A Comprehensive Guide to the Gruenfeld Defence 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5

IM Siegfried Baumegger     April 30, 2024

1. Introduction

2. Basic Concepts of the Gruenfeld Defence

3. Gruenfeld Defence - Sample Game

4. Main- and Subvariations of the Gruenfeld Defence

5. Conclusion



1. Introduction

The move 3...d5 was introduced into “modern” practice in the 4th game of the match Becker – Gruenfeld, Vienna 1922. Contrary to the King's Indian Defence, Black immediately challenges White in the center. In the most straightforward continuation 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 we get a fundamental type of position. White has occupied the center with pawns, while Black will attack it with ...c5 (a key resource in the entire Gruenfeld), ...Bg7 etc.  The viability of this idea was proven in practice, when strong players like Alekhine began playing the move 3...d5 on a regular basis, contributing valuable ideas.

The character of the play is largely determined by the system White chooses. In the above mentioned Exchange Variation, the evaluation of the position will depend on whether Black successfully manages to attack White’s center. The same goes for the Russian System, 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3 dxc4 6.Qxc4 0-0 7.e4.

Since occupying the center with pawns also comes with some responsibilities – White has to combine development of his pieces with defending his central pawns against the opponent’s attacks – more solid ways of playing were investigated. For instance, 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bg5 or 5.Bf4, followed by the development of the kingside with e3 etc. In this case, a timely ...c5 gives Black a good game. See “Main- and Sublines” for a comprehensive overview of the various theoretical lines available.

Ernst Gruenfeld (1893-1962) was an Austrian Grandmaster and a leading player in the 1920s and 1930s (number four in 1924 according to chessmetrics). Gruenfeld was known as a renowned theoretician, keeping a prodigious library in his Viennese flat. When travelling to tournaments, he took along his famous “Variantenkoffer” – a skillfully constructed suitcase, containing his opening analyses. Incidentally Gruenfeld also regularly adopted the Alekhine Defence (1.e4 Nf6), which contains ideas similar to “his” defence. Fun fact: according to MegaBase, Gruenfeld played more games with the Alekhine Defence than Alekhine (43 vs 19) and Alekhine played more games with the Gruenfeld Defence than Gruenfeld (19 vs 12).


2. Basic Concepts of the Gruenfeld Defence

Let’s begin with one of the fundamental positions of the Gruenfeld: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7.


By taking on d5 and following up with e4 White has built a strong pawn center. What does Black get in return? He has free development and all of his minor pieces have good prospects. It’s however not sufficient to randomly mobilize the forces and castle. The second player must combine development with pressure against White’s center!

When we look at the diagram, we notice that the g7-bishop directly targets d4, while the c3-pawn and the a1-rook are also in its firing line. Black can step up the pressure with ...c5, ...Nc6, ...Qa5, and possibly ...Bg4 (if a knight is on f3) – enough to keep White busy and prevent him from enjoying a free space advantage. To gain an impression of the positions that might come about, we follow one of the main lines. 7.Nf3 c5 8.Be3 (bolstering d4) 8...Qa5 9.Qd2 Nc6 10.Rc1.


White managed to secure his center. Now Black has to decide on how to proceed. Since c3 is protected, the move d4-d5 (possibly followed by c3-c4) becomes a positional threat. This must be prevented, so: 10...cxd4 11.cxd4 Qxd2+ 12.Kxd2. White has to take with the king as otherwise d4 would be hanging. The position of the king in the center can be both a strength and a liability. While it’s generally favourable to centralise the king in the endgame, it becomes a tactical target after 12...0-0 13.d5 Rd8. Black threatens ...e6 which forces White to lose some time. In case White manages to prevent ...e6, Black has other resources for counterplay. For example, play on the c-file or the undermining move ...f5.

The Counter Strike ...e5


Gelfand – Kasparov, Astana 2001 (position after 16...e5!)

The move ...e5 is an important resource in general, but especially in positions with the central structure d4-e3. This pawn setup seems more modest than building the ideal d4-e4-center, but it has one big advantage: it effectively restricts the g7-bishop. With ...e5, Black removes the ‘obstacle’ on d4. The game continued with 17.Nxe5 Nxe5 18.dxe5 Bxe5 19.Bxe5 Qxe5 with an equal position.

Counterplay on the c-file


Portisch – Kramnik, Biel 1993 (position after 18...b5!)

We have the same central pawn structure as in Gelfand – Kasparov, though here White has e5 firmly under control. The open c-file is another important source of counterplay. Black is ready to play ...Nc4, while the exchange of rooks (or exchanges in general) tends to favour Black – his queenside majority becomes more of a factor in the endgame. In the diagrammed position Kramnik has achieved comfortable equality and went on to win in great positional style.

Pawn Majority on the Queenside


Dvoirys – Gretarsson, Leeuwarden 1995 (Black to move)

A drawn endgame position? No! White faces an unpleasant defence. Black has a pawn majority on the queenside with the prospect of creating an outside passed pawn. Also, his king plays. The game went 23...Ba6! 24.Rc2 Rc8!, when Gretarsson acquiesced to the exchange of rooks with 25.Rxc8? Bxc8 and failed to defend the endgame. Keeping the rooks on the board with 25.Rb2 Bxe2 26.Rxe2 b5, offered White realistic drawing chances.

Positional Exchange Sacrifices


theoretical line, position after 14.d5!?

Black’s g7-bishop plays an essential role in the Gruenfeld. It’s both an important attacking and defensive piece. There are many lines where White is ready to offer a full exchange to get rid of Black’s dark-squared bishop. After 14...Bxa1 15.Qxa1 f6 16.Bh6 Re8 the position is balanced. A common motif for White is to put the queen on d4 and go for e4-e5. Despite being up the exchange, Black has to cope with the opponent’s sustained initiative.


