1 Nf3 repertoire: The Kings Indian Defence

While after 1 Nf3, White can profitably avoid openings such as the Nimzo-Indian and Gruenfeld, I have always considered that there is no promising way to avoid the King’s Indian, and that White should take the opening on directly.

While I have dabbled with the Fianchetto Variation, my main system against the King’s Indian has always been the Classical Variation. There are many different move orders used to reach it, but the most direct route after 1 Nf3 is 1…Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 Bg7 4 e4 d6 5 d4. Now Black will usually castle (there is no reason not to) with 5…0-0 and White will continue his natural development with 6 Be2. Black’s first choice is whether to go down the main lines with 6…e5, or to choose another move, such as 6…Bg4. I shall look at the main lines first, then move backwards to look at the sidelines.

Black plays 6…e5: Overview

The first point to make about this move is that it doesn’t lose a pawn: 7 dxe5 dxe5 8 Qxd8 Rxd8 9 Nxe5 Nxe4 is fine for Black.

While moves such as 7 Be3, 7 d5 and even 7 dxe5 (with 9 Bg5) are possible, I have always preferred the flexible 7 0-0 in response to 6…e5. White is usually better off refusing to commit himself in the centre until he has to, as this makes it difficult for Black to develop;  since the pawn structure is not yet fixed, it is not always clear where he should aim to develop his pieces.

Black’s main move against 7 0-0 is 7…Nc6, but 7…Na6, 7…Nbd7 and 7…exd4 all have their adherents, and other moves have been tried as well.

The Main Line: 6…e5 7 0-0 Nc6 8 d5 Ne7

The move 7…Nc6 pretty much forces 8 d5 if White is after an advantage; the non-committal 8 Be3 can be met either by 8…Re8, with the idea 9 d5 Nd4, or the more ambitious 8…Ng4. Then 8…Ne7 is the usual move, as this is the most active square for the knight.

On move 9, White has three main options: 9 Ne1, 9 Nd2 and 9 b4. A detailed examination of these moves is beyond the scope of this post. Rather than look at all of them, I’ll concentrate on 9 b4, which is currently regarded as the main line, and is the move that I have myself played most often in recent years.

After 9 Ne1 and 9 Nd2, the game tends to develop into a race, with White aiming to break through on the queenside, while Black tries to bring his attack to fruition on the kingside. The modern interpretation of 9 b4 is more subtle. Black usually meets 9 b4 with 9…Nh5, because, unlike the two knight moves, White has not prevented this active knight move, forcing Black to opt for either …Nd7 or …Ne8. Then White plays 10 Re1. White does not regard …Nf4 as a problem, because he can play Bf1 in response. If Black now plays the natural 10…f5, which has been his most common choice, we now see the advantage of leaving the knight on f3, as White can play 11 Ng5, eying the weak e6 square. If Black plays 11…Nf6, then White has to choose between 12 f3 and 12 Bf3, while 11…Nf4 should be met by 12 Bxf4 exf4 13 Rc1.

For fuller coverage of this line, see volume 1b of Khalifman’s series “Opening for White According to Kramnik”.

The Traditional 7…Nbd7 and Modern 7…Na6

While 7…Nc6 is undoubtedly the critical continuation, forcing White to close the centre, and therefore leading to the classic King’s Indian situation with attacks on the flanks, it is not the only approach.

One defect of 7…Nc6 8 d5 Ne7 is that Black cannot easily place the knight which he has moved to d7 on c5; ideally he would like knights on both c5 and f6 to put pressure on White’s e-pawn. He could try 8…Nb8 with that idea, but the move is slow and involves a waste of time, and White can counter it with the awkward pin 9 Bg5. The more natural approach is to move the knight to a square from where it can reach c5 as soon as the White pawn is moved from d4. There are two moves that do this: the traditional 7…Nbd7 and the modern 7…Na6.

The move 7…Nbd7 is the most natural, strengthening e5 as well as preparing …Nc5, but it has the defect both that it impedes the development of the bishop on c8, and also that the knight doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than c5. For this reason, 7…Na6 has been more popular, at least among strong players, since Black has more possibilities; the knight can go to c5 or b4, and the bishop can come into the game more easily.

White’s main responses to both moves are 8 Be3 and 8 Re1, maintaining the central tension as long as possible, so that Black cannot play …Nc5 easily. While a fair amount of theory has built up on both moves, White also needs a good general feel for the kind of positions that arise.

For good coverage of 8 Be3 against both moves, see volumes 1a and 1b of Khalifman’s “Kramnik” series.

The Sharp 7…exd4

Black’s other main approach is to take on d4 at once. This is rather double-edged; if White can consolidate his position, then Black will be rather passive, and condemned to suffer for a while. However, Black does get all sorts of tactical possibilities in the short term; if White’s doesn’t deal with Black’s threats properly, he can end up in trouble.

