The Steinitz Defence Deferred
GM Davorin Kuljasevic
The Steinitz Defence Deferred is an interesting and still relatively unexplored system against the Ruy Lopez (3.Bb5). Apparently passive, yet extremely solid and quite flexible, it has survived the test of time since the late 19th century. Chess greats like Janowski, Schlechter, Capablanca, Alekhine, Keres, Smyslov, etc. have all used it succesfully, while it has continued to draw followers in the recent times as well. True, it has not the reputation of the modern bastions of black's defense against the Ruy Lopez, such as the Berlin defense or Marshall attack, but it is a perfectly playable system if analyzed and understood properly.
The Steinitz Defence Deferred arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6
The aim of this opening survey is to provide you with an easily understandable and concrete Steinitz Defence Deferred (in further text SDD) opening repertoire against the Ruy Lopez. SDD is a relatively rare occurrence on the top level, but this can be a blessing in disguise for a club or a casual tournament player. Many white players dismiss such opening variations as second-rate and pay less attention to them than to Breyers and Marshalls of the world, on which they are ready to spend countless hours of analysis. If your knowledge of SDD is solid and deep, while your opponent's is superficial and coupled with "today I play against that off-beat Ruy Lopez line" approach, guess who has the upper hand?
Now, let us see what exactly makes SDD attractive to play. For a lot of beginner players, it is the "Noah Ark trap" (see variation 5.d4), though just by itself it should, of course, not be a serious reason to play an opening. However, it is important that this opening trap basically eliminates immediate d2-d4, which yields white the advantage in the regular Steinitz Defence (3...d6 4.d4), from the critical responses. This means that against 4...d6, white should play more conservatively on the fifth move and keep d2-d4 for later. This gives black just enough time to comfortably choose his own setup. In this survey, I have tried to cover as much ground as possible to ensure a flexible and varied repertoire. On one hand black can play razor-sharp variations, such as 5.0-0 Bg4 6.h3 h5!? or the Siesta variation, while on the other, he can set up super-solid structures with no weaknesses.
The strategic key to SDD is the early placement of the pawn on d6, which we don't see at this stage in other Ruy Lopez variations. With this move black solidifies his vulnerable central pawn, which gives him flexibility in organizing his forces behind the pawn chain c7-d6-e5 (sometimes f7-f6 comes to support as well). Some people would argue that this is a passive setup as it does not allow black to develop his dark-squared bishop to c5, as in the Neo-Archangelsk line, for example. The others might say that it also rules out black breaking in the center with d7-d5, as in the Marshall attack. All of this holds true and can hardly be disputed. However, let us look at the positive sides. As I already said, after supporting the e5 pawn, black gains flexibility in deployment of his minor pieces. King's knight can go to f6, e7, and even h6 in certain lines. Dark-squared bishop can either be fianchettoed or developed on the "regular" e7 square. Perhaps, the greatest gainer is the light-squared bishop which can quickly go to d7, g4, or can even appear on d3 (!) square, as in the sharp Siesta variation (5.c3 f5!? 6.exf5 Bxf5 7.0-0 Bd3). Overall, both sides have numerous possibilites, so let us dive into the overview of variations!
1) White Deviates on Move 5
My survey begins with some less critical 5th moves for White. The most common is already mentioned 5.d4 when Black can take advantage of the extra a7-a6 move to play 5...b5 6.Bb3 Nxd4 7.Nxd4 exd4
At this point, White has to be careful not to fall in the Noah Ark trap which arises after 8.Qxd4?? c5 9.Qd5 Be6 10.Qc6 Bd7 11.Qd5 c4
It turns out that Black wins a piece and most likely the game.
Instead of 8.Qxd4??, White should go for 8.Bd5 Rb8 9.Bc6+ Bd7 10.Bxd7 Qxd7 11.Qxd4 Nf6 12.0-0 Be7
We have reached a roughly level position in which Black has scored well in practice.
In CHAPTER 1, I also deal with the moves 5.d3, 5.h3 and 5.Nc3. In my analysis, I prove that these continuations are not particularly challenging.
2) White Plays 5.c4
This move was introduced by the old master Oldrich Duras (1882 - 1957). I believe it should not pose black any opening problems after the logical 5...Bg4
In this position, it is very difficult for White to push d2-d4. For example, after 6.h3 Bxf3 7.Qxf3 Nf6 8.Nc3 Be7 9.d3 0-0 10.Bxc6 bxc6 11.0-0 Nd7
This position seems to be perfectly fine for Black. Black rarely faces any difficulties, as we will see in CHAPTER 2.
3) White Plays 5.Bxc6
If 4...d6 is called Steinitz Defense Deferred, then we can informally name 5.Bxc6 - Exchange Variation Deferred. The point of deferring the exchange on c6 is that after black pushes d7-d6, he can not recapture on c6 with the d-pawn anymore, as in the Ruy Lopez exchange variation.