Timman – Kasparov, Sarajevo 1999 (position after 15.b4)

There also is a fair share of games in the Gruenfeld where Black manages to sac the exchange. 15.b4? allowed the strong 15...Rxe3! 16.fxe3 cxb4 with a big advantage. For the exchange Kasparov got a pawn, the pair of bishops, and he ruined the opponent’s structure.


3. Grunfeld Defence - Sample Game



4. Main- and Subvariations of the Grunfeld Defence

We are going to cover the most important directions after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5, without going into every possible sideline - this would go beyond the scope of this article. White can also start with 3.Nf3 (or 3.g3 – see “The Fianchetto Variation”), when 3...Bg7 4.Nc3 d5 leads to a transposition. Note that after 3.Nf3, the immediate 3...d5?! is a mistake: 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 and Black must retreat with the knight, which gives White the advantage. The Saemisch-style 3.f3 and the trendy h-pawn attack 3.h4 are also moves Black needs to be ready for and we will briefly touch upon.

The Exchange Variation 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7

We already know the starting position of the Exchange Variation from “Basic Concepts”, and are familiar with Black’s main resources of counterplay. What about White’s options for developing his pieces? As much as Black needs to combine the mobilization of his forces with putting pressure on the opponent’s center, the first player must combine his mobilization with securing his central pawns.

Lines after 7.Nf3 c5

It might be surprising, but the natural continuation 7.Nf3 only started to become popular in the 1980s as it was previously thought, that this move would allow Black to equalize with a timely ...Bg4. After 7...c5 (it is vital to immediately put pressure on d4), the game branches off in different directions.

8.Be3 followed by 9.Qd2 and 10.Rc1 constitutes the most solid way of playing. White lends extra support to d4 and evacuates the long diagonal. A sample line, demonstrating Black’s main method of counterplay, was given in “Basic Concepts”. Typically, 8.Be3 is chosen by solid positional players, not minding the early exchange of queens after 8...Qa5 9.Qd2 Nc6 10.Rc1 cxd4 11.cxd4 Qxd2+ 12.Kxd2 or 10.Rb1!? a6 11.Rc1. White has provoked the weakening move ...a6, which gives rise to a few subtleties, but does not alter the theoretical verdict. 11...cxd4 12.cxd4 Qxd2+ 13.Kxd2. In both cases a queenless middlegame arises that offers chances for both sides due to the asymmetric pawn structure. The prospect of an early exchange of queens might turn off some players, so it should be mentioned that there are ways to steer the game into sharper channels. For instance, 9...0-0 (instead of 9...Nc6) 10.Rc1 Bg4 11.d5 b5!? is a comparatively new, sharp, and interesting alternative.


This was already played in some high-level games with decent results. For example 12.Bxc5 Rc8 13.Bb4 Qc7 14.Nd4 a5 15.Ba3 b4 and Black gets sufficient compensation for the pawn.

8.Rb1!? was a main battle ground in the Gruenfeld in the 1980s and 1990s. Players like Boris Gelfand and Alexander Khalifman (to name but two) greatly contributed to the development of this line, representing White’s case in various spectacular encounters. Two highly recommended classics worth studying – Gelfand-Shirov, Polanica Zdroj 1998 and Khalifman-Leko, Linares 2000 – featured the main line of the continuation: 8...0-0 9.Be2 cxd4 10.cxd4 Qa5+ 11.Bd2 (11.Qd2 is possible, but Black equalizes after exchanging queen’s) 11...Qxa2 12.0-0.


Starting position of the main line of 8.Rb1 after 12.0-0

White has sacrificed a pawn for superiority in the center and a lead in development. Whose position to prefer, is largely a matter of taste. This variation was tested in several hundred games and is one of the most heavily analyzed in opening theory. A sample line that has been worked out until the endgame runs 12...Bg4!. A healthy strategy: rather than clinging to his extra pawn, Black concentrates on activating his pieces. 13.Be3 Nc6 14.d5 Ne5 15.Rxb7 a5!.


Again prioritizing active play! Black sacrifices e7 and starts counterplay with his well supported passed pawn. Now a forcing line exists that takes us all the way to an endgame: 16.Rxe7 a4 17.Re1 a3 18.Nxe5 Bxe2 19.Rxe2 Qxe2! 20.Qxe2 a2 21.Bd4 a1Q+ 22.Bxa1 Rxa1+ 23.Qf1 Rxf1+ 24.Kxf1. It seems that White has come out of the complications with two extra pawns, but here comes the final sting in the tail. 24...Bf6! wins the exchange. The resulting endgame of knight and five pawns versus rook and three pawns is equal. All eight games that reached this position so far were drawn.

Apart from this gambit line, Black has two other reliable continuations against this system: 9...Nc6 10.d5 Ne5. Taking on c3 with 10...Bxc3+ 11.Bd2 Bxd2 12.Qxd2 lands Black in trouble after 12...Na5 13.h4!. Giving back the pawn with 12...Nd4 is the lesser evil, but this leads to a stable advantage for White. This line shows one of the key-ideas of 8.Rb1: by moving the rook out of the range of the g7-bishop, d4-d5 becomes a dangerous option in reply to ...Nc6. 11.Nxe5 Bxe5 12.Qd2 e6 13.f4 Bc7!?. The bishop abandons his king, but on the other hand prevents the important move c3-c4. The intricacies of this original line are analyzed by GM Mihail Marin in his Positional Gruenfeld Repertoire - Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. The comparatively rare 9...Bg4!?, with the idea of swift counterplay against d4, is investigated by GM Ivan Cheparinov in his top notch theoretical repertoire Play the Gruenfeld - Part 1 and Part 2 (many suggestions of his will be mentioned below).

