Play the Leningrad Bird
Preview by the author
For several decades, I have maintained a special connection with the Leningrad Dutch. My general feeling was that it was too complicated to make it my main weapon, so I used it only occasionally, sometimes in crucial games, sometimes when it just felt right.
Over the past few months, I have started playing it on a regular basis, but a few years ago I also started flirting with the reversed colour opening, the Bird.
My first magical moment with it arrived earlier this spring, when I won a blitz tournament with 9/9 by playing 1.f4 in all my games with white and 1...f5 in all but one with black (one of my opponents opened with 1.e4).
When I sat down for my next classical time rate tournament, Porto Mannu 2019, I was hit by the sudden inspiration to continue experimenting with it. I enjoyed the first few games so much that during that tournament and the following two, I opened all my games with 1.f4. Even though I lost a few painful games, I did not lose my enthusiasm and I actually decided to study it a bit (I had never done that properly before).
It is my pleasure to share with you my analysis and conclusions in this article.
What should we expect from the Leningrad Bird? Does it offer White an advantage? Is White's extra tempo with respect to the Dutch essential?
First of all, we should expect a long strategic struggle, with many original positions and structures, which the computer does not always understand from the beginning. Quite typically, the engines' scepticism vanishes gradually. This makes the opponents' preparation quite difficult. It is right to say that in the complex middlegame the better strategy is likely to win, but we should also take into account that many interesting dynamic or tactical moments can arise.
I will not insist too much in saying that in modern theory White has difficulties proving an advantage in practically all the openings. I am also ready to admit that after 1.f4 Black's equalizing chances are higher than usual, at least in a few systems. But, as said, knowing the typical structures can allow White outplaying the opponent in the (not necessarily very long and boring) middlegame.
There are systems in which White's extra tempo makes a big difference in the evaluation with respect to the Dutch. But more typically, it just allows White determining the course of events, even when objectively the position is close to equality.
My main aim when writing this article was proving an advantage where this was possible and finding the most consistent continuations, maintaining the strategic tension for a long time, in lines where the advantage was harder to prove.
To a certain extent, this has been a pioneer's work, much harder than with other opening databases published by Modern Chess. First of all, there are not so many games between strong players available. Secondly, the positions are quite complicated and hard to asses, as mentioned before. For these reasons, no matter how hard I have worked on the article, I consider it as some sort of first step (or first few steps) in the search for the truth. I would also add that the Leningrad (be it Dutch or Bird) is easier to play once you understand it than analyze and write about.
A few more words about the order in which I have displayed the lines. My criteria were based on the lines I have faced in practice, or which I considered playing myself with black, all these tending to occupy a higher position.
Due to the space limitations and Black's practically infinite choice, I have analyzed only the lines which I considered really important.
All these having been said, I would feel rewarded if I managed to raise the reader enthusiasm for this opening.
As usual, in the first section of the database, we start with the typical pawn structures.
The Leningrad Bird and Dutch openings, to which I will from now on refer as "Leningrad", in order to simplify the discourse, are mainly positional systems. We spend a tempo on move 1 to advance the f-pawn, short term weakening our king without gaining any immediate compensation. The opportunity to start dynamic play will come later, in the early middlegame.
In order to be a good Leningrad Bird player, you should be familiar with the following important structure:
It is obvious that White wants to achieve an improved version of King's Indian Defence by playing e2-e4 (he played f2-f4 in one move while in King's Indian Defence Black first retreats the f6-knight and then follow with ...f7-f5.
The first 6 games from this section feature the cases in which White manages to carry out the advance e2-e4. In the model games, I cover all the possible scenarios. Black can meet e2-e4 with ...d5-d4, keep the tension in the centre or take on e4. While the early ...d5-d4 gives White a very pleasant KID type of position, the other two scenarios are much more tricky. For example, it is very important to feel when the advance e4-e5 is favourable and when we should keep centre flexible. Also, I explain in details all the positions in which Black takes on f4 and follows with ...e7-e5.
In this structure, White has three options - keep the tension in the centre, opt for f4-f5, and initiate a dynamic play with fxe5. In the annotated games, I explain the most important factors which would help you to make the right decision.
In the remaining 3 games, I deal with the positions in which Black tries to inhibit e2-e4 by playing ...d5-d4.
This is another very important middlegame structure. At this point, I focus on the following plans:
- Play the immediate e2-e4
- Play c2-c3 followed by e2-e4
- Opt for a Benoni-like approach by means of c2-c4
The correctness of each one of these plans is based on the concrete static and dynamic factors in the position. In my annotations, I try to provide you with a better understanding of these positions.
