1 Nf3 repertoire: The Ultra Symmetrical English

One question in a range of openings is what happens if Black simply copies White’s move? Sometimes, of course, this is not especially good, e.g. 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c5 3 cxd5, but sometimes it is (arguably) the strongest approach, e.g. 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 – a formidable drawing weapon at super GM level.

In our repertoire, such an approach is feasible, given that White’s build up is slow and tends to feature natural developing moves. However, there will come a point when White plays something active, such as d4, and Black cannot respond in kind.

The specific line I am thinking of starts 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 Nc3 Nc6 4 g3 g6. Of course, Black’s 1st and 2nd moves can be played in the reverse order.

If White is to get an advantage in this line, he really needs to play d4. It is possible to play Bg2 and 0-0 first, then d4, but this gives Black the opportunity to play …d5 himself. I think that the most incisive approach is to get the move in immediately with 5 d4, since White knows that he wants to play that move against Black’s formation. In addition to discouraging …d5, this move order also looks to rule out Black playing …d6, unless he takes on d4 twice, because of the pressure on the knight on c6.

Early deviations by Black

Given my general remarks above, the first thing to consider is whether Black could copy White with 5…d5.

The sharpest response to this is the line 6.dxc5 d4 7.Nb5 e5 8.Bg5 Bxc5 9.Bxf6 Qxf6 10.Nc7+ Kf8 11.Nxa8 e4 12.Bg2 exf3 13.Bxf3. Originally, I thought that this was good for White, as he has an extra move compared to the equivalent line with colours reversed (1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.g3 d5 5.d4 dxc4?! 6.d5 Nb4 7.e4 Bg4 8.Bxc4 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 Nc2+ 10.Kf1 Nxa1 11.e5); we will examine this from White’s perspective in a later post. However, looking at it again in 2019, the computer evaluates the position as very much in Black’s favour, as an astuste reader has pointed out in the comments. For instance 13…Bh3, threatening …Bb4+, looks very strong. 14.a3 is an obvious try, but then 14…d3 15. Qxd3 Kg7 16. Nc7 Ne5 17. Qc2 Nxf3+ 18. exf3 Qe7+ 19. Qe2 Qxc7 is very strong for Black, e.g. 20. O-O-O Be6 21. Rhe1 Bxc4 22. Qd2 Rc8. The computer suggests 14. Qb3 as relatively best, but things looks grim for White after 14…Bb4+ 15. Kd1 Qg5 16. Qc2 Bf5 17. Qc1 Qd8.

Rather than taking the rook, 11.Bg2 looks safer, although White has then given up the bishop pair, and the Black king can easily find safety on g7.

White may be better off going for 6.Bg2. Then taking on c4 doesn’t look that great (e.g. 6…dxc4 7.d5 Nb4 8.Ne5), while 6…Bg7 can be met by 7.dxc5:

  • 7…d4 looks promising for White after 8.Nb5 Nh5 (8…e5? 9.Nd6+; 8…Ne4?! 9.Nfxd4) 9.e3
  • 7…dxc4 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 and now 9.Ne5 has been tried in a couple of GM games, and is perhaps slightly better for White.

White can also consider 7.0-0.

The second thing to consider is the move order where Black attempts to play …d6 quickly. This arises after 5…cxd4 6 Nxd4 d6 7 Bg2 Bd7. Here Khalifman recommends 8 Nxc6!? as played by Kasparov no less on a number of occasions. Now:

  • 8…bxc6 is met by 9 c5, when taking the pawn leaves the Black structure extremely compromised, so the game Kasparov – Kramnik, Moscow 1998 went instead 9…d5 10 e4 dxe4 11 Nxe4 Nxe4 12 Bxe4 Bg7 13 0-0 0-0 14 Qa4 Qc8 15 Rd1 with pressure on the Black position. Then Kramnik played 15…a5, and now Khalifman recommends the continuation 16 Rxd7! Qxd7 17 Bxc6 Qe6 18 Bxa8 Rxa8 19 Be3 Bxb2 20 Rb1. White has the better of it because of his passed pawn. 18…Qe1+ 19 Kg2 only represents a temporary disruption for White, as the Black queen will surely have to retreat to help stop the c-pawn.
  • 8…Bxc6 9 e4 Bg7 10 Be3 0-0 11 0-0 leads to a typical situation where White has a grip on the position similar to the Maroczy Bind. He will continue with moves such as Rc1, Qe2, Rfd1, followed by Nd5 at a judicious moment.

Black’s 8th move alternatives

The main position of the line arises after 5…cxd4 6 Nxd4 Bg7 7 Bg2 0-0 8 0-0. Here White’s advantage is based on the difficulty Black has developing his queenside. Because of the combined pressure of White’s knight on d4 and bishop on g2 on the Black knight on c6, natural development with 8…d6 would cost Black a pawn. This position is tricky for Black to play, especially if he doesn’t have a carefully prepared plan for unravelling his position.