What about White’s other alternatives on move eight? 8.Be2 can – and should! – be met with the 8...Nc6!, putting immediate pressure on d4. The complications after 9.d5 Bxc3+ 10.Bd2 Bxa1 11.Qxa1 Nd4 are known to be safe for Black, while after 9.Be3 Black renews the threat against d4 with 9...Bg4, obtaining sufficient counterplay. Similarly, Black is also fine after 8.h3 Nc6. That leaves us with 8.Bb5+. Black struggles to get enough counterplay after both 8...Nd7 and 8...Bd7, so he should choose the most active continuation 8...Nc6!. Now the main theoretical debate revolves around the line 9.0-0 0-0 10.Bxc6 bxc6 11.Qc2 cxd4 12.cxd4 Bg4 13.Ne5 Qxd4 14.Bb2 Qb6 15.Rab1.


Black is forced to give up his dark-squared bishop with 15...Bxe5 due to the hanging bishop on g4 and the discovered attack against his queen. 16.Bxe5. We get a position with opposite coloured bishops. Black’s extra pawn is offset by White’s attacking chances.  Another slightly offbeat, yet tricky line is 8.Bb5+ Nc6 9.Rb1 – see IM Yuriy Krykun,s Ambitious Repertoire against the Gruenfeld for more information on this. The forcing line 9.d5 seems to be effectively neutralized by 9...Qa5 10.Rb1 Bxc3+ 11.Bd2 a6 12.Bxc6+ bxc6 13.dxc6 Be6! 14.Rc1 Bxd2+ 15.Qxd6 Qb4! or 14...Bb4!?, with equal chances.

Lines after 7.Bc4

The main tabia of this variation arises after 7.Bc4 c5 8.Ne2 Nc6 9.Be3 0-0 10.0-0.


The development of the White’s king’s knight to e2 is typical for this variation. Now White doesn’t have to fear the pin after ...Bg4, while also the f-pawn may advance at some point. Black has a variety of continuations available and we will mention just a few to get to see some plans. The former main line used to be 10...Bg4 (provoking a slight weakening) 11.f3 Na5 12.Bd3. Instead White can win a pawn with 12.Bxf7+!? (played by Kasparov vs Karpov in four games of the World Championship match, Sevilla 1987) Rxf7 13.fxg4, though Black is fine after 13...Rxf1+ 14.Kxf1 Qd6. Black’s active pieces and White’s weakened pawn structure offer good compensation for the pawn. 12...cxd4 13.cxd4 Be6. Black is ready to invade on c4. White can fight for the initiative by either sacrificing a pawn or an exchange. We have already seen and briefly discussed the position after 14.d5 in “Basic Concepts – Positional Exchange Sacrifices”. The other continuation is 14.Rc1 Bxa2 15.Qa4 Be6 16.d5 Bd7 17.Qa3.


This pawn sacrifice is similar to the main line of 7.Nf3 c5 8.Rb1. As compensation for the pawn White has a strong pawn center and better mobilized pieces – chances are approximately even. Though this line is still played and is in good theorectical shape, players with the Black pieces tend to prefer other continuations. Perhaps they don’t fancy defending this position or the position after 14.d5, where White gets good attacking chances for the exchange.

A line frequently seen in top-level game is 10...b6. The structure after 11.dxc5 Qc7 is well known to give Black ample compensation for the pawn due to White’s isolated a- and c-pawns. If White develops quietly with 11.Rc1 Bb7 12.Qd2 Rc8 13.Rfd1, then Black has not trouble reaching an equal game after for example 13...e6.


Black pressure against d4 and possible counterplay on the c-file offset White’s advantage in the center. One more idea: 10...Na5 11.Bd3 b6 12.Qd2 e5!?, mixing ideas of the Gruenfeld and King’s Indian Defence. 13.d5 is strongly answered by 13...f5!. If White wants to mix it up, then he can try 10.h4!? or 10.Rc1 cxd4 11.cxd4 Qa5+ 12.Kf1!?, with the idea of playing h4 next. This leads to a complicated, unbalanced game with chances for both sides.

White’s Alternatives on Move Seven

The attempt to prevent the move ...c5 by playing 7.Ba3 is not effective. After 7...Nd7 Black will manage to push ...c5 anyway. The knight is less active on d7 than on c6, but White’s bishop is also misplaced on a3. Roughly the same can be said about 7.Qa4+ Nd7 – White provokes the knight to an inferior square, but loses time with his queen. 7.Bb5+ c6 8.Ba4 is another way to prevent an early ...c5, however Black get’s enough counterplay with either 8...b5 9.Bb3 b4 or 8...0-0 9.Ne2 e5.

7.Be3 may transpose to 7.Nf3 c5 8.Be3, but some hidden subtleties exist, giving the line independent significance. 7...c5 8.Qd2 Qa5 9.Rc1 cxd4 10.cxd4 Qxd2+ 11.Bxd2!?. Taking with the bishop is possible since the c8-bishop is hanging. Compared to taking with the king, Black no longer has counterplay connected to ...Rd8 and ...e6 and White still has the option to play 0-0. Black has to adjust his plans accordingly: the antidote 11...0-0 12.Nf3 Bg4! is thoroughly analyzed by Cheparinov. If playing this endgame is not your “thing”, then the line 7...c5 8.Qd2 Qa5 9.Rc1 0-0 10.Nf3 Bg4 11.d5 b5 is still available (we already mentioned this under 7.Nf3).

