1 Nf3 repertoire: The Old Indian Defence

In our 1 Nf3 repertoire, we reach the basic position of the Old Indian Defence after the following moves: 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 d6 3 d4 (to prevent …e5). Black still has the chance to take the game into the King’s Indian by 3…g6 4 Nc3 Bg7 5 e4, but we will look at that in another post. Instead, we will consider the lines where Black aims for a different formation, usually (but not exclusively) with his bishop on e7 rather than g7.

White’s precise choice of system against the Old Indian move order will be influenced by his preferred system against the King’s Indian. If he meets 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 g6 with 3 Nc3, intending 3…Bg7 4 e4 d6 5 d4 0-0 6 Be2, then he will naturally aim for a similar set up against the Old Indian. However, if he prefers the fianchetto set up against the King’s Indian (1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 g3), then he will prefer such a system against the Old Indian. This consideration is of most relevance where Black retains the possibility of transposing to the King’s Indian proper (3…Nbd7); where Black develops his bishop to f5 or g4, then the most sensible approach is to aim for the most effective set up.

The Main Line: Move Order Issues

After the moves 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 d6 3 d4 Nbd7 4 Nc3, it is generally considered that Black’s most precise continuation is 4…c6 followed by 5…e5, rather than 4…e5 immediately. The point is that after 4…e5, White has an alternative system based on 5 Bg5. Khalifman gives the following basic lines:

  • 5…h6 6 Bh4 g5 7 dxe5! dxe5 8 Bg3, with a slight advantage to White.
  • 5…Be7 6 e3 c6 7 Qc2 0-0 8 0-0-0, when White’s position again looks the more promising.

After 4…c6, the move 5 Bg5 doesn’t make much sense, so White usually chooses between 5 e4 and 5 g3.

The Main Line: The Classical System

In the classical set-up, White develops his king’s bishop to e2. His position is flexible, in that, as in the equivalent set-up against the King’s Indian, he can end up attacking on either wing, or even in the centre.

Black has a number of possible deviations, but the main position occurs after the moves 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 d6 3 d4 Nbd7 4 Nc3 c6 5 e4 e5 6 Be2 Be7 7 0-0 0-0 8 Be3. Here Black’s main approaches, and White’s recommended responses, are as follows:

  • 8…Ng4. This move should always be considered in such positions, where White plays his bishop to e3 without preventing this knight move. However, while disruptive, the move doesn’t achieve much else. White should answer with the natural 9 Bd2. Then Black can invite a repetition with 9…Ngf6. White should then maintain the tension in the centre with 10 Qc2, only advancing with 11 d5 in response to 10…Re8, when the Black rook is misplaced on e8. If Black takes on d4, then White has a solid advantage, as Black finds it hard to generate play: 10…exd4 11 Nxd4 Re8 12 Be3 Ne5 13 h3. White can now drive the knight from e4 with f4, then fortify e4 with Bd3.
  • 8…Re8 is met by 9 d5, for the reason mentioned above: the Black rook is misplaced on e8 in such positions, as it should be on f8 to support the advance of the f-pawn. If Black now closes the centre with 9…c5, intending to play on the kingside, White will continue with something like 10 Rb1 Nf8 11 Ne1 Ng6 12 Nd3 h6 13 a3 Nh7 14 b4 b6 15 Bg4. This bishop move is thematic, as the exchange of bishops weakens any Black initiative on the kingside. White is now for preference, with his play on the queen side.
  • 8…Qc7 9 d5 Nc5 is another plan, attempting to establish a knight on c5. Then play might continue 10 Nd2 a5 11 a3 Bd7 12 b4 axb4 13 axb4. Now the natural 13…Rxa1 loses material after 14 Qxa1 Na6 15 dxc6, so Black should prefer 13…Na6 14 Qb3 c5. As 15 b5 Nb4 is fine for Black, White should instead choose 15 bxc5 Nxc5 16 Qb4 b6 17 Rfb1 Rxa1 18 Rxa1 Rb8 19 h3, when White’s space advantage and the weakness on b6 outweigh the knight on c5.
  • 8…a6 aims for …b5. Now White should continue with 9 d5. Black has a wide range of responses, but the most direct way to realise his plan is 9…cxd5 10 cxd5 b5. Then White should respond with 11 Nd2; this prevents …Ng4, while bringing the knight over to the queenside to initiate play there. White will look for an opportunity to play a4, hitting the b5-pawn, while the move b4, fixing the Black queenside, is also a possibility in some variations. If the Black pawn is forced away from b5, c4 is then freed up for the knight on d2. In some lines, the weak square on c6 can be targeted via Nb3-a5-c6.

A more detailed examination of these lines is out of the scope of this post. More theoretical information can be found in Khalifman’s book; however, the key to playing this line is not simply theoretical knowledge, but also experience and understanding of the kind of positions that arise.

The Main Line: The Fianchetto System

White’s main alternative to the classical set-up, is the fianchetto system. The main line of this arise after the moves 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 d6 3 d4 Nbd7 4 Nc3 c6 5 g3 e5 6 Bg2 Be7 7 0-0 0-0 8 e4. I don’t have any experience of playing this myself, so I don’t want to offer any comment on the line; rather, I direct the interested reader to Avrukh’s book, which covers the line in one of its chapters.

Black develops with 3…Bg4

Apart from the approach where Black plays …e5, the other main approaches involve Black developing his queen’s bishop. The system with …Bg4 is related to the line after 1 Nf3 d6 2 d4 Bg4, and indeed that line can transpose into this one.

After the moves 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 d6 3 d4 Bg4 4 Nc3, Black’s main possibilities can be summarised as follows:

  • 4…g6 5 e4 Bxf3. Black gives up the bishop as part of his plan to attack d4. 6 Qxf3 Nc6 7 d5 Nd4 8 Qd1 c5 9 dxc6 Nxc6 10 Be2 Bg7 11 Be3 0-0 12 0-0. White has a slight advantage in this “Maroczy Bind”, and will look to complete his development with f3, Qd2, Rfd1 and Rac1.
  • 4…e6. Black is looking to push with …d5, but White can cross this by 5 e4 c6 6 Be2 Be7 7 0-0 0-0 8 h3 Bh5 9 d5. Attempts to play a quick …d5 backfire, e.g. 5…d5 6 cxd5 exd5 7 e5 Ne4 8 Qb3.
  • 4…Bxf3 is a natural response, and White has to decide how to recapture: 5 exf3 or 5 gxf3. The former allows White to develop quickly with Be2 and Be3, while the latter is slower, but allows him to aim for a strong pawn centre.
  • 4…Nbd7 tends to lead to play similar to the main line after 3…Nbd7. For instance, 5 e4 e5 6 Be2 c6 7 0-0 Be7 8 Be3 0-0 9 d5 with a complicated position where White has his usual space advantage.

Black develops with 3…Bf5

As well as putting his bishop on g4, Black has the option of playing it to f5, where it impedes White’s efforts to play e4, building a strong centre.

The main possibilities after 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 d6 3 d4 Bf5 4 Nc3 are:

  • 4…h6 and now White can consider 5 d5 intending Nd4, or 5 g3 c6 6 Bg2 Nbd7 7 0-0 e5 8 Nh4 Bh7 9 e4. White has forced through the advance that Black was trying to prevent.
  • 4…g6 5 Qb3 Qc8 6 h3 Bg7 7 g4 Bd7 8 e4. Again White has forced through e4, although the position is rather sharp due to his pawn advances.
Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to the 1 Nf3 Repertoire.
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