The most radical answer to Black’s problems is to play 8…d6 anyway. White clearly has to take the pawn, otherwise Black can just play …Bd7 and develop comfortably. The best way to do it is via 9 Nxc6 Bxc6 10 Bxc6. Now Black has two ways to play it:

  • 10…Bh3 is less well regarded. Black relies on tactics to regain the exchange, but his position is compromised. After 11 Bxa8 Qxa8 (11…Bxf1 12 Bf3) 12 f3 Bxf1 13 Kxf1 it is difficult to see how Black can really have enough for the pawn. Black can attack c4 starting with 13…Rc8, but after 14 Qd3 it seems that White can consolidate. For instance, after 14…Qc6 the tactics work in White’s favour: 15 Be3 a6 (15…Qxc4 16 Qxc4 Rxc4 17 Bxa7 led to a swift win in Uhlmann – Velimirovic, Arandjelovac 1976) 16 Rc1 and now 16…Qxc4 fails to 17 Nd5.
  • 10…Rb8 is generally preferred. Black’s compensation is based on his pressure on White’s queenside. The bishop on c1 is currently forced to stay at home, to defend b2. The move b3 runs into tactical problems against …Ne4. Because b3 is tricky to arrange, Black may be able to generate threats against the pawn on c4. Khalifman recommends that White deals with Black’s pressure by means on the following sequence: 11 Qa4!? Bh3 12 Rd1! Qc7 13 Bf3 Rfc8 14 b3 Ne4 15 Nd5!? I refer the reader to the first edition of Khalifman’s second book in the “Kramnik” series for more detail.

What options does Black have if it he doesn’t want to play the radical 8…d6? The main White choices have always been 8…Nxd4 and 8…Ng4. Other moves that have been tried are 8…Qa5 and 8…Qb6. Before considering these, I’ll mention that 8…a6?! is an instructive mistake by Black. White plays 9 c5! Qc7 10 Nb3, aiming to maintain his clamp on Black’s queenside. As 10..d6 would leave Black with a weak pawn on d6, the only other move he could try to free his queenside would be 10…b6, but then one promising continuation is 11 cxb6 Qxb6 12 Be3 Qc7 13 Bf4 Qa7 14 Rc1 Bb7 15 Be3 Qb8 16 Nc5 (Sebenik – Demidenko, Bled 1999), when the White pieces exert strong pressure on the Black queenside.

The move 8…Qb6 is logical, in that Black needs to relieve the pressure on c6 so as to play …d6 and develop his bishop, and driving the White knight from d4 would help towards that end. However, the Black queen is exposed on b6, and forcing the knight from d4 actually helps White in the sense that Black is deprived of once chance to free his position by exchanges. An example of how play might goes is Kramnik – Kamsky, PCA Candidates 1/4 Final Match (6), New York 1994: 9 Nc2! d6 10 b3 Be6 11 e4!? Bg4 12 Qe1! Rac8 13 h3 Bd7 14 Be3 Qa5 15 Nd5!? Qxe1 16 Rfxe1 Ne8 17 Rad1 Nc7 18 f4 Rfd8 19 Re2 with a slight advantage to White.

When Black plays 8…Qa5, he opens up the possibility of …Qh5, intending active play on the kingside. White should continue 9 Nb3 followed by 10 c5 against both 9…Qh5 and 9…Qb4. After 9 Nb3 Qh5 10 c5, Black can try 10…d6 11 exd6 Rd8, but then 12 e4 Bg4 13 f3 wins material:

  • 13…Rxd6? 14 Nd5! threatening 15 fxg4 or 15 Nxe7+ Nxe7 16 Qxd6.
  • 13…Bh3 14 g4 Qh4 15 Qe1 Qxe1 16 Rxe1 Bxg2 17 dxe7.
  • 13…Be6 14 Qe1 Rxd6 15 g4.

Black plays 8…Ng4

8…Ng4 has a similar motivation to 8…Qb6, although in this case White’s best approach seems to be the simple 9 e3, fortifying his knight.

Black’s main continuations are then:

  • 9…Nge5 10 b3 d6 11 h3 Nxd4 12 exd4 Nc6 13 Be3 e5 14 dxe5 Qa5 15 Nd5 dxe5 16 b4.
  • 9…Nxd4 10 exd4 Nh6 11 Bxh6!? White reasons that without …Nf5, Black will be passive. 11…Bxh6 12 Re1 Bg7 13 Qe2 e6 14 Rad1 d5 15 c5.
  • 9…d6 10 Nde2 Qa5 11 Nd5 e6 12 Bd2 Qd8 13 Ndc3 Rb8 14 Rc1 a6 15 b3 Nce5 16 Nd4 Bd7 17 Qe2.

In all cases, White gets the better game, as Black’s counterplay proves to be limited.

The Main Line: 8…Nxd4

Finally, we come to the main Black move 8…Nxd4. After 9 Qxd4 d6, White normally plays the prophylactic 10 Qd3, removing the queen from the line of the bishop on g7 while keeping the c4 pawn covered. Securing that pawn is a key part of White’s strategy in this line. While b3 at some point is usually desirable, White often needs to play Bd2 first, to secure the knight on c3.

