- The Vienna Game arises from the King’s Pawn Game (1.e4 e5) whereby White chooses to play 2.Nc3.
- The move appears innocuous but the Vienna Game tends to turn aggressive quickly.
- The most aggressive line is the Vienna Gambit when white plays f4 on move 3.
- Black’s most common replies to the Vienna Game are 2…Nf6 (The Falkbeer Variation) and 2…Nc6 (The Max Lange Defense).
Introduction to the Vienna Game
The Vienna Game is a derivation of the King’s Pawn Game, arising after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 It is far less common than the most popular second move, 2.Nf3. 2.Nc3 is only played in 5% of games at the top level, while 2.Nf3 is played in 76%.
2.Nc3 is on the surface a quiet move. It is not in and of itself aggressive, but it is often played in preparation for an aggressive 3.f4, a variation known as the Vienna Gambit.
This is not always the case, and White can play quieter moves, meaning the Vienna Game may often transpose to other openings such as the Petrov Three Knight’s Game or even the Four Knights Game.
The Vienna is best summed up as a flexible opening and a sound one at that. It has something for everyone. Aggressive players and positional players alike will find something in it for them.
Additionally, due to it being far less popular, Black may often be taken out of preparation early, so there is an element of surprise in playing the Vienna Game.
The Vienna Game dates back to the second half of the 19th century when Romantic chess reigned supreme and people thought along the lines of the King’s Gambit. As such 2.Nc3 was often played in preparation for 3.f4.
About a century later, the Vienna Gambit went through a reappraisal and saw Bent Larsen take a quieter approach in the 1950s and 1960s using 3.Bc4
Lifetime Repertoires: Jan Gustafsson's 1. e4 e5
How to play the Vienna Game-Vienna Game Main Lines
2…Nf6 The Falkbeer Variation
This is by far the most common response to 2.Nc3 and is the line from which all main line Vienna Games start. In fact, 60% of Vienna Games begin this way.
In contrast to 2.Nf3, Black has nothing attacked immediately, so they may play Nf6.
From here, White’s main replies are 3.f4, 3.Bc4, and 3.g3.
Note that, 3.Nf3 is actually the most common move in the position, but we won’t go into that, as it transposes to a Three Knights Petrov or the Four Knights game.
The Vienna Gambit is for the aggressive player. 2.Nc3 appears to be such a quiet move, but White wants a battle if they decide to play the Vienna Gambit. It is essentially a King’s Gambit with Nc3 thrown in first.
Here Black can get into trouble. This position differs a bit from a King’s Gambit with the knight on f6. What happens if Black decides to take?
This is a mistake. White will have more than enough compensation for the pawn as they plan to play 4.e5, chasing the knight back to its original square. White’s development lead is clear. White also has a nice space advantage and can mount a rapid attack from here. If you meet the Vienna Gambit as Black, remember do not take immediately!
Black’s best and main move is a counterstrike on the center with 3…d5.
4.exd5 is a mistake as it significantly weakens White’s pawn structure. White should play 4.fxe5. Black naturally captures with 4…Nxe4.
And here is the crucial position of the Vienna Gambit. Long term, White wants attacking chances on the kingside with the half-open f-file and a nice outpost on e5. But Black has an easy time developing with both diagonals open for their bishops.
In this position, the concern is the knight on e4. 5.Nxe4 does not really help matters as after 5…dxe4, the pawn will be just as much a menace (if not more) as the knight.
5.d3 is one option, though after 5…Nxc3 6.bxc3 Black can play 6…d4, preventing White from playing d4 to support the pawn on e5.
5…Qh4+ is extremely sharp, though actually not that dangerous if White plays correctly. White responds 6.g3 Nxg3 7.Nf3 Qh5 8.Nxd5 and both sides have structural damage to deal with.
5.Nf3 is another main line. White now prevents 5…Qh4+. White’s plan is to play 6.d4 and 7.d3, but it is not really dangerous for Black as they can play 5…Be7 6.d4 0-0 7.Bd3 f5 8.exf6 Bxf6 and if White takes twice on e4 they are pinned with 10…Re8.
This move prevents Black from playing 3…d5. White now has three pieces controlling this important square. This may be a preparation for f4 or it may lead to a quieter and more positional game.
From here Black has two main moves, either 3…Nc6 or 3…Nxe4.
3…Nxe4 has the fun name The Frankenstein Dracula Variation.
Black gives up their knight, but will immediately win it back if White takes it. If 4.Nxe4, 4…d5 forks the bishop and the knight, immediately winning the piece back. You can hardly call it a sacrifice.
After 3…Nxe4 White has the dangerous move 4.Qh5, threatening checkmate in one.
Black is forced to play 4…Nd6. White can win the pawn back with 5.Qxe5+, but more common is 5.Bb3, sacrificing a pawn. This leads us to 5…Nc6 6.Nb5 g6 7.Qf3 f5 8.Qd5 Qe7 9.Nxc7+ Kd8 10.Rxa8 b6, a chaotic and complicated where White has won a rook, but Black will win back at least a knight.
Black has a huge lead in development and White’s queen is in danger. If you’re a fan of chaotic positions, the Frankenstein-Dracula Variation may be for you.
Going back to less crazy positions is 3…Nc6. White usually plays 4.d3, and has a nice pawn chain and solid development.
4…Bc5 would invite White to play 5.f4, transposing to the King’s Gambit Declined, whereas 4…Bb4 discourages this, as after 5.f4, Black has the powerful move 5…d5.
