Building a repertoire based on 1 Nf3

In this post I’m going to take an overview of building a repertoire based on 1 Nf3. In subsequent posts I’ll look at things in more detail.

Here are the main points to bear in mind.

  1. The best way to get a grip on the various move orders is to bear in mind the key positions that are being aimed at, and those which are being avoided.
  2. After 1 Nf3 d5, White plays the direct 2 d4, usually followed by 3 c4, as there is no reason to avoid transposition to the Queen’s Gambit or Catalan.
  3. However, after 1 Nf3 Nf6, White continues with the flexible 2 c4, inviting Black to show his hand.
  4. The most common alternatives to 1 …d5 and 1 …Nf6 are 1 …c5, 1 …f5, 1 …g6, 1 …d6 and 1 …e6. All of these are met by 2 c4, except for 1 ..d6, which is met by 2 d4. The reaction to 1 …d6 is thematic; after 1 Nf3, White usually tries to stop …e5 if at all possible.
  5. If Black plays a combination of …d5, …e6 and …Nf6, White will aim for either the Queen’s Gambit or Catalan.
  6. White should also be prepared for the Slav, Queen’s Gambit Accepted and Tarrasch.
  7. There are a number of minor lines after 1 Nf3 d5 2 d4 that White needs some general knowledge to meet. Usually he will play 3 c4, leading to the Queen’s Gambit, although sometimes other approaches are worth considering.
  8. The Symmetrical Variation of the English Opening is a key part of the repertoire. This arise when Black plays …c5 before White has played d4, and White plays c4 himself. There are many possible move orders; the most obvious are 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4 and 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 c5, but Black can also delay the move …c5 for a while, e.g. 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 b6 3 g3 Bb7 4 Bg2 e6 5 0-0 Be7 6 Nc3 0-0 7 Re1 and only now 7 …c5.
  9. White needs to be familiar with the follow sub-variations of the Symmetrical English: the pure symmetrical, the Semi-Tarrasch, the systems with a quick …d5, the Double Fianchetto, the Hedgehog, the system 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4 Nc6.
  10. White also needs to be familiar with the classic Maroczy Bind formation. This can arise in various ways, but the standard move order is 1 Nf3 c5 2 c4 g6 3 e4 Nc6 4 d4 cxd4 5 Nxd4. This is usually classified as a line of the Sicilian, but has more in common with the English Opening.
  11. If Black shows that he is willing to go in for the King’s Indian, White should take him on and play d4, either aiming for the Classical or Fianchetto Variations. The former can arise after 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 Bg7 4 e4 d6 5 d4, while the latter is reached via 3 g3 and a later d4. In the former case, White avoids the Gruenfeld, as 3 …d5 can be met by 4 Qa4+, which is tricky for Black to meet.
  12. If Black plays 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 d6, White should play 3 d4, being prepared either for a King’s Indian, if Black develops his bishop to g7, or an Old Indian, if Black does not employ the fianchetto.
  13. However, if Black is angling for a Nimzo-Indian or Queen’s Indian, White should hold back the d-pawn. In the former case, 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 e6 should be met by either 3 Nc3 or 3 g3, depending on whether White prefers the Queen’s Gambit or Catalan. In the latter case, White should counter 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 b6 with 3 g3, 4 Bg2, 5 0-0, and aim to play Re1 and e4 before pushing with d4.
  14. White will generally meet the Dutch formation (…f5) with d4 as some point, aiming for the main lines of the opening. However, against some specific formations White may benefit from an alternative approach based on d3 and e4.
  15. As with the King’s Indian or Old Indian, White will meet the Modern (either via 1 …g6 or 1 …d6) with a system based on d4. After 1 Nf3 d6, White will play the move immediately with 2 d4, while after 1 Nf3 g6 it will come a few moves later, with 2 c4 Bg7 3 e4 d6 4 d4 being a common move order.
  16. The move 1 …e6 tends to transpose to other lines, with Black playing either …d5 or …f5.
  17. There are a number of other minor systems for Black, against which White should have some basic knowledge about, but they are generally easy to meet with sensible play.

Although the above might seem overwhelming at first, in fact White’s approach after 1 Nf3 is one of those things that is harder to explain than to understand. I would advise sketching out a tree of variations to get a feeling for how all the positions are interlinked.

Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to the 1 Nf3 Repertoire.
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6 Responses to Building a repertoire based on 1 Nf3

  1. Per says:

    Should beginners avoid opening their games with 1. Nf3, or is it a good choice?

