After 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 the move 2…b6 offers a possible transposition to the Queen’s Indian Defence via 3 d4 e6. However, the fact that White has not yet played d4 gives him other opportunities, which are more promising than the rather solid lines of the Queen’s Indian proper.
The move I recommend instead is 3 g3. On the next few moves, Black will have the option of …c5, transposing to the Symmetrical English. I shall cover these lines in another post. Here I shall cover the lines where Black either plays this move at a stage where such a transposition does not occur, or even does not play it at all. In this variation, Black would like to control e4, as in the Queen’s Indian proper, but as White has not played d4 yet, this is not so easy.
After 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 b6 3 g3 Bb7 4 Bg2 e6 5 0-0 Be7 6 Nc3 0-0 we have the basic position of the line. As mentioned, Black can deviate with …c5 at various positions; there are other possibilities, naturally, but none of these are particularly common and are therefore out of the scope of this overview.
White’s key move in this position is 7 Re1. The idea of this is simple enough: play e4, which stops …Ne4 by Black, and then d4, rather than allowing the immediate 7…Ne4 in response to 7 d4. Black has three main responses: 7…Ne4, 7…d5 and 7…c5. The last of these transposes to the Symmetrical English (as mentioned), so I shall examine the other two moves here.
Black plays 7…Ne4
White’s natural continuation is 8 Nxe4 Bxe4 9 d3 Bb7 10 e4, which clearly demonstrates the value of holding back d4. Now as a move like 10…d6 would allow 11 d4, when White has a strong centre, Black’s best move is probably 10…c5, leading to a position that can also arise from the Symmetrical English. Then 11 d4 cxd4 12 Nxd4 d6 leads to a key position. White needs to play precisely here; if he just develops automatically, Black has a very solid position, which is hard to break down.
I like the following approach suggested by Khalifman: 13 a4 followed by b3, Ba3 and Ra2-d2, putting pressure on d6. If Black then aims to play …b5, White responds by placing his bishop on b4, in order to meet …b5 by cxb5, then axb5 by a5. For instance: 13 a4 Nc6 14 Nxc6 Bxc6 15 b3 Qc7 16 Ba3 Rfd8 17 Ra2 a6 18 Bb4 b5 19 cxb5 axb5 20 a5 with a slight advantage for White.
Black plays 7…d5
After White responds to this with 8 cxd5, Black needs to decide whether to recapture on d5 with the pawn or knight. The two moves lead to quite different strategic situations.
After 8…exd5 9 d4, we have one of the typical Queen’s Indian structures, in this case one that is usually regarded as being in White’s favour. The point is that Black has blocked the diagonal of his bishop on b7; also, the combination of …b6 and …d5 leaves him with weak squares on the c-file.
White will usually follow up with 10 Bf4; how he proceeds then will depend very much on how Black sets out his stall. If Black plays …c5, then White will normally play dxc5 fairly soon, leading either to hanging pawns after …bxc5 or an isolated pawn if he recaptures on c5 with a piece.
While, as so often, a fair amount of theory has built up around this position, playing this line is as much about having a good understanding on the structures that arise. For the detail, refer to volume 2 of the “Kramnik” repertoire series.
The other move, 8…Nxd5, leads to a quite different kind of situation. After 9 e4 Black usually plays 9…Nxc3, to which White replies with the natural 10 bxc3. After 10…c5, 10…Nc6 or 10…Nbd7, White will continue with 11 d4, leading to the basic position type of this line. White’s pawn centre has the same structure as the Exchange Variation of the Gruenfeld. The difference is the position of the pieces: White’s bishop is not g2, not c4 or e2, while Black’s bishop is on e7 rather than g7. This all adds up to a position that is more clearly in White’s favour than that line of the Gruenfeld, which is notoriously difficult.
There is plenty of theory on this line, which can be found in the aforementioned Khalifman book. However, probably the most useful piece of advice to bear in mind regarding this line is to constantly look out for the possibility to breakthrough in the centre with d5.