Defending against 1.d4 - the Modern Benoni

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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!

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