The Nimzowitsch Defense: A How to Play Guide (as White & Black)

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Nimzowitsch Defense
Table of Contents

Quick Summary

  • The Nimzowitsch Defense is a rare opening arising after the moves 1.e4 Nc6
  • The opening often transposes into other, more main line openings.
  • Black does have some ideas to keep the opening original, however.
  • White has two main replies, 2.d4 and 2.Nf3, with 2.Nf3 avoiding complex theory.
This video is from Lifetime Repertoires: Wesley So’s 1. e4 – Part 1 course by GM Wesley So

Introduction

The Nimzowitsch Defense is a rare opening named after the highly influential chess player and theorist Aron Nimzowitsch.

It arises after the King’s Pawn Opening, 1.e4, and Black plays the unusual 1…Nc6.

Nimzowitsch had several openings named after him, such as the Nimzo-Larsen Attack, the Nimzo-Indian Defense, the Nimzowitsch Variation of the Bogo Indian Defense, the French Defense: Advance Nimzowitsch System, the Nimzowitsch Closed Variation of the Sicilian Defense, and the Nimzowitsch Variation of the Philidor Defense.

The move is rather rare as it does not develop any pieces on the kingside and allows White to establish the ideal pawn center.

Black’s reply after 2.d4 is usually to play 2…d5, resulting in a sort of delayed Scandinavian Defense.

It is not a bad opening, per se. As it is rare (played in only 2% of games), White is oftentimes immediately taken out of preparation. It is a sort of test for White, as 2.Nc6 is non-committal, it is asking White what their intentions are.

White of course can invite Black back into the world of standard openings by declining the Nimzowitsch and playing 2.Nf3. 2…e5 brings things into the familiar territory of the open game, whereas 2…e6 is an attempt by Black to keep things sharp.

Players interested in the Nimzowitsch should know that the opening has a high chance of transposition to more mainstream openings. For instance, 1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 e5 can transpose to the Scotch Game if White so desires.

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Lifetime Repertoires: Nimzo-Ragozin

The opening has never been very popular at the top level, though Kasparov did lose to it against Nigel Short in the following blitz game.

The Nimzowitsch Declined- 2.Nf3

This is White’s most popular reply to 1…Nc6, just slightly edging out 2.d4.

There are three main options for Black, they are 2…e6, 2…e5, and 2…d5.

Of course with 2.Nf3 White is basically asking Black to play 2…e5, to transpose to a main-line open game. Usually, Nimzowitsch players aren’t looking to play this, as it returns immediately to normal theory. Why play something offbeat to go immediately back to main-line theory?

2…d5

This is an aggressive attempt to open things up right away and for a fight to begin.

Here White should definitely take with 3.exd5 to not allow Black to cramp the position with 3…d4.

Black will of course recapture with 3…Qxd5, and the position resembles a Scandinavian without d4 having been played. White should of course continue development with 4.Nc3 to chase the queen away. 4…Qa5 is most popular, just like in the Scandinavian.

Play usually continues with 5.Bb5 Bd7 6.0-0 a6 7.Bxc6 Bxc6 8.d4 0-0-0 and there is really nothing that makes this different than a Scandinavian game.

However, more in the spirit of this unique opening is 2…d6 known as the Williams Variation.

The Williams Variation

Sharper than 2…e5 and less sharp than 2…d5 sits the Williams Variation.

What is Black’s plan here? White should occupy the center with 3.d4

If 3…e5, White can take with 4.dxe5 and capture the queen on d8, at best leaving Black behind in development, and at worst losing castling rights. They could also chase the knight away with 4.d5, which also closes the position and makes the development of Black’s dark-squared bishop difficult.

3…Nf6 is the correct move. This has transposed to a Pirc-type position, without g6 having been played. Another example of one of the possible transpositions of the Nimzowitsch Defense.

Play usually continues with 4.Nc3 Bg4 5.Be3.

Black can play either the safer 5…e6 or 5…e5 and break open the center. Often times after 5…e6, Black will reroute the knight to e7 and try to push c5 and some point.

