Playing the Nimzo-Larsen Attack
I've had a long standing love-hate affair with 1. b3 or the "Nimzo-Larsen Attack" as my main opening with white for the past few years. So much so that I've finally taken up residence with the standard queen's pawn opening to get away from it. But is 1. b3 a bad opening? It all depends on what you're after.
The best thing about 1. b3 is the surprise value. Even with a basic understanding of the main lines and traps, you can log easy wins against many an unsuspecting player. You also side-step quite a bit of opening theory by not playing e4 or d4.
The downside to 1. b3 is a prepared opponent on the black side will easily obtain equality, and I argue in some lines is actually better in terms of initiative. It also affords black many more solid options to play than most any other opening. Black doesn't have to play the most aggressive lines, and does perfectly fine just playing solid fundamental moves on the board.
Let's look at the allure of the Nimzo-Larsen from one of my favorite trap lines:
1. b3 e5 2. Bb2 Nc6 3. e3 d5 4. Bb5 Bd6 5. f4
Here white is attacking the center in what is basically a revered Nimzo-Indian with an extra tempo. Often an agressive blitz player on the black side will make the mistake of 5...exf4?? when white has 6. Bxg7! Here nine times out of ten, black will still think he has the upper hand in playing 6...Qh4+ 7. Kf1:
Black is actually losing here, but white has to play sensibly and accurately to net in the full point. I started off losing games in this position as white, but after practice and experience, I began forcing the wins out from here. Obviously the key is to simply be more comfortable playing from this position than black is, and that only comes with practice.
Instead of 5...exf4??, black's best I believe is 5...Qh4+ 6. g3 Qe7 7. Nf3 f6 8. fxe5 fxe5 9. Bxc6+ bxc6 10. Nxe5 Nf6
Black has excellent compensation for the pawn with having the Bishop pair and better developement than white. Indeed black is STILL fine if white takes the 2nd pawn on c6, and I lost a rather short game in this example:
1. b3 e5 2. Bb2 Nc6 3. e3 d5 4. Bb5 Bd6 5. f4 Qh4+ 6. g3 Qe7 7. Nf3 f6 8. fxe5
fxe5 9. Bxc6+ bxc6 10. Nxe5 Nf6 11. Nxc6 Qe4 12. O-O Bh3 13. Rf2 Ng4 14. Nc3
Qh1+ 15. Kxh1 Nxf2+ 16. Kg1 Nxd1 17. Nxd1 O-O 18. Nf2 Bd7 19. Ne5 Bb5 20. a4
Ba6 21. Nfd3 c5 22. Nd7 Bxd3 23. Nxf8 Bf5 24. Nxh7 Bxh7 0-1
Of course black need not risk a tactical excursion like this, and can simply opt for various queen pawn formations like d5-e6 or d5-c6 or combining both. Black can also play a c5-d5-Nc6 setup, but this gives white a straightforward plan of e3-Bb5-Nf3-Ne5-f4, and I've played hundreds of games in this line comfortably. Black ends up having to defend the kingside against a rook lift on f3 to h3 combined with white's queen and dark bishop. Very fun attacking chess for white.
Probably the most annoying for white players is 1.b3 d5 2. Bb2 Bg4!? which disrupts white's normal ideas of bringing the knight out to f3 and ultimately e5. I've opted for g3 in this line, playing for a Reti setup of g3-Bg2-Nf3-0-0-d3-Nbd2. In turn, black's setup will normally involve e6-c6-Nf6-Bd6-0-0-Nbd7. Play is solid for both sides, but this is a bit passive for white in my opinion. It basically throws away the opening advantage and becomes an equal game.
So to recap, the Nimzo-Larsen is a great surprise weapon especially in blitz, but in reality provides white with no real concrete advantage. Proof of the surpise value is recently GM Hikaru Nakamura exclusively used 1. b3 to break 3500 blitz rating on the playchess server (the first and ONLY human to do so). My advice if you are looking to play this opening is to read "Nimzo Larsen attack" by Jacobs & Tait (Everyman Chess). Its the definitive guide to playing 1. b3 or 1. Nf3 2. b3. I'd also suggest not making it your main repertoire in tournament games as its highly vulnerable to home-preparation from the black side. Use it as a backup weapon, and you'll no doubt log some fine victories with it.