Modern Repertoire against the Benko Gambit
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The starting position of the Benko Gambit arises after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5
The Benko Gambit (Russian speakers prefer to call it Volga) is an opening that you face at any level, from amateur to top-level grandmaster. Most of the gambits did not manage to withstand the challenges of the computer era. The fact that Benko Gambit remains very popular even today could be explained by the strong positional foundation of this opening. The concept is fairly simple: Black sacrifices a pawn in order to create pressure along the semi-open "a" and "b" files. The queenside pressure is increased by the dark-squared bishop which is placed on g7. Someone who is not familiar with the Benko structures might think that White, being a pawn up, should start exchanging pieces.
In order to understand how wrong this concept is, we shall imagine the classical Benko pawn structure.
Let's imagine that all the minor pieces have been exchanged and only queens and rooks remain on the board. Such an endgame is usually very favourable for Black. When looking at the structure, it is easy to notice the big difference in the activity of the heavy pieces. Black's rooks and queen operate on the files "a and "b" while White's heavy pieces are staring at his own pawns (with the exception of the c5-pawn which closes the c-file). Black develops his queenside initiative in the long-term. Therefore, very often, even the engine fails to understand the character of Black's compensation. This is something that I witnessed on many occasions while working on the current database. In Benko, understanding the typical plans, ideas, and constructions is much more important than the knowledge of theoretical lines.
This is the reason why I have decided to opt for an extensive examination of the arising pawn structures. Knowing the Benko structures will also improve your play other openings like King's Indian Defence and Benoni Defence where the transition into Benko structures with ... b7-b5 is always in the air.
Typical Pawn Structures
In this section, I have tried to present the most important ideas for both sides in the classical Benko structure.
Even though the current database is building a repertoire for White, this section starts with the examination of Black's most dangerous ideas. Before learning our plans and ideas, we should be familiar with the threats of our opponent.
Ideas for Black - General Overview
As mentioned in the introduction, Black usually develops a queenside counterplay. The most important element of this counterplay is the activity of Black's heavy pieces which put a lot of pressure on the queenside. The rooks usually occupy the squares a8 and b8 while the queen is well placed on a5 or a6, depending on the concrete situation. The situation is getting more tricky when it comes to minor pieces. Since light-squared bishops are usually exchanged on the diagonal f1-a6, both sides remain with a dark-squared bishop and two knights. Taking into account White's space advantage, Black usually tries to exchange one pair of knights. Black knights, which mostly occupy the squares d7 and f6, often fight for d7 which is an important transition square. After exchanging a pair of knights, the remaining Black knight has the following routes: - Nf6-d7-e5 (b6) -c4 (as we are going to witness, c4 is a key square in Benko structures) -Nf6-d7-e5-d3 - (we consider d3 to be the ideal spot for the knight) -Nf6-e8-c7-b5-d4 -Nf6-g4-e5-c4 (d3).
As you can see, these knight manoeuvres help Black to increase the queenside pressure. Therefore, Black should think twice before allowing the exchange of his second knight. Usually, it is more difficult to create queenside threats without knights. Another very important source of counterplay is the c5-pawn. Very often, by means of the advance ... c5-c4 Black supports the d3-knight. Additionally, in positions with a white pawn on b3, the advance ...c5-c4 opens the queenside for Black's heavy pieces. After taking into account the abovementioned considerations, I have classified the model games into the following categories:
1) Piece pressure on the queenside
2) The advance ...c5-c4
3) The manoeuvre...Ng4-e5
4) The manoeuvre... Ne8-c7
Of course, in most of the cases, these elements do not exist independently. Sometimes, it happens the Black can apply all these ideas in one single game. I make this division only for didactic purposes.
The explanation of each one of these ideas is structured in the following way: Presentation of the idea, Educational examples. After reading all the 4 ideas, you can test your knowledge and understanding by solving an interactive test. Let's take a look at the presentation of Black's second idea - the advance ...c5-c4
2) The advance ...c5-c4
In Benko structures, the advance ...c5-c4 is probably Black's most important source of counterplay. When considering this idea, we shall take into account two possible scenarios:
1) White's pawn is on b2
2) White has played b2-b3 - In the first case, the move ...c5-c4 mainly aims at fixing the b2-pawn and securing the important d3-square for the knight. Very often, when having a knight on d7, Black opts for ...c5-c4 in order to prepare the manoeuvre...Nc5-d3. I could imagine the following ideal construction for Black: Qa5, rooks on a8 and b8, Bg7, Nd3 and pawn on c4. Such pressure would be almost irresistible. When White has already played b2-b3, Black can go for ...c5-c4 as well. This time, the idea is to open the queenside for the heavy pieces. In such cases, Black usually makes use of unstable c3-knight. Before playing ...c5-c4, Black should check whether White can install a knight on c6 by using the weakened d4-square. Also, in some cases, the c4-pawn is becoming a target. In the model games, you are going to see different scenarios related to the advance ...c5-c4.
