Nimzo-Indian Defence - Complete Repertoire for Black
Nimzo-Indian Defense is the cornerstone of the three-part repertoire for Black against 1.d4 (the other two parts being the Catalan Opening and the Ragozin Defense). While there are several reasonable alternatives for Black to White's 3.Nf3 and 3.g3, it is clear that 3...Bb4 is Black's best answer against 3.Nc3. It leads to complex and strategically rich positions with plenty of room for creativity, despite being heavily theoretically explored over the years. This makes it one of the most popular opening systems for both colours.
It is obvious from its name that the famous Aron Nimzowitsch is credited with pioneering and developing this way of defending with black pieces. However, it has to be said that other strong players of his time have contributed to the early theory of the opening; notably, Rubinstein with White, and Alekhine and Saemisch with both colours.
The key strategic premises of the Nimzo-Indian Defense are quick development and flexibility of central pawn structure. Black is ready to accept a bishop-for-knight trade for this cause, giving White an opportunity to claim the bishop pair advantage. However, Nimzowitsch demonstrated in his very first games in this opening that Black can use the flexibility of his pawn structure to set up a solid blockade in the centre and often limit white bishops this way. The pair of black knights can then happily manoeuvre around the long pawn chains, often facilitating Black's counter-attack on one of the flanks.
Over the years, this and many other strategic scenarios have been developed and scrutinized in the Nimzo-Indian Defense. White's action would prompt Black's reaction, and vice versa. From a theoretical standpoint, The Nimzo-Indian has therefore rarely been still. At the end of the day, one thing is certain - Black is okay in the Nimzo!
The goal of this opening database is to present the most critical White's attempts to get an advantage against the Nimzo-Indian and, logically, promising ways for Black to deal with these attempts.
The author covered the nine most sensible 4th moves for White. For the most popular ones: 4.e3, 4.Qc2, 4.Nf3, and 4.f3, Kuljasevic suggests not only one response for Black, but rather two or (in case of 4.e3) even three responses. Just like in Catalan and Ragozin databases, he presents a 'solid' variation and a 'sharp' variation. The idea is to have a flexible opening repertoire, which is a must in today's competitive chess.
The database is divided into 22 chapters: eight of them cover 4.e3 variations; six cover 4.Qc2 variations; two cover 4.f3 variations; while the other six 4th moves for White are condensed in one chapter each.
Finally, we should note that in the Ragozin database, some variations have been cross-referenced to the corresponding ones in the Nimzo-Indian database. For instance 5.g3, 5.e3, and 5.Bd2 moves in the Ragozin transpose into 4.g3, 4.e3 and 4.Bd2 variations in the Nimzo-Indian database, respectively.
Now, onto the main course!
Variations with 4.e3
The so-called Rubinstein Variation is White's most popular move against the Nimzo-Indian. White forgoes the option of developing his dark-squared bishop to the most active g5-square (at least for the time being) but keeps great flexibility with regard to the development of his other pieces and potential central pawn structures. The author suggests here the most popular move - 4...0-0
Now, White has several methods of development
These variations are covered in Chapters 1-8
Chapter 1 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Nge2
These days, 5.Ne2 is a reasonable variation that does not put an emphasis on the opening, but rather offers chances for both sides to outplay the opponent in a roughly equal, but complex middlegame. GM Kuljasevic suggests here the flexible 5...Re8 which vacates the f8-square for the bishop in case of the usual a3. It also leaves Black's options open with regard to the pawn structure in the center.
After 6.a3 Bf8 we reached the starting position for this variation.
In this position, GM Kuljasevic analyzes 5 different continuations: 7.Ng3, 7.e4, 7.g3, 7.Nf4, 7.d5
According to the analysis Black has good chances in all the lines.
Chapter 2 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.exd5 exd5 7.Nge2
This system has become fashionable in the recent 3-4 years. White's plan with the early exchange on d5 and knight's development to e2 is to execute Botvinnik's plan f2-f3, e3-e4. This plan is known to work well for White in two opening variations: 1. Exchange Variation of QGD and 2. Saemisch Variation of the Nimzo-Indian where black plays d5.
In comparison, this is a better version of this type of position for Black for two reasons:
1. white bishop is on c1 and not on g5 as in the QGD;
2. Black has not traded his dark-squared bishop on c3 yet, as in Saemisch Variation.
Thus, Black is doing well from a strategic point of view.
Nevertheless, this variation leads to a complex fight in the middlegame, where the knowledge of typical manoeuvres and positions plays a much larger role than move-by-move theoretical knowledge. For that reason, the author presents several typical plans for both sides at each important junction.
