Play the Spanish Four Knights
by GM Martin Lorenzini and GM Salvador Alonso
Preview by GM Martin Lorenzini
The Spanish Four Knights opening is almost two hundred years old, and it belongs to the classical chess era. Its positional principles are a simple and direct development of pieces, without further sophistication. Currently, it's very difficult for White to get an advantage in the Berlin Defense or in the Marshall attack in Ruy Lopez. The enormous amount of theory in the Italian Game has become indigestible. Then, an important dilemma arises for the 1.e4 player, what to play against 1.e4 e5? It's here where the Spanish Four Knights re-emerge with impetus, although over the years, people never stopped playing it, and now there are many grandmasters who are incorporating it into their repertoire, for example, players like Carlsen, Anand, Nepomniachtchi, Caruana, Grischuk, Yu Yangyi, to mention just a few names. The advantages are fresher positions, where theory does not carry as considerable weight. These positions tend to be strategically sound, with much in common with the aforementioned openings. White aspires to achieve a slight advantage with the potential to increase it in the middlegame.
In this work, we present the most promising lines for White, in our opinion, and with the greatest possible objectivity.
This huge database includes 17 theoretical chapters, 8 model examples (covering different pawn structures), 20 interactive test positions, and a Memory Booster.
The first important position arises after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3
It goes without saying that Black's main move here is 3...Nf6. The move 3...g6 is an old idea that was occasionally used by the former world champion Tigran Petrosian. Black uses this system often when is playing for a win. Sharp positions are reached where White is usually a little better. It's presented in Chapter 1.
The continuation 3...Bc5 is somewhat hasty, and after 4.Nxe5 Nxe5 5.d4 White immediately recovers the sacrificed piece and can develop a comfortable initiative. It can be found in Chapter 2.
After 3...Nf6, White plays 4.Bb5 which marks the beginning of the Spanish Four Knights.
In my opinion, Black's most precise option is 4...Nd4, which is the so-called Rubinstein System. This is probably the hardest system White has to face. More than a hundred years have passed since its creator used it systematically, and today it's more valid than ever.
The move 4...d6 s a transposition to the Steinitz Variation within the Spanish opening. It was played a lot in the classical era of chess, and Black obtains a very solid but passive position. It can be found in Chapter 3.
Black can also play 4...Bc5. This typical bishop development is one of the less popular options to face the Spanish Four Knights. This situation is not entirely justified since the line is very playable for Black.
White should play 5.0-0 0-0 6.Nxe5!? This capture is the most interesting attempt to aspire to achieve an advantage in the opening (The alternative is 6.d3 and it doesn't cause problems for Black as demonstrated in Chapter 4). 6...Nxe5 7.d4 Bd6 8.f4!
With an unbalanced position of a sharp character, in which White isn't going to rush to recover the sacrificed piece. It's studied in Chapter 5.
The database continues with 4...Bd6.
This curious move is one of the most popular responses by Black to face off against The Spanish Four Knights nowadays. Black over-defends the e5-pawn in order to the castle. Later, they will move their dark-squared bishop to c5 or f8 to complete the development of the queenside. Frequently, the game will resemble a middlegame from an Italian game or a Spanish opening. It's analyzed in Chapter 6.
The symmetrical line arising after 4...Bb4 has been for years the main choice for Black to face the Spanish Four Knights.
It's a solid line that leads to rich positions, with a great variety of different types of centers. White must be well prepared against this and must choose between two different approaches to play.
My main line goes 5.0-0 0-0 6.d3 d6 7.Bg5
The other possible choice is 7.Ne2 when White takes his knight to g3 and will play c2-c3 later, reaching typical middlegames of an Italian game or Spanish opening. The analysis can be found in Chapter 7.
Black's main move on the diagram position is 7...Bxc3. A dynamic scheme is the modern 7...Ne7 when Black allows the deterioration of his own pawn structure by seeking to activate the pieces. Within the Symmetrical Line, this is one of the best options and currently has an excellent reputation. Being very difficult to get a real advantage, in Chapter 10, combative ways are shown to oppose it.
After 7...Bxc3 8.bxc3 we reach an important tabiya.
In my opinion, Black's most precise choice is 8...h6, forcing White to clarify the position of the bishop.
Another very important direction is 8...Qe7 when Black clears the d8-square with the idea of performing the maneuver Nc6-d8-e6 from where the knight will have more central control. This line is dealt with in Chapter 9.
In response to 8...h6, White should play 9.Bh4.
With the white bishop on h4, the positions have independent traits in comparison to other lines. The position is very solid, it's of a strategic nature, and White usually obtains a slight advantage that they aspire to enlarge. This line takes place in Chapter 8.
Let's get back to the Rubinstein Variation arising after 4...Nd4. My suggestion is 5.Bc4.
Currently, this is a fashionable move. For a long time, the main line was 5.Ba4, but in recent years, White had trouble getting any kind of advantage.
An option that has been gaining popularity is 5.0-0. Although we believe that 5.Bc4 is stronger, it's always convenient to have different options in the repertoire in order to be able to surprise your opponents. Fighting positions are reached and on many occasions, there are similarities with the Philidor Defense. This is discussed in depth in Chapters 15-17.
In the position on the diagram, Black's most precise reaction seems to be 5...Bc5.
Black can also play 5...d6, which is solid but passive choice by Black. The middlegames are again of the same type as the Italian Game or Spanish opening. White has an annoying slight advantage that is not easy to neutralize. Despite this, it's common for players which play with the Black pieces to use it to try to avoid theoretical debates. It's found in Chapter 13.
Another interesting position arises after 5...Nxf3 6.gxf3!?.
White gets nothing with 6.Qxf3, and is forced to capture with a pawn if White wants to aspire to gain an advantage or fighting positions. The game heads to positions that are rich in tactical and dynamic content, with this being one of the most attractive lines. Black hardly uses it since they must have precise knowledge in order not to fall into an inferior position. It's studied in Chapter 14.
After 5...Bc5, the main line goes 6.Nxe5! Qe7 7.Nf3 d5 8.Nxd5 Qxe4 9.Ne3
One of the main positions today within the Rubinstein Variation. Black has sacrificed a pawn for a quick piece development and activity, while White's task is to gradually neutralize this activity while completing the development of the pieces. White can look forward to getting a slight advantage without any risk. The development of this line is presented in Chapter 11.