All the other Black's ideas are presented in the same way. As mentioned above, after finishing these four ideas, you can make an interactive test.
Ideas for White - General Overview
Since we are already familiar with the possible danger, the moment has come to focus on the most important plans for White. White uses different methods to restrict Black's queenside activity. After blocking the queenside, he can consider playing in the centre or on the kingside. Sometimes, when there is no way to handle Black's queenside play, White should immediately strike in the centre or start playing against the black king. In some positions, Black's queenside pieces are poorly coordinated. In such cases, White can even outplay his opponent on the queenside. I have divided White's plans in the following way:
1) Positions with a pawn on b5 - such positions arise after the exchange of the light-squared bishops on b5
2) The construction Nb5 - a4 - b3 (the pawn can be also on b2)
3) The construction Nc4 - a4 - b3 (the pawn can be also on b2)
4) The advance b2(b3)-b4
5) Centre/Kingside Play
Quite naturally, these 6 ideas are not independent since in one game we can have many of them. Also, there are some typical devices which are explained in the comments to the model games but are not covered as a separate topic. Such a device, for example. is installing a knight on the c6-square.
Once again, as an example, I am going to present one of the possible ideas.
3) The construction Nc4 - a4 - b3 (the pawn can be also on b2)
This is another very important queenside construction. In order to go for it, you shall make sure that the b3-pawn is safely protected. In this structure, the b-file is not closed and Black's rook has access to the b4-square. Therefore, the dark-squared bishop is ideally placed on d2. Once again, if White manages to exchange his bishop for the black knight, he achieves a typical position which is strategically winning (White just safely protects the b3-pawn and starts playing in the centre). Another important exchange to consider is the exchange of the knights. Generally, White is OK with such an exchange if he is in time to carry out a4-a5 followed by b3-b4. In many cases, White can even avoid the exchange of the knights. For example, let's take a look at the diagram position. If Black starts with ...Nd7, White can answer with a4-a5. The idea is to meet ...Ne5 with Nb6 followed by b3-b4. In such a case, White is the one who has the upper hand on the queenside. All these discussed ideas can be witnessed in the model games.
The other White's ideas are presented in a similar way. The entire section Typical Pawn Structures (including ideas for Black and White) includes 24 educational examples and 33 interactive test positions.
Against the Benko Gambit, I am suggesting the following system: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.e3
This system is getting very popular recently. It has been employed by a number of top-level players, including Aronian and Ivanchuk. The main point behind White's 5th move is to slow down Black's queenside counterplay. By immediately bringing the f1-bishop into the game, White is trying to hold the important b5-square. Later on, White will reinforce the control of b5 by means of Nc3 and a2-a4. As a result, with the b-file been blocked, Black's queenside counterplay will be highly restricted. If Black goes for a classical Benko structure, (...g7-g6, ...Bg7, . ..d7-d6, ...0-0, and ...axb5) the control of the b5-square will be very important (see the section on the pawn structures). Of course, We should be aware of some drawbacks of the move 5.e3. This move does not contribute to the fight for the centre. Additionally, White would eventually lose a tempo since in most of the lines he will play e3-e4 at some point. Taking these drawbacks into account, Black often opts for dynamic systems which are characterized by the pressure on d5. Nevertheless, my analysis shows that Black cannot solve his problems with dynamic play. In many lines, White gives his pawn back in order to overtake the initiative.
Before proceeding with the overview of the theoretical part, I would like to mention, that Black's alternatives on move 4 (such as 4...e6 and 4...g6) are dealt with in the final chapter of the database - Odds and Ends.
When studying openings, we start with the lines in which the opponent tries to refute our concept. Therefore, I decided to give priority to Black's dynamic systems. Chapter 1 starts dealing with Black's most popular dynamic system.
Chapter 1 - 5...axb5 (Introduction)
This chapter is an introduction to one of Black's most dynamic systems against 5.e3. The first important crossroads arises after 5...axb5 6.Bxb5.
