Traxler Counterattack – The Two Knight Defense on Steroids!


Table of Contents

The Traxler Counterattack is more than just a surprise weapon.

  • Played as long ago as the 1890s by the Czech chess player K. Traxler, this counterattacking option of the Two Knights defense is more than a surprise weapon.
  • Turn the tables on White by offering a counter sacrifice and force your opponent to decide if they want to accept the sacrifice.
  • White has three main moves to meet the Traxler Counterattack – 5.d4, 5.Nxf7, and 5.Bxf7+

The Traxler Counterattack begins with the moves

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc5 Nf6 4.Ng5 Bc5

The starting position of the Traxler Counterattack is reached after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc 3.Bc5 Nf6 4.Ng5 Bc5.

Black responds to the threat against f7 by creating a threat of his own against the weakest point in White’s position – f2. If given a chance, the bishop will get sacrificed with …Bxf2 and create such dangerous threats that White sometimes does not get to capture the rook on h8.

Like all good gambits, the Traxler Counterattack relies on rapid development and exposing the enemy king. Fortunately, in the Traxler Counterattack, you get both, which is excellent when you sacrifice a rook.

There are variations when your king gets exposed, so do not delay or waste any time pushing your attack forward. Between sacrificing your rook and risking exposing your king, it pays to do a lot of preparation before playing the Traxler Counterattack.

Despite making its debut back in 1890 the Traxler Counterattack is still a viable defense today.

The Traxler Counterattack With 5.Nxf7

The good thing about playing the Traxler Counterattack is that the most popular response, 5.Nxf7 is not the best. Capturing on f7 is natural because it is the main reason white plays 4.Ng5.

This plays into Black’s hands because it allows 5…Bxf2+. Black rightly decides not to let White have all the fun of sacrificing material or attacking the weakest point in the enemy camp -f2/f7.

Traxler Counterattack after 5.Nxf7 Bxf2+

Of course, there is one significant difference between 5.Nxf7 and 5…Bxf2 – the knight is protected, and the bishop is not! Accepting the bishop exposes the white king to a devastating attack, but declining it still gives Black plenty of attacking opportunities.

In this game, Black delivered checkmate on the seventeenth move!

Since declining the bishop still exposes white to a dangerous attack, it makes sense to accept the bishop. After all, if you are going to be under pressure in chess, you might as well gain a material advantage for your suffering. 

Black gets two pawns for the bishop; however, there is still the matter of the knight forking queen and rook. The attacking opportunities against the white king often prove dangerous enough to save both the queen and rook.

When white accepted the offered bishop, I doubt he thought he would have to resign on move twelve. There was no defense for White against all the threats.

Even with our access to strong chess engines, the Traxler Counterattack is still doing well, as this game, played as recently as 2021, shows.

The Traxler Counterattack With 5.d4

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 Bc5 5.d4

In light of the dangerous attacks generated after …Bxf2, it makes sense for White to block the c5-f2 diagonal with d4. However, if Black knows his stuff, White will not get an advantage from playing 5.d4.

In fact, things can go wrong for White and Black can get a dangerous lead in development.

The next few moves are essential for Black to remember. These crucial moves are to meet 5.d4 with 5…d5 and 6.Bxd5 Nxd4.

This sets a trap for White by allowing the knight to capture on f7. After 7.Nxf7 Qe7 8.Nxh8 Bg4 Black has almost every piece developed while all the white queenside pieces are on their original squares.

As the following game shows, even when White plays the correct 7.Bxf7+ it is not plain sailing.

The Traxler With 5.Bxf7+

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 Bc5 5.Bxf7+

This capture is regarded as the most serious try to gain an advantage for White. Apart from winning material, the capture forces Black to lose castling rights and leaves the king exposed.

One of the advantages of the Traxler Counterattack is that even in the best line, there are opportunities for White to make mistakes and allow Black to achieve easy equality at worse.

Black may have lost the f7-pawn but can use the semi-open open f-file to pressure the f3-knight. Combining …Rf8 with …Bg4 is an excellent way to counterattack-especially if white castles short.

When White plays c3 to support the d4 advance and give the queen access to the queenside, Black is best served by retreating the bishop to b6 and maintaining the central tension.

The Traxler Counterattack is well suited to an attacking player like Alexei Shirov, who only needed fifteen moves to defeat his 2470 Elo opponent.

Final Thoughts

The Traxler Counterattack is an excellent fighting defense against the Fried Liver Attack. Apart from being theoretically sound, the opening is lots of fun to play.

Few things make you feel better than taking your opponent into unfamiliar territory early in the game. The excitement grows even more when you can do this with a bishop sacrifice.

Go ahead and play the Traxler Counterattack with the confidence that this is a sound chess opening no matter how it appears on the surface.

You can learn more about the Traxler Counterattack theory in our post on The Fried Liver Attack.

This video is from the Tournament Ready: The Opening course by GM Daniel King, WFM Sarah Longson & UK Chess Challenge

Highlighted course

Tournament Ready: The Opening

The Traxler Counterattack Frequently Asked Questions

How do you beat Traxler Counterattack?

White has three good moves against the Traxler Counterattack, but only one gives white any advantage. Surprisingly enough, it is not Nxf7 forking the queen and rook, but Bxf7+!

Is the Traxler Counterattack good?

The Traxler Counterattack is suitable for players who can remember their theory and are good at tactics.

What is the advantage of the Traxler Counterattack?

The Traxler Counterattack will often catch your opponents by surprise, but it is also a sound way of meeting the Fried Liver Attack.

How do you counter Fried Liver Attack?

You can use the Traxler Counterattack to counter the Fried Liver Attack or play 4…d5 5.exd5 Na5. The more ways you have of meeting the Fried Liver Attack, the harder it is for your opponents to prepare against you.

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The Grand Ruy Lopez

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