Chapter 3 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.Ne2
A more modest development of the knight than customary 6.Nf3
The main line continues 6...dxc4 7.Bxc4 c5 8.0-0 cxd4 9.exd4
Let us stop for a moment and consider why White would play this IQP position with the knight on e2 instead of the more natural square f3. There are several important differences. First, the knight on e2 does not obstruct the third rank for a maneuver of a heavy piece (usually the queen) toward one of g3 or h3 squares. Secondly, the knight can sometimes join the fight for the key d5-square via f4, which is not possible when it is on f3.
Thirdly, although this is already a much less common scenario, the knight on e2 does not obstruct the f2-f4-f5 push. Finally, and this is already a fine point, the knight is somewhat better positioned on e2 than f3 for defensive purposes as it overprotects both c3 and d4, while also not being in the line of attack of black b7-bishop.
Therefore, this can be a tricky IQP setup and Black needs to exercise caution.
GM Kuljasevic analyzes two different setups: 9...Nc6 and 9...Nd7 and proves that Black has an adequate play in both cases.
Chapter 4 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.a3
White would like to win the bishop pair while strengthening his control of the center after the pawn recaptures on c3. A comparative advantage compared to the Saemisch variation (4.a3) is that here, he will not be saddled with doubled c-pawns since the exchange on c4 or d5 is inevitable.
After a logical sequence: 6...Bxc3 7.bxc3 dxc4 8.Bxc4 c5 we reach the tabiya of this variation.
GM Kuljasevic analyzes four different moves for White: 9.Nf3, 9.Ne2, 9.Bb2, 9.Bd3
Chapter 5 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.Nf3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 c5 8.0-0 cxd4 9.exd4 b6 - Sidelines
Karpov variation is one of the most reliable and time-tested systems against White's main setup in the Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian. Even though the strong Hungarian grandmaster Lajos Portisch has employed it several times before Karpov, it was the ex-world champion who put the variation into prominence in the 1970ies, scoring excellently with black pieces.
Black's idea is to develop the bishop on the long diagonal as quickly as possible, keeping options to capture on c3 with the other bishop or retreat it to e7, depending on circumstances. He also enjoys some flexibility regarding the development of the other knight because Nc6 and Nbd7 are both viable setups.
White also has a variety of plans, which makes this variation quite popular for both sides. The most natural continuation is 10.Bg5 and we will deal with it in the next chapter. In this one, we will look at the most important 10th move alternatives for White.
The author analyzes 7 different moves for White: 10.Qe2, 10.Ne5, 10.Bf4, 10.Be3, 10.a3, 10.Qb3, 10.Re1
Those sidelines deserve attention, but according to theory Black has adequate answers to all of them.
Chapter 6 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.Nf3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 c5 8.0-0 cxd4 9.exd4 b6 10.Bg5
This is the main line and the most logical response to Karpov variation.
We reach a typical IQP position. Black's position is very flexible and can choose between different setups.
In this complex battle, the side who feels the positions better wins. It is recommendable not only to study the theory very carefully but also to check the articles about IQP in Modern Chess Magazine.
Chapter 7 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.Nf3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 c5 8.0-0
When it comes to opening repertoire it is always good to have options, so in this and next chapter, the author recommends two additional systems for Black against the main line of Rubinstein variation.
In this chapter, we will examine the Larsen variation that starts with 8...Nc6. It is a variation with a long history, which was played back in 1950ies and then occasionally by some strong players such as Smyslov, Reshevsky, Polugaevsky, Karpov and, of course, Bent Larsen. It fell into oblivion for quite some time since those years, until it was resurrected on the top level again around 2013 by leading Cuban grandmasters, who found some new value in it, mostly inspired by Michael Adams' treatment of black position in a related variation.
The point of Black's setup (after 9.a3 Ba5) is to keep the tension in the center and prevent White from pinning the f6-knight with Bc1-g5, as in Karpov variation. Black does not determine the central pawn structure yet, so in contrast to Karpov variation, IQP is not the only type of middlegame that can arise in Larsen variation. This makes it for a more flexible variation that can be played for a win against a lower-rated or less experienced opponent, for example. At the same time, it is primarily a solid choice for Black, who usually aims for IQP type of position (after an eventual exchange on d4) with a typical rock-solid setup: h6, Ba5-c7, b6, Bb7, Nc6-e7.
White's main response is, naturally:
Chapter 8 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.Nf3 b6!?
The third system that GM Kuljasevic recommends is relatively rare.
