A Comprehensive Guide to the Queen’s Gambit Declined 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6

IM Siegfried Baumegger     November 10, 2023

1. Introduction

2. Basic Concepts in the Queen’s Gambit Declined

3. A Short Historical Overview

4. Queen’s Gambit Declined - Topalov-Anand

5. Main- and Subvariations of the Queen’s Gambit Declined

6. Tips and Guidelines for Building a Repertoire in the QGD

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction

"The opening of the world championship matches" is one of the epithets given to the Queen’s Gambit Declined by World Champion Garry Kasparov. Indeed it has been tested in a number of matches for the chess crown. In Alekhine-Capablanca, Buenos Aires 1927, both contestants played it as White and Black, which resulted in no less than 31 games with the Queen’s Gambit Declined in a match of 34!

The Queen’s Gambit Declined enjoys lasting popularity with players of all levels. Its basic plans are straightforward and easy to understand (see "Basic Concepts...") and it has a sound and solid reputation. An aspect appealing to players of different styles lies in the opportunity to choose between solid lines, based primarily on positional understanding and sharp, complex, theoretical ones.


2. Basic Concepts in the Queen’s Gambit Declined

Defending the Center

With 2…e6 defends the pawn on d5, thereby keeping the important central square e4 under control. Black will often use this outpost by playing …Ne4 (e.g. as in the Lasker Defense).


Healthy Development and King Safety

In the Queen’s Gambit Declined Black can go for swift kingside development, as …e6 not only defends the center, but also opens the diagonal for his king’s bishop. In some lines Black manages to castle as early as move five!


Fighting for Space

It’s important for Black to sooner or later carry out the freeing move …c5, to gain some space. The possibility of opening files by …dxc4 and …cxd4 is important for bringing the major pieces into play.


Activating Black’s Queen’s Bishop

The bishop on c8 can be activated via b7 (as in the Tartakower Defense) or by playing for …dxc4 and …e5 (opening up the diagonal c8-h3). In some lines the modest …Bd7 is played, possibly followed up by …Bc6.



3. A Short Historical Overview

The first known analytical investigation on the Queen’s Gambit Declined was done by Salvio in his work “Trattato dell’Inventione et Arte Liberale del Gioco Degli Scacci” as far back as 1604! The first game with 2…e6 that can be found in MegaBase is McDonnell – de Labourdonnais, with the players going for quite a topical sideline of the Tarrasch Defense: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c5 5.cd5 ed5 6.Bg5 Be6.


The Englishman Howard Staunton used it in a few games in his match against Saint Amant in 1834 and subsequently more strong masters – e.g. Morphy and Anderssen – started playing the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Also theoretical research progressed and in the middle of the 19th century the Russian theoretician Jänisch even concluded, that 2…e6 was the best defense against the Queen’s Gambit.

Backed up by an advanced all-round understanding of chess principles (compared to their predecessors), leading players of the beginning of the 20th century, contributed a great deal to the development of a number of variations which have stood the test of time. Lasker, Capablanca, and Tartakower perfected their solid and sound systems of defense, while also much sharper lines were explored: e.g. the Tarrasch-Defense (3.Nc3 c5), the Cambridge-Springs-Variation (3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Nbd7 5.e3 c6 6.Nf3 Qa5) and the Vienna-Variation (3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 dc4) – more on these later.

Wilhelm Steinitz employed it with success in his world championship match against Johannes Zuckertort in 1886. Beginning with the first world champion every one of his successors has played the Queen’s Gambit Declined at times, Spassky and Karpov in many games throughout their careers. Anand trusted the solidity of this opening in the final game of his match against Topalov: The in general excellently prepared Bulgarian didn’t manage to get an advantage with the White pieces and taking to great a risk in a roughly equal position, ran into a deadly counterattack.


4. Queen’s Gambit Declined - Topalov-Anand



5. Main- and Subvariations of the Queen’s Gambit Declined

An overview of the main systems after 2…e6.