At this point, Black's main move is 6...Qa5+. I also examine 6...Bb7 7.Nc3 which transposes to the lines which are covered later in the database. The only independent option is 6...Ba6. This move, however, does not fit into the spirit of Black's concept in this line (the philosophy of the variation consists of putting pressure on the centre). After 6...Ba6 7.Bxa6, we usually enter the classical Benko structure. In my analysis, I demonstrate that White keeps an upper hand in all the cases.
In response to the main move 6...Qa5+, White plays 7.Nc3
This is a very important position for the theory of the variation. Black's most critical move is by far 7...Bb7. This continuation is dealt with in Chapter 2. In this chapter, I examine the alternatives - 7...Ne4?!, 7...g6, 7...e6?!, 7...Ba6.
These moves are not theoretically challenging and White keeps an advantage in all the lines.
Chapter 2 - 6...Qa5 7.Nc3 Bb7
This is considered to be Black's best attempt at putting pressure. It is not easy at all for White to keep the pawn. Additionally, if necessary, Black is planning to increase the pressure by means of ...e7-e6. In this case, my concept is to give the pawn back in order to overtake the initiative. I suggest the main move 8.Bd2.
At this point, I deal with 4 moves - 8...e6?!, 8...Na6?, 8...g6?, and the main line 8...Qb6.
The central position of the current chapter is being reached after 8...Qb6 9.Nf3 Nxd5 10.a4!
This strong move is getting very popular recently. White grabs space on the queenside and supports the powerful b5-bishop. He is planning to continue with 11.0-0 followed by e3-e4. Theoretically speaking, Black has the better pawn structure due to the central pawns. In this position, however, the development and the activity of the pieces is what matters. Black has tried several continuations in this position. According to my analysis, none of them manages to solve the problems.
Chapter 3 - 5...Bb7
With this move, Black immediately puts pressure on d5. He is planning to completely destroy White's centre by playing ...e7-e6. White, however, is just in time to support the d5-pawn - 6.Nc3 e6 (the alternatives are also covered) 7.e4 axb5 8.Bxb5 Qa5
We have reached the first critical position for the variation. Black is threatening to win the pawn back by means of ...Nxe4 or even ...exd5. White's most popular move is 9.Qe2 keeping the extra pawn. I don't like this approach since 9.Qe2 does not contribute to the development. According to my understanding of the position, White should give the pawn back and fight for the initiative. By taking the e4-pawn, Black will actually lose two tempis - one move to take the pawn and another one to take care of the hanging e4-knight. Therefore, I recommend 9.Nge2! Nxe4 10.0-0
White has an overwhelming advantage in the development without sacrificing a single pawn for that (the material is equal). If Black manages to play ...Be7 followed by ...0-0, without compromising his position, he will be doing fine. This plan, however, is not easy to achieve.
Chapter 4 - 5...e6 6.Nc3 exd5 - 10...axb5
This move fits into the spirit of the Blumenfeld Gambit. By exchanging the d5-pawn, Black wants to obtain a strong pawn centre. Contrary to the system with 5...Bb7, this time White cannot support the d5-pawn by means of e3-e4. From a theoretical point of view, I consider this system to be one of the most challenging antidotes to 5.e3. At this point, my suggestion is 6.Nc3 exd5 7.Nxd5 when the main line goes 7...Bb7 8.Nxf6 Qxf6 9.Nf3 Be7 (9...Bd6 is also covered) 10.Be2.
This is the most important crossroads of the variation. I think that Black's most precise reaction is 10...0-0 keeping open the option of playing ...axb5 later. This move is covered in the next chapter.
The current chapter focuses on the position arising after 10...axb5 11.Bxb5 0-0 12.0-0
This is the critical position of the variation. Quite obviously, Black will play ...d7-d5 with or without preparation. I analyze two main moves - 12...Rd8 and 12...d5.
In my annotations to this chapter, I explain the typical methods of playing in this pawn structure. Furthermore, I managed to come up with a new concept which highly restricts Black's counterplay.
Chapter 5 - 5...e6 6.Nc3 exd5 - 10...0-0
In my opinion, this is the most challenging continuation. Black is planning to follow with ...d7-d5 without taking on b5. At the same time, White should reckon the move ...axb5 at any moment. If White decides to release the tension by taking on a6, then Black usually recaptures with the knight.
At this point, my suggestion is 11.bxa6.
