The Semi-Slav: How to Play, Attack and Counter


Table of Contents


Quick overview:

  • The Semi-Slav is a highly regarded opening in response to the Queen’s Gambit arising after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 (or similar).
  • The Semi-Slav is seen as a combination of the Queen’s Gambit Declined and the Slav Defense, yet is thought to be more tactical and aggressive in nature than them.
  • It is popular at all levels of play and has been used extensively at the highest levels for many decades.

Introduction to the Semi-Slav Defense

Black has no shortage of ways to play against classical 1.d4 players. True, the London System is all the rage at the moment but there will come a time when even club players will rediscover the truth that 1.d4 followed by 2.c4 (instead of 2 Nf3 or 2 Bf4)  is the best way to play for an advantage in the opening.

Meeting 1.d4 with 1…d5 keeps everything classical and after 2.c4 Black’s two main ways to decline the Queen’s Gambit are 2…e6 and 2…c6.

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 is the Slav Defense and it has a reputation of being a rock-solid opening which can be particularly effective in the hands of positional players.

Combining the moves …e6 and …c6 to bolster the defense of the d5-pawn gives the Semi-Slav Defense, after which the play can become much more tactical than in the pure Slav.

The Semi-Slav can be seen as a hybrid opening of the Queen’s Gambit Declined and the Slav Defense.

The Basic Position

There are various move orders, in which both players will have their own favorite lines they are going to try and use but this position represents the starting point of the opening. A typical sequence goes: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6.

One big difference between the Semi-Slav and other 1 …d5 defences is Black’s threat to play …dxc4 and then hold onto the extra pawn with a subsequent …b5. This is why 5 e3 is one of the most popular moves for White; the bishop is now free to simply recapture on c4.

Black could then use the bishop as a target to expand on the queenside. For example, 5 …Nbd7 6 Bd3 dxc4 7 Bxc4 b5 and White must choose between the various bishop retreats.

The Meran Variation

The variation took its name from the Meran tournament of 1924. Even though it had appeared before, with Carl Schlechter and Jose Raul Capablanca featuring on the white side of the board, it was only when Akiba Rubinstein played a fabulous game Ernst Grünfeld in which his advanced queenside pawns played a significant role that the variation began to attract attention. Grünfeld then used it as Black to beat Rudolf Spielmann two rounds later and the Meran name stuck.

As usual, chess theory developed and White players have various Anti-Meran variations at their disposal.

The Meran Variation of the Semi-Slav remains fully viable and has definitely stood the test of time. Viswanathan Anand won two key games against Vladimir Kramnik to win the World Championship in 2008.

If both players are creatively inclined, possess a good memory, and have put the time in plenty of preparation, then there is a possibility of seeing one of the most fascinating variations from any chess opening appearing on the chessboard.

Botvinnik Variation

1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6 5 Bg5 and now Black can head for the (in)famous Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav with 5 …dxc4 (it is not too late to head for quieter waters with 5 …h6, the Moscow Variation). 6 e4 b5 7 e5

Black appears to be in trouble at first sight, but the position is full of resources.

7…h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7

This is how the game Denker – Botvinnik (USA vs. USSR, Radio match, 1945) started. This game gave the variation its name. Botvinnik won in 25 moves.

The line had been played before Botvinnik’s name was used and, very interestingly, Ernst Grunfeld was again involved. He won, as Black, in just 23 moves against Van Sheltinga (Amsterdam, 1936).

Grunfeld was clearly a pioneer in various openings, even though his name is linked almost exclusively with his own defense (1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5).

The Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav will continue to attract players who are either free spirits or are extremely well prepared. Garry Kasparov became heavily involved on the White side of the matter in former times and Alexei Shirov can be found on the Black side in several key games.

The Cambridge Springs Variation

5.Bg5 Nbd7 6.e3 Qa5

The Cambridge Springs Variation is one of the lines suggested by Chessable author GM Sam Shankland in his Lifetime Repertoire Semi-Slav course.

After 6…Qa5, Black is pinning the knight and threatens Ne4. White needs to respond to this threat, and the only way to do so will change the position so that it no longer resembles a Queen’s Gambit. This makes it quite a challenging line for White.

White has a few options to respond on move 7, including Bxf6, Qc2, Qb3, Rc1, Be2, and a3, but the most common and most challenging for Black is 7.cxd5.