The most typical “Stanley Variation” move would be 4…Na5, making White part ways with their light-squared bishop. From here, the critical line is 5.Nge2 Nxc4 6.dxc4, and though White has lost their bishop, they have a firm grip on the d5 square. This is very unlike the Frankenstein-Dracula Variation and is a rather slow position.
This is the third main line in Vienna Game theory. Black can play 3…d5, and it appears they have the initiative. However, after 4.exd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Nc6 7.Nf3 Bc5 8. 0-0 0-0 9.Re1, White has a few ways to attack the center, with a well-timed d4, for instance. Another option is to play d3 and Nd2, opening up the diagonal for the g2 bishop.
Black could prepare d5 with 3…c6, but this gives White the opportunity to take the initiative with 4.d4 exd4 5.Qxd4, and the queen cannot be ousted with Nc6, obviously.
Black does not have to try to refute the Mieses Variation and may simply play 3…Bc5 4.Bg2 Nc6. The center is closed and each side may slowly develop. White will prepare a timely f4 in this case, this break being the main theme of the Vienna Game.
2…Nc6-The Max Lange Defense
The Max Lange Defense is when Black plays 2…Nc6 rather than 2…Nf6, while less popular than the main line, it is by no means uncommon.
The main idea behind the Max Lange Defense is to be able to take the gambit offered if White plays 3.f4. This position looks very similar to a King’s Gambit Accepted.
If White opts for one of the other standard replies, the difference between 2…Nc6 and 2…Nf6 is minimal.
Black can now take and in fact should take because there is no knight on f6 to be chased away with 4.e5. This creates a middlegame situation similar to the King’s Gambit Accepted, but the addition of Nc3 and Nc6 changes the situation.
The advantage here over the King’s Gambit (for White) is that Black does not have as many choices. Black needs to act to prevent 5.d4 and 6.d5 as 4…d4 is not a viable option.
However, this has an advantage for Black in that they do not really need an alternative to 4….g5
From here White can play 5.h4, after 5…g4 6.Ng5 h6 White is forced to sacrifice a piece. The position is very sharp.
White can also play 5.d4, staking a claim in the center, and after 5…g4 6.Bc4, White again sacrifices a piece. This is known as the Pierce Gambit. White has a lead in development, but with correct play, Black is better. It is a dangerous position though.
If 7.0-0 fxg2 8.bxf7+ Kxf7 9.Qh5+ Kg7 10.Qg4+ Kf7 11.Rxf4+ Nf6 12.Nd5, and Black’s kingside is destroyed, and White has a fierce attack.
This of course is not forced. 7.0-0 is refuted by 7…Nxd4. If 8.Qxd4 there is 8…Qh5.
Black has fewer options here compared to if they had played 2…Nf6. If 3…Bc5 4.Bg2 Nf6, the position is the same as if 2…Nf6 3.g3 Bc5 4.Bg2 Nc6, though the options of 3…d5 and 3…c6 are no longer reasonable. This is of course still a completely tenable position.
Vienna Game Sidelines
While 2…Nf6 and 2…Nc3 are considered the main lines, there are some interesting sidelines to be played in the Vienna Game.
2…d6 is a relatively quiet move, played in about 4% of games. It adopts a structure similar to the Philidor Defense. 3.f4 is a move played in the spirit of the Vienna Game.
Of course, like in the Vienna Gambit, White hopes to put pressure on the kingside and launch an attack. If 3…exf4, the engine’s best move is actually 4.Qf3, trying to win back the pawn and placing pressure on the f-file.
However, the most popular move is 4.Nf3. This stops 4…Qh4 check, which would prevent White from castling.
However, Black does not have to accept and can keep the tension and simply play a move like 3…Nf6.
Black threatens to take the knight on c3, looking somewhat like a reverse Trompowsky. White brings their queen out immediately to g4 attacking the g7 square. Black will usually respond 3…Nf6, allowing the queen to take on g7 but then can chase the queen around after that. This is a pretty unpopular sideline, and the engine gives it as equal.
The following game took place in 1965 in Hamburg between David Bronstein and Rudolf Teschner.
The Vienna Game is a solid alternative for e4 players looking to spice up their opening repertoire. It can take many players on the Black side out of their Italian Game and Ruy Lopez opening preparation.
Aggressive players with an eye for the King’s Gambit will enjoy the sounder foundation of the Vienna Gambit, which is like a delayed King’s Gambit but is safer for White.
Generally, though 2.Nc3 appears to start out quiet, the Vienna Game usually becomes aggressive fast. Certain lines of the Stanley Variation can be quieter, but only if Black does not bring White into complicated positions.
This flexible and sound opening is recommended for players at all levels, from those just starting out to grandmasters.
Is the Vienna Game aggressive?
While the move 2.Nc3 is not in and of itself aggressive, the Vienna Game is likely to become aggressive rapidly with moves such as 3.f4, moving into the aggressive Vienna Gambit.
What is the goal of the Vienna game?
The goal of the Vienna Game is to support the center with the knight on c3 and to play a timely f2-f4 pawn break.
Is the Vienna game a good opening?
The Vienna Game is considered an extremely sound opening and is playable by all levels from beginners to Super GMs.
How do you play the Vienna Game?
The Vienna Game is played by playing 2.Nc3 after 1.e4 e5.
Can you play Vienna as black?
No, the Vienna Game is a response to 1.e4 e5 by White when they choose to play 2.Nc3.
How do you crush the Vienna Game?
The Vienna Game is a solid opening and has no refutation. Therefore, it is not easy to give one answer on how to crush the Vienna Game. Black tends to fare best after playing 2…Nc6 or 2…Nf6.