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The Primary "Tabiya" or Opening Position of the Nimzovich Attack of Petrov's Defense
Livening Up a "Dull" Opening
Petrov's Defense, also known as Petroff's Defense, the Russian Game or the Russian Defense, is a solid, symmetrical opening option for black that is known for its drawish tendencies. It can be especially drawish if white chooses to simplify the position early, which white may forcibly do. This defense, however, can also be very complex and theoretical should white choose to play along other lines. I, instead, will support a third option in this Hub, where the position is imbalanced and open, giving rise to many tactical possibilities, especially as this line often has the players castling on opposite sides of the board.
To begin, Petrov's Defense is reached with the moves 1.e4 e5, 2.Nf3 Nf6. As is apparent here, black chooses to counterattack the e4-pawn in this opening rather than defend the e5-pawn with the more typical move 2...Nc6. Because of this, early pawn exchanges in the center often occur, though white has the option to transpose into the Three Knight's Game with 3.Nc3, which avoids Petrov's Defense but also likely gives away any attempt for white to attain an advantage out of the opening. The line I will be recommending, the Nimzovich (Nimzowitsch) Attack, is then reached after 3.Nxe5 d6, 4.Nf3 Nxe4, 5.Nc3.
Pitfalls in the Petrov
To someone new to this opening or variation, the series of moves and exchanges that I just mentioned may seem strange or arbitrary. This, however, is not the case, as there are many "traps" or pitfalls for the unexpecting black side. The first comes after 3.Nxe5. Here, black cannot take on e4 immediately, hence the insertion of the move d6. This is because white can win at least a pawn after, 3.Nxe5 Nxe4, 4.Qe2, when black cannot retreat the knight because of a deadly discovered check. This may seem trivial to some of you, but I happen to see this and the other traps, which I will soon mention, quite a bit.
Keep in mind that these traps all have a similar theme in mind, which is the open e-file and a queen coming to e2 should black misstep. If black wrongly retreats the knight in the dubious line above, 4...Nf6 for example, 5.Nc6+ wins black's queen. Similarly, if black tries to break the pin with his own attack on the e5-knight, then after 4...Qe7, 5.Qxe4, black must play 5...d6 to win back the piece. White can, however, play 6.d4, meaning that after 6...dxe5, white wins a pawn. Black should take their medicine here and not attempt to win back this pawn with a move like 6...Nc6, as the lines get very complicated and all highly favor white. One other important point that I should make is that after 6...dxe5, the move 7.dxe5 is much stronger for white than 7.Qxe5. Keeping queens on the board is the only way for white to show any substantial advantage, and players of the black side have been known to play this line as a deceptive pawn sacrifice that appears like a blunder; I will leave it to the reader to study this specific line further.
The next trap occurs after 3.Nxe5 d6, 4.Nf3 Nxe4, 5.Nc3, when we have already entered the Nimzovich Attack. If black tries to get creative and stray from the two fifth move options I have mentioned in the image above (5...Nxc3 or 5...Nf6), then they can quickly find themselves down a piece. If, for example, black plays 5...Qe7, hoping to employ a trick similar to the one in the trap I just mentioned, then after 6.Nd5, black is forced either to move their queen to d7 or d8 to protect the c7 pawn, or go into a forcing line with 6...Nc3+ or 6...Nxf2+, both of which leave black down a piece.
Again, these traps may seem basic and unlikely, but I have seen them quite a bit in my online blitz games; not only that, but many world-class players have fallen into such traps at least once in their careers. None other than Vishy Anand, himself, fell into a trap in this opening, seen here: Zapata v. Anand, Biel (1988). The trap in this Anand game is similar to the one I just mentioned. After the moves of the game (1.e4 e5, 2.Nf3 Nf6, 3.Nxe5 d6, 4.Nf3 Nxe4, 5.Nc3 Bf5, 6.Qe2), white will win a piece, as the Nd5 move still works for white if black tries to break the pin with the queen (6...Qe7), and d3 will win the piece after 6...d5.
Exploring the Nimzovich Attack
Sorry to have spent so much time on the traps in Petrov's Defense, but they really are necessary to ensure that you take advantage of your opponents' mistakes if you're new to the opening.
Now, depending on how your opponent reacts to the move 5.Nc3 will change the nature of the game. What the white player wants, in playing this variation, is for black to take on c3, 5...Nxc3, after which white will take back with their d-pawn. Yes, white has just damaged their structure by acquiring doubled c-pawns, but this allows for quick development of white's dark-squared bishop, and it also arguably strengthens white's queenside structure which is where white plans to castle. The other option is for black to retreat their knight to f6, 5...Nf6, which unfortunately leads back into more typical looking structures of Petrov's Defense. Fortunately, black tends to take on c3 about 81% of the time, according to databases, so you're sure to see it quite often. Not only that, but black's moves in getting to the Nimzovich Attack, upon entering Petrov's Defense, are almost forced, so you're likely to be able to put your time studying this line to good use. The only deviation I was able to find for black is if they play 3...Qe7 instead of d6, but this move is dubious and rare, as black's queen is misplaced on e7. Be aware of it though.