White’s response to 7…exd4 is naturally 8 Nxd4. Then Black will usually play 8..Re8, which White meets with 9 f3. Now Black has the following options:

(a) 9…Nh5. Black’s idea is ….f5. White should strike back with 10 g4. Then Black should play 10…Nf6, as his other tries fail for tactical reasons: 10…Qf6 11 Ndb5, 10…Be5 11 f4, or 10…c5 11 Nf5. Now White plays 11 Be3, and there are two basic lines:

  • 11…h5 12 g5 Nh7 13 Qd2 and White’s attacking chances are illustrated by the game Ruban – Poluljahov, Elista 1994, which went 13…Nxg5 14.Bxg5 Bxd4+ 15.Kh1 Bf6 16.Bxf6 Qxf6 17.Nd5 Qd8 18.Qh6 Be6 19.Rg1 Bxd5 20.Rxg6+ fxg6 21.Qxg6+ Kf8 22.cxd5 Qh4 23.Bb5 c6 24.Rg1 Ke7 25.Qe6+ Kd8 26.Qxd6+ Kc8 27.dxc6 Nxc6 28.Bxc6 Rd8 and Black resigned in view of 29.Bd7+ Rxd7 30.Rc1+ Kd8 31.Qf8 mate.
  • 11…Nc6 12 Qd2 h5 13 g5 Nh7 14 Nc2 and White will look to develop his kingside attack with Kh1 and Rg1.

(b) 9…c6 threatens the freeing move 10…d5. White should play the useful preventative move 10 Kh1, which avoids any problems on the a7-g1 diagonal. Khalifman supplies analysis to suggest that 10…d5 is now refuted by 11 cxd5 cxd5 12 Bg5 dxe4 13 Ndb5. If Black plays quietly, White can apply the awkward pin 11 Bg5, so Black’s critical move is 10…Nh5. However, as with 9…Nh5, White can meet this with 11 g4. Then 11…Nf6 12 Bf4 see White build up pressure on the Black position, e.g. 12…h5 13 g5 Nh7 14 Qd2 Na6 15 Rad1.

(c) 9 …Nc6 is Black’s most recent attempt to make the variation work, promoted by Glek and others. However, White seems to be able to consolidate a slight advantage, as in the other lines. For instance, after 10 Be3 Nh5 11 Qd2:

  • 11…f5 12 Nxc6 bxc6 13 c5 d5 14 Bg5.
  • 11…Nf4 (exploiting the fact that White’s pieces are tied to the defence of d4) 12 Rfd1 Nxe2 13 Ncxe2 Ne5 14 Rac1 a6 15 b3 Bd7 16 Nc3.

For coverage of the tricky 7…exd4, see volumes 1a of Khalifman’s “Kramnik” series.

Other Black 7th moves

Black sometimes tries another 7th move, but none of these has proved especially challenging. Some examples are:

  • 7…Re8 8 d5! exploits the fact that the rook should really be on f8 in such structures. Now a quiet move will probably be met by 9 Bg5, so Black may choose 9…Nh5 but then 10 g3 keeps the knight at bay.
  • 7…Qe7 8 Bg5 and now 8…c6 can be met by 9 c5, while 8…Nbd7 can be met by 9 d5, with a superior version of the Petrosian Variation (7 d5), as Black has not adopted the best formation (7…a5 intending …Na6).
  • 7…a5 can be met by 8 dxe5 dxe5 9 Qxd8 Rxd8 10 Bg5.
  • 7…Bg4 looks to put pressure on d4, but 8 d5 crosses that plan effectively.
  • 7…Nh5 is best met by 8 g3.
  • 7…Qe8 is countered by 8 dxe5 dxe5 9 b4, aiming for an initiative on the queenside.
  • 7…c6 is met by 8 d5.

Other Black 6th moves

Black’s main alternative to 6…e5 has always been regarded as 6…Bg4, but there are other moves to consider as well. Here is a brief summary of the most important lines to consider:

  • 6…Na6 7 0-0 e5 transposes to 6…e5 7 0-0 Na6.
  • 6…Nbd7 is usually an attempt to sidestep the Exchange Variation (6…e5 7 dxe5). The simplest response is 7 0-0, when 7…e5 transposes to 6…e5 7 0-0 Nbd7.
  • 6…Nc6 (intending 7 0-0 e5, again sidestepping the Exchange Variation) is met by 7 d5.
  • 6…c5 7 0-0 invites 7…cxd4 8 Nxd4, transposing to the Maroczy Bind, a system that can be reached via many move orders, and which I shall consider in another post. Black can try other moves, but they don’t seem up to much, e.g. 7…Nc6 8 d5 Na5 9 Bd2.
  • 6…Bg4 7 Be3 Nfd7 8 Rc1 is the recommended approach for White, avoiding the possibility of Black playing …Bxc3, damaging White’s pawn structure (e.g. after 8 0-0 Nc6 9 d5 Bxf3 10 Bxf3 Na5 11 Be2 Bxc3 12 Bxc3 e5).
Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to the 1 Nf3 Repertoire.
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