The Line 5.Bd2

Some strong GM commented on this move that “it’s interesting that such a harmless looking move can be that strong” or something to that effect. White’s idea is to follow up with e2-e4, when capturing on c3 is met with Bxc3. This is quite a popular line and Black should definitely know how to meet this.

5...Bg7 6.e4 Nb6 7.Be3 0-0 8.Nf3 Nc6 9.0-0 Bg4 10.d5 or 10.e5 is playable for Black but more pleasant for White. Probably the same applies to 6...Nxc3 7.Bxc3 0-0 8.Qd2. However the direct 5...c5!? has the potential to spoil the fun for White. Accepting the pawn sacrifice with 6.dxc5 leads to good compensation for Black after 6...Bg7 7.Rc1 0-0 8.Nf3 Nxc3 9.Bxc3 Qxd1+ 10.Kxd1 Be6!.


White lags behind in development while Black is very active. A possible continuation is 11.a3 Rc8 12.Bxg7 Kxg7 13.e3 Nd7 14.b4 a5 and Black’s rook enters on the a-file. According to GM Renato Quintiliano in Play 5.Bd2 against the Gruenfeld, 7.Qc1!? (instead of 7.Rc1) offers interesting chances.

Russian System 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3

This is one of White’s most ambitious continuations against the Gruenfeld Defence. The pressure against d5 practically forces Black to take on c4, giving up his control over e4. 5...c6?! would be too passive and not in the spirit of the Gruenfeld (White is just better after 6.cxd5 cxd5 7.Bg5). After the moves 5...dxc4 6.Qxc4 0-0 7.e4 we reach the starting position of the Russian System. As in the Exchange Variation, White has managed to occupy the center with pawns. Here, no pieces have been exchanged, which in principle favours the side with a space advantage. On the downside, White has lost some time with his queen. Black has several continuations to choose from:

The Hungarian Variation 7...a6

The modest looking 7...a6 has emerged as the main move. Black intends to gain space with ...b5, which is in many lines followed by a quick ...c5. 8.Be2 b5 9.Qb3 c5!.


A temporary pawn sacrifice to destroy the opponent’s center. White will try to achieve “something” while Black is busy winning back the c5-pawn. 10.dxc5 Be6 11.Qc2 Nbd7 12.Be3 Rc8 13.Rd1 b4 (13...Qa5!?) 14.Nd5 Bxd5 15.exd5 Nxc5 16.0-0. Both sides have reached their objective: Black has won back his pawn, while White has captured the pair of bishops. Maybe his position is slightly more comfortable, but Black is active enough to keep the balance. A much sharper continuation is 8.e5 b5 9.Qb3 Nfd7 with the possibilities 10.h4 c5! 11.e6 c4! and 10.e6 fxe6 11.Be3 Nf6. Lively play with chances for both sides ensues in each case.

The 7...Nc6 Variation

By attacking d4, Black wants to either provoke d4-d5 in order to attack this pawn with ...c6, or to continue with ...Bg4 or ...e5. For example 8.d5?! Na5 9.Qa4 c6 offers Black good counterplay. White should prefer simple development with 8.Be2. Now 8...Bg4 9.d5 Na5 10.Qb4 is in White’s favour as the “logical” 10...c6?? turns out to be a blunder that loses material after 11.e5!.


A trap to avoid – position after 11.e5 +-

Instead, 8...e5! has become the main continuation. After 9.dxe5 Ng4 wins back the pawn with a good game, so 9.d5 is the critical continuation. 9...Nd4!. As is often the case in the Gruenfeld, Black must play as actively as possible. Sacrificing a pawn for an advantage in development is the way to go. 10.Nxd4 exd4 11.Qxd4 c6 12.Qc4. The queen had to leave as Black was threatening 12...Nxd5. 12...b5!.


Sacrificing a second pawn to keep the initiative going! After the possible continuation 13.Qxc6 Bd7 14.Qd6 Re8 15.e5 b4! 16.Qxb4 Rxe5 17.0-0 Nxd5 18.Nxd5 Rxe2, Black has enough counterplay for the missing pawn. Conclusion: the 7...Nc6-line works, though the path to equality is quite narrow.

The Smyslov Variation 7...Bg4

Frome once being the main line against the Russian System, the Smyslov Variation is seen quite rarely today. Black’s plan to put pressure upon the center with 7...Bg4, followed by ...Nfd7, ...Nb6, and possibly ...Nc6 looks quite harmonious. Black seems to struggle to reach full equality according to the engine, though his position in lines like 7...Bg4 8.Be3 Nfd7 9.Rd1 Nb6 10.Qb3 Bxf3 11.gxf3 e6 (see diagram) seems quite playable.


A typical position in the Smyslov Variation

The play is of a less forcing character than after 7...a6 and 7...Nc6 which might appeal to some players. Marin suggests 7...Bg4 in the already mentioned “Positional Gruenfeld Repertoire”.

The Ragozin Variation 7...Na6

With 7...Na6 Black prepares ...c5. Similar to the Smyslov Variation, it has fallen behind 7...a6 and 7...Nc6 in terms of popularity, from being the main line together with 7...Bg4. After 8.Be2 c5 9.d5 e6 10.0-0 exd5 11.cxd5, we see a typical picture.


White has a strong passed pawn on d5, while Black has active piece play. There’s nothing wrong with the variation objectively, though his position is challenging to play. For instance, 11...Bf5 12.Rd1 Re8 13.d6 looks quite intimidating. White managed to score a spectacular victory in Anand - Aronian, Zurich 2015.

