1 Nf3 repertoire: The Symmetrical English Overview

For the purposes of our repertoire, the Symmetrical English encompasses those lines where Black plays …c5 before White has played d4, allowing him to answer that move with …cxd4. White will generally have played c4 already, or will play it immediately in response to the move.

The opening is tricky in that there are a number of move orders for reaching the standard positions, which means that both White and Black have to be careful, in order not to end up in an unfavourable (or unfamiliar) variation.

The basic move order, which gives Black the maximum flexibility, is 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4. Here it should be noted that White has a significant alternative in 2 e4, transposing to the Sicilian Defence, so Black should be prepared to play that, or else he could end up in big trouble! However, for our purposes, I shall assume that White is not a Sicilian player, so 2 c4 makes more sense, keeping play inside the narrower bounds of our repertoire.

The other standard move order is 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 c5, which leads to a position that can arise after 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4 Nf6. For the purposes of our discussion below, I shall use the 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4 as standard, so as to more easily cover all the alternatives for Black.

Before I get started on the discussion of the Black systems we need to be prepared to meet, I would just like to refer to my previous post on 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 b6, which contains notes on other transpositional possibilities from that order of moves.

After 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4, the basic possibilities are 2…Nf6, 2…Nc6, 2…g6 and 2…b6. These will each be covered in a separate section below.

Note that this current post is only an overview; some lines will be covered in more detail in subsequent posts. The idea here is to give a general view of all the lines and how they fit together.

Black plays 2…Nf6

White has three main responses to this: 3 Nc3, 3 d4 and 3 g3.

I have always preferred 3 Nc3, considering it the most flexible. White needs to see what formation Black is aiming for, before deciding on either d4 or g3.

After 3 Nc3, Black’s most obvious response is to consider with 3…Nc6, maintaining the symmetry. Then I think that 4 d4 cxd4 5 Nxd4 e6 looks fine for Black, so the less committal 4 g3 is more sensible. Black’s main responses to 4 g3 are covered in the following sections.

Black can also meet 3 Nc3 with 3…d5, 3…b6, 3…e6 or 3…g6. All of these are also covered below.

Black plays 2…Nf6 and 4…g6

After 3 Nc3 Nc6 4 g3, if Black then plays 4…g6, I think that the most incisive move order is 5 d4. The point of this is to cut out lines where Black tries to throw in …d5. Then play will most like continue 5…cxd4 6 Nxd4 Bg7 7 Bg2 0-0 8 0-0, with one of the standard starting positions. I shall look at this position in a subsequent post.

Black plays 2…Nf6 and 4…e6

Black also has several ways to break the symmetry on move 4; the two main systems involve …d5, either prepared by 4…e6 or immediately with 4…d5.

After 4…e6 5 Bg2, Black could also play 5…b6, which would lead to a sideline of the Hedgehog System after 6 0-0 Bb7. See below for more details.

Normally, Black will proceed with 5…d5. Then after 6 cxd5, 6…exd5 7 d4 would transpose to the Tarrasch Defence, which I have covered in a previous post. 6…Nxd5 is the Semi-Tarrasch. I have already covered the line of the Semi-Tarrasch where White builds a strong pawn centre and puts his bishop on c4 in this post. I shall be looking at this line in another.

Black plays 2…Nf6 and 4…d5

The move 4…d5 is best met with the sharp 5 d4. This could lead to the Semi-Tarrasch line given above after 5…e6 6 cxd5 Nxd5 7 Bg2 Be7 8 0-0 0-0 9 Nxd5 exd5, but often play will take an independent path. For instance, Black could play 7…cxd4 rather than 7…Be7, and moves such as 5…cxd4 or 5…dxc4 need to be taken into account. All these alternative lines will be covered in a later post.

Black plays 2…Nf6 and 3…d5

After 3…d5 4 cxd5 Nxd5, White has an important choice to make.

