One of Black’s trickier move orders in the Symmetrical English is 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4 Nc6. Here Black creates the possibility of …e5, hoping to establish a strong position in the centre. White needs to decide how to confront this.
It should be noted that unlike, for instance, after 1 Nf3 Nc6, White cannot prevent …e5 entirely by playing d4. This is because Black has been able to play …c5 first. In a sense, 1…c5 represents a critical test of the 1 Nf3 move order. Black does have to be prepared to play the Sicilian Defence, which arises after 1 Nf3 c5 2 e4, but given that the Sicilian is one of Black’s best defences, this is not a big defect, as long as that defence is in Black’s repertoire.
White can play the immediate 3 d4, arguing that having played …Nc6, Black has limited his choice of defences. However, I am not convinced by this argument, as …Nc6 is a useful move. I prefer to hold back d4 until Black has committed himself to a set up where White is able to establish a space advantage, such as the Maroczy Bind. The reader can find examples of this in the other posts I have made – and will make – on the various Symmetrical English lines.
The move I would prefer now is the more flexible 3 Nc3. Now 3…Nf6 would transpose to the lines after 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 Nc3 Nc6, which I have covered elsewhere. I would just note that White’s next move should be 4 g3. Instead, Black has several ways to break the symmetry, which I shall cover below.
The first move to consider is 3…e5, executing the “threat” posed by 2…Nc6. Now White could simply continue with 4 g3, aiming for a typical line of the Symmetrical English. Here White is hoping to get the better of Black in the middlegame. However, I prefer to at least attempt to prove some advantage as White, and it strike me that a better approach might be to exploit the fact that White is not committed to g3 by playing instead 4 e3, aiming to play d4. Black’s main reply is 4…Nf6, when White has two main moves:
- 5 d4 is most direct. Now 5…cxd4 6 exd4 e4 7 Ne5 Bb4 8 Be2 Qa5 9 Nxc6 dxc6 looks solid for Black.
- 5 a3 is more circumspect. After 5…d5 6 cxd5 Nxd5, we have a line of the Sicilian with colours reversed. Now White can choose between 7 Qc2 and 7 Bb5. This would be attractive to those familiar with the Sicilian as Black, especially as White has an extra move. However, Black can also simply develop with 5…Be7. when I’m not sure that White can really claim anything special, although there is a complex middlegame in prospect.
Instead of 3…e5, Black can consider the bizarre-looking 3…Nd4, which is actually quite logical. Black is aiming to impede White’s efforts to play d4, reasoning that the apparent loss of time that results cannot be exploited by White due to the closed nature of the position. However, White may be able to make use of this loss of time via 4 e3 Nxf3+ 5 Qxf3 g6 6 b3 Bg7 7 Bb2 d6 8 g4. Other approaches are 6 g3 and the direct 6 d4.
Finally, 3…g6 should be met, like 3…e5, with 4 e3 followed by d4. After 4…Nf6 5 d4 cxd4 6 exd4 d5 play transposes into a line of the Caro-Kann normally seen after 1 e4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 cxd5 exd5 4 c4 Nf6 5 Nc3 Nc6 6 Nf3 g6. This defence to the Panov Attack is generally regarded as a bit dubious (6…Bg4! is the way to go), so White should not be too unhappy to see it over the board. One possible line of play is 7 cxd5 Nxd5 8 Qb3 Nxc3 9 Bc4 Nd5 10 Bxd5 e6 11 Bxc6+ bxc6 12 0-0.