Alekhine Defense: How to Play as White and Black

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Table of Contents

Must-Know Variations of Alekhine’s Defense

Learn all the essential basics of the exciting Alekhine’s Defense and how to meet it with white.

  • Basic plans and opening trap for both sides in this hypermodern, counterattacking defense.
  • How to play against White’s central control.
  • Making effective use of your space advantage with white.
  • Win the game with perfectly timed counterattacks with black.
  • Learn why a little restraint is often deadly in chess openings.

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Effortlessly Learn How To Play Alekhine’s Defense

The Alekhine Defense embodies the fighting spirit of the world champion it is named after – Alexander Alekhine. Despite remaining unrefuted for a hundred years, the Alekhine Defense remains a controversial and unfashionable opening.

In this article, you will learn:

  • the basic plans for both sides in the Alekhine’s Defense,
  • 2.Nc3 d5 – the Alekhine’s Defense Scandinavian Variation,
  • how to play the Old Main Line,
  • how to play the Modern Main Line,
  • and the answers to frequently asked questions.

In true hypermodern fashion, Black tries to provoke White into creating a large center that he believes will become top-heavy. This large center gives Black a bigger target to attack and means White must invest resources to support the center.

One of the crucial questions in the Alekhine Defense is if the loss of time caused by moving the knight early in the game is worth the counter-attacking opportunities Black obtains?

Is the Alekhine’s Defense Good for Beginners?

Yes, the Alekhine’s Defense is an excellent defense to 1.e4 that is suitable for beginners. You can continue to play this opening until you become a titled player, and some players, like Lev Alburt, have continued to play it at grandmaster level.

The longer you play an opening, the more familiar you will become with the strategies and tactics of the opening. This will help you play the positions arising from the opening better than your opponents.

As is true for all chess openings, the primary consideration is whether it suits your playing style. Players who enjoy dynamic piece play will enjoy the middlegames that arise from this opening.

Playing through games is an excellent way to get a feel for the middlegame positions that arise from a chess opening.

Alekhine’s Defense Fundamentals

We enter Alekhine’s Defense after the opening moves 1.e4 Nf6.

Alekhine's Defense starting position is reached after 1.e4 Nf6

There is no advantage for White in avoiding 2.e5. Of all the main alternatives 2.Nc3 is White’s best choice with a possible transposition to the Vienna Game after 2…e5 or the Alekhine’s Defense Scandinavian Variation after 2…d5.

2.e5 makes a lot of sense because White doesn’t spend any time defending the pawn and causes Black to move his only developed piece a second time. Apart from gaining time, the e5-advance gives White more space.

After 2…Nd5, White must choose between forcing the knight to move again or supporting his central pawn. 3.c4 is the aptly named Chase Variation, and can lead to the Four Pawns Attack if White forgoes c5.

3.d4 can lead to the Mainline (4.Nf3), the Four Pawns Attack (5.f4), and the Exchange Variation (5.exd6).

Alekhine's Defense after the most popular starting moves 1.e4 Nf 2.e5 Nd5

Black will most frequently move his knight to b6 if White attacks it with c4. When playing the Alekhine Defense with Black, you must always be aware you are missing a key defender on the kingside.

A knight on f6 is a crucial defender of the Black king in almost every chess opening because it assists in protecting the h7 square, which will become sensitive once/if Black castles kingside. In Alekhine’s Defense, this knight has moved all the way across the board to b6.

White’s most popular third move option is 3.d4, and after 3…d6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Be2, Black has a choice between 5…e6 and 5…c6.

Alekhine's Defense Old Main Line position after 5.Be2

By developing his bishop to g4 on move four, Black gives himself the option of playing …e6 without blocking his light-squared bishop.

Alekhine’s Defense – Scandinavian Variation

The similarities between the Scandinavian Defense, with 2…Nf6, and the Alekhine Defense Scandinavian Variation are easy to see. In the Alekhine Defense, the first two moves are played in the reverse order of the Scandinavian Defense.

1.e4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.exd5 Nxd5 4.Bc4

Against 2.Nc3 in Alekhine's Defense Black can play in Scandinavian Defense fashion with 2...d5 3.exd5 Nxd5 4.Bc4

The most common move for Black in this position is 4…Nb6, but there is the opportunity to set a trap with 4…Be6. Black takes advantage of the undefended bishop on c4 and the knight on c3.

Black threatens to play …Nxc3 attacking the queen and the bishop. This is an Alekhine’s Defense trap that you must know no matter what side of the opening you are playing.

If Black ever meets Bc4 with …Be6, this is White’s signal to either move the queen or drop the bishop back to b3.

4…Nb6 5.Bb3 Nc6 6.Nf3 Bf5 7.0-0 e6 8.d4 Be7

Against 2.Nc3 playing an early ...d5 allows Black easy equality.

The Alekhine Defense – Scandinavian Variation is a path to easy equality for Black. Of course, it is fair to say that when White chooses 2.Nc3 instead of 2.e5, he adopts a cautious approach in the opening.