I will mainly be discussing the lines in which black takes on c3, but I will also mention some ideas about the 5...Nf6 variation for the sake of completeness. We'll start with the 5...Nf6 variation.
Black's Two Most Popular Sixth Move Options Following 5...Nf6, 6.d4
The Nimzovich Attack with 5...Nf6
As I mentioned before, the lines in which black plays 5...Nf6 are more like normal Petrov's Defense lines, though I believe that the opening has not technically transposed at this point and that it still falls within Nimzovich Attack lines. This fifth move option by black is not as common as the 5...Nxc3 lines, but that is not to say that it is grossly inferior, as both lines are seen at the highest level. Black actually scores better with this line if including all rating levels, and black scores worse if only including rating levels of 2200 or more. Let this be one indicator of how much time you might want to spend studying either of these lines, should you choose to employ it with either color.
White's unanimous response to 5...Nf6 is 6.d4, taking space in the center and allowing for the development of their pieces. Also, in this line, white often castles kingside, whereas white castles queenside in the 5...Nxc3 lines. White occasionally does not castle kingside in these lines, but that is usually when black pins the knight on f3 (with Bg4) after white has developed their bishop to d3 and before white can reroute their c3-knight to g3. White is then often forced to break the pin with h3 and g4, making castling on the kingside unfavorable. Though white often castles kingside in this line, it is often also possible to castle queenside if you wish to be more aggressive. To 6.d4, black's two main options are 6...d5, which resembles more typical Petrov structures, and 6...Be7, though the two can transpose.
Here are some instructive games of the two sixth move options:
- 7.Bd3 Be7, 8.Bg5: Brkic v. Ilincic, Bosnian Team Championship (2007)
- 7.Bg5 c6, 8.Bd3: Almasi v. Ilincic, Bosnian Team Championship (2007)
6.d4 Be7, 7.Bd3 0-0, 8.h3:
- 8...Re8: Nepomniachtchi v. Grischuk, ACP Cup (2013)
- 8...Nc6: Jones v. Turner, British Championship (2012)
Black's Most Common Sixth Move Option Following 6.dxc3 in the Mainline Nimzovich Attack of Petrov's Defense
The "Mainline" Nimzovich Attack (5...Nxc3, 6.dxc3 Be7)
The mainline Nimzovich Attack of Petrov's Defense continues after 5...Nxc3. White continues by taking with the d-pawn, dxc3. Though it may seem as though white should take towards the center with bxc3, there are many openings with both colors, in which the d-pawn or e-pawn captures away from the center to speed up development. An example of this that immediately comes to mind is the Tartakower (Nimzovich) Variation of the Caro-Kann Defense. Allowing a doubling of white's pawns here may be a weakness of sorts, but since white plans to castle queenside, the extra c-pawn arguably strengthens white's castling structure. Also, white's doubled c-pawn can hold up black's central expansion, since white can "fix" the c-pawn weakness should black advance too early with the d-pawn.
By far, the most common move following 5...Nxc3, 6.dxc3 is 6...Be7. Here, white must make their first big decision. White has two options here: 7.Be3 and 7.Bf4. Of the two, 7.Be3 is more common at higher levels of play, whereas 7.Bf4 tends to be more common at lower levels and tends to win slightly more at all levels. The move 7.Be3 is more "classical" in this line and may be more precise, while 7.Bf4 might be slightly more aggressive, at least based on its being less common and based on its win ratio.
I have heard the main differences between these two lines described in this way: The move 7.Be3 controls the c5 square and attacks the queenside. Therefore, black cannot easily maneuver their b8-knight to c5 without incurring doubled c-pawns themselves. Also, black is probably slightly less likely to attempt to castle queenside, though doing so is not very common generally. If black does castle queenside in the Nimzovich Attack, which is possible (as seen in the example games below), this leads to a more symmetrical and less dynamic position. The move 7.Be3 does not control the e5 square, which means that black can employ a common maneuver of putting their knight there instead. Conversely, the move 7.Bf4 does control the e5 square but does not control the c5 square or attack the queenside. Needless to say, black often develops their knight to the e5 or c5 square depending on which option white chooses.
One small thing I will mention, having mentioned the ideas behind the two white seventh move options, is that if black commits their knight too early with 6...Nc6, this is somewhat imprecise, as white can develop their bishop to f4, 7.Bf4, which prevents the knight from easily coming to e5 in the future. This is why black almost always develops their bishop to e7 (6...Be7) before deciding where to place the b8-knight, as it is more flexible and less revealing. This idea will also be mentioned in the next section on the mainline Nimzovich Attack with 7.Bf4.
If I had to recommend one of the moves, I would hesitantly say 7.Bf4, though you should look into both before making a final decision. Also, having both moves in your repertoire does not hurt, while many of the ideas in both lines are similar for both black and white.