The most aggressive move is 5 e4, intending to meet 5…Nxc3 with 6 dxc3! Qxd1+ 7 Kxd1, with an endgame that has proved surprisingly tricky to defend in practice. The critical reply is 5…Nb4. Then 6 d4 cxd4 7 Nxd4 is not recommended, because of the standard trick 7…Qxd4 8 Qxd4 Nc2+, winning a piece. Instead, White needs to choose between 6 Bc4 and 6 Bb5+, which lead to complex play.

More solid is 5 d4, when Black’s main responses are 5…cxd4, 5…Nxc3 and 5…e6. The alternative 5…g6 can be met by 6 dxc5 or even 6 Na4.

After 5…cxd4, Black aims to equalise by liquidating the centre. The character of this line is quite different to that of those after 5…Nxc3 6 bxc3 or 5…e6 6 e4 Nxc3 7 bxc3, where White gains a strong pawn front. After 6 Qxd4 Nxc3 7 Qxc3 we have the basic starting position of the line. White normally enjoys a temporary lead in development, as he can castle quicker (e.g. by e4, Be2, 0-0), which he needs to exploit. A detailed examination of the line is out of place here; I shall include it in a subsequent post on the lines after 3…d5.

The move 5…Nxc3 is met by 6 bxc3. Then 6…e6 7 e4 will be considered under 5…e6 below. The other main move is 6…g6. This offers a transposition into the Gruenfeld via 7 e4. Indeed the system with 3…d5 is an attractive move order for Gruenfeld players against 1 Nf3. Whereas 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5 runs into the dangerous 4 Qa4+, here it is not so clear that White has anything better than 7 e4, with the aforementioned transposition. Such a transposition would not be a disaster from a theoretical point of view, in that White is transposing into one of the main lines against the Gruenfeld (1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5 4 cxd5 Nxd5 5 e4 Nxc3 6 bxc3 c5 7 Nf3). However, White normally plays 1 Nf3 with the intention of sidestepping such lines completely. Khalifman suggest the alternative system 7 Bg5 Bg7 8 e3, where White adopts a more solid posture in the centre, in order to neutralise Black’s counterplay. This system is interesting, but I don’t have much experience of it, so I don’t feel qualified to offer a definite opinion.

The move 5…e6 will either transpose to 5…cxd4 6 Qxd4 e6 7 e4 after 6 e4 cxd4 7 Qxd4, or to the line of the Semi-Tarrasch discussed in a previous post after 6 e4 Nxc3 7 bxc3.

The conclusion from the above is that White’s best route against 3…d5 is not clear. As noted, the system may be of interest to Gruenfeld or Semi-Tarrasch players, because of the possible transpositions. I shall look at the variations that haven’t already been covered before in subsequent posts.

Black plays 2…Nf6 and 3…b6

This order of moves is typically aiming for the Hedgehog or Double Fianchetto Systems. If White plays the straightforward 4 g3, he is acquiescing to one of these transpositions:

  • 4…e6 5 Bg2 Bb7 6 0-0 leads to the Hedgehog System
  • 4…g6 5 Bg2 Bb7 6 0-0 Bg7 7 d4 leads to the Double Fianchetto System

Both these systems are covered in more detail below.

White can alternatively attempt to take advantage of Black’s move order by 4 e4. Then 4…d6 (to prevent e5) 5 d4 cxd4 6 Nxd4 Bb7. Now the simple 7 f3 leads to a typical Hedgehog setup where Black seems fine: 7…e6 8 Be3 Be7 9 Be2 0-0 10 0-0 Nbd7 11 Qd2 a6. One example from this position has always stuck in my mind, a game which was quoted by the loser, Simon Webb, in his book “Chess for Tigers”, as an excellent example of “Play the man – not the board”. Refer to the book for Webb’s (and Hartston’s) comments.