6.h3 Bh5 7.d5, White closes down the position and prevents the desired c5. 7…exd5 8.exd5 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 Ne5 10.Qe2.

This is a common starting position for the Williams Variation. Material is even, though the engine gives more than +2.0 for White. White does have a space advantage with the pawn on d5, though some would argue that Black’s development is better. While the knights look strong in this position, they don’t have a light of flight squares when White decides to push them away with kingside pawn thrusts.

Though this variation is a truly unique Nimzowitsch position, it is probably better for Black to transpose earlier into something more main line.

The Lean Variation- 2.Nf3 f5

The Lean Variation, also known as the Colorado Gambit, is an attempt by black to keep things interesting, weird, and offbeat. It is aggressive and White can get into trouble if they are not careful.

What happens if White takes with 3.exf5. They’re up a pawn, sure, but now their center has been destabilized. 3…d5 threatens to recapture with the light-squared bishop, developing the bishop and staking a claim in the center.

If now, 4.Nh4, defending the pawn and looking for tricks by bringing the queen out to h5, Black’s best move is actually 4…Nh6, if 5.Qh5+ Nf7, and it is a dead-even game. White’s only developed pieces are far from the center on the h-file.

In the spirit of keeping this aggressive and weird, Black can play 4…e5. White will take advantage of the open diagonal with 5.Qh5+

Believe it or not, 5…g6 is the main move. Now things get really wacky. 6.fxg6 Nf6 7.g7+ Nxh5 8.gxh8=Q Qxh4.

The engine’s valuation gives White a sizeable advantage, but White needs to play accurately here. Believe it or not, there are actually a few games of some pretty high-rated players where Black has won.

It could be a fun blitz or bullet weapon for you to try out.

Another way to decline: 2.Nc3

If White instead plays 2.Nc3, Black can transpose into the Vienna Game, specifically the Max Lange Defense.

True Nimzowitsch players however will keep things unique with 2…Nf6. White of course should occupy the center with 3.d4.

A fight for the center now takes place with 3…d5. This has not transposed to the Nimzowitsch Scandinavian Variation, which we will look at further ahead.

2.d4

Slightly behind in popularity to the declined is this move, which is no less valid. Black gives White ample opportunity to grab the center.

From here there are a couple of approaches for Black. 2…d5, known as the Scandinavian Variation is the main line. In addition to this, there is the Kennedy Variation (2…e5)

The Scandinavian Variation

2.d4 d5

Black takes a direct strike at the center, creating tension.

White has three main responses: 3.e5, 3.exd5 and 3.Nc3.

3.Nc3 The Bogoljubov Variation

This is the most popular move. It defends the e4 pawn but functions as a gambit as after 3…dxe4, White will chase the night away with 4.d5. It is certainly possible to recapture with 4.Nxe4, but it is not the critical line and would give up a pawn as the d4 pawn is attacked twice and only defended once.

After 4.d5, the knight can go to e5 or back home to b8. If it goes 4…Nb4 5.a3 pushes the knight to the side of the board, where it has very little purpose. Knights on the rim are grim.

4…Nb8 is the recommended engine move, but it is a very counterintuitive move for humans, so 4…Ne5, placing it back in the center is the more popular (and more natural) move.

Some forcing lines ensue, 5.Qd4 forces the knight away and wins the pawn back. White can also force the knight away with 5.Bf4.

After 5.Qd4 Ng6 6.Qxe4 Nf6, Black wins a tempo on the queen, 7.Qa4+, Black’s best move is 7…Bd7. 8.Bb5 a6 9.Bxd7+ Qxd7 10.Qxd7+ Nxd7.

White is probably slightly better here with the space advantage with the pawn on d5, but it is hardly decisive. There is still a lot of game to be played after so many forcing moves.

3.e5 The Advance Variation

This resembles a French Defense, Advance Variation, with the benefit for Black not having their light-squared bishop trapped in the pawn chain.