Black's Three Most Popular Seventh Move Options Following 7.Bf4
The "Mainline" Nimzovich Attack with 7.Bf4
Following 7.Bf4, black has three popular seventh move options. They are, in order of popularity at a high level of play, 7...0-0, 7...Nc6 and 7...Nd7. The move 7...0-0 is the most classical and principled move. The move 7...Nc6 is often played here with the intention of castling queenside, so be aware. The move 7...Nd7 often transposes with 7...0-0, as often black's intention is to bring the knight to c5 in both cases, which was mentioned in the previous section introducing this main line. Therefore, I will only discuss 7...0-0 and 7...Nc6.
Here are some instructive games of the various lines mentioned and some of their subvariations:
7...0-0, 8.Qd2 Nd7, 9.0-0-0 Nc5 (and transpositions):
- 10.Be3 Re8, 11.Bc4 Be6 12.Bxe6 Nxe6:
13.h4: Svidler v. Bacrot, Linares (2006)
13.Kb1: Ivanchuk v. Kosteniuk, Cap d'Agde (2008)
- 10.h4: Carlsen v. Karpov, World Blitz Cup (2007)
- 10.Nd4: Inarkiev v. Skatchkov, Russian Team Championship (2005)
9.Ng5: Bartel v. Fridman, European Team Championship (2013)
9.0-0-0: Karjakin v. Kosteniuk, World Blitz Championship (2009)
- 8...Bg4: Kramnik v. Nielsen, Dortmund Sparkassen (2005)
- 8...Bf5: Fedorchuk v. Saric, European Individual Championship (2008)
Black's Three Most Popular Seventh Move Options Following 7.Be3
The "Mainline" Nimzovich Attack with 7.Be3
As with the 7.Bf4 variation of the main line, black typically responds to 7.Be3 in three possible ways (7...Nc6, 7...0-0 and 7...Nd7), two of which often transpose. Here, however, it is the two knight moves that often transpose, whereas 7...Nd7 and 7...0-0 often transpose in the 7.Bf4 line.
Here are some instructive games of various subvariations of the 7.Be3 line:
7...Nc6, 8.Qd2 Be6, 9.0-0-0 Qd7, 10. Kb1 Bf6:
- 11.h4 h6, 12.Nd4 Nxd4, 13.Bxd4 Bxd4, 14.Qxd4 0-0:
15.Rg1: Caruana v. Landa, Reggio Emilia (2010)
15.f3: Zhigalko v. Khamrakulov, 8 Agzamov Memorial (2014)
- 11.h3: Caruana v. Ponomariov, Dortmund Sparkassen Chess Meeting (2014)
There is also the move 10...a6 in this subvariation, but it was difficult to find instructive games for it.
7...0-0, 8.Qd2 Nd7, 9.0-0-0 Ne5 (and transpositions):
10...Re8: Ponomariov v. Gelfand, Pivdenny Bank Chess Cup (2008)
10....Ng4: Rublevsky v. Karpov, World Blitz Cup (2007)
10...c6: Karjakin v. Gelfand, Tal Memorial (2010)
- 10.Kb1: Karjakin v. Frolyanov, Aeroflot Rapid Finals (2013)
7...0-0, 8.Qd2 Nd7, 9.0-0-0 Nf6 (and transpositions):
- 10.Kb1: Pogonina v. Kosteniuk, Russian Women's Superfinals (2011)
As you can see with both the 7.Bf4 and 7.Be3 lines, white always castles queenside (though there is the rare exception in databases), white expands on the kingside, and there is the occasional piece sacrifice on g5 should black castle kingside.
The Nimzovich Attack is a fun and exciting line in Petrov's Defense that is much more intuitive and aggressive than many of The Petrov's symmetrical and highly theoretical lines. This allows for individuals of all levels to adopt and learn it quickly. Also, the first nine white moves are almost always identical in the mainline Nimzovich Attack (5...Nxc3), so it is difficult to go too wrong early on in this line.
IM Andrew Martin has discussed this line for black in some of his videos, two of which could previously be found on Youtube but which seem to have been removed. I am sure they can be found on his "Foxy Chess Openings" videos somewhere online. I believe they can be instructive for both colors and for your chess generally, so look into them if you'd like.
I hope you found this Hub instructive. I know that I mainly gave example games as opposed to discussing overall plans and themes, but the variance in the lines makes it difficult to discuss this opening in great detail apart from my summary of the main line in the previous section just above. As I said, this line is very attacking, so when deciding your moves in this line, usually an aggressive response to your opponent's moves will more likely be the correct choice.
Look for more additions to my "Chess Openings" series coming up soon. Thank you.
How did you like this Hub? Do you have any requests or suggestions?
Agustin Lias on February 18, 2015:
I love the checkerboard. Some of us see life like a complicated game of chess. I learned a lot with your article. Today I have had the pleasure of rereading something interesting about this game science that fascinates me so much.