As I have already pointed out, this section includes 9 model games. Below, you can take a look at one of them.
The theoretical section includes 26 chapters. Since Black has an enormous amount of options, it was not possible to cover everything. I deal with all the important and popular lines and cover them in great detail. You shouldn't be worried if your opponent plays a rare line which is not in the database. The knowledge of the typical pawn structures will be more than enough to handle such a surprize.
Chapters 1 - 8 - 1.f4 c5
If the opponent has the Sicilian Defence with Black in his repertoire, one of the most probable reactions to the Bird is developing in the spirit of the Closed Sicilian, regardless of when and whether White plays e2-e4. I must confess that for years this has been my main choice with Black.
White has no reasons to refrain from e2-e4, of course, as this is the main idea in the Leningrad Bird. But in some cases delaying it may make a difference to his favour. And even after e2-e4, White can choose between Nc3 and c2-c3, depending on Black's concrete developing scheme. While Nc3 is typical for the genuine Closed Sicilian, usually played on move two, in order to take measures against ...d6-d5, c2-c3 is more flexible and keeps better control of the centre.
The first important cross-roads arises after the moves 1.f4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2
At this point, Black has three main setups at his disposal - ...d7-d6 followed by ...e7-e5, ...e7-e6 followed by ...Nge7 and ...Nf6 (obviously, in combination with ...d7-d6.
Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the plans based on ...d7-d6 followed by ...e7-e5. While in Chapter 1 Black starts with 4...Nc6, in Chapter 2 he tries to save a tempo and plays ...d7-d6 followed by ...e7-e5 without ...Nc6.
The main position of Chapters 3-7 is being reached after 1.f4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nc6 5.0-0 e6 6.d3 Nge7 7.e4 0-0 8.c3
Since there is no pressure on e4 (the knight went to e7) White does not need to over defend it with Nc3. The last move sustains d3-d4 and restricts the bishop on g7.
In Chapter 3, I analyze the apparently more active 8...d5 which is surprisingly more popular. In fact, it offers White a very pleasant version of the French structure, as the bishop on g7 is passive after e4-e5. And if Black tries to free it with ...f7-f6, the weakness on e5 becomes an issue.
Chapters 4-7 deal with the more flexible 8...d6 when White should opt for 9.Be3.
White continues developing and prepares to gain space with d3-d4.
In this position, Black's main move is by far 9...b6. In Chapter 4, I examine two seemingly active moves, typical for the Closed Sicilian - 9...f5 and 9...b5. In my annotations, I demonstrate that these thematic moves turn out to be premature under the concrete circumstances.
In Chapters 5-7, I already focus on the main move 9...b6 which is the most solid and by far the most popular continuation. Black continues the queenside development while also consolidating c5. Quite naturally, White follows with 10.d4
As a general rule, it is desirable to dispose over Nc3 after the exchange on d4. This is why it makes sense to play this move with the knight on b1 still. In general, Black is advised not to rush with ...cxd4 with the white knight being still on b1. In Chapter 5, I demonstrate the disadvantages of premature 10...cxd4.
Chapters 6 and 7 are dedicated to the lines in which Black refrains from an early exchange on d4. This is logical for at least two reasons. First of all, he should not be in a hurry to give up his only central outpost so easily, especially after having consolidated it with ...b7-b6. Secondly, he could take on d4 only after White has moved his knight farther from the optimal c3-square. True, in the latter case he needs to take into account piece re-captures on d4, leading to some sort of open Sicilian in which the combination of ...e7-e6 and ...g7-g6 is not necessarily effective.
Chapter 8 features another interesting approach - 1.f4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nc6 5.0-0 Nf6 6.d3 0-0 7.e4 d6
Black has adopted a typical Dragon structure, avoiding any weaknesses and losses of time. His main plan is based on ...b7-b5-b4, controlling many important dark squares and hoping to break with either ...c5-c4 or ..d6-d5.
The main drawback of this system is that it leaves Black with problems meeting the slow attack based on h2-h3, g3-g4. If he does not find a way to open the queenside to his favour, his king will be in danger some ten moves later.
Chapters 9-10 - From's Gambit
The so-called From's Gambit arises after 1.f4 e5
I had good reasons to place the From's Gambit so high in the variations' hierarchy. I believe that many players consider the Bird opening risky mainly because of this gambit and during my early experimenting with this opening I always transposed to the King's Gambit with 2.e4.
