Tag Archives: Tarrasch Defence

The Tarrasch lives!

This review has been printed in the January 2020 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Bezgodov, Alexey. The Art of the Tarrasch Defence: Strategies, Techniques, and Surprising Ideas. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917685. PB 320pp.

Ehlvest, Jaan. Grandmaster Opening Preparation. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1784830526. PB 272pp.

l’Ami, Erwin. Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation. Online course from chessable.com.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Fight 1. d4 with the Tarrasch!: A Complete Black Repertoire vs. 1.d4. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2019. ISBN 978-1949859072. PB 384pp.

I have long thought that the Tarrasch Defense (1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5) is the Swiss Army knife of chess openings. It forces players to learn how to handle the Isolated Queen’s Pawn, a fundamental structure that appears across multiple opening variations, and it can be reached from a number of move orders, including both 1. c4 and 1. Nf3.

But the Tarrasch is also one of those openings that suffers from the vagaries of taste and fashion. Spassky made it popular when he used it to defeat Petrosian in the 1969 World Championship match, and it was a key part of the young Kasparov’s repertoire in the early 1980s.

It went out of favor after Karpov’s victories of Kasparov in their first World Championship match. Despite Grischuk reviving the 9. …c4 line in the late ‘aughts, and the contemporaneous publication of two books – Aagaard and Ntirils’ Grandmaster Repertoire 10: The Tarrasch Defense (2011), and Sam Collins’ The Tarrasch Defense: Move by Move (2013) – it has been neglected by the world’s elite.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back once more. Magnus Carlsen recently trotted out the Tarrasch at the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz; in doing so, he was perhaps inspired by the games of his former second, Daniil Dubov, who has reinvigorated a dormant line of the Tarrasch – 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. g3 Nf6 7. Bg2 cxd4 8. Nxd4 Bc5 – and made it a key part of his repertoire.

Dubov’s invention is the subject of a new course on Chessable from Erwin L’ami, a Dutch Grandmaster and second to both Topalov and Giri. Over the course of 54 trainable variations in “Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation,” L’ami dissects the Dubov variation, explaining in great detail the nuances of Dubov’s ideas. Here is a brief overview, using a game between Dubov and Hikaru Nakamura as our example.

The “Dubov Variation” [D33]
Hikaru Nakamura
Daniil Dubov
Moscow FIDE GP (2), 20.05.2019

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.g3 e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.cxd5 exd5 6.d4 Nc6 7.Bg2 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5 9.Nb3

A key alternative is 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.0–0 0–0 11.Na4 Bb6 12.Nxb6 axb6 13.Qc2 c5 as in Nakamura,H (2754)-Dubov,D (2700) Paris 2019.


The defining move in Dubov’s approach.


Other ideas:

(a) 10.Nxd5 is met by 10. … Be6 – “development before everything,” says L’ami!

(b) 10.Na4 0–0 11.Nxb6 axb6 12.Be3 h5!? (Mamedyarov,S (2765)-Dubov,D (2700) Riga 2019)

10…d4 11.Na4 0–0 12.Bg5 Re8 13.Nxb6

13.Re1 is “the big test” according to L’ami. After the forcing 13…h6 14.Nxb6 axb6 15.Bxc6 bxc6 16.Bxf6 Qxf6 17.Qxd4 Black has to prove compensation for the pawn. L’ami analyzes out to move 37 in the main line, claiming an equal endgame.

13…axb6 14.e3 d3 15.Bxf6 gxf6


Modern chess at its finest! Black’s pawns are an utter disaster, but his pieces and the d3-passer more than make up for the structural weaknesses. The game was drawn after:

16.a3 Be6 17.Rc1 Rc8 18.Rc3 Ne5 19.Nd4 Rxc3 20.bxc3 Qc7 21.Qd2 Bd7 22.Re1 Rc8 23.Rc1 Qc5 24.f4 Nc4 25.Qxd3 Qxa3 26.Rb1 Nd6 27.Ne2 Bf5 28.e4 ½–½

L’ami does an excellent job of clarifying the nature of Black’s compensation in key positions, and his research is thorough. I could find no major omissions after a few hours of scrutiny with both Stockfish and the latest Fat Fritz.

The course is also perfect for Chessable, which prides itself on its use of spaced repetition in its “MoveTrainer.” Not every book translates well to the platform, but L’ami’s course is relatively short, and the variations are carefully broken down for training purposes. Perhaps the only question about the course is its price.

“Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation” is $12.98 for the trainable analysis, while $42.98 gets you the moves and a two hour video. L’ami’s ChessBase DVD on the Tarrasch costs €29.90 or roughly $33, and unlike the Chessable course, it presents its viewers with a full Tarrasch repertoire (not including the Dubov line). It’s not quite an apples to apples comparison, but buyers are getting less material for more money on Chessable if they choose the video option.

Another option for Tarrasch players looking for complete coverage of the the opening is Vassilos Kotronias’ new title from Russell Enterprises. Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch: A Complete Black Repertoire vs 1.d4 arrived unexpectedly in my mailbox, as Kotronias had announced his “return to pure chess-playing” in the introduction to his fifth and final volume on the King’s Indian in 2017. With this new book, Kotronias continues to meet the standard of excellence found in his Quality Chess titles, and in some ways, he may have exceeded it.

Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch includes a coherent repertoire against the London, neo-Trompowsky, Colle, and Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. The meat of the book is devoted to the Tarrasch proper, with the “new mainline” of 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0–0 0–0 9.Bg5 c4 at its center. (Kotronias discusses the traditional 9. … cxd4 in a three page aside, and there is no coverage of the Dubov line.) The analysis is exhaustive, and while the book sometimes skimps on references to other sources, this is more than made up for by the avalanche of new ideas.

Here’s an example, one relevant to those who might want to play the Dubov variation.

Kotronias on 6. dxc5 [D32]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.dxc5

Though it looks innocuous, this move has proved quite a challenge for Tarrasch players, and L’ami urges his readers to take it seriously. Kotronias introduces (194-221) an important new idea in a critical line.

6…d4 7.Na4 Bxc5 8.Nxc5 Qa5+ 9.Qd2

9.Bd2 is the other move. After 9. … Qxc5 10.Rc1 Qb6 11.e3 Kotronias analyzes two ideas: the “solid option” 11…Nf6!? and the riskier 11…dxe3 12.Bxe3 Qxb2. Black equalizes after the gambit idea 10.b4!? Nxb4 11.Rc1 Qd6.

9…Qxc5 10.a3

Intending b2–b4 and the long fianchetto. 10.e3 is nothing to worry about after 10…dxe3 11.Qxe3+ Qxe3+ 12.Bxe3 Nge7.


A novelty that the engine hates until high depths, but over the course of 10 (!!) pages Kotronias shows that 10. … Nf6 is fully playable. His analysis extends out to a 4 vs 3 same-side rook endgame, and the notes are both deep and didactic, even including a thumbnail sketch of how to draw such an ending.

10…Nge7 was Aagaard & Ntirlis’ suggestion. Kotronias analyzes it too, giving 11.b4 Qb6 as his mainline, but also offering the “evil” idea of 11…Qh5!?.

11.b4 Qe7!

Kotronias shows that Black can sacrifice the pawn with 12.Nxd4 (12.b5 Ne4!) 12…Nxd4 13.Qxd4 0–0 with analysis going to the 38th move.

I was stunned by the depth and density of Kotronias’ book. The influence of the engine is obvious, but compared to the King’s Indian books, this one was ‘chattier,’ filled with interesting positional asides and insights into his thought processes. Readers will learn about chess while learning the Tarrasch, and not every book can claim that.

The only drawback to Kotronias’ book is the layout. It uses an old-style ‘nested variation’ model of presentation, a difficulty exacerbated by the depth of analysis, and there are no indications in page headers or footers as to chapter or variation. I found myself continually having to refer to the table of contents to orient myself, and too often I was flipping pages trying to find specific lines on crammed pages. Were this a Quality Chess publication, I suspect that what is one volume here would have been at least two.

Design problems notwithstanding, Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch! is an impressive, encyclopedic work, and it should now be seen as the definitive work on the Tarrasch. It is perhaps best suited for advanced players and those already familiar with the opening, given its density and ‘no holds barred’ approach to analysis.

For those looking for an introduction to the Tarrasch, or for analysis of the traditional 9. … cxd4 lines, there is Alexey Bezgodov’s 2017 The Art of the Tarrasch Defence: Strategies, Techniques, and Surprising Ideas. Bezgodov presents a Tarrasch repertoire using a complete game format, and his notes are clear and to the point. He also includes two interesting sections worth mentioning.

In the first, “Four ‘bad’ lines that are actually good,” Bezgodov tries to rehabilitate a number of Tarrasch lines that history has deemed substandard, including the “Keres System,” or the Dubov variation mentioned above. While he does not anticipate Dubov’s key 9. … Bb6 idea, he does confirm the viability of the general approach in other lines.

