1 Nf3 repertoire: The Symmetrical English with 2…Nf6 and 3…d5

After 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 Nc3, an important option for Black is 3…d5. This is different to 3…Nc6 4 g3 d5, discussed in the previous post, in a couple of important ways:

  • After 3…d5, White cannot play 4 d4 effectively, because there is no Black knight on c6. In contrast, after 3…Nc6 4 g3 d5 5 d4, the knight on c6 gives White various possibilities: 5…dxc4 6 d5 hits the knight, while 5…cxd4 6 Nxd4 dxc4 is met by 7 Nxc6, leaving Black with a weakened pawn structure.
  • After 3…d5, as opposed to 3…Nc6 4 g3 d5, Black is not immediately threatening …e5, while White has not committed himself to g3. This makes 3…d5 4 cxd5 more promising for White than 3…Nc6 4 g3 d5 5 cxd5.

Therefore, White meets 3…d5 with 4 cxd5 and after 4…Nxd5, he has an important choice to make.

The move I shall consider in detail here is 5 d4. There is a sharp alternative in 5 e4, but I don’t have any practical experience of that as White, so I don’t think that I can usefully offer much comment on it. The other moves, such as 5 g3 and 5 e3, strike me as too passive.

Following 5 d4, it is possible that play will transpose either to the Semi-Tarrasch or the Gruenfeld:

  • 5…e6 6 e4 Nxc3 7 bxc3 leads to the Semi-Tarrasch.
  • 5…Nxc3 6 bxc3 g6 7 e4 Bg7 leads to one of the main branches of the Exchange Variation. 8 Rb1 and 8 Be3 are White’s most challenging approaches.

While I don’t think that there is much mileage in avoiding the Semi-Tarrasch, given that the line is so promising for White, I do think that there is an attraction in looking at ways to sidestep the Gruenfeld. After all, one of the main ideas behind the 1 Nf3 move order is to exclude certain troublesome Black defences, and the Gruenfeld is one of these.

I should say at this point that the most radical means of avoiding the transposition to the Gruenfeld is 5 e4 rather than 5 d4. This is based on the belief that the endgame after 5…Nxc3 6 dxc3 Qxd1+ 7 Kxd1 is difficult for Black. Black therefore has to play 5…Nb4, leading to complications. The current theoretical verdict seems to be that Black is OK in these lines. I am no expert in this variation, however, so it may be possible for White to find something there.

White therefore has to find something other than 7 e4, if he wants to play 5 d4, but sidestep the normal Gruenfeld. Khalifman advocates the move 7 Bg5. One of the key points about this, compared to the normal Gruenfeld, is that Black has committed himself to …Nxc3 without being forced to do so (e.g. by e4). This both allows White to develop his dark-squared bishop actively, while also being able to solidify his centre with e3, rather than e4. White’s general scheme is illustrated by Khalifman’s main line: 7…Bg7 8 e3 Qa5 9 Qd2 Nc6 10 Rb1 a6 11 Bd3 0-0 12 0-0. While this approach looks promising for White, I have not had a chance to try this line out in practice, so I feel unable to offer a more detailed assessment. Certainly, though, this looks like the route to go down for White.

Because Black would ideally not play …Nxc3 so soon if he is heading for a Gruenfeld, he might try another move order. However, 5…g6 can be met by 6 dxc5 Nxc3 7 Qxd8+ Kxd8 8 bxc3 and now Black has to decide how to develop his bishop:

  • 8…Bg7 9 Nd4 Bd7 10 Rb1 and although Black is likely to regain the pawn, he will find it difficult to develop properly. E.g. 10…Kc7 11 e4 Nc6 12 Bf4+ Kc8 (12…e5 13 Nb5+) 13 Bb5 Rd8 14 Nxc6 Bxc6 15 Bxc6 Bxc3+ 16 Ke2 bxc6 (Vekshenkov – Petrienko, USSR 1984) or 10…Bc6 11 f3 Nd7 12 e4 Nxc5 13 Nxc6 bxc6 14 Be3 Ne6 15 Ba6 Bxc3 16 Kf2 Bd4 17 Rhd1 c5 18 Rb7 (Kurajica – Rogul, Rabac 2004).
  • 8…f6 9 Be3 e5 10 Nd2 Be6 11 g3 Kc7 12 Bg2 Nc6. White keeps his extra pawn, although it is difficult to convert into a win.

White can also consider 6 Na4 against 5…g6.

As far as the Semi-Tarrasch is concerned, I have already covered that in another post, so I won’t write any more about it here.

The trickiest lines for White are those where Black aims to exploit the opportunity to liquidate the White centre. These arise after 5…cxd4 6 Qxd4.

Black usually takes on c3 at once. Instead 6…e6 7 e4 Nc6 (7…Nxc3 transposes to 6…Nxc3) 8 Bb5 Nxc3 9 Bxc6+ bxc6 10 Qxc3 leaves Black with a weak pawn on c6, while White can neutralise the Black bishop pair via Be3-c5.

After 6…Nxc3 7 Qxc3, White inhibits the development of Black’s kingside by putting pressure on g7. Black on the other hand has possibilities of counterplay based on …Nc6 and …e6, threatening …Bb4. Black’s main moves are therefore 7…e6 and 7…Nc6. These two moves can lead to the same position. The main lines of play are now:

  • 7…e6 8 e4 Nc6 9 a3 Bd7 (Black aims for rapid counterplay down the c-file) 10 Be2 Rc8 11 0-0 Na5 12 Qd3 Ba4 13 Qxd8+ Rxd8 14 Be3 Nb3 15 Bd1 a6 16 Bxb3 Bxb3 17 Rac1. While Black has gained the two bishops, he is behind in development, which is the more significant factor.
  • 7…Nc6 8 e4 Bg4 (8…e6 transposes to 7…e6) 9 Bb5 Rc8 10 Bf4 Bxf3 11 gxf3 Qb6 12 Qd3 Rd8 13 Qc4. White has the bishop pair, while Black has still to complete his development.
Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to the 1 Nf3 Repertoire.
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