The idea is to utilize the flexibility of the Nimzo-Indian Defence in order to get a completely different type of position compared to those in Karpov and Larsen variations. Black has some interesting strategic plots in this rare system, that can help him to either outplay his opponent in the long run or virtually equalize the game by force. Our main strategic goal is to trade off light-squared bishops and, eventually, take control of light squares like e4 and c4.
Naturally, White's most common continuation is 7.0-0 and then we continue with 7...Ba6 (instead of following the main line 7...Bb7)
This is the critical position for the variation. White tried several setups here: 8.Qb3, 8.cxd5, 8.Qe2, 8.Ne5.
The rule is simple: if White does not take on d5 then Black plays c5 with a good position.
After 8.cxd5, Black exchanges the bishops and try to take control over the light squares.
Variations with 4.Qc2
While being slightly less popular than 4.e3 by historical standards, the move 4.Qc2 has been White's main attempt to prove an edge in the Nimzo-Indian in modern times. Kasparov's excellent results with it from 1988-2005 have prompted a serious theoretical investigation in attempts to avoid the problems Black was facing in these games.
GM Kuljasevic suggests two systems for Black against 4.Qc2. The first one is 4...d5 (Noa Variation) and the risky 4...b6
Chapter 9 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 d5 Sidelines
This is the starting position of so-called Noa Variation.
Noa variation has proved to be the critical test of 4.Qc2 Nimzo-Indian variation in modern times. Black attacks the c4-pawn, prompting White to show his cards in the centre immediately.
In this position, White has two main ways to continue 5.a3 and 5.cxd5.
In this chapter, the author analyzes 5.Nf3 and 5.Bg5. Against both of then, Black just continue 5...dxc4 with a good play. You will also find here the position after 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 0-0
This is a very important position in our repertoire. White won the bishop pair without ruining his structure, but lose some valuable time. White tried different moves in this position. In this chapter, we will see 7.Bg5, 7.cxd5, 7.e3. The main move 7.Nf3 is the topic of the next chapter.
Chapter 10 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 d5 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 0-0 7.Nf3
In the previous chapter, we looked at variations in which White postponed development of his knight to f3. However, 7.Nf3 is the main line, so we will take a closer look at it. The logical continuation here is 7...dxc4 8.Qxc4 b6
Another critical position for our repertoire. According to the theory, Black is just fine here.
White tried 9.h4, 9.Bg5, 9.Bf4, 9.g3.
Against all this moves Black has the same idea: Ba6 followed by c5 and trying to create some threats before White finishes the development. All those variations are perfectly analyzed by Kuljasevic.
Chapter 11 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 d5 5.cxd5 exd5
The exchange on d5 leads to a considerably different type of position compared to 5.a3 variation. Recapturing on d5 with the queen is also a good option for Black, but Davorin prefers 5...exd5 because we get positions that are very similar to the 5.cxd5 exd5 variation of the Ragozin defense. The difference compared to Ragozin is that white queen is already on c2 and the knight is not on f3.
For Black, this does not make a significant difference at the start of the game because he still plans to attack the White center with ...c7-c5. However, it gives white some options regarding development schemes - the knight can be developed to e2 instead of f3, or he can castle queenside more quickly in some lines.
Overall, this is a sharp opening variation that requires a strong feeling for dynamics and precise theoretical knowledge.
As always we start by looking at the sidelines. The game usually continues 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bh4 c5 8.dxc5 g5 9.Bg3 Ne4
In this position, White has several possibilities. Kuljasevic analyzes 10.Bxb8, 10.0-0-0, 10.Nf3, 10.Be5 which you will find in this chapter. The main line 10.e3 is a topic of the next chapter.
Chapter 12 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 d5 5.cxd5 cxd5 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bh4 c5 8.dxc5 g5 9.Bg3 Ne4 10.e3
In this chapter, we will cover the main variation 10.e3. White's idea is to bring his kingside pieces into the game and thus Black needs to quickly put pressure on the c3-knight with 10...Qa5.
White has 2 main options here 11.Ne2 and 11.Rc1 but Kuljasevic also analyzes 11.Be5. This chapter is a must study for anyone who wants to play Noa Variation against 4.Qc2.
Chapter 13 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 b6!?
To add some diversity into our repertoire against 4.Qc2 Nimzo-Indian, the author also analyzes this rare system. Well, to be fair, it is not so rare as it used to be since its popularity has surged over the recent 4-5 years.
However, recent practice has proven that this is definitely a playable system for Black. It is often used to obtain non-standard positions and avoid mainstream theory in 4...0-0 and 4...d5 variations.
