The Ever Popular (and Incorrect) Marshall Defense

The Ever Popular (and Incorrect) Marshall Defense

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This is a public service announcement to all of those players who, facing 1.d4! and 2.c4! reply with either 1...d5 and 2...Nf6 or 1...Nf6 and 2...d5.

You are choosing an incorrect, inferior defense...

The Marshall (or American) Defense
















A quick word about Frank Marshall himself. Marshall was a great player, and one of the five players to be declared a "Grand Master of Chess" by the Czar in 1914 at the tournament in St. Petersburg. He was a tactical beast who blew his opponents off the board... except when playing his betters, like Alekhine, Capablanca and Lasker. I mean no disrespect to this great American champion - my harsh words are reserved for the opening named after him. This defence is named after him apparently because he played it against Alekhine at Baden-Baden in 1925 (with the intention of playing the gambit 3.cxd5 Nxd5 4.e4 Nf6 5.Bd3 e5!?, knowing that Alekhine wouldn't be able to resist playing the energetic but difficult and risky 4.e4!?). 

As a Queen's pawn player, I have faced this position countless times, even though it is not an opening mentioned in any of the standard guides. I am happy to keep facing it forever, because it gives White more than the standard advantage in a Queen's pawn opening. For most players, it's not even consciously chosen. Too busy or lazy to read an opening book, they assume they can get into standard, reasonable Queen's Gambit positions by playing ...d5, ...Nf6 and ...e6 or ...c6 in any order they wish.

This article is for all of those who think they are correctly entering a standard Queen's Gambit position by playing ...d5 and ...Nf6, only to come in for an unpleasant surprise when White quickly plays 3.cxd5 Nxd5 4.Nf3.















What is Black to play now? He can no longer enter the Queen's Gambit Declined, Queen's Gambit Accepted, or Slav Defense, all of which are high quality, time-tested defenses to 1.d4. And he can't really enter a Grunfeld Defense either, because after e4 the Knight on d5 can't capture a Knight on c3, because it isn't there. White is soon going to play e4 (since there is no Nf6 or d5 to prevent it), and Black is going to have to retreat with either ...Nb6 or ...Nf6.

In fact, an important rule for you to remember when playing against the Queen's Gambit is the following:

After 1.d4 d5 2.c4 the only good moves are pawn moves: 2...c6 (Slav Defense) 2...e6 (Queen's Gambit Declined) and 2...dxc4 (Queen's Gambit Accepted). The first two defenses maintain a pawn presence in the center for Black, to prevent White playing e4 any time soon, while the last defense relinquishes the black pawn center and tries for a more open game with active piece play (early games saw attempts by Black to hold the extra pawn on c4 but over time it was discovered that the extra pawn can only be held at great risk, so it is usually returned).

Here are some possible continuations in the Marshall Defense, showing the kind of easy advantage that White gets in this line.


Note the sub-variation with an easy-to-make blunder by Black prompting a queen sacrifice by White leading to an absolutely winning position!

You might be wondering about 4.e4!? in this line, as played by Alekhine against Marshall. 4.e4!? is not a bad move at all - for a computer. It is just more difficult to play for White than the safe and sound 4.Nf3!
So, go ahead and play the Marshall Defense if you like. I'm happy to gain an easy advantage. But if you want to set me and other 1.d4! players real problems, and play the Queen's Gambit the way the masters play it, you should choose the QGD (2...e6), QGA (2...dxc4), or Slav (2...c6).