For this reason, Khalifman recommends the move 7 Qe2, with the idea of 7…Nc6 8 Nxc6 Bxc6 9 Bg5 and 10 0-0-0, or 7…e6 8 g4. This approach has always seemed promising to me and indeed I have used it in a few games, with success.

Black plays 2…Nf6 and 3…e6

This flexible position can be reached via a number of routes. White will meet 3…e6 with 4 g3, when play could go:

  • 4…Nc6, transposing to 3…Nc6 4 g3 e6
  • 4…d5 5 cxd5 and 5…exd5 6 d4 transposing to the Tarrasch Defence, or 5..Nxd5 6 Bg2 Nc6 transposing to the Semi-Tarrasch Defence (see above)
  • 4…b6, transposing to the Hedgehog System (see below)

Black plays 2…Nf6 and 3…g6

White should meet 3…g6 with 4 e4 and 5 d4, most likely transposing to the Maroczy Bind, e.g. 3…g6 4 e4 Bg7 5 d4 cxd4 6 Nxd4 Nc6. See below for more details.

Black plays 2…Nc6

This move order is actually rather tricky for White to meet. Black creates the possibility of …e5, which White usually tries to stop.

The most direct White approach is 3 d4, when play usually goes 3…cxd4 4 Nxd4. However, although this line is recommended by Khalifman in the first edition of his “Kramnik” repertoire, apparently the second edition, when it reaches this position, will instead go for 3 Nc3. The lines with 3 d4, against both 2…Nf6 and 2…Nc6, while dangerous, have never been regarded as offering White a definite advantage, and it seems that Black is now doing well in some lines. For instance, Palliser recommends the move 4…Qb6 in his book “Beating Unusual Chess Openings”, which does indeed seem promising. If you none the less fancy playing 3 d4, I suggest the Khalifman book as a starting point, but you will need to update the theory and also find some new ideas.

After 3 Nc3, White needs to be ready deal with the following Black moves:

  • 3…Nf6. This transposes to 2…Nf6 3 Nc3 Nc6. White should therefore play 4 g3 and consult the above section for how to deal with Black’s various possibilities.
  • 3…g6. White should play 4 e3 followed by d4.
  • 3…e5. This could be met by 4 e3, intending d4, or by the quieter 4 g3, with a Botvinnik System reversed.
  • 3…Nd4. This move, devised by Ljubojevic, is surprisingly hard to handle. One approach that has some promise is 4 e3 Nxf3+ 5 Qxf3 g6 6 b3 Bg7 7 Bb2 d6 8 g4.

I’ll have a more in depth look at these lines in a subsequent post.

Black plays 2…g6

White should meet this move with 3 e4, aiming for a transposition to the Maroczy Bind.

Then 3…Nc6 4 d4 cxd4 5 Nxd4 does indeed lead to that system, which is covered below.

If Black chooses 3…Bg7, White should again play 4 d4. Then 4…cxd4 5 Nxd4 Nc6 would again transpose to the Maroczy Bind, but instead Black has tried a few other systems, although not with any special success:

  • 4…Qa5+ 5 Nc3 Nc6. Building up pressure on d4 seem most logical. 6 d5 Nd4 7 Bd2 Nxf3+. Otherwise White will capture on d4 and play Nb5. 8 Qxf3 d6 9 Bd3 Nf6 10 0-0 0-0 11 h3 with a comfortable position for White.
  • 4…Nc6 5 dxc5 Qa5+ 6 Nfd2 Qxc5 7 Nb3 Qb6 8 Be2 d6 9 0-0 Nf6 10 Nc3 (note that this is delayed until Black plays …Nf6, so as to avoid …Bxc3). White has a typical Maroczy Bind position, with the added bonus that Black’s misplaced queen on b6 can be hit by Nd5.
  • 4…d6 5 Nc3. Now Black has various tries, but the most natural is 5…Nc6 6 d5 Nd4 7 Nxd4. Now 7…Bxd4 8 Bd3 Bg7 9 0-0 Nf6 10 h3 e5 11 Bg5 gives White a superior King’s Indian position, while 7…cxd4 8 Nb5 Qb6 9 c5 is a dangerous pawn sacrifice recommended by Khalifman. See volume 3 of his “Kramnik” series for a full analysis.