That being said, a significant body of theoretical material has been developed in this line over the last few years. In this and next chapter the author makes an attempt to systemize this material and offer the latest opening discoveries and trends in 4...b6 variation.
In this chapter, we will take a look at the critical reply: 5.е4
White was allowed to establish a strong pawn centre, so Black's concept is somewhat hyper-modernistic - he undermines it with 5...c5 White has an impressive centre, but he also needs to make sure to protect it. The most principled way to do that is 6.d5 (6.e5, 6.a3, dxc5 are also analyzed) 6...Qe7! without this move, Black will be simply worse.
This is the critical position for the variation. White has several possibilities. The main moves are 7.Ne2 and 7.Be2, but Kuljasevic analyzes also 7.Bd2, 7.Bg5 and 7.dxe6.
The position is complex and unbalanced so Black also has possibilities to play for a win.
Chapter 14 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 b6 5.a3 and other sidelines
In this chapter, we will look at less critical responses to the 4...b6 system. The game usually transposes to various branches of the 4...0-0 variation with ...b6. This leads to interesting middlegames that have a much less forced character than the main lines of the 4.Qc2 Nimzo-Indian.
If White does not want to play principled and sharp 5.e4 variation, he usually goes for a more positional continuation: 5.a3, 5.Nf3 or 5.Bg5. Those moves can't pose any serious problems for Black.
Chapter 15 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nf3
Statistically, this is White's third most popular move against the Nimzo-Indian. It is not a very pretentious move because pretty much any of the typical black answers are okay for him. The advantage of such an approach for White is that he remains flexible by playing the most natural move, and waits for Black to show his cards first.
Of course, it is immediately obvious that we can transpose into the Ragozin defense with 4...d5 and we can end the story there. However, what if you do not want to play the Ragozin for one reason or another? Maybe your opponent sees in the database that you like to play the Ragozin against 3.Nf3, so he tries to drag you into it from this move order?
As said before, it is good to have options and thus the author would like to suggest an alternative: 4...b6
This move is also quite flexible and can lead to different types of Nimzo-Indian positions. It is also consistent with 'sharp repertoire' recommendations against 4.e3 and 4.Qc2 variations. We can see this from possible transpositions below.
White has many ways to answer the queen's fianchetto. The most common continuation is 5.Bg5. GM Kuljasevic also analyzes 5.Qb3, 5.Qc2, 5.e3, 5.Bd2 which usually transpose to well-known positions from the other lines.
Chapter 16 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 d5
White shows, in no uncertain terms, that he would like to build a strong pawn center with e2-e4. The price that he is paying for this ambitious plan is that he is taking away the most natural square from his king's knight, just like in the Saemisch variation of the KID. This slows down his development, sometimes to a high degree; however, White gets other trumps in return and this variation should not be taken lightly by Black by any means.
For our Nimzo repertoire, Davorin has thus prepared two responses - a solid and a sharp one. The solid option, covered in this chapter is also the most natural move: 4...d5. The critical position for the variation arises after the moves 5.a3 Bxc3 6.bxc3 taking advantage of Black's inability to set up the dark-squared blockade as in the Saemisch variation (4.a3). Black continues: 6...c5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.dxc5 Qa5 9.e4 Ne7 10.Be3 0-0 11.Qb3 Qc7
and we have another tabiya. Both sides have their positional trumps and Black is usually successful in returning the sacrificed pawn or obtaining compensation by other means (usually thanks to the ...b7-b6 break).
Chapter 17 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 c5
The sharp alternative to 4...d5 is 4...c5.
This is obviously a sharper approach to 4.f3 Nimzo-Indian. Black allows White to build up his solid Saemisch pawn chain (g2-f3-e4-d5), but banks on his lead in development. Strategically, this can be a risky approach because, in case something goes wrong, Black does not have a safety net and can easily end up with an inferior pawn structure and lack of space.
His advantage lies in the tactical potential of his better-developed pieces, which often helps him undermine and, sometimes, destroy white strong pawn chain in the centre. Needless to say, precise knowledge of variations is of the essence in this variation. But if one manages to combine knowledge of important theoretical lines with tactical awareness, he can reap great rewards because this variation is equally demanding for White.
This move allows White to achieve his goal in the centre after 5.d5 0-0 6.e4. However, Black immediately strikes back at his centre with a flank diversion: 6...b5!?.
This move introduces a Benoni-Benko hybrid type of position that leads to fascinating double-edged play, making it a perfect choice for our sharp repertoire. Details can be found in Chapter 17.