If you are interested in the Russian System from White’s perspective, there’s GM Petar Arnaudov’s Russian System - Complete Repertoire against the Gruenfeld, which, although released some time ago, still contains very useful information to get started. Looking from Black’s side, Ivan Cheparinov analyzes the fashionable 5.Qb3 dxc4 6.Qxc4 Be6!? in “Play the Gruenfeld Defence”. With this fresh line, you have good chances to take the average non-GM practitioner by surprise!

Lines with Bg5

Developing the bishop to g5 is quite popular on various levels. This leads to solid, positional lines containing some subtleties. White can either play 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 or 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bg5. Both continuations are closely related and can lead to the same positions, but there are also some differences.

The Line 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bg5

Here 5...Ne4 is the standard response, when White choose between three moves: 6.cxd5 Nxg5 7.Nxg5 is fairly popular. Black has no problems in winning back the pawn after 7...e6, hitting both the g5-knight and the d5-pawn. 8.Dd2 h6 9.Nh3 exd5 10.Qe3+ Kf8. An original version of the Karlsbad structure has arisen. Black has lost the right to castle, but to achieve this, White has made some concessions by giving up the pair of bishops and by losing time with his queen. A possible continuation is 11.Nf4 Nc6!? 12.Rd1 Ne7.


Black’s knight can be transferred to the ideal square d6 and he can “castle by hand” with ...Kf8-g8-h7. Black has good chances in the upcoming positional battle.

6.Bh4 is well met by 6...Nxc3 7.bxc3 dxc4, when after 8.e3 (or 8.e4) 8...b5 comfortable defends the c4-pawn with at least equal chances. 8.Qa4+ is more solid, but losing time with the queen gives Black an easy game with for example 8...Qd7 9.Qxc4 b6!? with the idea of 10...Ba6.

White’s best try is 6.Bf4. Now Black must avoid a small trap: 6...Nxc3 7.bxc3 dxc4 8.e3 b5?! 9.a4 c6 10.Qb1! a6? 11.axb5 cxb5 12.Qe4!.


In the analogous position with the bishop on h4, Black could just play 12...Ra7, but here he loses material as the b8-knight is under attack.

Instead, the main line runs 7...c5 8.e3 0-0 9.cxd5 Qxd5 10.Be2 Nc6 11.0-0 cxd4 12.cxd4 Bf5 13.Qa4.


White’s seemingly modest setup contains some poison. The pawn construction d4-e3 effectively restricts the g7-bishop. A reliable way to equalize seems to be 13...Qa5 14.Qxa5 Nxa5 15.Rac1 Rac8 16.Nd2 Rxc1 17.Rxc1 Rc8 18.Rxc8 Bxc8. It’s hard to believe, that Black should have problems making a draw, but even here some precision is necessary. FM Egor Lashkin offers a deep analysis of the continuation 19.d5!? (taking away the c6-square from Black’s knight and planning to attack with Bc7 or Bb8) in Challenge the Gruenfeld. Not only is his work interesting from a theoretical point of view, but also from the perspective of understanding these endgames. Ivan Cheparinov prefers to avoid this well trodden path altogether by 6...0-0!?. Black is objectively fine in the complications following 7.Nxd5 c5!, with the added bonus that White may not be familiar with this fresh line at all.

The Line 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5

Against this, many Gruenfeld experts go for the pawn sacrifice 4...Bg7!?. If White accepts the challenge with 5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.cxd5 then Black get’s good compensation after 6...c5!.


The position gets opened up and Black obtains good compensation due to his strong dark-squared bishop. White can avoid this with 5.Nf3, when 5...Ne4 transposes to 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bg5 Ne4.

What about 4.Bg5 Ne4, which is actually the most played move? I found no clear reason why this is should be avoided. My guess is that in the line 5.Bh4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 dxc4 White gets a slightly better version of this gambit than with Nf3 and ...Bg7 included. Since now 7.e3 b5? is bad due to 8.a4 c6 9.axb5 cxb5 10.Qf3 and White wins, Black has to defend the pawn with the less convenient 7...Be6. White gets good compensation for the pawn in the complicated fight ahead. For a detailed repertoire with 4.Bg5, check out GM Kiril Georgiev,s Play 4.Bg5 against the Gruenfeld.

Lines with Bf4

By developing the queen’s bishop, followed by e3 and developing the kingside, White aims for a safe position. To prevent or at least to neutralize Black’s counterplay with...c5, White often flicks in an early Rc1.The main thing is to know at exactly which point to play ...c5. For example 4.Bf4 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.e3 c5!, and Black gets a very active game. 7.dxc5 Ne4!?. The modern treatment. 7...Qa5 is also sufficient to equalize. 8.Rc1 Nd7! 9.cxd5 Qa5.


Black has a very active game. Despite being two pawns up, White has to be careful not to get into trouble. After the plausible 10.Nd4 Nxc3 11.bxc3 Qxa2 we get an imbalanced position, where Black is still a pawn down, but has a lead in development and both the c5- and d5-pawns are hanging.

White should prefer 6.Rc1 evacuating the long diagonal and lending extra support to c3. Now 6...c5 7.dxc5 is slightly better for White. The downside of White’s rook move is that the c4-pawn is not protected, so 6...dxc4 is best. After 7.e4, both 7...Bg4 (logical, as e2-e4 weakens d4) and 7...c5 are sufficient. 7.e3 can lead to an original position: 7...Be6 8.Ng5 Bd5 9.e4 h6 10.exd5 hxg5 11.Bxg5 Nxd5 12.Bxc4 Nb6 13.Bb3.


White has the pair of bishops while Black is ahead in development. 13...Nc6 offers Black counterplay while 13...Qxd4 14.Qxd4 Bxd4 15.Nb5 Bxb2 16.Rc2 Be5 equalizes easily.