White plays 3.Nc3 - Alternatives to …Nf6 on Move Three

3…c5 Tarrasch

In return for free development, Black accepts an isolated pawn. Following 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 there are two main lines:

1) 6.g3 (designed by Rubinstein) 6…Nf6 7.Bg2 and now 7…cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5


(see GM Renato Quintiliano’s course Play the Dubov Tarrasch) is currently fashionable, while the ‘old’ 7…Be7 remains playable too.

2) 6.dxc5 d4 7.Na4 Bxc5 8.Nxc5 Qa5+ 9.Qd2 (or 9.Bd2) Qxc5


White gained the pair of bishops and the arising positions can be a bit unpleasant for the second player, who has to play accurately to neutralize a slight disadvantage.
To avoid this scenario, some Black players switched to 5…Nf6, when after 6.Bg5 Be6 a comparatively fresh position occurs. One of the ideas is to go 7.e3 c4, with a complex fight ahead.
A line which had a dubious reputation, but nowadays seems quite playable is the Schara-Hennig-Gambit 4.cxd5 cxd4!?.


Black sacrifices a pawn in return for an advantage in development, e.g. 5.Qa4+ Bd7 6.Qxd4 exd5 7.Qxd5 Nf6 8.Qd1 Bc5 9.Nf3 0-0 10.e3 Qe7 11.Be2 Rd8 with good compensation. GM Pavel Eljanov analyses the Schara-Hennig in his course 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 - Complete Repertoire for Black.

3…c6 Triangle System

3…c6 can be the prelude to some sharp lines: the Marshall-Gambit 4.e4 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Bb4+ 6.Bd2 Qxd4 7.Bxb4 Qxe4+ 8.Be2 (or 8.Ne2).


White has lasting compensation with his pair of bishops and Black’s unsafe king.

And secondly the Noteboom Variation 4.Nf3 dxc4 5.e3 b5 6.a4 Bb4 7.Bd2 a5 8.axb5 Bxc3 9.Bxc3 cxb5 10.b3 Bb7 11.bxc4 b4 12.Bb2 Nf6.


White has the upper hand in the center, but by way of compensation Black got two connected passed pawns!
If the first player wants to avoid these very theoretical lines, 4.e3 is possible, leading to the Semi-Slav after 4…Nf6 5.Nf3 or the Stonewall Dutch after 4…f5!?

3…Be7 Alatortsev

This little move is connected with quite a sophisticated idea: Black avoids the plan with Nge2 and f3 in the Exchange Variation! How does this work? After 4.cxd5 exd5 the move Bg5 isn’t possible yet. If White plays 5.Nf3 planning Bg5 after 5…Nf6, he can no longer go Nge2. Therefore mainly 5.Bf4 is played which contains some aggressive possibilities, e.g. 5…c6 6.e3 Bf5 7.g4!?


This was introduced by World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik, and leads to a strategically complex fight – White has more space, Black the customary solid position.
Of course it’s also possible to play 4.Nf3 Nf6 and then 5.Bg5 or 5.Bf4 leading by transposition to lines discussed below.

3…Bb4 Accelerated Ragozin

This might be the choice of the Ragozin-players, as many transpositions are possible. The early commitment of the king’s bishop in combination with …d5 gives White some extra options, e.g. 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 Nf6 (5.f3 leads by transposition to the 4.f3 line of the Nimzo) 6.cxd5 exd5 7.e3 c5 8.Bd3.


We have arrived at a sideline of the Nimzo-Indian Rubinstein Variation, where White’s possibilities were first demonstrated in the legendary (and instructive!) game Botvinnik-Capablanca, AVRO tournament 1938. White used his central pawn majority to launch a dangerous kingside attack by pushing f3, e4-e5. Currently Black seems to be doing ok theoretically, but needs to be prepared thoroughly for this.

Lines after 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5

4…Nbd7 5.e3 c6 6.e3 Qa5 Cambridge Springs


By pinning the queen’s knight Black prepares …Ne4 and …Bb4 with further pressure on c3 and also has some tactical ideas against the Bg5 with …dxc4 in mind. In fact many a white queen’s bishop has suffered an early demise in the Cambridge Springs …7.Qc2 Ne4 8.Bd3?? Nxg5 9.Nxg5 dxc4 followed by …Qxg5.