    I see pretty much all opening db’s, if you do not only include extremely strong players (like maybe 2700 and above), show better winning stats for 1. Nf3 than the typical 1. e4 and 1. d4. Also, playing against slightly more experienced players, it might be good to play slightly less popular moves that are still good, so that your more experienced opponent cannot crush you with superior knowledge. These are the points in favor of 1. Nf3 also for beginners.

    But maybe the fact that it morphs into other openings means that you’ll have to learn more systems than the more common 1. e4/d4, rather than focus on learning one system really well? Also it seems that Vladimir Kramnik is a very theoretical player, does this mean that 1. Nf3 tends to lead to very heavy theory-laden positions, where a beginner might feel uncomfortable?

    • James Mansson says:

      I would suggest that 1 Nf3 is not the move to start with, but one to add to your repertoire when you become a more experienced player. I would suggest getting to grips with 1 d4 openings first. Then 1 Nf3 can be an effective tool in your repertoire, as it allows you to target players whose favoured defence cannot be played against 1 Nf3, e.g. the Nimzo-Indian, Gruenfeld, Benoni Systems etc.

      As far as having to learn more openings, I don’t think 1 Nf3 requires more knowledge than 1 d4. The additional systems you have to learn are compensated by the systems you don’t have to worry about. For instance, while you have to learn the Symmetrical English, you don’t have to learn the various Benoni Systems (Modern Benoni, Benko Gambit etc.).

      As far as the systems after 1 Nf3 being heavily theoretical, again this doesn’t have to be the case. The systems that Kramnik used to play at his peak were very much at the cutting edge, but you have the option of choosing something quieter if you prefer. For instance, Kramnik used to play the sharp Bayonette Attack against the King’s Indian, but you could choose something quieter; the only restriction is that you have to choose a line featuring Nf3.

  2. James Reed says:

    Any thoughts on using the KIA move order to transpose into the Catalan? My biggest challenge using this has been vs the Slav but playing c4 and Qb3 has been working well enough for me.

    • James Mansson says:

      I think it is the best approach, as it makes a virtue out of being committed to Nf3. One of the main arguments in favour of playing 1 d4 rather than 1 Nf3, when you are aiming for systems with d4 & c4, is that you have greater flexibility in your choice of lines, as you are not committed to a line with an early Nf3. However, if you are aiming for the Catalan against Black’s …d5, …e6, …Nf6 set-up, then playing an early Nf3 is not a problem, and indeed it is Nc3 that you want to delay, or even play something else. On the other hand, if you go for a straightforward Queen’s Gambit approach (e.g. 1 Nf3 d5 2 d4 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3 rather than 4 g3), then your options have been reduced. As far as the Slav is concerned, most of the main lines involve an early Nf3 anyway, so I’ve never seen much of a loss there. Perhaps the greatest loss is with the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, where you cannot employ the most criticial line (1 d4 d5 2 c4 dxc4 3 e4).

  3. Pierre F says:

    Huge amount of information to digest even for an ex-intermediate player! As of 2021 do you still consider your 1.Nf3 repertoire relevant?
    I consider buying Hilton and Ippolito – Wojo’s weapons – Winning with White but would like to know if there is a better approach by having video courses as seen on chess.com or even chessable.com.
    My intent is to start again tournament after 30 years of absence. At 56 I’m not as quick as before with my brain so I need to get excellent help before launching in this project. In the meantime I do tactics puzzle on a regular base but I know that I need some strong understanding of modern theory and specially plan to see improvement.

    Thank you for your time and excellent and precious work.

    • James Mansson says:

      The point about the “Wojo’s weapons” repertoire is that you are aiming for more familiar middlegames and endgames, rather than trying to beat the opponent in the opening. From that perspective it seems broadly playable. The move order also has the advantage of allowing you to sidestep Black’s more aggressive defences. From a theory perspective, Avrukh’s more recent books on his 1 d4 repertoire cover many lines that can easily arise out of the “Wojo” repertoire with 1 Nf3 (Catalan, Fianchetto vs King’s Indian/Gruenfeld/Dutch); also, Cummings’ 1 c4 repertoire covers the Symmetrical English, which again can easily arise out of the “Wojo” repertoire. As far as the best way to learn lines, that is largely a matter of taste. I personally find videos useful for giving me an overview, but for more detail books, databases, and other sources of commentary are essential. It’s essential to actually play an opening as soon as possible, as it is only that way that you really start to appreciate the practical issues.

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