I think that this is White's most precise move. The idea is to answer 11...Nxa6 with 12.Bd2 followed by Bc3. The b2-pawn cannot be taken in view of Rb1, making use of the unprotected b7-bishop. This position has been reached in only three games. All of them continued 11...Nxa6. This move which allows 12.Bd2 is not Black's best option. In this chapter, I also consider the alternatives to 11...Nxa6 - 11...Rxa6!?, 11...Bxa6, 11...Be4, and 11...Bc6!
With a precise play, White keeps an edge against all these moves.
Chapter 6 - 5...g6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 0-0 8.a4 Bb7
This chapter marks the beginning of the systems with 5...g6 which is by far the most popular reaction to 5.e3. This move fits better into the spirit of the Benko Gambit since in most of the cases Black is trying to achieve a typical Benko structure. The next few moves are obvious - 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 0-0 Of course, Black could have played ...d7-d6 earlier. The exact move order would not make a difference since the moves ...Bg7 and ...0-0 will be played in any case. At this point, White faces a wide choice of moves. My choice is 8.a4
I consider 8.a4 being the most flexible move. White refrains from moving his f1-bishop because Black will answer with ...axb5 causing a loss of a tempo. As we know from the Pawn Structures section, the advance a2-a4 is very useful since it contributes to the blockade of the queenside. Additionally, with his last move, White also prepares the advance e3-e4.
In this position, Black's main move is 8...d6, entering the classical Benko positions. The current chapter features Black's attempt to put pressure on the centre by means of 8...Bb7 followed by ...e7-e6. The critical position of the chapter arises after 9.e4 e6 10.Be2 exd5 11.exd5 axb5 12.Bxb5
At this point, there are two moves which try to prevent White from completing the development - 12...Qe8+ and the main option 12...Re8+. Very often in this variation, White gives the pawn back in order to overtake the initiative.
Chapter 7 - 5...g6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 0-0 8.a4 d6 9.e4 e6
Black is trying to make use of the fact that White has wasted time by playing a2-a4 and e2-e3-e4. Therefore, he will try to open the centre as soon as possible. This approach, however, does not work tactically. After 10.dxe6, Black has two main moves - 10...fxe6 and 10...Bxe6. In my annotations to the current chapter, I demonstrate that in both cases White retains a clear advantage.
Chapter 8 - 5...g6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 0-0 8.a4 d6 9.e4 axb5 & Rare Alternatives on Move 9
With this move, Black enters the classical Benko structure. The main alternative is 9...Nbd7 with the idea to take on b5 only when White moves his f1-bishop. The move 9...Nbd7 will be dealt with in the next chapter. In this chapter, I also deal with some rare alternatives for Black on move 9. The main position of the chapter arises after 10.Bxb5 Ba6 (10...Na6 is also covered) 11.Bg5!
This move is a very important part of White's strategy. By protecting the a1-rook, White planning to recapture with a pawn in case of ...Bxb5. In this way, we reach a typical structure with a pawn on b5. This structure was extensively covered in the section Pawn Structures. I would like just to remind that in such structures the g5-square is a perfect spot for the bishop. In many cases, the indirect pressure against the e7-pawn would prevent Black from maneuvring with the f6-knight. The subsequent analysis shows that Black has problems to create counterplay in this position.
Chapter 9 - 5...g6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 0-0 8.a4 d6 9.e4 Nbd7
In my opinion, this is Black's most challenging move order. Before taking on b5, he is waiting for White to develop the f1-bishop. At the same time, the move ...Nbd7 fits very well into the classical Benko concepts. White faces a choice now. I have decided to opt for the rare 10.h3!
By making a useful move, White waits for the move ...axb5. Since Black cannot open the centre by means of ...e7-e6 (the d6-pawn will be hanging after dxe6), White can afford to make such moves. At the same time, taking the g4-square under control is important because Black can no longer execute the typical manoeuvre. ..Ng4-e5. If we are going to enter a structure with a white pawn on b5, there will be two good squares for the dark-squared bishop - g5 and f4 (this is explained in the section Pawn Structures). In this position, I prefer to start with Bg5 and after provoking ...h7-h6 settle for Bf4. In such a case, the move 10.h3 will be very useful since moves like ...Nh5 or ...g6-g5 can always be met with Bh2.
Chapter 10 - Odds and Ends
This chapter deals with two deviations that Black can choose on move 4 - 4...e6 and 4...g6. Even though these moves are not popular and challenging, we are going to examine them for the sake of completeness.
In this section, I provide 21 interactive test positions. By solving them, you can apply your knowledge of the theory and pawn structures.