Chess Opening Basics: The Nimzo-Indian Defense


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What is the Nimzo-Indian Defense?

The name certainly comes with an air of mystery.

Indian Defenses

There is a whole range of Indian Defenses. The normal starting point is 1 d4 Nf6. After 2 c4, Black can continue with a variety of moves including 2 …g6 and 2 …e6. The former is a route into the King’s Indian Defense and Grunfeld Defense, which we will cover in future blog posts.

After 2 …e6, White has choices. 3 Nf3 can lead to the Queen’s Indian Defense (3 …b6). The Bogo-Indian Defense (3 …Bb4+) is also possible, as is the Benoni Defense (3 …c5).

3 Nc3 is the most challenging move. White is limbering up for 4 e4, establishing a very strong centre.

Black can pin the knight with 3 …Bb4 and now we have the starting position of the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

Nimzo-Indian DefenseThe Nimzo-Indian Defense

Hypermodern Revolution

The first part of the name come from Aron Nimzowitsch, the Latvian-born Danish player. Nimzowitsch is one of the most original thinkers in the history of chess and his ideas continue to influence chess players at all levels. His classic book, My System, remains essential reading despite being 95 years old.

Nimzowitsch was at the forefront of the Hypermodern Revolution of the early 20th Century. The Nimzo-Indian has certainly stood the test of time (note the abbreviated version of Nimzowitsch; this is similar to the abbreviated ‘Bogoljubov’ in Bogo-Indian).

The immediate point of 3 …Bb4 is that if White carries on regardless and plays 4 e4 anyway then 4 …Nxe4 reveals a key idea of Black’s play. Black is aiming to control the e4 square and will set about dismantling the rest of White’s centre in due course.

The Nimzo-Indian Defense is a very tough nut to crack. So much so that for a period of time from the 1980s onwards, players with White would avoid it altogether with 3 Nf3 instead of 3 Nc3.

It is a very popular and extremely reliable opening. Apart from being inherently solid, Black has good chances to play for a win.

Note how easy Black’s development will be. They can already castle on the fourth move. Then there are many choices. Black could counter the white centre with …c5, …d5 (or both together) or could attack it with pieces, after fianchettoing the queen’s bishop.

A timely …Bxc3(+) can compromise White’s queenside pawn structure, admittedly at the cost of leaving the opponent with the bishop pair.

The Nimzo-Indian Defense has been a favourite of the World Champions ever since the days of Capablanca and is frequently seen in matches for the ultimate title.

Nimzo-Indian Defense: Main Variations

Nimzo-Indian Rubinstein

4 e3 The Rubinstein Variation

This is the most popular of all White’s moves and it leads to a large amount of different variations.

Classical Nimzo-Indian

4 Qc2 The Classical Variation

Popular in the 1920s and 1930s, partly due to Capablanca’s use of 4 Qc2, this variation fell into disuse until the 1980s when it was brought back into master play. Yasser Seirawan was one of the new pioneers. White refuses to accept doubled pawns after …Bxc3(+) but time could be lost with the queen.

Kasparov Nimzo-Indian

4 Nf3 The Kasparov Variation

Kasparov used this flexible move against Karpov in their title matches. Depending on how Black proceeds, White can follow up with either 5 g3 or 5 Bg5. Incidentally, Kasparov’s results with Black in the Nimzo-Indian Defense are far from impressive. They include losses to Pshakis, Beliavsky, Kramnik and Ivan Sokolov. A rare failure for the repertoire of the 13th World Champion.

Leningrad Variation

4 Bg5 The Leningrad Variation

This is a big favourite of the 10th World Champion, Boris Spassky. Despite that, it has never been trendy.

Saemisch Variation

4 a3 The Saemisch Variation

This aggressive move virtually forces Black to play 4 …Bxc3+. This immediately clarifies the situation over the question of the bishop pair and the doubled pawns. Mikhail Botvinnik refined the move order, by playing 4 e3 and then, depending on Black’s response, 5 a3.

Minor variations include:

4 f3, 4 g3, 4 Qb3 and 4 Bd2. The former two can easily transpose to other lines. The latter two are considered tame.

Brand New Course

Tomorrow we shall investigate the brand new Chessable course on the Nimzo-Indian Defense by Woman FIDE Master Maaike Keetman. I am interested to see which lines Maaike recommends in The Fierce Nimzo-Indian.

Meanwhile, here are links to the other parts of our ongoing series on Chess Opening Basics.

Arkhangelsk Defense

Budapest Gambit

Caro-Kann Defense

Göring Gambit

Leningrad Dutch

London System

Ragozin Defense

Semi-Slav Defense

Highlighted course

The Checkmate Patterns Manual

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Check them on individual course pages