The Queen’s Gambit Declined – How to Play It as White and Black

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Queens Gambit Declined
Table of Contents

Short summary:

  • The Queen’s Gambit Declined is one of the main ways to respond to the Queen’s Gambit (1.d4 d5 2.c4), and a very sound one at that
  • The opening is considered to be a great choice for beginners and world champions alike, and continues to appear in top level games to this day
  • There are many commonly played variations of the Queen’s Gambit Declined, including the Exchange (Carlsbad) Variation, Janowski Variation, 3..Be7 variation, delayed Tarrasch, and more
  • In the main line, the Exchange Variation, White has two main plans: the Minority Attack and Botvinnik Plan
  • Black has ways to stop or counter each plan, and therefore play in each variation ends up being double-edged and very rich in nature

The Queen’s Gambit Declined has been one of the most popular responses to the Queen’s Gambit for years – and for good reason! Extremely sound yet also offering very interesting possibilities for both White and Black, this opening can be played from beginner level all the way to World Champion level. In fact, in the 1927 World Chess Championship, the Queen’s Gambit Declined was played in 32 out of 34 games! And it still frequently stars in grandmaster games today.

In this article, we’ll be covering the basics of the Queen’s Gambit Declined, discussing the main variations and different ideas for both White and Black.

Queen’s Gambit Declined vs. Queen’s Gambit Accepted (and Slav)

The Queen’s Gambit Declined (or QGD, for short) arises after the moves 1.d4 d5 2. c4 e6, resulting in this position:

Queen's Gambit Declined Starting Position

Starting position of the Queen’s Gambit Declined

First, why decline the gambit instead of accept it (2…dxc4)?The Queen’s Gambit Accepted (QGA) is a playable opening, even at grandmaster level, however it does offer a serious positional concession right off the bat: it trades a center pawn for a wing pawn, therefore giving up some control of the center (White can now play e4, exerting strong central control).

That’s not a huge deal as it turns out, but play does take on a much different characteristic. Play in the QGA tends to be more tactical and sharp, while the QGD tends to be slower and more strategic. If you are interested in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, check out this free course by International Master Sopiko Guramishvili.

Note that 1…c6 also ‘declines’ the gambit, but is considered to be a different opening: the Slav Defense, which also exhibits different characteristics than the Queen’s Gambit Declined. This is due primarily to the fact that in the Slav Defense, Black’s c8 bishop can easily develop, whereas in the QGD, it is blocked by the e6 pawn early on.

video from Go for The Throat: Play 1. d4 course by FM Kamil Plichta

Many Variations to Choose From

Going back to the QGD: White can proceed on move 3 in a few ways. One common setup involves Nf3, followed by g3 and Bg2 – this transforms the opening into a Catalan. The Catalan is a powerful way to combat the Queen’s Gambit Declined. In fact, World Champion Magnus Carlsen employed it against Ian Nepomniachtchi in their World Championship match (learn the basics of the Catalan in this free course)

However, the Catalan is a much different opening in nature than the Queen’s Gambit Declined, so we’ll leave it out of the scope of this article. Apart from the Catalan, the other major way to continue (and the focus of this article) is 3.Nc3, adding more pressure to the d5 pawn.

You might be wondering “Why not exchange on d5 right away with 3.cxd5?” That’s playable too, but has a slight drawback – White’s bishop will not be able to go to its ideal square, g5, so easily. We’ll see why in a bit.

Back to 3.Nc3. Here, Black has a few good options. The standard way of continuing is 3…Nf6, supporting the d5 pawn and developing a piece. Another interesting and aggressive option is 3…a6, the Janowski Variation. The main idea with this move is to take dxc4 and cover that pawn with b5, which will in turn be covered with a6. This wins a pawn, and any attempt by White to get the pawn back gets pretty messy – which Black is hoping for. The theory is somewhat involved, but if you are interested, you can read more in this article. Note that Black can also play 3…c5, leading to the Tarrasch Defense, which is a completely different opening.