Just a few days before I played the game mentioned in one of the chapters, I had a talk with Karen Movsziszian about the Bird in general. Karen usually transposes to it after 1.g3 and 2.Bg2 and he confessed to me that he would not know what to do after 1.f4 e5. When I faced the gambit a few days earlier against a lower-rated, but apparently prepared and confident opponent, I took it as a test to myself to retain an advantage despite knowing virtually nothing about it. I was mainly hoping on a slightly earlier conversation with my friend GM Lupulescu. Costica told me: "You should just take the pawn!"
While the gambit surely is interesting, White should be able to stay on top, even though sometimes he has to return the pawn for this purpose.
I should also mention that while the gambit is enormously popular at club level, there are few games between strong players with it.
The main tabiya is being reached after 1.f4 e5 2.fxe5 d6 3.exd6 Bxd6 4.Nf3
Optically, the white kingside is exposed, but Black's advance in development is not such that really causes trouble. Besides, White only needs to advance his central pawns in order to obtain an improved version of the King's Gambit, meaning with an extra pawn!
In this position, Black's main move is by far 4...g5 which is dealt with in Chapter 10. In Chapter 9, I examine all Black's alternatives to this aggressive move. In my annotations, I explain why they are not sufficient.
The move 4...g5, however, is quite a serious option. Black is threatening ...g5-g4 followed by ...Qh2 with a mate! My main line goes 5.g3 g4 6.Nh4 Ne7 7.Nc3
This seems to be the most accurate move. The main idea is to attack the bishop with Ne4. The subsequent variations are sharp and dynamic. The good news, however, is that all these complications are favourable for White.
Chapter 11 - 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 Bg4
During the months when I played the Bird without preparing, the thought that my opponent could choose this system was not less worrying than the From Gambit. The point is that White cannot adopt the Leningrad setup anymore while the schemes with e2-e3 are supposed to be slightly less ambitious. And yet, the bishop's exposure on g4 is also an important factor.
One of the most important positions in the chapter arises after the moves 3.e3 Nd7 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 c6 (of course, I deal with all the alternatives)
Black is ready to carry out the thematic ...e7-e5. At this point, I suggest 6.d4!
Now that the black knight is not in time for invading e4, this is the best way to stop ...e7-e5. White's structure becomes typical for the Stonewall Dutch, with the difference that Black's pressure in the centre is absent (he would need the pawn on c5 and knight on c6 for it). White has two bishops and fluent kingside play.
Chapters 12 - 14 - 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 - Plans based on ...Nh6
This chapter marks the beginning of the systems in which Black develops his bishop on g7. Generally, speaking these systems are considered to be Black's most popular weapon against the Leningrad Bird.
In this and the next 2 chapters, I deal with the plans based on ...Nh6.
The main position of Chapter 12 arises after 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nh6
Black intends to meet d2-d3 with ...Nf5 and ...d5-d4, in order to inhibit e2-e4. With the knight on f5, ...h5-h4 is a possible plan, too.
The main drawback of this plan is that if Black fails to hold the blockade, the knight will be vulnerable. And White's extra tempo with respect to the Leningrad Dutch makes itself felt.
In the next two chapters, I examine the systems in which ...Nh6 is preceded by gaining space in the centre. The main crossroads of these two chapters is being reached after 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 c5 5.0-0 Nc6 6.d3 d4 7.c3
With his last move, White is preparing the advance e2-e4. In this position, the most consequent move is 7...Nh6. In Chapter 13, I explain the alternatives - 7...Nf6 and 7...Bf5.
The main line 7...Nh6 is deal with in Chapter 14.
With reversed colours, with an important extra tempo for White (0-0) this position would be promising. But here White can use his extra tempo to take over the initiative. White should follow with 8.e4 dxe3 9.Bxe3
In this position, Black faces difficulties to protect the c5-pawn. The natural 9...b6 runs into 10.d4! which gives White an overwhelming initiative. The main line goes 9...Qb6 when I suggest the novelty 10.Na3. In my annotations to the current chapter, I prove that White keeps his initiative in all the lines.
Chapters 15 - 16 - 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 - Double Fianchetto
In the next 2 chapters, I deal with the lines in which Black opts for a double fianchetto. The main starting position of both chapters arises after 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nf6 5.0-0 0-0 6.d3 b6 7.Qe1 Bb7 8.a4!?
With his last move, White anticipates Black's queenside expansion and invites him to define his plans. In Chapter 15, I analyze the alternatives to the main move 8...c5. It is not so easy to deal with the idea of a4-a5. 8...a5 is positionally undesirable since White has the option of playing Nc3-b5. On the other hand, 8...a6 is well met by 9.b4 followed by Bb2 and even a4-a5, thus taking control of the dark squares. The move 8...Nbd7 which prepares the advance ...e7-e5 can be answered with 9.Nc3 when White is ready to follow with e2-e4. With the knight being on d7, Black cannot kick the knight back by means of ...d5-d4.