Alekhine’s Defense Old Main Line

The move 4…Bg4 is now known as the Old Main Line since it has gone out of fashion. However, because it is such a natural move, it’s essential to understand how to meet it.

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Be2

Alekhine's Defense Old Main Line position after 5.Be2

Because the e5-square is extremely important in the Alekhine’s Defense, Black intends to exchange his bishop for a defender of e5. The Black light-squared bishop can’t attack e5, so exchanging it for the knight on f3 makes sense.

In return, White often obtains the bishop-pair advantage while keeping the space advantage he got from the e5-advance.

In this position, Black’s most popular choice is 5…e6 when we reach a critical position four moves later after 6.0-0 Be7 7.c4 Nb6 8.Nc3 0-0 9.Be3

Although out-of-fashion the Old Main Line with 4...Bg4 is a reliable choice for Black.

Here it is extremely dangerous for Black to play 9…dxe5 because White can play 10.Nxe5. After eliminating the pawn on e5, Black will not rush into exchanging on e5 if White has dxe5.

When Black plays …Bxf3 White will often recapture with gxf3 and use the semi-open g-file to attack the Black king. The doubled f-pawns help attack the Black king.

Recapturing on f3 with the bishop will place it on a square where it can’t participate in the attack on the Black king. From Be2, the bishop can go to d3, attacking the king and covering the f5-square.

Although it isn’t seen very often at the highest levels, the players in the next two games were all rated over 2500 Elo. They are excellent examples of how to play the Alekhine’s Defense Old Main Line with both sides.

Alekhine’s Defense Modern Main Line

Nowadays, there is a more significant element of dynamic play when it comes to opening and defense. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising the Black players would look for an alternative to the solid 4…Bg4.

The move that is more frequently played today is 4…dxe5.

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 dxe5 5.Nxe5

The Modern Approach in Alekhine's Defense to 4.Nf3 is to capture in the center with 4...dxe5.

White does not want to play 5.dxe5 because this gives Black a much-improved variation of the Alekhine’s Defense Old Main Line. After 5…Bg4 followed by …Bxf3 later, the e5-pawn becomes a target for Black.

5…c6 6.Be2 Bf5 7.0-0 Nd7 8.Nf3 e6 9.c4 N5f6 10.Nc3 Bd6

Both sides have developed sensiblly with their pieces well centralized and reached an equal middlegame position.

There are two essential and unusual knight moves in this variation – one for each side.

Since White has the space advantage, it makes sense to avoid exchanging the knight on e5. That’s why White will often retreat the knight back to f3.

Instead of continuing its more familiar route across to b6, the Black knight on d5 will often go back to f6 if attacked by c4.

Since White developed the bishop to e2, it is safe from getting exchanged and is an excellent defender of the c4 pawn. Thus, a Black knight on b6 will only be attacking the well-defended pawn on c4.

In light of this, it makes more sense to bring the knight back to help defend the king and use the knight on d7 to control the central e5 and c5 squares.

This position is balanced and offers chances for both sides to play for a win. There isn’t much more you can ask for from a chess opening with either color in today’s technological age.

Alekhine’s Defense: Four Pawns Attack

The Pawns Attack is White’s attempt at an outright refutation of the Alekhine’s Defense. Essentially saying that such extensive control of the center will lead to a winning attack.

Nowadays, this variation is not played much, but it is a dangerous attacking option every Alekhine’s Defense player must know how to meet. Because it isn’t played much, there is little sense investing lots of your opening study time learning a long, theoretical line for Black.

Play the simple, attacking line with 9…Qd7 with Black.

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.c4 Nb6 4.d4 d6 5.f4

The Alekhine's Defense Four Pawns Attack is White's attempt to push Black off the board by seizing a large center.

Black starts by reducing the number of White pawns in the center and then applies pressure to the d4-pawn with …Qd7 and long castle. Simple and effective is always a good approach when possible.

5….dxe5 6.fxe5 Nc6 7.Be3 Bf5 8.Nc3 e6 9.Nf3 Qd7

In the Four PAwn's Attack 9...Qd7 gives Black the option of castling to either side of the board.

Notice how Black develops towards the center and gets his bishop out before playing …e6. Even in the opening, it is beneficial to understand why you are playing a particular move.

If you remember that you want to develop your bishop to f5, so it doesn’t become a bad bishop after …e6, you will know which move to play first.

This is a rich middlegame position offering good chances to both sides to play for a win, as the next two games demonstrate. Notice that in both of these games, it is a central pawn that decides the contest.

Alekhine’s Defense: The Chase Variation

Welcome to one of the few variations in chess openings where White plays ugly and somehow manages to win games. All of those playing Alekhine’s Defense can take heart that it’s almost impossible to get a bad position from the opening in this variation.

The critical moves for Black in this variation are to attack the advanced c-pawn with …b6 and remember the a5-pawn advance.

On the other hand, White returns to the tried-and-tested principles of opening play – controlling the center, rapid development, and efficient use of time. You want to have as many pieces developed as possible to pounce on any errors Black makes in the middlegame.