Black plays 2…b6

This is similar to 2…Nf6 3 Nc3 b6, and the same considerations apply here as there. 3 g3 will most likely transpose to either a Hedgehog or Double Fianchetto, while the independent 3 e4 is promising, as long as White adopts a more aggressive approach rather than stereotyped development.

The Hedgehog System

As noted previously, the Hedgehog System can arise from various move orders.

It is a provocative idea, related in concept to the lines of the Sicilian where Black plays …e6 and creates a solid position, looking to counter-attack should White over-extend. White needs to show good judgement in building up his position against it.

The basic position – however it is reached – can be regarded as the one after 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 b6 3 g3 Bb7 4 Bg2 c5 5 0-0 e6 6 Nc3. Black has tried various moves here: 6…Be7, 6…d6, 6…Nc6 are perhaps the main choices, but there are other possibilities.

Against 6…Be7 and 6…d6, White has two basic systems:

  • 7 d4 cxd4 8 Qxd4
  • 7 Re1 intending 8 e4, 9 d4 cxd4 10 Nxd4

I shall look at the various Black systems in the Hedgehog and the White responses to them in more detail in subsequent posts.

The Double Fianchetto System

Like the Hedgehog System, the Double Fianchetto can be reached via various move orders.

In the basic position, which is reached after 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 b6 3 g3 Bb7 4 Bg2 c5 5 0-0 g6, among other routes, White’s main continuation runs 6 Nc3 Bg7 7 d4 cxd4 8 Qxd4, when he has the following Black possibilities to contend with:

  • 8…Na6 9 b3 0-0 10 Bb2 Nc5 11 Rac1 d6 12 Rfd1 Rc8 and now 13 Bh3 is interesting.
  • 8…Nc6 9 Qf4 intending Qh4 and Bh6, should Black castle.
  • 8 …0-0 9 Qh4 followed by Bh6.
  • 8…d6 is the main move, as Black avoids castling (which is dangerous because of Qh4 intending Bh6) and also looks to place his b8 knight on the best square (d7). Then 9 Rd1 Nbd7 10 Be3 Rc8 11 Rac1 0-0 12 Qh4 a6 13 b3 is the main line, with a tense battle ahead.

I shall look at this system in more detail in a subsequent post.

The Maroczy Bind

The Maroczy Bind can be reached by many move orders. The standard starting position is the one that arises after 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4 g6 3 e4 Nc6 4 d4 cxd4 5 Nxd4, and I shall concentrate on the variations that arise from this.

The main sub-systems at Black’s can be summarised as follows, with the usual proviso that some can arise from different orders of moves:

(a) 5…Nf6 6 Nc3:
(a1) 6…Bg7 7 Be3:
(a1a) 7…Ng4
(a1b) 7…0-0 8 Be2 b6
(a2) 6…d6 7 Be2:
(a2a) 7…Nxd4 8 Qxd4 Bg7 9 Bg5 0-0 10 Qd2:
(a2a1) 10…Be6
(a2a2) 10…a6
(a2b) 7…Bg7 8 Be3 0-0 9 0-0:
(a2b1) 9…Bd7
(a2b2) 9…Nxd4 10 Bxd4 Be6
(b) 5…Bg7 6 Be3 d6 7 Nc3 Nh6
(c) 5…Bh6

I shall examine these systems in more detail in subsequent posts.

As a general rule of thumb, White tends to play Be3 in response to …Bg7, either because there is a direct threat to the knight on d4, or an indirect one, based on the tactic …Nxe4. If White has the choice, then he tends to look to place the bishop elsewhere, as in variation a2a above.

Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to the 1 Nf3 Repertoire.
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