The Semi-Tarrasch – How to Play, Attack and Counter (as White & Black)


Table of Contents

Introduction to the Semi-Tarrasch

Quick overview:

  • The Semi-Tarrasch is a sub-variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined, which arises after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c5.
  • On the surface it appears like a Tarrasch, but the fact that Black avoids the isolated queen pawn means that it is actually more similar to the Grunfeld.
  • The Semi-Tarrasch is a solid opening that is very positional. It can be hard for either side to fight for an advantage with optimal play.

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The Classy Semi-Tarrasch Defense

The Semi-Tarrasch is a sub-variation of the ultra-sound Queen’s Gambit Declined. It is a cousin of the Tarrasch Defense but differs considerably.

The Semi-Tarrasch arises after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c5. The idea behind it is to strike right at White’s center pawns.

The opening has more in common with the Grunfeld than with the Tarrasch. The Tarrasch begins with the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5. The move 3…Nf6 interspersed actually changes things quite a bit, as after cxd5, Black intends to recapture with the knight.

In the regular Tarrasch, Black would of course have to capture with the e-pawn, saddling Black with an isolated queen pawn. Black of course does not need to think about these considerations and the dynamic play required in such positions.

The Semi-Tarrasch is played at all levels. At the top level, it is known to give Black equality and is often considered a drawing weapon, as it is hard for White to fight for an advantage with optimal play by Black. This could be considered a good thing or a bad thing for players at lower levels.

The positions arising out of the opening are not considered overly sharp. There are not heaps of theory and tactics to consider, so depending on your playing style, this could be good or bad. It is not going to teach beginners many tactical motifs, but if you struggle with sharp positions out of the opening, the solid and simple play of the Semi-Tarrasch can give you a relatively weakness-free position going into the middlegame.

The Classy Semi-Tarrasch Defense

Semi-Tarrasch Main Line

5.cxd5 Nxd5

By far the most popular choice.

Notice in this position how the pawn structures of both sides look quite symmetrical. If White plays something like 6.e3, and the central pawns are exchanged, both White and Black will have pawns in the starting position on the a and b-files and their king’s pawns two squares ahead of their king.

With each side having symmetrical pawn structures, it can be hard to create imbalances.

There are three main responses on move six for White, these are 6.e4, 6.e3, and 6.g3.


The most popular and aggressive option for White and probably the sharpest the Semi-Tarrasch gets. Forcing the knight away, Black’s best move is to play 6…Nxc3. After 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 0-0

White has the desirable pawn center, but Black has good development, thus it remains to be seen how strong this pawn center will be.


This is considered a very solid option for White. The position is reminiscent of the Catalan Opening. White’s skirts the idea of central dominance and instead plays a symmetrical position with a small lead in development.

After 6…cxd4 7.Nxd5! Qxd5 8.Qxd4 9.Nxd4, White has an ever-so-slight edge.

After 6…Nc6 7.Bg2 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Nxc3 9.bxc3 Nxd4 10.Qxd4 Qxd4 11.cxd4, we enter an endgame where each side both has chances. White has pressure on b7, but Black has a pawn majority on the queenside and could create a passed pawn.

White plays 11.Bc4, and White is playing a Grunfeld set-up, with Black lacking the fianchettoed dark-square bishop of the Grunfeld, so there are no real attacking chances here for Black.

White is by no means winning, but the position is rather dry and Black will need to try to create an attack somehow. Black in this position will instead try to fianchetto their light-square bishop and can target the e4 pawn from long range.

6.e3- The Pillsbury Variation

After 6…Nc6, we see a position that looks somewhat like an Exchange Caro-Kann.

This line does give White some attacking chances. White is inviting Black to play 6…cxd4, after 7.exd4, White accepts the isolated queen pawn.

There are two main lines here. Black can opt for easy development, for example, 7…Be7 8.Bd3 (or Bc4) …Nc6 9. 0-0 0-0 10.Re1.

This position is rather positional and slow-moving. Engines give a slight edge to White, but the board isn’t exactly about to explode with tactics.

Another more aggressive approach is 7…b4. After 8.Qc2 Nc6, Black can set up a trap.

If 9.Bd3 Ba5 (threatening 10…Ndb4) 10.a3 Nxc3 11.bxc3 Nxd4 loses a pawn for White.

Play may continue though with 12.Nxd4 Qxd4 13.0-0. Engines give Black a small advantage of -0.3, despite being a pawn up. White has superior development.


The Semi-Tarrasch is a very positional opening, and at the top levels is not used to fight for a win. That should not discourage lower-rated players from using it if it fits their style.

Beginners will at some point make an error, so it is certainly possible to fight for a win in the Semi-Tarrasch (from both sides). If sharp positions loaded with tactics intimidate you, then the Semi-Tarrasch could be a good option.

If you are looking for a solid opening, with slower and more positional play, then try out the Semi-Tarrasch.


Is the Semi-Tarrasch Defense good for beginners?

The Semi-Tarrasch can be a good choice for beginners who would like to experiment with low-theory, positional games. Its drawback though as it does not teach as much about tactical play as some other popular openings.

Who plays the Semi-Tarrasch Defense?

The Semi-Tarrasch is played at all levels and is particularly used by Super-GMs as black against 1.d4 when they are looking for a draw. Bobby Fischer and Vladimir Kramnik are two players that have used the opening in their repertoire.

How sound is the Semi-Tarrasch Defense?

The Semi-Tarrasch is considered extremely sound for Black agaisnt 1.d4. With optimal play on both sides, it is extremely hard for White to play for an advantage.

Is Semi-Tarrasch Defense for the attacking players?

No. The Semi-Tarrasch is about as positional as they come, and it offers far fewer attacking chances than many openings.

How do you play the Semi-Tarrasch Defense?

The Semi-Tarrasch results after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c5.

How do you counter the Semi-Tarrasch Defense?

White has various options after the pawn exchange on d5. The most aggressive counter to the Semi-Tarrasch is to play 6.e4.

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Lifetime Repertoires: Nimzo/Semi-Tarrasch - Part 1

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