Chapter 18 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.a3
The move 4.a3 introduces the original Saemich Variation. The first important position arises after 4...Bxc3 bxc3
This line poses the main strategic test for Black in the Nimzo-indian: can he offset White's bishop pair with his own positional trumps (better pawn structure, quicker development)? While White has some attacking potential in this variation and is even ready to sacrifice his c4-pawn in many lines to speed up the kingside attack, practice has shown that Black has a reliable way to neutralize White's plan with: 5...c5! 6.e3 (the main alternative 6.f3 Nc6 7.e4 d6 is covered in the same chapter) 6...Nc6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Ne2 b6 9.e4 and now the key part of Black's strategy is the move 9...Ne8! avoiding the unpleasant pin along the h4-d8 diagonal and preparing sorties such as ...Ne8-d6 and ...f7-f5. After the usual: 10.0-0 Ba6 11.f4 f5!
Black completes the strategy of blocking white bishops on both flanks, proving Nimzowitsch right!
The last four chapters feature somewhat less popular variations, which can, nevertheless pose problems to Black if he is not well-prepared or does not take them seriously.
Chapter 19 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.g3
The Nimzo-Catalan hybrid has become fairly popular lately thanks to the development of some new ideas for White. I will remain faithful to ...d7-d5 Nimzo/Ragozin setup against 4.g3, as well. Moreover, the position after 4...d5 5.Nf3 was referenced in the Ragozin database, so you may refer to this chapter if you are wondering what to play if someone goes 5.g3 against the Ragozin.
The modern tabiya of the variation is being reached after 4...d5 5.Bg2 0-0 6.Nf3 dxc4 7.0-0 Nc6
At this point, White has several ways to prove compensation for the pawn. Recently, 8.Qa4!? has gained quite a bit of traction, with some strong GMs giving it a nod. It is backed by some tricky tactical ideas and leads to a new and relatively uncharted territory. Black should reply with 8...Nd5 9.Qc2 Be7 10.Rd1 when we get a complex position. In this chapter, Kuljasevic demonstrates Black's simplest solution.
Chapter 20 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bg5
This used to be Boris Spassky's favourite weapon against the Nimzo-Indian. After that, it was picked up by world-class grandmasters like Jan Timman and Artur Jussupow. It even had a resurgence in grandmaster arena around year 2010.
However, history is one thing and present another. The current state of theory in this line is very encouraging for Black and it is not surprising that very few strong players have used this opening with White in recent 2-3 years. The problem for White is that he can hardly justify the pawn sacrifice in the main line of this variation. It may be necessary to look for new ideas in some less explored branches of this system to revive it.
Black's most precise solution is the following sequence: 4...c5 5.d5 d6 6.e3 exd5 7.cxd5 Nbd7 8.Bd3 (8.Bb5 is a safer alternative, though it does not promise much to White, either) 8...Qa5! 9.Nge2 Nxd5 10.0-0 Bxc3 11.bxc3 c4! 12.Bc2 0-0
With a few more precise moves, Black puts an end to White's hopes of getting anything against the Nimzo-Indian playing Spassky's pet 4th move, as proven in this chapter.
Chapter 21 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bd2
This modest-looking system has gained popularity in recent years. White prepares to take back with the bishop on c3 in case Black decides to make the exchange. He usually develops simply with e3, Nf3, Bd3, etc., so there is a lot of overlap with positions from Chapters 1-8. In fact, another common move order to get the position from the main line in this file is: 4.e3 0-0 5.Nf3 d5 6.Bd2.
My recommendation is to continue like against the 4.e3 system: 4...0-0 5.e3 d5 6.Nf3 and now 6...b6.
White has been doing well recently with the following idea 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Rc1!? Bb7 9.Bd3 preparing the Pillsbury attack with Nf3-e5, f2-f4, etc. Naturally, this is nothing to be scared of as Black has his own trumps in such positions. In Chapter 21, I have analyzed two setups for Black: a more solid one, 9...Be7 10.0-0 Nbd7 followed by ...c7-c5 and a somewhat sharper 9...a6 10.0-0 Bd6 11.Ne5 c5 12.f4 Nc6.
Chapter 22 - 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qb3
Finally, we have the rarest of reasonable 4th moves: 4.Qb3. White's idea is to provoke a certain concession from Black by attacking his bishop immediately. Now, the principled reaction is: 4...c5 and after 5.dxc5 Nc6! is an important move that temporarily sacrifices the pawn, but solves Black's opening problems in all lines, as can be seen in Chapter 22.
In this section, the author provides 15 interactive test positions which illustrate the most important thematic ideas.