White may go for a different move order: 4.Bf4 Bg7 5.e3. Now the direct 5...c5! is possible. 6.dxc5 Qa5 7.Rc1 dxc4 8.Bxc4 0-0 9.Nf3 Qxc5 was tested in hundreds of games. Black should know the basic theoretical lines after this, but since the position is symmetrical and he experiences no problems with his development, the position is not difficult to play. If White gets ambitious with 7.cxd5?! he might quickly get into hot water. 7...Nxd5! 8.Qxd5 Bxc3+ 9.bxc3 Qxc3+ 10.Ke2 Qxa1 11.Be5.


White may have relied on this double attack, when going into this forcing line. Despite the fact that he wins material, his position turns out to be precarious. 11...Qb1 (it’s important to cover b7) 12.Bxh8 Be6 13.Qd3 Qxa2+ 14.Kf3 f6 (shutting out the h8-bishop) 15.Bg7 Nd7 16.Kg3 Rc8. White is up a piece, but it’s Black who attacks with superior forces (given by Cheparinov in “Play the Gruenfeld”).

Closed System 3.Nc3 d5 4.e3

Not a very ambitious way of development, though it can be connected to some interesting ideas. Black invariably plays 4...Bg7, when we reach a first crossroads. 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Nxd5 Qxd5 7.Ne2 is one solid positional system. The king’s knight hurries to c3 from where it nicely controls the center. In the process of doing so, White loses some time and Black is fine as long as he goes for counterplay with ...c5 or ...e5. 7...0-0 8.Nc3 Qd6 9.Be2 and now either 9...c5 10.d5 e6 11.e4 exd5 12.exd5 Bf5, followed by ...Nd7, or 9...c6 10.0-0 Nd7 with the idea of playing ...e5.

5.Qb3. White hopes to provoke ...c6, preventing Black’s main resource for counterplay ...c7-c5. 5...e6! Black keeps the option of playing ...b6 and ...c5 after castling. For example, 6.Nf3 (6.Qa3!? can be met – among others moves – with 6...Nc6 followed by ...Ne7.) 6...0-0 7.Be2 b6 8.cxd5 exd5 9.0-0 Bb7 10.Rd1 Re8 11.Bd2 Nbd7 12.Be1.


A typical position for the line with Qb3. How should Black proceed? The logical 12...c5 may offer White the slightly better game after 13.a4!? a6 14.dxc5 Nxc5 15.Qa2 due to Black’s isolated d5-pawn. Cheparinov gives 12...a5!? instead. Since White’s setup is mainly directed against ...c5, without having too many active ideas in itself, Black can afford to simply strengthen his position. For instance 13.Rac1 c6, keeping the tension, with ideas like ...Bf8-d6, ...Ne4, or in some cases ...b6-b5 in mind.

If White develops quietly with 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Be2 (or 6.Bd3, 6.Bd2, etc.) then 6...c5! leads to a good game for Black. Preventing ...c5 with 6.b4 is well answered with 6...Be6!? 7.c5 Nbd7 followed by ...Bg4 and a possible ...e5 (or ...Ne4 if White plays 8.h3). 6.cxd5 Nxd5 7.Bc4 was for some reason tried in many recent games, though it does not pose any problems. 7...Nxc3 8.bxc3 c5 or 7...Nb6 8.Bb3 c5 are both fully satisfactory.

Fianchetto System

Systems with g3 are ever popular with positional players. By developing the bishop to g2 White aims for solid positions with some space advantage. The Fianchetto System is most commonly reached via 3.g3 or 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.g3. If Black goes for the most solid line - ...c6 followed by ...d5 – there’s not much of a difference. If Black however plays a system with ...d5 without ...c6, then after 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Bg7 he not only must be ready for 6.Nf3, (leading to 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.g3) but also for 6.e4. We will look at this below.

The Line 3.g3 c6

This is the most solid continuation for Black and one against which White struggles to get even a small advantage out of the opening. After 4.Bg2 d5 5.Nf3 Bg7 6.0-0 0-0 we arrive at the basic tabia of the line.


White has tried “everything” in this position – we are going for a short survey:
7.cxd5 cxd5 in the hope that the advantage of the first move might tell in the arising symmetrical position, is rarely seen today. Black has no problems equalizing after for example 8.Ne5 Bf5 9.Nc3 Ne4.

Developing the queen’s bishop to b2 with 7.b3 can be countered with the direct 7...dxc4 8.bxc4 c5! when Black manages to isolate White’s c-pawn. White has active play by way of compensation, so Black has to show some precision. For example,  9.Bb2 cxd4 10.Nxd4 Qb6 11.Qc1 Bd7! followed by ...Nc6 solves all problems.

If White is after a “long game” he might try 7.Qb3. Now 7...Qb6 8.Nc3 Rd8 leads to a complex endgame. If Black wants to keep the queens on, the 7...a5!? with the idea to hit the queen on b3 with ...a4 could be your choice.

A good way to deal with 7.Ne5 consists in 7...dxc4 8.Nxc4 Be6, followed by ...Bd5, challenging the g2-bishop and taking control over e4. 7.Nc3 was played in some games of Carlsen and is connected with a pawn sacrifice: 7...dxc4 8.e4 b5, with a sharp game and chances for both sides. White should be aware of the trap 8.Ne5?! Ng4!, when he fails to win back his pawn.