Instead of this, one of the main lines runs 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.Qd2 Bb4 9.Rc1. White has defended against the immediate threats, while Black still needs to activate his Bc8. Play may continue 9...h6 10.Bh4 c5 11.a3 Bxc3 12.bxc3 b6 followed by …Ba6 or …Bb7 with a Nimzo-Indian type of position – White has the pair of bishops, Black has the more compact pawn structure.


4…Be7 5.e3 0-0 6.Nf3 h6 7.Bh4 Classical Main Line

Black develops his kingside, castles and only afterwards decides on a concrete plan. There are two main problems to solve: activating the Bc8 and freeing the position with …c5 (or sometimes …e5). We mention three of the most popular systems:

1) 7…b6 Tartakower-Defense (a favorite of Spassky and Karpov)


2) 7…Ne4 the Lasker-Defense


3) 7…Nbd7 8.Rc1 c5 a kind of fireproof, modern continuation played in some games by World Champion Vladimir Kramnik.


3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5 Exchange Variation

The Exchange Variation is very popular at all levels of play. In the arising fixed pawn formation – the so called Carlsbad structure – plans are quite clear-cut and easy to understand. We will mention two of the most important strategic concepts for White after 5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 Be7 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Qc2 Nbd7:


1) Going for a minority attack after, for instance 9.Nf3 Re8 10.0-0 Nf8 11.Rab1 preparing pawn to b4.


Once this pawn reaches b5, White can saddle Black with a weakness, regardless how he reacts: taking on b5 leads to an isolated d-pawn, letting White take on c6 to a backward c-pawn. Black’s active resources involve playing …Ne4, with counterplay on the kingside, blocking the white b-pawn with …b5 followed by a knight transfer to c4 and preparing to meet b5 with …c5, accepting an isolated pawn, but only after White has weekend some squares by playing his pawn to b5.

2) Preparing e4 by 9.Nge2 Re8 10.0-0 Nf8 11.f3.


Black needs to react with a well timed …c5 to counter White’s play in the center. Note that the …c5-push only becomes advisable once White has weakened himself with f3.

GM Renato Quintiliano is analyzing the Exchange Variation from Black’s perspective in QGD - Exchange Variation for Black, while GM Michael Roiz is on White’s side in his two part course Play the Queen's Gambit Exchange Variation - Part 1 and Part 2.

Lines after 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3

4…c5 Semi-Tarrasch


The distinction between the Tarrasch and Semi-Tarrasch Defense consists in 5.cxd5 Nxd5 – i.e. in the latter Black avoids playing with the isolated d-pawn. In the most popular line 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 0-0 White gets an advantage in the center, while Black has easy development and a solid position without weaknesses.


Another option is 5.cxd5 cxd4!? which in the mainline directly leads into an ending: 6.Qxd4 exd5 7.e4! dxe4 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.Ng5 Be6 10.Nxe6+ fxe6.


Black’s damaged pawn structure is compensated for by his extra pawn – most of the games end in draws from this position. See GM Swapnil Dhopade’s repertoire Semi-Tarrasch Endgame Line for detailed information on this solid "drawing weapon".

4…c6 Semi-Slav


Very sharp positions can arise after both of White’s main moves 5.Bg5 (Botvinnik-Variation 5…dc4, Moscow and Anti-Moscow-Variation 5…h6 6.Bxf6 and 6.Bh4) and 5.e3 (Meran 5…Nbd7 6.Bd3 and Anti-Meran lines 6.Qc2). See the Slav Defense for more detailed information.

4…dc4 Vienna-Variation


Black tries to equalize in a concrete and active way. If White reacts with the most principled continuation, very complicated lines appear: 5.e4 Bb4 6.Bg5 (the pawn sac 6.e4!? is popular too) 6…c5 7.Bc4 (or 7.e5!?) cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bxc3+ 9bxc3 Qa5.


Both sides need to show very good preparation in this heavily theoretical line. GM Gyula Pap and FM Egor Lashkin provide the first player with fresh and ambitious ideas in their courses Expert Repertoire against Vienna and Ragozin and Principled Repertoire against Vienna and Ragozin, while GM Aleksander Delchev suggests to Fight the Queen's Gambit with the Vienna Variation.