Bezgodov also gives the “Giants of the Tarrasch Defense” their own section, using the games of Keres, Spassky, Gligoric, and Kasparov to show the historical progression of the opening. Importantly he shows how these players approached the Tarrasch with both colors, something overlooked in many such studies.

A final word on another book that treats the Tarrasch from a historical perspective: Jaan Ehlvest’s Grandmaster Opening Preparation (2018) is an absolutely fascinating work that tries to merge the insights of pre-computer Soviet training with those derived from our metal friends. While Ehlvest’s concern is to show how to approach the creation and maintenance of opening repertoires in general, the Tarrasch and IQP are key examples, with over 100 pages devoted to showing how ideas in the IQP grew and transformed. Despite an unfortunate aside about “women’s openings,” it’s a worthwhile read, especially for strong players interested in meta-opening considerations.

The Tarrasch Defence: A Grandmaster Repertoire Indeed

Aagaard, Jacob, and Ntirlis, Nikolaos. Grandmaster Repertoire 10: The Tarrasch Defence. Glasgow: Quality Chess Europe, 2011.   ISBN 978-1906552916.  PB $34.95.

Jacob Aagaard and Nikos Ntirlis’ book on the Tarrasch Defense (hereafter GM10) was among the more lauded chess titles published in 2011, and it certainly – in certain circles, at least – was among the most hyped.  Does it live up to all that praise?  Having worked through the book, and with the advantage of some critical distance, my answer is a VERY qualified yes.

Aagaard’s publishing house, Quality Chess, consistently turns out some of the most compelling books in modern chess.  They seem to have cultivated a cult following on the Internet, in no small part due to their accessibility and engagement with both fans and foes.  Aagaard is omnipresent on the Quality Chess Blog, where he exhibits nearly infinite patience in answering the most banal of questions and comments.  Ntirlis, for his part, is more active on the ChessPub forum, where he posts as “Ametanoitos.”

It was, in fact, on the Chesspub forum that the birthpangs of GM10 were first heard.  Ntirlis announced, in perhaps the longest thread in Chesspub history, that he was working on a book on the Tarrasch that would ‘update’ Aagaard and Lund’s 2002 Meeting 1.d4 and be published in Greek.  In February 2011 – beyond this, we are not privy to the details – Ntirlis and Aagaard joined forces, with GM10 as the result.

The heart of the GM10 repertoire is the following variation:

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0–0 0–0 9.Bg5 c4!

This is a departure from the recommendation of Meeting 1.d4, which focuses on the ‘traditional’ mainline of the Rubinstein variation (9…cxd4 10.Nxd4 h6 11.Be3 etc), and it is a slightly surprising one.  Besides its being a nearly universal response to any non-1.e4 opening, playing the Tarrasch as Black has the great virtue of teaching you to play with the isolated queen’s pawn.  But Aagaard and Ntirlis believe that “Black will always struggle in the Tarrasch Defence if he left with an isolated d-pawn and White has control over the d4-square” (13), leaving 9…c4 as the best alternative.  I will return to this claim shortly; for now, however, it’s enough to note that the bulk of the Introduction to GM10 sketches the rationale for abandoning 9…cxd4 as well as the historical progression of the theory of 9…c4.

The first eight chapters of the book are devoted to an exhaustive analysis of 9…c4.  Aagaard and Ntirlis propose, so as to avoid Schandorff’s line from Playing the Queen’s Gambit, to include …h6 in a number of variations.  Certainly the most critical of these is the following:

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0–0 0–0 9.Bg5 c4! 10.Ne5 Be6 11.b3 h6! 12.Bxf6 Bxf6 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.bxc4 dxc4 15.e3 Qa5


and now either 16.Ne4 (part of ch 6), 16.Rc1 (ch 7) or 16.Qc2 (ch 8).  Taken together, the analysis of these three moves takes up approximately 35 pages of GM10; most notably, after 16.Qc2 Aagaard and Ntirlis believe that the sacrifice of the exchange after 16…c5 leads to “comfortable equality.”  The analysis here is, quite frankly, stupefying, with some variations extending out past move 30.

White can deviate, as Avrukh recommends in the first of his 1.d4 books (Grandmaster Repertoire 1, hereafter GM1), with 9.dxc5.  Aagaard and Ntirlis weave a path for Black to equality in chapters 9 through 13, arguing that in both the ‘Reti Variation’ (10.Na4) and the ‘Timman Variation’ (10.Bg5) Black has every hope to stand equal.  The analysis of 10.Bg5 is particularly good, as the Black player is offered three quality responses (12…Qf5; 12…Qd8 13.Nd2 a6!? or 13…Re8) to Timman’s brainchild.