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.c4 Nb6 4.c5 Nd5

The starting position of Alekhine's Defense Chase Variation is reached after 1.e4 Nf 2.e5 Nd5 3.c4 Nb6 4.c5 Nd5

Play will usually continue with 5.Nc3 e6 6.d4 b6 7.Nxd5 exd5 8.Be3 bxc5 9.dxc5 c6

Black has an extra central pawn, a protected passed pawn, and a clear plan of activating his queenside pieces via a6. White will attempt to make use of the weakened dark squares by exchanging Black’s dark-squared bishop.

Apart from 5.Nc3, White has tried 5.Bc4. Black’s strategy remains very similar against either move.

Once again, exchanging light-squared bishops is good for Black, but exchanging dark-squared bishops can lead to fatal middlegame weaknesses. The d6-square becomes extremely weak, as in the White victory below.

Alekhine’s Defense: Exchange Variation

Along with the Main Line (4.Nf3), the Exchange Variation (5.exd6) is White’s best try against Alekhine’s Defense. Both variations strike a balance between pushing for an advantage and not trying for too much.

Alekhine’s Defense is a counter-attacking defense, which seeks to draw White into overreaching. However, White must not give up on pursuing an advantage.

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.exd6

The starting position of Alekhine's Defense Exchange Variation is reached after 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.exd6

Black has two main captures: 5…exd6 and 5…cxd6.

Capturing with the e-pawn keeps the position symmetrical where White has an enduring space advantage. One of the biggest challenges facing Black is the development of his light-squared bishop.

Black will often delay developing the bishop and apply pressure to White’s pawns with his knights first. If given the opportunity, Black will play …Bg4, so long as this doesn’t allow White to launch a pawn storm with a gain of tempo.

Black Plays 5…exd6

5…exd6 6.Nc3 Nc6 7.Nf3 Bg4 8.Be2 Be7 9.b3 0-0 10.0-0 d5

Both sides have developed sensibly in this variation of Alekhine's Defense and black naturally strikes back in the center.

Black is ready to meet c5 with …Nc8, …Bf6, and …N8-e7. In this position, Black has achieved everything he wanted and will exchange his light-squared bishop for the knight on f3.

The exchange on f3 concedes the bishop-pair advantage to White, but Black’s position is solid. Both sides have every opportunity to play for a win.

Black Plays 5…cxd6

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.exd6 cxd6

5...cxd is regarded as the fighting choice because it creates an asymmetrical position.

We’ve all heard it is best to capture towards the center. However, this natural capture makes life more challenging for Black than the anti-positional 5…exd6.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. Black usually develops his bishop with …g6 and …Bg7, which costs an extra tempo compared to 5…exd6 and leaves the e-pawn weak.
  2. White can play d5 to restrict the e-pawn from advancing. Any advance will create a pawn weakness for Black on d6 or weaken his castled position if he recaptures with …fxe6.

However, if Black gets the chance to play …e6 before White plays d5, he can get a good position and develop his bishop to e7. For example, the play might continue:

6.Nc3 Nc6 7.Be3 Bf5 8.Bd3 Bxd3 9.Qxd3 e6 10.Nf3 d5

Once again black equalizes in Alekhine's Defense with the d5-pawn advance

The position is nicely balanced with Black’s extra central pawn, compensating for White’s space advantage. When White plays c5, the black knight can advance to c4.

Today is Always the Best Day to Start Playing Alekhine’s Defense

One of the best ways to win with Black is to create an asymmetrical position. The Alekhine’s Defense does this on the very first move.

The Alekhine’s Defense is one you can start playing as a beginner and keep playing as you grow in strength. This is a grand opening to help you revitalize your repertoire.

NM Bryan Tillis and GM Dzindzichashvilli have prepared an excellent course revealing more secrets of Alekhine’s Defense. You will soon look forward to playing against 1.e4.

There is also a free short and sweet version for you to test.

Alekhine’s Defense Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Alekhine opening good?

One hundred years after its introduction, the Alekhine Defense is still a solid option for players of all levels. Even with the advancement of chess engines, the Alekhine’s Defense has yet to be refuted.

How to play against the Alekhine Defense?

When facing the Alekhine’s Defense, it is best to settle for a small but long-lasting advantage with White. This explains the popularity of 4.Nf3.

Learning how to play the middlegame with a space advantage will help you in many different openings. For example, you can gain a space advantage in the French Defense and Caro-Kann Defense by playing the Advance Variation.

On the surface, it might seem like a small advantage, but if fully utilized, it can be an effective strategy that reduces your opening theory workload tremendously. There is also an excellent chance your opponent will underestimate your chances.

How to play the Alekhine Defense?

Playing the Alekhine Defense requires being flexible. Your response is very much dependent on White’s approach.

Sitting back when facing the Four Pawns Attack will not prove an effective strategy. Against the Modern Main Line, you can adopt a more modest response, but active play is required to counter the Four Pawns Attack.

Remember, when playing with Black obtaining equality in the opening is a worthy goal.

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