After 5...bxc6, White usually plays 6.d4
Here taking on d4 is not automatic. Black has another reasonable possibility - 6...f6. The variations are very different from each other: 6...exd4 leads to a more balanced position while 6...f6 to a more complex type of position. This makes for a nice opening repertoire against 5.Bxc6 variation as you can mix things up depending on your opponent, mood, tournament situation, etc. My analysis shows that both 6...f6 and 6...exd4 are decent options. These lines are covered in CHAPTER 3.
4) White Plays 5.0-0
The move 5.0-0 is the second most popular attempt to fight for an advantage (the most principled continuation is 5.c3). In this position, Black has a choice - he could play either 5...Bg4 or 5...Bd7. I believe that having a diverse opening repertoire is a must for a tournament player of any level, so I suggest you study both variations.
In CHAPTER 4, I deal with the razor-sharp 5...Bg4. The critical position of the variation arises after the moves 6.h3 h5 7.Bxc6 bxc6 8.d4 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 exd4
In this position, White tried a variety of moves - 10.Rd1, Re1, 10.c3 and 10.e5. After analyzing the arising positions, I have reached the conclusion that Black holds his own in every single variation.
5) Black Plays 5...Bd7 in response to 5.0-0
This is the solid response to 5.0-0. Black tries to set up a position without major weaknesses. White generally enjoys space advantage, but we will see that it is difficult for him to create much from such positions if black plays correctly.
White's most principled reaction to this system seems to be 6.d4 when Black should go for the following sequence 6...exd4 7.Nxd4 b5 8.Nxc6 Bxc6 9.Bb3 Nf6 10.Re1 Be7 11.c4 0-0 12.Nc3
This position has become an important theoretical battleground lately. Black should be able to hold his own here despite a slight positional pressure from white, as we will see in CHAPTER 5.
6) Black Plays the "Siesta Variation" in response to 5.c3
The so-called "Siesta Variation" arises after the moves 5.c3 f5
This line has some resemblance to Jaenisch Gambit (3...f5 instead of SDD - 3...a6). Black immediately strikes at the center, at the cost of weakening his king's position. It goes without saying that this is a risky opening variation - in fact, even riskier than 5.0-0 Bg4 6.h3 h5!? variation from CHAPTER 4. For a long time, it has been considered incorrect and there are indeed two or three lines (as we shall see) that put it under question. However, in most of the lines, the play becomes just completely wild and you can easily lure your opponent into a trap in the "guerilla war", so to speak. White should definitely not enter the main lines of Siesta unprepared because it can also lead to quick disaster for him. This variation is dealt with in CHAPTER 6.
7) Black Plays 5...Bd7 6.d4 g6 7.0-0 Bg7
This is the main tabiya of the entire variation. White's main move in this position is 8.Re1. In CHAPTER 7, however, I deal with some sidelines. I analyze in detail the moves 8.dxe5, 8.h3 and 8.Be3. Despite the fact that these options are not really challenging, Black should know what he is doing in order to keep the balance. The flexible pawn structure makes the position extremely complex from a positional point of view. That is the reason why Black could even fight for a win.
8) White Plays 8.Bg5
White's idea is obvious - he wants to disrupt Black's kingside development. I suggest we go with the flow and play 8...f6 9.Be3 Nh6!
We analyze these dynamic positions in CHAPTER 8.
9) White Plays 8.d5
White takes space in the center and trades light-squared bishops in order to achieve a favorable version of KID. This makes it one of the most popular systems against SDD and black needs to play precisely to hold his own, as we will see.
The main position arises after the moves 8...Nce7 9.Bxd7 Qxd7 10.c4 h6 11.Nc3 f5 12.Ne1 Nf6 13.f3 0-0 14.Nd3
We have more of a King's Indian Defence type of position, which may not be to taste of some 1.e4 players. In purely strategic terms, white should benefit from the exchange of light-squared bishops in the long run, but things are not that simple if black obtains sufficient counterplay, as we will see in CHAPTER 9.
10) White Plays 8.Re1
This is the main move. It supports white's center and potentially prepares the common Ruy Lopez knight maneuver Nb1-d2-f1. Black usually responds with 8...Nf6 after which the game most probably would continue 9.Nbd2 0-0 10.h3
We have reached a rich and complex battleground. White has his pawn center and harmonious development whereas black enjoys a solid and flexible position, typical for the closed Ruy Lopez. I like the placement of black bishop on g7 as it is always ready to put pressure on the d4 pawn and black does not have to worry about Nf1-g3-f5 maneuver anymore. To learn more about this important and other similar positions, please check the final CHAPTER 10.