The remainder of the book takes up all the remaining tries against the Tarrasch.  This is no small task, especially given that Aagaard and Ntirlis only leave themselves about a third of the book to do so.  Of particular interest is the discovery of 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.dxc5! as a major theoretical weapon.  Aagaard and Ntirlis are, to my knowledge, the first to have published any real analysis on the move.  (ChessPub readers, of course, knew about this line much earlier than did the general public.)

That GM10 tries to fit everything except 9…c4 and 9.dxc5 into roughly 122 pages is understandable; the book, after all, appears in a series called “Grandmaster Repertoire,” and stronger players tend to play the main lines.  Here, however, we begin to see part of what frustrates the amateur about GM10.  I’ve been playing the Tarrasch for about a year and a half now, both on the Internet and over the board, and I’d estimate that at least half of my games involve White playing an early e2-e3, taking the game into the Symmetrical Tarrasch.  GM10 devotes 11 pages to this variation in chapter 20, and another 6 to it in chapter 16.  It would have been useful for the non-master to have more expansive analysis of these lines.

More specifically, I would like to have seen coverage of the following: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.e3 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nc6


when White can play 6.a3, 6.Bd3, 6.cxd5 or 6.dxc5.  This position is quite common in my games with the Tarrasch.  Unless I am mistaken, I don’t see any analysis of this specific tabiya in GM10.  Because Aagaard’s earlier book on the Tarrasch was equally lacking in this regard, I had to turn to Harald Keilhack’s Die Tarrasch-Verteidigung to fill out my repertoire.

We might approach the same complaint by looking at the mass of analysis accompanying 9…c4 and, in particular, the variations following 10.Ne5 Be6 11.b3 h6.  Aagaard and Ntirlis obviously poured immense time and effort into their analysis, finding tricky solutions to difficult problems again and again.  The detail in chapters 6-8 is absolutely staggering, but I can’t help but wonder: what good is all this analysis if, as John Watson notes in A Strategic Chess Opening Repertoire for White, the Black player has to memorize reams of analysis involving at least two paradoxical only-moves just to land in a position that is equal at best? (See chapter 3 of SCORW and pp.33-4 specifically for more.)  I can’t see how it can be practical for the amateur OTB player to commit all those moves to memory and end up with a difficult position for his or her trouble.

Players who defend the Tarrasch do so knowing that they will often have to defend the IQP.  Presumably they will have spent some time learning how to play such positions, investigating the key ideas, etc.  Why, then, do Aagaard and Ntirlis abandon the 9…cxd4 lines, which leave Black with the familiar IQP, and instead take up the theoretically demanding 9…c4?

Part of the answer is given in the Introduction.  We are told that the 9…cxd4 lines are in dire straits, particularly after the following:

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0–0 0–0 9.Bg5 cxd4 10.Nxd4 h6 11.Be3 Re8 12.Rc1 Bf8 13.Na4!?


and after 13…Bd7 14.Nc5 Bxc5 15.Rxc5 Qe7 16.Nxc6 bxc6 (Wenzel-Markevich, 2011) White improves with 17.Rc2 Ne4 18.Qd4 a5 19.Rfc1 and is said to stand better.

This variation is far from forced.  Beyond the 13th move alternatives for Black (13…Ne5, 13…Nxd4, and 13…Ng4) there are also options both earlier and later.  Black can try Spassky’s old 12…Bg4, and 15…Qb6 seems at least plausible.  It’s not clear to me, in other words, that Black need suffer in this variation at all.

Had Aagaard and Ntirlis used all of the available literature, they might have avoided this conclusion.  Keilhack recommends 13.Na4 Ne5 in Die Tarrasch-Verteidigung, and while he might have given more moves to back it up, it seems at least a reasonable alternative.  I can only find one reference to Keilhack’s book in all of GM10, and Aagaard and Ntirlis would have done well to have cited it more.  The discussion of the Symmetrical Tarrasch in Keilhack, for instance, is comprehensive and accurate.  We find another place where Keilhack might have been useful in chapter 10 of GM10, devoted to the ‘Reti Variation:’

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0–0 0–0 9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.Na4 Be7 11.Be3 Bg4 12.Rc1


where GM10 only analyzes 12…Re8.  Keilhack offers both 12…Rc8 and 12…Qd7, with the former serving as at least an equally valid response to 12.Rc1.