In Chapter 16, I examine Black's main move 8...c5.
This is quite a useful half-waiting move, inviting White to define his plans. Since 9.Nc3 runs as earlier into 9...d4, White has to deviate from his initial dreams.
My main line follows 9.Na3 Qc7 10.Bd2
White is planning to play on the queenside. In most of the lines, he goes for a4-a5 followed by b4-b4. As I show in my analysis if Black opts for ...Nbd7, then even c2-c4 is a good idea. My conclusion is that the arising positions are very playable.
Chapters 17 - 23 - Main System
From Chapter 17, I start dealing with Black's main line. We can see the first important tabiya after 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nf6 5.0-0 0-0 6.d3 c5 7.Qe1
The plan based on 7...Qe8 (in the Leningrad Dutch) became popular sometime during the late '70s and the '80s and I believe it remains the most fluent up to today. White immediately threatens e2-e4. At this point, Black usually plays 7...d4 which fits into the spirit of the absolute main line in the Leningrad Dutch 7...Qe8 system. Black prevents White from creating two connected pawns in the centre but at the same time, he opens the long diagonal as well as some other light squares. The alternative 7...Nc6 is examined in Chapters 22 and 23.
After 7...d4, my main line goes 8.Na3 Nc6 9.c4
This is one of the lines when White can really use the extra tempo in order to speed up his plans even more. He is already planning to start playing on the queenside by making thematic moves such as Nc2, Bd2 and b2-b4.
Black has many moves in this position - 9...dxc3, 9...Ng4, 9...e5, 9...Re8, and 9...Rb8. Since each one of these options is very serious, I have decided to cover them in different chapters. I deal with these moves in Chapters 17 - 21. My conclusion is that even though White has difficulties to achieve an objective advantage, the position remains pretty much playable in all the lines. In that regard, the knowledge of the basic pawn structures is essential.
Chapters 22 and 23 deal with the move 7...Nc6.
It is hard to evaluate this move one-sidedly. It is the most natural developing move but on the other hand it allows White to follow with 8.e4. The first critical position arises after 8...dxe4 9.dxe4 e5
Now is the moment to continue the discussion about the merits of Black's 7...Nc6. With reversed colours, a similar position would be entirely satisfactory for Black. But with White, we are bound to wish a bit more than that. The main plot gravitates around Black's ...exf4 and White's fxe5 or f4-f5 and the question remains which is the best move order allowing White to retain chances for some advantage, or at least consistent play?
At this point, I decided to recommend 10.Nc3, keeping the centre under control. Black's most precise move seems to be 10...Re8. This continuation is dealt with in Chapter 23. In Chapter 22, I consider the alternatives - 10...exf4, 10...Nd4, and 10...Be6. I can say that the arising positions are very interesting and rather untested. In my opinion, White has decent chances to fight for an advantage.
Chapters 24 - 25 - Fianchetto Sidelines
In the next two chapters, I consider various sidelines in the Fianchetto System.
After 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nf6 5.0-0 0-0 6.d3, we get to the starting position of Chapters 24 and 25.
In Chapter 24, I analyze Black's attempts to play without ...c7-c5. I deal with the moves 6...Nbd7, 6...b5, and 6...Nc6.
The latter option is by far the most serious one. White should meet it with 7.c3 and answer 7...Re8 by means of 8.Ne5. The arising positions are usually less dynamic and White enjoys a slight positional edge.
Chapter 25 is dedicated to the most serious sideline - 6...c6.
The most popular from the sidelines, obviously inspired by White's 7.c3 in the Leningrad Dutch. Black does not define all his intentions yet, but he could combine ...Nbd7 and ...Re8 with ...Qb6+.
At this point, my recommendation is 7.Qe1. My analysis shows that Black's counterplay along the diagonal a7-g1 is not sufficient for equality.
Chapter 26 - 1.f4 f5
Amusingly, one of the hardest nut to crack. I could not claim that 1.f4 is the best possible move, but 1...f5 surely is one of the best!
My main line goes 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3 d6 6.Nc3 Nc6 7.e4
In this position, I deal with 7...0-0 and 7...e5!. The latter option is really very reliable and it is very difficult to prove an advantage for White. Nevertheless, I managed to find a way to retain some positional pressure. My conclusion is that the arising positions are perfectly playable.
At the end of the database, you will find a test section which includes 20 interactive test positions. You can now try to solve 5 of them.