One topical idea is 7.a4. Now 7...a5 is a solid choice. In most of the games White now went for the symmetrical line with a4/a5 included: 8.cxd5 cxd5  9.Qb3 Nc6 10.Nc3. Let’s see some ideas to understand what this is about:


The response 10...Nb4 11.Nb5 Bf5, hands the initiative to White since after 12.Bd2 he is first in attacking the opponent’s knight. E.g. 12...Bc2 13.Qa3 Nc6 14.Bf4. The pawn sacrifice 10...Bf5!? equalizes according to the engine. 11.Qxb7 Nb4. This looks logical enough, but after 12.Bf4 White controls the b8-square, so that there is no direct follow-up. To fully understand what’s going on, one would have to go deeper. Black can also go for the much sharper 7...Be6 8.Nc3 dxc4 9.e4, when White’s space advantage offsets Black’s extra pawn. GM Michael Roiz gets to the 7.a4-line via the Slav move order 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 g6 in his Expert Repertoire against the Slav Defence - Part 2 – check it out if you are looking for a detailed analysis.

To avoid this solid, well studied lines GM Michael Roiz suggests the early deviation 3.g3 c6 4.Bg2 d5 5.Qa4!? in his  Complete Repertoire for White after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 (his repertoire with 3.g3 is completed with Part 2, which deals with the King’s Indian) . By “threatening” 6.cxd5 when Black cannot recapture with his pawn due to the pin, White gives the game an original direction. After 5...Nbd7 6.cxd5 Nb6 7.Qb3 cxd5 the b6-knight turns out to be misplaced. 5...Nfd7!? 6.cxd5 Nb6 7.Qd1 cxd5 is a better version of the same idea as Black keeps the option of playing ...Nc6. We get the symmetrical variation with a knight on b6 instead of f6, which arguably gives White better chances to achieve “something” than in the 7.cxd5-variation.

Black plays ...d5 (without ...c6)

This is more in the spirit of the Gruenfeld than the solid lines with ...c6. It’s on the other hand also much tougher to play! White has three different ways of dealing with ...d5:

1) Taking on d5 followed by e2-e4 – 3.g3 d5 (this can also be played one move later) 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Bg7 6.e4. This line is specifically possible in the move order with 3.g3. To me it looks pretty strong! Wherever the Black knight goes, White gets a sizeable space advantage. 6...Nb6 7.Ne2 c5 8.d5 e6 9.Nec3. The pawn on d5 is strong and well supported. It’s about the same story with the alternative knight move: 6...Nb4 7.a3 N4c6 8.d5 Nd4 9.Nf3 c5 (or 9...Bg4 10.Nbd2 followed by h3) 10.0-0 0-0 11.Nbd2.


Again with some space advantage and a strong passed pawn on d5. I guess that Black can make this work somehow since the engine evaluation is not too dramatic (about 0.3 to 0.4). On the other hand, White can definitely be happy to get a promising position like this out of the opening!

2) Taking on d5 followed by Nf3 – 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Bg7 6.Nf3. This position can also arise from any move order with an early Nf3 (even 1.Nf3). Here things develop more slowly compared to 1). The main line runs 6...Nb6. A prophylactic retreat - the knight can no longer be hit by e4, while this move also prepares ...Nc6. 7.Nc3 Nc6!. It’s important to play this now, when 8.d5?! can be answered with 8...Bxc3+ 9.bxc3 Qxd5. That’s why White plays 8.e3 0-0 9.0-0.


Another well known Gruenfeld tabia. Despite being forced to play e3, White controls more space in the center. The main move is the mysterious 9...Re8!?. Why prepare ...e5, when Black could have played it on the spot? Well, practice has shown that the direct 9...e5 10.d5 Na5 11.e4 c6 12.Bg5 f6 13.Be3 offers White some advantage. So, the idea of 9...Re8!? was born. Apart from preparing ...e5, it’s kind of a useful waiting move. How is White going to respond? It turns out that he has some difficulties to finish his development without allowing counterplay. For example 10.b3 or 10.Qe2 are well answered with 10...e5!. In both cases d4-d5 is not possible and Black solves all problems. Going forward with 10.d5 creates a target. E.g. 10...Na5 11.Nd4 Bd7, with the idea of attacking d5 with ...c6. Now we can appreciate that moves like 10.Re1!?, 10.h3!? or even 10.Nh4 are being played. White keeps the status quo, by making useful waiting moves himself! A complex positional fight lies ahead in which the player with the better understanding of the positional subtleties is likely to prevail.

3) White allows ...dxc4 – 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 Bg7 6.0-0 0-0.


7.Na3 is the best way to retrieve the pawn. Apart from the usual treatment, 7...c3 8.bxc3 c5 where White keeps chances of an advantage with 9.Bb2 Nc6 10.Re1 (preparing e2-e4), there’s the modern 7...c5 8.Nxc4 Be6 9.Nfe5 Qc8, with ideas like ...Bd5 or ...Bh3. 10.dxc5 is met with 10...Nfd7, when the sequence 11.Nxd7 Nxd7 12.c6 bxc6 13.Na5 looks scary for Black. The omniscient engine has a solution: 13...Bd5! 14.Bxd5 cxd5 15.Qxd5 Nf6 16.Qf3 Qe6. The strong g7-bishop in connection with the move ...Ne4 offer adequate compensation (0.00 according to Stockfish...).

Lines with an early h2-h4

Influenced by Alpha Zero, advancing the h-pawn has become popular in various openings. In the Gruenfeld, we have to examine the advance h2-h4 on moves three, four, and five.

The Aggressive 3.h4

While this move gives Black a lot of options, it’s specifically effective if Black insists on playing the Gruenfeld. 3...d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nb6 6.h5 or 3...Bg7 4.Nc3 d5 5.h5! with a pleasant initiative for White in both cases. According to his preference, the second player can choose between the solid 3...c6, the Benko-style 3...c5 4.d5 b5, the provocative 3...Bg7 4.Nc3 Nc6, and a King’s Indian setup. GM Pavel Eljanov explores this still popular line in  1d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.h4 - Aggressive Repertoire for White.