4…Bb4 Ragozin


Many top players have the Ragozin in their Repertoire - it presents a good mix of solidity and complexity. Active plans for Black involve: attacking the center with an early …c5 or – when White pins the Nf6 with Bg5 – going for it with …h6, …g5 and …Ne4. White can force the Black knight to c6 by playing 5.Qa4+ Nc6, where it blocks the c-pawn. In that case Black can go for counterplay in the center with …dxc4 and …e5 (often prepared by …Bd6). If plan to take up the Ragozin yourself, check out the courses Ragozin Defense: Complete Repertoire against 1.d4 (including the Accelerated Ragozin and the Catalan) by IM Marcin Sieciechowicz and Ragozin and Queen's Gambit with 4...a6 for Black by GM Davorin Kuljasevic.


This often leads to a sideline of the Ragozin after 5.Bg5 Bb4 or 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bg5 Bb4 (the Westphalia Variation). The point of this specific move order being, that Black avoids the line 4…Bb4 5.Qa4+. Another standalone idea of 4…Nbd7 can be seen if White plays 5.Bf4: Apart from the Ragozin style 5…Bb4, Black can go for interesting complications by playing 5…dxc4 6.e3 b5!? 7.Nxb5 Bb4+ 8.Nc3 Nd5.


GM Kalyan Arjun’s course Queen's Gambit Declined - Repertoire for Black after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 is based on the 4…Nbd7-line.


With 4…a6 Black prepares …dxc4 followed by …b5 defending the pawn, thereby inducing White to play 5.cxd5. After 5…exd5 6.Bg5 Be6 7.e3 Nbd7 8.Bd3 Bd6 a version of the Exchange Variation is reached, where black’s bishops are positioned more actively. This line is quite solid and can be interesting for players with a good understanding of the Carlsbad structure. One practical advantage: There’s considerably less theory to learn, than after Black’s other options on move four.


5.g3 leeds to a line of the Catalan Opening and is discussed in the corresponding chapter and 5.Bg5 leads to lines discussed after 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5.

5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3


The line with 5.Bf4 saw a surge of popularity in the new millennium. For instance Leko and Anand scored victories with it in their World Championship matches against Kramnik (in 2004) and Carlsen (in 2014). Meanwhile Black’s defenses have been refined – 6…b6, 6…Nbd7 and 6…c5 have been established as reliable defenses. The first two are very solid, although a bit passive. The latter is Black’s most principled answer – here the play can become very sharp. One line to illustrate this: 6…c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Qc2 Nc6 9.a3 Qa5 10.Rd1 Re8 11.Nd2 e5 12.Bg5 Nd4 13.Qb1 Bf5 14.Bd3 Bxd3 15.Qxd3 Ne4! leading to further complications.


Play the Queen's Gambit Declined against 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 - Part 1 by GM Pavel Eljanov is dedicated exclusively to the 5.Bf4-line from Black’s point of view. GM Michael Roiz represents White’s case in Expert Repertoire against the Queen's Gambit Declined.

White plays 3.Nf3

There are differences between 3.Nc3 and 3.Nf3 in allowing and preventing some lines. Two examples:

3…c6 Triangle System

After 4.e3 f5 5.Bd3 Nf6 6.0-0 Bd6: here White hast he opportunity of playing 7.b3!? - going for the exchange of Black’s ‘good’ bishop by Ba3.


If Black plays 4…Nf6, hoping to transpose to the Semi-Slav, Meran Variation, 5.b3 or 5.Nbd2 Bd6 6.Bd3 are possible, when Black’s most active way of playing – …dxc4, followed by …b5 – is no longer effective and he must switch to a more passive line of defense.

3…c5 Tarrasch Variation

In the Rubinstein System 4.cxd5 exd5 5.g3 Nc6 6.Bg2 Nf6 7.0-0: by choosing the move order without Nc3, White can avoid the topical Dubov variation, as the analogous 7…cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5 runs into 9.Nxc6! bxc6 10.Qc2! hitting the bishop and forcing some concession.