Black has various methods for creating play, which can be tried in various combinations:

  • The pawn break …b5.
  • The knight manoeuvre …Nd7-c5, hitting the queen on d3.
  • The queen manoeuvre …Qa5-h5, followed by …Bh3.
  • The bishop move …Be6, hitting the pawn on c4.

There are too many possible lines of play to attempt to be comprehensive in this summary. I’ll just look at what Khalifman gives as the main line in order to illustrate some points.

In order to prepare …b5, 10…a6 is a logical move for Black. Then White plays 11 Bd2 to keep c3 protected before playing b3. Black responds with 11…Rb8 and White continues with 12 Rac1, developing his rook and removing it from any threats along the long diagonal, as b3 is not necessary at this stage.

Now 12…b5 at once doesn’t work, as White plays 13 cxb5 axb5 14 Nxb5 Bf5 15 e4. If Black regains the pawn with 15…Nxe4 16 Bxe4 Bxe4 17 Qxe4 Rxb5, White’s pawns on the queenside will be far more dangerous after 18 b4, intending a4. The alternative method of regaining the pawn 15…Bd7 16 a4! Qb6 17 h3 Bxb5 18 axb5 Qxb5 19 Qxb5 Rxb5 20 b4 is better, but White’s passed pawn on the queenside should still give him the edge.

Black is therefore advised to prepare the move …b5 further. This can be done by 12…Nd7, preparing the aforementioned knight manoeuvre, which drives the White queen from covering b5. After 13 b3 (White needs to cover against …Ne5) Nc5 14 Qe3 b5 Black has achieved the break, but White can then play 15 cxb5 axb5 16 Nd5 Be6 17 Nb4 and his knight is well placed in front of the Black b-pawn. Khalifman now quotes the game Kanstler – Bleiss, Tel Aviv 1999, where White improved his position in typical fashion: 17…Qd7 18 Bc3! Bxc3 19 Rxc3 Rbc8 20 Rfc1 Rc7 21 Qd4 Rfc8 22 h4! h5 23 Kh2 Qe8 24 e4. Now White is looking to play e5, undermining the knight on c5.

Final Remarks

The ultra-symmetrical line of the English Opening has traditionally had a drawish reputation. However, this has been based on the lines that arise from the move order 1 c4 c5 2 g3 g6 3 Bg2 Bg7 4 Nc3 Nc6, where White cannot play d4 in a direct manner. In the move order employed here, White plays d4 quickly, forcing Black to capture with …cxd4, and play becomes a lot more promising for the first player. I have personally played quite a few games in this line with good results, and it has always struck me that it is a difficult line for Black to play, as it is not easy from him to develop his queenside. In that respect, it is rather like the Catalan, another opening that I have used with success.

Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to the 1 Nf3 Repertoire.
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2 Responses to 1 Nf3 repertoire: The Ultra Symmetrical English

  1. Tom says:

    Hi James,

    Thanks a lot for your posts on 1. Nf3, I have found them very useful for constructing a repertoire and understanding the various move orders.

    I was a bit surprised by this line you give here:

    “White can respond to this sharply with 6.dxc5 d4 7.Nb5 e5 8.Bg5 Bxc5 9.Bxf6 Qxf6 10.Nc7+ Kf8 11.Nxa8 e4. This should be compared to the equivalent line, with colours reversed, which we will examined from White’s perspective in a later post (1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.g3 d5 5.d4 dxc4?! 6.d5 Nb4 7.e4 Bg4 8.Bxc4 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 Nc2+ 10.Kf1 Nxa1 11.e5). In the current situation, the extra move g3 allows 12.Bg2 exf3 13.Bxf3, which allows White to fight for the advantage.”

    In fact, putting the position through analysis on Lichess (which runs Stockfish 10+) gives an evaluation of -2.3, completely lost for White. From a human point of view, it also seems like a pretty awful position for White. I see no feasible way to recover the knight on a8, Black has a well protected advanced pawn on d4, not to mention Black’s bishop pair.

    I am just wondering if this was a product of chess engines when this was written (2011) or out of data opening books.

    I think it would be sensible for anyone reading these posts to make sure the evaluations are correct, but nonetheless, the overview of such a wide variety of lines you have organised in a sensible way is very much appreciated.

    Best wishes,

    • James Mansson says:

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Unfortunately, I don’t have the source material (the Khalifman books) to hand, but I imagine that the line 6.dxc5 d4 7.Nb5 e5 8.Bg5 Bxc5 9.Bxf6 Qxf6 10.Nc7+ Kf8 11.Nxa8 e4 12.Bg2 exf3 13.Bxf3 was suggested there.

      While I don’t recall having to face 5…d5 in an actual game, I did have a game featuring 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nc3 Nc6 4. g3 d5 5. d4 dc4 6. d5 Nb4 7. e4 Bg4 8. Bc4 Bf3 9. Qf3 Nc2 10. Kf1 Na1 11. e5 as White back in 2001. While I managed to win the game (as described in a subsequent post in this series), I found it tough to demonstrate compensation; it should be remembered that computers weren’t up to much in such positions back in 2001. This may have led me to underestimate Black’s resources in the line mentioned, as I would have assumed the extra move would prove very useful.

      Anyway, I’ll have a look at the line again and revise the analysis.

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