Back to 3…Nf6, the safe and sound way. This move is logical for the reasons above, but does allow White to play Bg5, which is the ideal square for the bishop also mentioned above. Why is this ideal? For one thing, it pins the knight and can also drop back to h4 and eventually f2, which will support a central pawn push later (more on that in another section). This is better than 4.Bf4, which looks like an active square, but a move like …Bd6 by Black shows that it is not super meaningful.

This leads Black to an interesting variation available on move 3: Be7. This variation, favored by veteran Chessable author and Grandmaster Alex Colovic, stops White from developing the bishop to the ideal square. It is therefore a very strong way to play the Queen’s Gambit Declined. In fact, GM Colovic did an entire Chessable Lifetime Repertoire on it, the free sample of which you can access here.

Okay, back to the main line with 3…Nf6. Actually, White does develop the bishop to g5 right away, but instead usually captures on d5 now. This is called the Exchange Variation or Carlsbad Variation, and is considered to be the main line of the Queen’s Gambit Declined. It’s the variation we will focus on in this article

Exchange (Carlsbad) Variation: First Moves

4. cxd5 exd5

Queen's Gambit Declined Exchange Starting Position

Starting position of the main line of the QGD: the Exchange Variation

First, let’s note that Black doesn’t have to take back with the pawn (4…exd5) – they can take back with 4…Nxd5. This leads to an opening sometimes called the delayed Tarrasch, and is an interesting option developed by former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Back to 4…exd5, however. Now, White can finally develop their dark square bishop to its ideal square: 5.Bg5. Frequently, Black responds with 5…Be7, breaking the pin, developing a piece and preparing castling (note that 4…h6 and …c6 are also good and will come up later in the main line). Now comes 6.e3, opening up White’s light square bishop for development now that the dark square bishop is already out (otherwise, e3 would lock in the dark square bishop).

Here already we can start to talk about the beginnings of strategy for both sides. White almost always wants to put their light square bishop on d3, to prevent White from putting their bishop on f5. Why is that so?

With Black’s pawns controlling light squares, the value of Black’s light square bishop decreases. Meanwhile, White’s light square bishop is usually strong, since it aims at the kingside unopposed. This means that in general, Black wants to trade off their bad light square bishop for White’s good light square bishop.

So why doesn’t Black play …Bf5 earlier to meet Bd3 with …Bxd3? Black let the light square bishop out without first playing …c6, due to a nasty trick.

Suppose instead of 4…Be7, Black played 4…Bf5:

Can you find a way for White to win a pawn?

The answer is 5.Bxf6 Qxf6 6.Qb3! With a double attack on the d5 pawn and b7 pawn. This is just a clean pawn loss for Black with no compensation.

So after 5.e3 from White, Black should castle with 6…O-O (here again …c6 first is also acceptable). White will continue with their plan to develop the bishop: 7.Bd3. Black now shores up the center with …c6, preventing any double attacks like the one just mentioned.

However, this leaves Black without any obvious square for their light square bishop: the quintessential problem for Black in the Exchange Variation. Since …Bg4 can be met easily by White with moves like Qb3, Qc2, or Nge2 (all typical developing moves White is planning to play anyway), it is best to keep the bishop at home for the moment.

Better is 7…c6, shoring up the center to prevent any double attacks like the one above. It results in this position, which is a major crossroad in the Queen’s Gambit Declined.

This position can be achieved through a few move orders, ours being one natural way. Here White has two major plans which will dictate the fashion of the rest of the game: the Minority Attack and the Botvinnik Plan.

The Minority Attack

The first common plan at White’s disposal is the Minority Attack. Why is it called ‘Minority Attack’? It comes from the pawn structure, where White has a pawn minority on the queenside, which will attack Black’s majority on the kingside. Let’s pause for a moment to ‘see the forest through the trees.’

The Carlsbad Structure

Note White has 3 pawns on the queenside whereas Black has 4. The minority attack is a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy where White uses their pawn minority to break up Black’s pawn majority into attackable targets.