One possible disadvantage of going for the early 3.Nf3 for White: after 3…Nf6 the Exchange Variation is no longer considered dangerous and White is committed to 4.Bg5, 4.Nc3 (see above) or 4.g3 (the Catalan). If you have these lines in your repertoire anyway, it’s not an issue. 

Odds and Ends

We have not mentioned the lines 3.Nc3 a6 (with ideas similar to 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 a6) and 3…h6 (preventing Bg5 and planning to answer Bf4 with …Bd6). Both of these moves have in recent times drawn some following among top players – though mainly in games with faster time controls. It’s safe to say that both continuations can’t be refuted, while leaving room for further exploration. GM Ioannis Papaioannou has looked into the merits of 3…h6 in his course Queen's Gambit with ...h7-h6 - Universal Repertoire against 1.d4, 1.Nf3, 1.Nf3, and 1.c4.


6. Tips and Guidelines for Building a Repertoire in the QGD

  • Choose lines that fit your playing style
  • Study textbook games that show important strategical and tactical ideas
  • Pay attention to specific move orders

Examples for building a repertoire with White and Black:


1) Playing the Exchange Variation 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cd5 ed5

This is an economic choice as it allows you to cut down on studying theory. It limits Black’s options to his alternatives on move three and four. The Exchange variation is very popular with players of various levels and has a good theoretical reputation. Players preferring a strategic fight are drawn to it, as knowledge of the typical ideas, plans and textbook games enables one to start playing it without extensive theoretical preparation.

2) Playing the topical line 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3

White has various ways of fighting against Black’s main defenses (6…c5, 6…Nbd7, 6…b6) and can choose between sharper lines and more technical ones. There’s one catch however: when playing Nf3 on move three or four, White must also prepare for all possible alternatives to 4…Be7: see 4…c6, 4…c5, 4…Bb4, 4…dxc4, 4…Nbd7 and even 4…a6 or 4…h6. That’s quite a copious task! However if you enjoy playing and studying ambitious and sharp variations, this might be the choice for you.


1) Playing …Nf6, …Be7 and …0-0 against everything

If you want to play sound and solid chess, this is a great recipe. It can be played against practically every sensible system; even 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 (here Black would begin with 1…e6 and then 2…d5). Check out GM Mihail Marin’s repertoire Queen's Gambit Declined for Black - Part 1 and Part 2. The author not only discusses the theory, but also focuses on the explanation of the most important pawn structures and model games.

2) Going for the QGD only after White has played Nf3

Many QGD-experts start with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 and go for …d5 after White has played 3.Nf3, while going for the Nimzo after 3.Nc3 Bb4. GM Pavel Eljanov based a repertoire on this very sequence of moves in his course Play the Queen's Gambit Declined against 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3.   
What are the advantages of this move order? Firstly, the Exchange Variation loses its bite after White has played an early Nf3. E.g. after 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nc3 c6 6.Bg5 (or 6.Qc2 g6!) Black can play 6…h6 7.Bh4 Bf5! solving his opening problems. Secondly, Black can choose from many options after 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 and pick the one suiting his style best (see above for the description of the lines). Thirdly: against 3.g3 Black might play 3...d5 leading to the Catalan, but can also avoid it by going for the Bogo-Indian 3…Bb4+ or the Modern Benoni 3…c5.


7. Conclusion

A short summary of important points and guidelines:

  • The play is mainly guided by classical principles: keeping the centre under control, rapid development and fighting for space.
  • Easy understandable methods of developing the pieces and bringing the king to safety make it a good opening for beginners and students of various levels.
  • While there is a big number of options that can be played, it’s on the other hand possible to just play ...d5, ...e6, ...Nf6, ...Be7 and ...0-0 as Black against ‘everything’.
  • After developing the kingside, Black must find a way to activate his light-squared bishop – you must be familiar with the most important methods.
  • In many variations White has a slight initiative due to his advantage in space and development. In these situations Black’s first task is to equalize. Once Black has freed his game and activated his pieces, he can look forward to good prospects in the middlegame. Be patient!
  • Study the classics! E.g. analyzing the games of the World Champions Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov in the Queen’s Gambit Declined can form an excellent basis for understanding the most important ideas of this opening.


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