The Surprise Weapon 3.Nc3 d5 4.h4

This move order gives Black the opportunity to directly strike in the center with 4...c5! after which White must play very precisely to keep the game level. For instance, 5.dxc5? d4 6.Nb5 e5 is just bad. Nevertheless, there exists one interesting try. 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Na4!?.


This was played in a rapid game Carlsen – Vachier Lagrave and can be a good surprise weapon. As 6...cxd4?! 7.Qxd4 suits White, so Black should prefer either 6...Nf6 7.Nxc5 e5!, 6...Bg7 7.e4 Nf6 8.Nxc5 0-0, or 6...Nc6 7.e4 Nf6 8.d5 Nxe4!? with good counter chances in each case.

The Challenging 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.h4

This is the theoretically most challenging and at the same time the soundest version of this early h4-attacks. From being practically non-existent, 5.h4 became very popular in the 2010s and was tried by various top players (Mamedyarov amongst others). It still is, though Black’s task has become a little easier, once the best lines of defence have been established. Compared to the previous line, 5...c5?! is well answered by 6.dxc5, since now ...d4 is no longer possible. Usually Black decides between the solid 5...c6 and the sharper lines 5...0-0 and 5... dxc4.

An advantage of 5...c6, lies in the fact that it’s much easier to learn compared to the other two. Now White can go for 6.cxd5 cxd5 7.Bf4 Nc6 8.e3 0-0 with a symmetrical pawn structure known from the Exchange Slav. There, Black doesn’t put the bishop on g7. On the other hand, White has played the strange h4...All in all Black’s position is sound with White having the slightly easier game. There’s also the sharper 6.Bg5 dxc4 as a more ambitious alternative.

More in the style of the Gruenfeld are 5...0-0 6.cxd5 Nxd5 7.h5 c5! – a thematic continuation: answering an attack on the kingside with a counter strike in the center -and particularly 5...dxc4 6.e4 0-0 (or 6...c5 7.d5 b5!) 7.Bxc4 c5 8.d5 b5!.


Initiating a tactical sequence, using a well-know tactical motif from the Modern Benoni. 9.Nxb5 drops the e4-pawn and 9.Bxb5 is met with 9...Nxe4! 10.Nxe4 Qa5+ 11.Nc3 Bxc3+ 12.bxc3 Qxb5. White keeps some attacking chances after 13.h5, but since his own king is stuck in the center, Black keeps the balance with the accurate 13...Qc4!. Check out GM Evgeny Postny’s Aggressive Repertoire against the Gruenfeld if you are looking for an ambitious Anti-Gruenfeld weapon.

The Saemisch Style 3.f3

We conclude our theoretical overview with this important continuation. White prepares e2-e4, without committing his knight to c3, thus preventing ...Nxc3 after 3...d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4. Ivan Cheparinov suggest’s the fresh idea 5...Nb6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Be3 Nc6!? (7...0-0 is the main line).


Black provokes 8.d5 (8.Nge2 Nc4) in order to attack this pawn with ...c6. He is ready to sacrifice a pawn after 8...Ne5 9.f4 Ng4 10.Bb5+ c6 11.dxc6 0-0, when his advantage in development offers sufficient compensation.

If, for some reason, 3...d5 does not appeal to you, there are several alternatives. 3...Bg7 4.e4 leads to the Saemisch System of the King’s Indian Defence and 3...c5 4.d5 d6 5.e4 e6 to the Modern Benoni. 3...Nc6 is one more very playable option. Adherents of offbeat ideas may investigate 3...e5!?, which may guarantee some fun in blitz and rapid games.


5. Conclusion

By now you should have gotten a good idea of the varied types of positions the Gruenfeld Defence can lead to. The game can become very sharp before move ten: to obtain counterplay, Black plays ...c5 early on. Together, with having played ...d5 on move three, tension in the center is created. Since the forces of both sides often come into contact very early on, there exist more forcing lines, than for example the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Due to this characteristic, the Gruenfeld is an excellent choice for players of an active playing style who don’t mind studying some theory.

Since in a majority of lines Black has to play very concretely, it’s probably not the best choice for beginners. While Black’s strategy is based on sound principles – fight for central control being the most dominant – he must in many cases time his counterplay perfectly. For instance, playing ...c5 one move too early or one move too late, can heavily impact the evaluation of the position.

We already mentioned two repertoires from Black’s perspective available on our website. GM Ivan Cheparinov  has assembled a state-of-the-art repertoire (Play the Gruenfeld - Part 1 and Part 2): deep theoretical analysis of principled lines, with many fresh recommendations. GM Mihail Marin tried to go another way (in his Positional Gruenfeld Repertoire - Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) by concentrating on less explored lines, with a predominantly less forcing character. When studying a new opening, your theoretical studies should always be accompanied by analysing text book games. This helps to develop a “feel” for certain positions and to get a better all-round understanding. Study the games played by the World Champions Kasparov, Anand, Fischer, Botvinnik, and Smyslov (the list could go on)!

  • The key idea of the Gruenfeld Defence is to actively fight for control of the central squares
  • The advance ...c5 plays a vital part in this strategy
  • Black’s g7-bishop plays an important role in attacking the opponent’s center and defending his king
  • Black must combine the development of his pieces with putting pressure on White’s center
  • White’s most ambitious strategy is to occupy the center with pawns
  • When doing so, he must combine his development with consolidating his pawn center
  • Building a strong passed pawn or starting an attack against Black’s king are typical strategies connected to superiority in the center
  • Black must be well prepared against White’s many options
  • Some lines demand a very specific reaction, from which Black should not deviate
  • When in doubt: defend actively!


All Openings