Beating Inferior Openings. 4.Bc4 in the Four Knights

May 31, 2014, 5:56 PM |

Cyrus Lakdawala writes in his book The Four Knights: Move by Move that black players who open with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 are likely to be poorly versed in Four Knights theory because they encounter the Ruy Lopez (that begins with 3.Bb5) more often than the Four Knights that white invites with 3.Nc3. This is simply wrong!

To be more precise, although Lakdawala may be right for master-level games, he is wrong when it comes to rank amateurs (rated 2000 USCF and below). Amateurs often lack either the time or inclination to study opening theory in detail, and when they do it is often because they obsess about one system. (Just think of all the Najdorf and Dragon Sicilian fanatics.) They take shortcuts, and taking shortcuts means deviating early from main lines to cut down the amount of theory that you need to learn. The Four Knights is precisely such an opening. Instead of learning the reams of theory in the Ruy Lopez (not to mention the Petroff), you can just learn the Four Knights. Even better, you can focus your efforts on one variation such as the Scotch Four Knights, and your opening study problems are solved! I don't play the Ruy Lopez (at least not yet!). Instead, I play the Petroff, and in my last thirteen over the board USCF rated games that began 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 white only played the Petroff continuations of 3.Ne5 and 3.d4 three times. White in two of the three games was a class A player, showing that perhaps real attention to opening theory begins in class A. 3.d4 was played only once, and I had seen it so infrequently that I had forgotten the opening theory and lost because of an error in the opening. Five of the thirteen games continued 3.Nc3, inviting a Four Knights, which I played. Four of the games continued with the modest 3.d3, and one continued with the dubious 3.Bc4.

If my experience is at all typical, then the class player needs to focus his opening study on learning how to beat inferior openings because inferior openings are what he is likely to see. Why focus on the main lines played by the GMs of the world? Learn to beat inferior openings and dubious lines first, and tackle the GM lines when you begin to see them over the board. This way you will learn why inferior openings are inferior and better appreciate and understand the main lines when you encounter them. Note that this is not an argument in favor of playing inferior openings yourself. You should try to play openings that are more than surprise weapons reserved for blitz games on the highest level. The Scotch, which I play with white, is arguably in this category. To be sure, it is not as mainstream as the Ruy Lopez and does cut down on opening study, but it is a serious opening played by the chess elite. Players rated 2700+ who have already played it in 2014 in slow games include Sergei Rublevsky, Wang Hao, David Navarra, Vassily Ivanchuk, David Navarra, and Ian Nepomniachtchi. By contrast, only one 2700+ player has ventured the Four Knights in a slow game in 2014: Yuriy Kryvoruchko. Regardless of how you evaluate the Scotch, one thing is clear, you will not find hardly any elite games that begin with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d3. In 2014, there are only two games in which white players rated over 2500 begin their games like this, and both games were against significantly lower rated opponents--a sign that they thought they could simply outplay their opponents without engaging in an opening theory contest.

So, before you learn the umpteenth move of a main line, try to learn why early deviations from it are bad. To take the example of the Four Knights, I often encounter the following in rapid internet games: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.Bc4. Why don't GMs play this? What is wrong with Bc4? It does not lose on the spot, but it is bad, throwing away white's opening advantage. It is important to know why and to know how to play against this because although the initial tactic is rather straightforward (4...Nxe4 5.Nxe4 d5), the moves that follow can be tricky. It pays to know one's way through this, and it is not that hard to remember. Basically in the following position white has three reasonable options. Can you figure out what they are?

White to Play. What are the Candidate Moves?


The three moves are Bxf7+, Nxe4, and 0-0. The first option is analyzed below. Nxe4 and 0-0 will be analyzed in later blog postings.

First Option: 5.Bxf7+

After this, 5...Kxf7 6.Nxe4 d4 are obvious, if not forced. At this point white has three options: 7. Nc3, 7. Neg5+, and Ng3.

Position after 6...d5


Before discussing concrete lines, the general characteristics of the position need consideration. Material is even. Black controls the center with his pawns and can use them to push black white's knights. He also has open lines for the development of his bishops. His one negative is king safety. Although my ICC blitz score in this variation is an excellent 69.6%, I have lost a few games, and whenever I lose it is because of king safety. Having said that, on to the lines:

1.A. 7.Nc3

This is not objectively worse than the others, but it does not challenge black who solves his problems easily as follows: 7...e4 8.Ng1. (Going backwards is the only option, showing the power of black's pawns). White is threatening 9.Qh5+ followed by Qxd5. This is addressed by 8...Bf5 after which black is much better.

Position after 8...Bf5


1.B. 7.Ng3

The line I am giving may not be that preferred by the computers, but it is safer and gives black a modest advantage. 7...e4 8.Ng1 Bc5 9. N1e2 (9.Qh5+ g6 10.Qh6 Qf6 leads nowhere for white) Rf8 10.0-0 Kg8.

Position after 10...Kg8


1.C. 7. Neg5+

This is the most challenging continuation and objectively the best.7...Kg8. White has two reasonable continuations after this. 8.d3 and 8.d4, which is best. Other continuations lose. 0-0? loses to ...h6. Less obvious is how Qe2 loses. 8.Qe2? h6 9.Nh3 Bxh3 10.gxh3 e4 11.Ng1 Nd4 12.Qd1 Qg5 and white is busted.

Position after 12...Qg5



After 8. d4 black needs to remember to kick back the Ng5 with 8...h6.Black is in the driver's seat after 9.Nh3 Bg4 (threatening e4) 10.dxe5 Nxe5 11.Nhg1 Qd6 when Re8 and c5 are threatened as per below.

Position after 11...Qd6



For more on this, see my other blog where future installments will be posted.:

For analysis of another inferior opening, see my analysis of the Fort Knox variation of the French, which is here: