.p. transposes) 5.dxe6 and now 5…dxe6 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8 7.Nf3 doesn’t give White more than a small plus, but many black players will find that it’s not to their taste.
More combative is 5…fxe6 6.Nf3 Bc5 7.Nc3! d6 (7…Nh6 8.f5! seems strong) 8.Na4! Bb6 9.Nxb6 axb6 10.h4! – Ruban. In the game Onischuk (2684) – Shkuro (2546), Ukraine Team Ch. 2009, White tried 7.Bd3 instead of 7.Nc3, and went on to outplay his opponent: 7…Nh6 8.Qe2 0-0 9.g3 a6 10.Nc3 b5 11.e5 Bb7 12.Ne4 Bb6 13.Bd2 Nf5 14.0-0-0 h6 15.Rhf1 c5 16.Nd6 Bd5 17.c4 bxc4 18.Nxc4 Nfe7 19.h4 Nf5 20.Rg1 Nge7 21.g4 Nd4 22.Nxd4 cxd4 23.Rgf1 Rb8 24.Kb1 Bc5 25.f5 Nc6 26.g5 exf5 27.gxh6 Qxh4 28.hxg7 Rf7 29.Nd6 Bxd6 30.exd6 Be4 31.Rf4 Bxd3+ 32.Qxd3 Qf6 33.Rh1 Rxg7 34.Rxf5 Qe6 35.Qh3, 1-0.
According to J. Watson, 3…c6!? might be worth a shot.
4…dxe6 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 6.f4 (or 6.Nc3 a6 7.f4 Ng6 8.Be3 Nf6 9.0-0-0+ Ke8 10.h3 and White was better in A. Korobov – I. Shkuro, Ukraine 2009. In his wonderful MASTERING THE CHESS OPENINGS, Volume 4, Watson recommended 6.Bf4!? Ng6 [6…Bd6!? 7.Bg2 Ke7 – Watson] 7.Be3 Nf6 8.f3 “with a modest central advantage” – Watson) 6…Ng6 7.Nf3 Bb4+ 8.c3 Bc5 9.Bd3 Nf6 10.Ke2 a5 11.g3 Ke7 12.Nbd2 a4 13.e5 Nd5 14.Ne4 Bb6 15.Bd2 Ba5 16.b4 axb3 17.axb3 Bd7 18.b4, 1-0, A. Karpov – L. Berlandier, Cannes 1998.
The natural 5…Bc5?? runs into 6.Qh5+, winning a piece and the game.
The game A. Veingold (2448) – M. Manninen (2436), Finland 2000, continued 5…Ng6 6.Nf3 Bc5 7.h4 Qf6 8.Bg5 Qf7 9.Qd2 d6 10.h5 N6e7 11.Na4 Bb6 12.Bb5+ and Black resigned!! Why? Because of 12…c6 (12…Kd8 13.0-0-0 Nf6 14.Qf4 [threatening 15.Rxd6+ or, if White wishes, 15.Bxf6 followed by 16.Rxd6+] and Black is completely helpless and will soon suffer massive material losses) 13.Nxb6 axb6 14.Qxd6 cxb5 15.Ne5 Qf8 16.Rd1 and Black should give up as quickly as he can!
Watson is very positive about 6.f4 Nf7 (6…Ng6) 7.Nf3 “and black’s development is awkward.”
He also feels that 6.Bf4 Ng6 7.Bg3 should be favorable for White.
6…Nf7!? 7.Bf4 Bc5 8.Be2 Ne7 “doesn’t look too bad” – Watson.
7.Qxf3 Bb7 8.Qh5+! g6 9.Qe5 Nf6 10.Bb5 c6 11.Be2 Qe7 12.Qg3 e5 13.f4 exf4 14.Bxf4 Nxe4 15.Nxe4 Qxe4 16.0-0-0 0-0-0 17.Bg4 h5 18.Bb8 Bh6+ 19.Kb1 Bf4 20.Bxf4 hxg4 21.Rhe1 Qf5 22.Bb8 d6 23.Bxa7 Qa5 24.Qxg4+ Rd7 25.Qd4 Qh5 26.Bxb6 Qxh2 27.Qe4 Kb8 28.Qxg6 Bc8 29.Bg1 Qh6 30.Qe4 c5 31.g4 Qh1 32.Qf4 Qh6 33.g5 Qh4 34.Be3 Kc7 35.g6 Bb7 36.g7 Qxf4 37.gxh8=Q, 1-0, Volkov (2629) – B. Savchenko (2569), Moscow 2006.
To sum up: Any reasonably sound opening is quite playable at the club level, and that includes various gambits and some rather odd/bizarre systems of development – they all need to be taken seriously! The simplest way to deal with 1.d4 Nc6 is 2.d5 Ne5 3.e4 e6 4.dxe6 which gives White good chances of obtaining an opening advantage.