How does this work? White will play b4 and eventually b5, harassing the c6 pawn. If Black takes the pawn on b5, it will result in an isolated d-pawn, which will be weak, and if they allow White to take on c6, the c6 pawn will be a backward pawn also vulnerable to attack. It’s ‘darned if I do, darned if I don’t’ for Black, and that’s why the Minority Attack is a fairly serious strategy at White’s disposal. You can learn more about the Carlsbad Structure and Minority Attack in this article).

Let’s return to the board with the pieces on it – here’s where we left off:

For White to prepare a minority attack in this position, they would have to prepare the move b4 with a move like Rb1 (the immediate b4 runs into Bxb4). But in general, they would first play moves like Nge2 (considered more flexible than Nf3), O-O, and Qc2 to fully develop before starting the Minority Attack.

Due to the dangers described above, Black should do what they can to stop the Minority Attack. One idea is to fight White’s b4 move with …b5, allowing the c6 pawn to be backward. The c6 pawn can be defended by placing a knight on c4 to blockade White’s queen and rook from hitting the c6 pawn – this is a plan advocated by International Master Christof Sielecki in his award-winning course Keep It Simple for Black.

In that course, he also shows what can happen if White gets away with the Minority Attack, using the model game Van Wely – Short, Wijk aan Zee 2010.

The Botvinnik Plan

While the Minority Attack is a good plan for White, Black does have their ways to prevent it, as shown above. Another plan for White is the Botvinnik plan, named for former World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik who developed it.

In the Botvinnik plan, White’s idea is to push the e-pawn to e4 and e5 if allowed, encroaching on Black’s center and removing critical defenders from the kingside (e.g. the knight on f6).

Let’s see the plan in action using the very game Botvinnik debuted it to the world in: Botvinnik – Keres, USSR Championship 1952.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg7 Be7 6.e3 O-O 7.Bd3

Looks familiar right? Here instead of …c6, Paul Keres opted for 7…Nbd7, but play continued in a very standard fashion: 8.Qc2 Re8 9.Nge2 Nf8 10.O-O c6, resulting in this position:

If you’re considering using the Queen’s Gambit in your repertoire, take note of this setup and the game! This setup by White is still standard even today, 70 years after Botvinnik played it! Although Black’s play is considered a bit antiquated by today’s standards, White’s setup with the knights on c3 and e2, bishop on d3, and queen on c2 is very typical, and can be the springboard for both the Minority Attack and Botvinnik Plan.

Interestingly, Botvinnik’s next move was 11.Rab1, signaling his intention to prepare the Minority Attack with b4 perhaps on the next move. But it appeared he changed his mind, as played continued 11…Bd6 12.Kh1 (a great prophylactic move stopping any tactics with …Bxh2+ followed by …Ng4+) 12…Ng6 13.f3

This is the start of Botvinnik’s Plan: f3, preparing e4. Note that in modern times, grandmasters don’t bother with Rab1, and instead prefer a move like Rad1, which will lend future support to the d-pawn which will become weak after White plays e3-e4.

In any case, play continued 13…Be7 (Keres realized his attacking chances were null after Kh1) 14. Rae1 Ne7 15. Bxe7 Rxe7 16. Ng3

Now we can see why White’s earlier Nge2 was a nice move – it allows Ng3, which aids in the central e4 push.

16…Ng6 17. Qf2 Be6 18.Nf5 Bxf5 19. Bxf5 Qb6 20.e5

Botvinnik finally realizes his e4 plan. The idea is straightforward: push e5 and intrude Black’s kingside, which is exactly what White does.

20…dxe4 21.fxe4 Rd8 22. e5 Nd5 23. Ne4 Nf8 24.Nd6

This is the beauty of the plan: by playing e5, Black was forced to remove their knight from f6, paving the way for White to play Ne4 and then Nd6, resulting in an amazing outpost. It’s clear from the diagram above White is doing much better than Black. An attack on Black’s king is in the offing!