7…Nxd5. Black now changes the fundamental pawn structure and adds another attacker to the knight on c3. White now must defend this knight, lest they lose a pawn. 

Another interesting (and less common) option for White is 7.Nd2. This poses quite the challenge for White. It now prevents the knight from jumping to e4 and can meet dxc4 with Nxc4.

There are two options to do so, they are 8.Qd2 and 8.Rc1. Whatever White chooses, Black will continue with the same plan. 

8.Rc1 Nxc3! 9.bxc3 Ba3

Black does not take the pawn on a2 and rather decides to win a tempo on the rook. It may look like Black is worse here as they lack space, but they plan to play either c5 or e5 to break things open.

The Moscow Variation

5…h6 6.Bxf6 Qxf6

The Moscow Variation is one of GM S.P. Sethuraman’s recommendations in his Lifetime Repertoire on the Semi-Slav. This line is an aggressive approach in the Semi-Slav and offers good chances for attacking players.

There are positives for both sides in this system. For Black, White lacking the bishop pair is crucial. White, however, has more control over the center and the queen is a little out of place on f6.

White plays 7.e3, preparing the develop the light-squared bishop and protecting the c4 pawn.

From here Black can play either 7…Nd7 or 7…g6. The first move has the added benefit of preventing White from playing 8.Ne5. Play might go on 8.Qc2, with White preparing to castle long, …g6, preparing to fianchetto the dark-squared bishop, helping control the center. 9. 0-0-0 Bg7 10.h4 0-0.

With opposite sides castled, White would like to launch a pawn storm and break through Black’s kingside. This is not so simple though, as after h5, Black can calmly play g5, and Black will be better.

Instead of 8.Qc2, White can also play 8.Be2. This is a much better place for the bishop than d3. If it were on d3, then the capture on c4 would attack the bishop. In this position, we get something like 8…g6 9.e4 (grabbing space and trying to attack the center). 

Black from here can go 9…dxc4 10.e5 and the queen can find a better home with 10…Qe7, without cramping the bishop as it will be fianchettoed.

The Marshall Gambit-An aggressive counter for White

The Marshall Gambit arises after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 e6 4.e4

The most popular and main way to proceed is to take the pawn. After 4….dxe4 5.Nxe4 Bb4+ 6.Be2 Qxe4, White takes the hanging bishop with 7.Bxb4 and Black can take the knight with check 7…Qxe4+.

This is a very sharp position. Black cannot castle and their king is exposed. They are up a pawn, but the center is now wide open, and White fares just slightly better here.

Both sides in this position are constantly fighting for the initiative. Exciting games are bound to ensue. It is not for the faint of heart. 

The Forgotten Variation. 6.Nc3

In this variation, White forgoes sacrificing a pawn and simply retreats the knight back to its home on c3. Black’s best move after White blocks with check is to open the center with 6…c5. 

This variation was played in the 2013 World Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Vishwanathan Anand.

It is very hard for White to win a pawn here. If after 6…c5 7.a3 Ba5 8.dxc5 Bxc3+ 9.bxc3, White is up a pawn, but is left with tripled pawns, Plus their about to lose their castling rights after 9…Qxd1.


The Semi-Slav is a dynamic opening that offers opportunities for all sorts of players after 1.d4 d5. It is very solid and used by the top players to go for a win against 1.d4.

While some lines are more positional than others, it is generally more attacking than the Slav. Its combination of two of the most solid responses to 1.d4, the Queen’s Gambit Declined and the Slav Defense, make it one of the most versatile and hard-to-crack openings Black can have in their arsenal.


What is the difference between the Slav and the Semi-Slav?

The Semi-Slav is very similar to the Slav Defense, but throws in e6 to the opening. The nature of the opening makes it more aggressive than the regular main line Slav.

Is the Semi-Slav any good?

Yes, the Semi-Slav is considered one of the best attacking weapons against the Queen’s Gambit. It has been a favorite of many elite players, such as Garry Kasparov and Vishy Anand.

Is Semi-Slav sharp?

Generally, the Semi-Slav is considered a sharp opening, especially compared to its more positional cousin, the Slav. 

Is Slav better than Semi-Slav?

This is largely dependent on playing style as both openings have proven to be solid and have been played at the top level for decades. Players who prefer slower, more positional games will prefer the Slav, while attacking-minded players will prefer the Semi-Slav.

Note: This post was written by Sean Marsh on June 8, 2020 and subsequently updated by Matthew Astle on May 24, 2020.

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