What is the Chigorin Defense?

The Chigorin Defense is a rare reply to the Queen’s Gambit.

1.d4 d5

2.c4

The Queen's Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit

Last week, inspired by the release of Grandmaster Alex Colovic’s new course, Lifetime Repertoires: The Queen’s Gambit Declined, we looked at the most common way to decline the Queen’s Gambit, with 2…e6.

This time, we are focusing on a much more obscure defense.

2…Nc6

Chigorin Defense

The Chigorin Defense

This defense is named after Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908). We featured some of Chigorin’s checkmates in a post last week and we saw his influence on Peter Romanovsky in this week’s edition of Checkmate Monday.

Chigorin was a giant of chess, who played in two fascinating World Championship matches against Wilhelm Steinitz. Steinitz emerged victorious on both occasions but Chigorin remained a highly influential figure, especially for the emerging Soviet players of the time.

Chigorin was an original player who stubbornly stuck to his own ideas.

There is a rule of thumb in the Queen’s Gambit which states that Black should not block the c7-pawn. This is because …c7-c5 is a desirable way for Black to attack White’s central pawn structure. Yet 2…Nc6 makes a show about blocking the c-pawn on the second move.

Black’s Ideas in the Chigorin Defense

Instead of stabilizing the center and playing to equalize the game before playing for initiative, Black has different ideas in the Chigorin Defense.

By developing the knight on the second move, Black is already showing the intention of creating active piece-play. This is ambitious for Black as the Queen’s Gambit is remarkably solid, from White’s point of view. Black needs to make another concession, in the form of trading a bishop for a knight.

The majority of chess players are reluctant to swap a bishop for a knight in the opening, but Chigorin took the opposite view, as mentioned yesterday. Indeed, in some variations, Black happily trades both bishops for both of the opponent’s knights. This create unusual positions which can be hard to navigate without prior knowledge of the nuances.

White has three main options after 2…Nc6, namely: 3.Nf3, 3.Nc3 and 3.cxd5.

Here are some sample lines of play.

Chigorin Defense: 3.Nf3 Bg4

3.Nf3 Bg4

4.cxd5 Bxf3

5.gxf3 Qxd5

6.e3 e5

7.Nc3 Bb4

Chigorin Defense 3.Nf3 Bg4

Black has every intention of trading bishop for knight for the second time. This is because Black does not want to retreat the queen from its excellent central position.

White will then have a huge pawn centre. Black’s task is to make sure his pieces are as active as possible. If Black plays well, then White can have surprising difficulty in making the bishops become effective.

Chigorin Defense: 3.Nc3 dxc4

3. Nc3 dxc4

4.Nf3 Nf6

5.e4 Bg4

6.Be3 e6

7.Bxc4 Bb4

Chigorin Defense: 3.Nc3 dxc4

It is easy to see the recurring themes of the Chigorin Defense: White has a substantial pawn center; Black has fine positions for the minor pieces, but must be prepared to trade bishops for knights to justify his unusual approach.

Chigorin Defense: 3.cxd5 Qxd5

4.e3 e5

5.Nc3 Bb4

6.Bd2 Bxc3

7.bxc3 Nf6

The themes will now start to look familiar. Large White central pawn mass; knights against bishops; a centralized queen for Black.

Early Queen Moves

It would be a mistake to think that Black is the only side who can play early queen moves in the Chigorin Defense. Here is an example White playing a disruptive check on the sixth move.

This line leads to a bizarre position in which Black gives up a knight to establish a significant pawn mass.

3.Nc3 dxc4

4.Nf3 Nf6

5.d5 Na5

6.Qa4+ c6

7.b4

Chigorin Defense Knight Sacrifce

The knight is trapped – but Black is prepared for its loss.

7…b5

8.Qxa5 Qxa5

9.bxa5 b4

10. Nd1 cxd5

Knight for Pawns

Black only has two pawns for the knight but the a5-pawn isn’t long for this world. Anyone wanting to play this line with either will need to do some homework or it will be extremely difficult to navigate from this unusual position over the board.

The Chigorin Defense is full of unusual ideas and can be difficult to handle, from both sides of the board. Anyone specialising in the defense will develop a good understanding of the ideas, which would make the Chigorin Defense a dangerous weapon in tournament play.

More Chess Opening Basics

Here are links to the other parts of our series on Chess Opening Basics. More openings will be added soon.

Arkhangelsk Defense

Budapest Gambit

Caro-Kann Defense

Göring Gambit

The Jaenisch Gambit

Leningrad Dutch

London System

Najdorf Sicilian

Nimzo-Indian Defense

Queen’s Gambit Declined

Ragozin Defense

Ruy Lopez, Cozio Defense

Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation

Sicilian Wing Gambit

Semi-Slav Defense

Taimanov Sicilian

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