We are far past the opening now, but Botvinnik went on to win the game with

24…Qc7 25. Be4 Ne6 26. Qh4 g6 27. Bxd5 cxd5 28. Rc1 Qd7 29.Rc3 Rf8 30.Nf5 Rfe8 31. Nh6+ Kf8 32.Qf6 Ng7 33. Rcf3 Rc8 34. Nxf7 Re6 35. Qg5 Nf5 36. Nh6 Wg7 37. g4 1-0.

Scroll through the full game here:

(interactive chess diagram)

Modern Defensive Ideas by Black

This game was a landmark, and the rest of the chess world quickly followed suit. As mentioned previously, White’s setup on move 10 is still the standard today, due to the flexibility of plans offered.

That said, Black’s play has improved considerably from Keres’ fumbling in this game (no offense Mr. Keres, if you’re listening somewhere!).

Nowadays, it is more common that Black starts counterplay on the queenside much sooner – procrastinating this just allows White to steamroll White in the center with the Botvinnik Plan.

After White castles, Black can launch counterplay immediately with moves like …a5 and …b5, intending …b4 to kick the knight away. A setup like the following is typical:

And this is where the rich beauty of the Queen’s Gambit Declined really lay. The position is double-edged: White has their plan to push in the center with f3 and e4, and Black has the counterplay on the queenside. The position will break open fairly quickly with much tactical play available.

For more information on how to play the Queen’s Gambit Declined from Black’s perspective in the modern way, you can check out the course Keep It Simple for Black (mentioned above), or this free version here.

The Queen’s Gambit Declined: A Rich Opening for White and Black

Note that while the Exchange Variation is the main line these days, there are certainly other solid ways to play as well. It is also perfectly solid for White to avoid exchanging and continue development with 4.Nf3, which leads to much different play.

Many openings can also transpose into the Queen’s Gambit Declined, such as the Réti Opening (1.Nf3) and the English Opening (1.c4), making the Queen’s Gambit Declined useful knowledge for any chess player. In fact, the Carlsbad Structure can be found in other openings besides the QGD, such as the Exchange Variation of the Caro-Kann.

Learn about a different gambit here!

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)

What do I do if the Queen’s Gambit is declined?

There’s nothing to fear if you play the Queen’s Gambit and Black declines. White can get a good game in a number ways, but the pros tend to prefer two major variations: the Exchange Variation (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.cxd4) or the Catalan, which is a setup with pawns on c4, d4 g3 and the bishop on g2.

Why would you decline the Queen’s Gambit?

The Queen’s Gambit Declined is considered more theoretically sound than the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, as you do not readily give up a central pawn for a wing pawn and allow them to control the center with pawns on d4 and e4. Playing the Queen’s Gambit Declined leads to strategically sound yet interesting positions for both Black and White.

Can Black play the Queen’s Gambit?

Black cannot play the Queen’s Gambit themselves, but rather choose to accept or decline White’s Queen’s Gambit. After the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 (the Queen’s Gambit), Black can play 2…e6, the Queen’s Gambit Declined or 2..dxc4, the Queen’s Gambit Accepted.

Should I accept or decline the Queen’s Gambit?

It is simply a matter of taste. Pros play both the Queen’s Gambit Accepted and Queen’s Gambit Declined. Both are characteristically very different. In general, the Queen’s Gambit Accepted leads to more tactical and sharper open positions, whereas the Queen’s Gambit Declined leads to more strategic, maneuvering closed positions. Both can be very interesting!

Is the Queen’s Gambit Declined a good opening?

Yes! The Queen’s Gambit Declined has been played at top level for decades, and continues to be a prominent variation against the Queen’s Gambit to this day.

Is the Queen’s Gambit Declined an aggressive opening?

The Queen’s Gambit Declined is not known as a particularly aggressive opening, but it can be more aggressive than people think. Variations such as the Vienna Variation or Janowski Variation are specific variations that have a fighting spirit to them, and are worth checking out if you would like to play the Queen’s Gambit Declined as Black.

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