It turns out, by the way, that Avrukh is equally negligent in utilizing all available sources, since he mishandled the same position in GM1 – which was also published by Quality Chess.  The aforementioned John Watson points this out in his review of Avrukh’s GM1; one thinks that Aagaard, the publisher of GM1, should have noted this analysis, especially given the history between the two men.

GM10 is, quite obviously, a work that is deeply indebted to computer analysis.  This can be both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, readers of GM10 can sleep well knowing that all of the analysis is ‘correct,’ so far as it goes.  Every chess book will naturally be subject to refinements as time goes on, and no book can cover every possible variation.  GM10 is no different.  Still, the voluminous analysis in GM10 is checked and double-checked by our metal friends, and some of the key moves that save the 9…c4 lines (particularly 16…c5 in chapter 8) were computer discoveries.  I checked the position with a particularly fast incarnation of Houdini 3 from the Chessbase Engine Cloud, and at a depth of 30 ply, Houdini still favors the offer of the exchange.  Amazing – and on a number of levels.

‘Correct’ doesn’t always mean most playable for carbon-based lifeforms.  Positions that are well within the bounds of drawability for the computer are practically lost for humans, and what is objectively equal can still be difficult for the human to play.

Let’s assume that I memorize all of the analysis in chapter 7 – 9…c4 10.Ne5 Be6 11.b3 h6 12.Bxf6 Bxf6 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.bxc4 dxc4 15.e3 Qa5 16.Rc1 – and get to use all of that analysis over the board, including the two key moves 21…Rc7 and 22…g5.  What do I get for my trouble – not to mention my good fortune in finding an accommodating opponent?


With White to move, the computer thinks this is equal.  If I’m playing White against a fellow chess mortal, however, I’m happy to squeeze in this position for hours.  The practical play just doesn’t match the computer evaluation.

It seems to me that most readers would have been better served by a repertoire based around 9.Bg5 cxd4.  I don’t think that White gets any more advantage in these lines than he does after 9…c4; more importantly, however, the key ideas behind the moves are much more understandable in the …cxd4 variations.  Computers can just grind away and find good moves via brute force.  Humans, as I relearn with every tournament game, simply can’t.  If a Tarrasch player has already learned something about basic IQP play, why not maximize that knowledge and give them positions that make use of it?

(As an aside: I am somewhat perplexed by Arne Moll’s review of GM10, where he ends up praising Aagaard and Ntirlis for their skill in elucidiating the ideas behind the positions:

Jacob Aagaard and Nikolaos Ntirlis invite their readers to think about these positions for themselves, rather than to just memorize what they prescribe. Would you mind playing this position as Black? If you don’t, then you’ve got what it takes to become a real Tarrasch player – not scared of isolated pawns, bishops or your engine indicating +0.41.

Really?  If anything, the analysis in chapters 6-8 would seem to prove the absolute necessity of memorization.  I recognize that Aagaard and Ntirlis take the time to explain the logic behind some of the more esoteric only-moves, but this does not come close to obviating the need for extensive memory work.  Anyone who tried to play the recommendations in these chapters without memorization risks being blown off the board.)

In the end, I think GM10 suffers from a malady that is all-too-common in Quality Chess books: at some point, the analysis just becomes overwhelming.  (Future reviews, I’m sure, will return to this claim, and I’m ready to defend it.)  There’s a fine line between comprehensive coverage and ‘long analysis, wrong analysis,’ and the variations in GM10 shade over to the long side too often for my taste.  I’ve tried to argue above that part of the root of the problem comes from the choice of repertoire variation, but given the systemic nature of the issue at this publisher, the problem might well be editorial.

Now, there are those who will argue that I’m being silly.  Shouldn’t I want a deep, bulletproof repertoire?  Shouldn’t I be glad for analysis that extends deep into the middlegame, giving Black equality out to move 30?  It depends.  If I’m playing correspondence chess or as a centaur on Playchess, maybe.  The OTB player, however, cannot refer to books or engines during the game.  All I have is my limited guile and ever-failing memory.  I suspect I’d be better served by a book that trades some analytical depth for explanation of key ideas and themes.

Conclusion: GM10 is highly recommended for very strong players who face the main lines in the Tarrasch often, and for those with the time and willpower to do a lot of memory work.  It can be recommended to those above 1600 as a reference work, but given (1) its lapses in coverage of lines that amateurs play, and (2) its reliance on the memorization of a number of counterintuitive only-moves, it is an ill-fit for serving as the basis for an amateur’s repertoire.  Meeting 1.d4 would be more useful for this purpose, and GM10 might be a good, if non-essential, supplement to that book.  More advanced players should absolutely reference Keilhack if they can find a copy.