This is a slightly more complicated position than 3.Nc3. Here Black plays 3…Bf5 to get the bishop out before playing e6. White plays 4.c3. White has a strong control of the dark squares with the long pawn chain, while Black has more control of the light squares.

Similar to an advance Caro-Kann, but with the knight on c6 rather than a pawn. If you are comfortable playing the Caro-Kann or against it, this can be a good set-up.

To learn these types of positions, a good idea would be to study a game with the advance Caro-Kann and a game with this position, and see how you can take advantage of the differences.

An example of this variation in a real life game:

3.exd5

This is probably the simplest approach of them all. Black recaptures with 3…Qxd5 and White must defend the d-pawn, which is attacked twice, usually via 4.Nf3. 4…Bg4 pins the knight, so White will defend with 5.Be3.

Black is now prepared to castle long, 5…0-0-0, developing and adding another attacker to White’s isolated queen pawn.

From here White can play 6.c4 to get some queenside space and kick the queen away, or defend the d-pawn with 6.Be3.

Play in these sorts of positions will usually take place in the middle. Will White’s isolated queen pawn be a target and a weakness? Or will it cause headaches for Black?

However, this is mostly a transposition to the Nf3 Scandinavian, so players would do well to study the theory of that opening.

The Kennedy Variation

2.d4 e5

The last variation of note in the Nimzowitsch Defense is the Kennedy Variation.

Like the Scandinavian Variation, Black makes a direct strike on the center.

Scotch players would be happy to see this as 3.Nf3 transposes to the Scotch Game.

To keep things in Nimzowitsch territory though, there are two main moves, 3.d5 and 3.dxe5.

The Linkspringer Variation 3.d5

Between, 3.d5 and 3.dxe5, this is the more committal move. White has committed to this advanced pawn central structure, and Black will try to undermine it with f5 to strike at the center of the pawn chain.

Each side will go for opposite side attacks, in the direction their respective pawn chains point, i.e. White on the queenside and Black on the kingside.

After 3.d5 Black must move their knight and the best place to go is 3…Ne7. White can attack the e-pawn with 4.Nf3, but Black can simply move the knight and defend with 4…Ng6. This also allows them to develop their other pieces.

3.dxe5

This is a calmer move. It’s White’s choice if they are not looking for a fight. Black will of course take back with 3…Nxe5, and the standard move is 4.Nf3, though if White were interested in a more aggressive approach they could play 4.f4.

If 4.Nf3 Nxf3 5.Qxf3 Qf6.

White should not take as that would help Black develop with 6…Nxf6.

Summary

Occupying a strange place in chess, the Nimzowitsch Defense is both rare, yet far from refuted opening. It may have some value for players looking to take their opponent out of prep, but if White plays 2.Nf3, Black is probably better off transposing into a main line King’s Pawn game.

Check out our article on the 10 Best Openings for Black.

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Lifetime Repertoires: Nimzo/Semi-Tarrasch - Part 1

FAQs

Is the Nimzowitsch Defense good for beginners?

The Nimzowitsch is not a bad opening for beginners, but given the lack of material and theory on it, and its high probability of transposition, beginners would be better off learning traditional 1.e4 e5 openings.

Is the Nimzowitsch Defense right for attacking players?

The Nimzowitsch Defense certainly has some aggressive lines, so it is a good option for attacking players. Generally, Scandinavian players will enjoy it, and lines like the Colorado Gambit offer much for attacking players.

What is the idea behind the Nimzowitsch Defense?

The idea behind the Nimzowitsch Defense is to play a non-committal move to see what White’s intentions are. Generally, from whatever White does, Black will often play in a Scandinavian-type set-up.

What is the move order of the Nimzowitsch Defense?

The Nimzowitsch Defense arises after the moves 1.e4 Nc6.

How to beat the Nimzowitsch Defense?

The best counter to the Nimzowitsch Defense is to play 2.Nf3, as if Black tries to prevent the game from transposing, they are usually left with inferior chances.

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