Playing the Alekhine Defense tells your opponent you aren’t willing to settle for a draw with Black.
No matter what many chess players think about its soundness, after almost a century of attempts to refute this opening, every one of them has failed!
This chess opening will appeal to people who like to challenge convention and won’t back down from the naysayers.
In response to 1.e4, the move 1…Nf6 introduces the Alekhine Defense.
This response lets your opponent know you aren’t a timid soul and he is in for a battle. The theory might give a slight edge to White but chess is won on the chessboard, not in chess books.
What The Alekhine Defense Offers
If you take on the challenge of playing the Alekhine Defense your courage will get rewarded with interesting, unbalanced positions in the middlegame.
Positions where you have every chance to play for a win with Black.
A lot of people will attempt to warn you the Alekhine Defense isn’t sound but it’s still being played today and by the current world champion Magnus Carlsen no less.
When you play the invigorating Alekhine Defense you are making a commitment to play actively or else the central control and space advantage White enjoys will almost certainly guarantee your defeat.
The idea of allowing White to set up a large center is to give you something to attack. You can’t launch a successful act with timid or quiet moves.
You get the opportunity to play vigorously with Black when you choose the Alekhine Defense.
Saving the best for last, it’s good to know that in choosing this defense, you will never face the mind-numbing boredom so prevalent in the exchange variation of many a chess opening.
That alone is reason enough to play 1…Nf6!
The Main Variations of the Alekhine Defense
By far the best approach for White is to accept the challenge Black has provided and play 2.e5. However, some of your opponents will choose a more timid approach with 2.Nc3 or 2.d3.
No doubt these are the players who are likely to favor playing the exchange variation against the French or Slav Defenses. Well done on winning the psychological battle on move 1!
After the moves 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5, you will face four main variations
- The Four Pawns Attack – an attempt by White to use the shelter of his pawns to deploy his pieces for an attack.
- Exchange Variation – White is content to settle for more modest gains in this variation and not provide Black with a large center to attack.
- Chase Variation – often employed by players who want to test your knowledge of tactics in the Alekhine Defense.
- The Modern or Classical Variation – the most dangerous option at White’s disposal and the reason why we have included two ways to play against it.
This guide will help you navigate safely through the treacherous waters of all four variations.
Sidelines by White in the Alekhine Defense Are Anything but Challenging
If White refuses to take up the challenge by playing 2.e5, simple development will be sufficient to safely navigate these calmer choices by White.
The most noteworthy sideline is 2.Nc3 when you could continue with 2…e5. However, if you wish to create an unbalanced position you can play 2…d5.
After 3.e5 Nfd7 we enter into the Alekhine Defense Scandinavian Variation. The statistics for this opening show Black is doing extremely well no matter how White proceeds from here.
The Alekhine Defense Four Pawns Attack
In this variation White wastes no time accepting the challenge Black has laid down. After the moves 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.f4 dxe5 6.fxe5 Black has the sharp 6…c5 or 6…Nc6.
White has thrown as many pawns into the attack as he possibly can while keeping them mobile.
When you establish a large pawn center it’s imperative to keep it mobile. A large, stationary target is just begging to be attacked.
This mobile center has also been achieved without giving Black a lead in development.
In the majority of cases, White plans on using the pawns as a shield while he positions his pieces behind them for an attack.
Strategies For Black In The Four Pawns Attack
The key counter strike for black is often …c5 after exchanging on e5 with …dxe5.
However, sometimes Black develops with …Nc6 when it’s essential to keep control of the d5-square. One of the ideas behind …Nc6 is to force White to defend the d4 pawn with a bishop, denying him some flexibility.
The knight on c6 often moves to b4 to allow …c5. …Nb4 serves a dual purpose because it helps control the d5 square.
Note the natural Nf3 to defend the d4 pawn allows the pin with …Bg4.
Another thematic strategy to keep in mind is to attack the pawn center with …f6. This creates a weakness on e6 but after …Bxf6 there is pressure on d4.
Striking Back With 6…c5
The move 6….c5 is the more provocative choice and invites White to gain more space with 7.d5.
Here is a game that demonstrates how this exciting line can unfold.
The Calmer 6…Nc6
The developing move 6…Nc6 blocks the c-pawn for the moment but …Nb4 will free up this pawn while adding to Black’s control of the d5 square.
After 7.Be3 defending d4 Black must continue with his plan to activate his pieces as quickly as possible. This makes the most logical continuation 7…Bf5.
There follows 8.Nc3 e6 9.Nf3 Bg4 (…Be7 is an alternative worthy of more attention).
In the following game, Peter Svidler defeats Alexander Grischuk in a tough battle full of tactical blows and far advanced pawns. A very good example of the double-edged nature of the Alekhine Defense.
There is no lack of excitement in the Four Pawns Attack.
There’s no doubt Black must respect the attacking potential of the Four Pawns Attack. Whether you play 6…c5 or 6…Nc6 depends entirely on your playing style.
After you’ve made your choice, invest a little time playing through games to get an idea of the middlegame strategies by both sides.
When playing the Alekhine Defense you want to be well-prepared with a thorough understanding of the tactics and strategy.
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The Alekhine Defense Exchange Variation
The following moves bring us to the starting position of the Exchange Variation – 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.exd6
Since Black often attacks any e5 outpost White establishes, White logically decides to deny Black this target. In return, White agrees to be content with a space advantage, easy development, and centralization.
Black can recapture with either pawn but choosing the asymmetrical …cxd6 leads to sharper play.
As in the Four Pawns Attack, a little study focused on understanding what each side is up to will see you safely through to a balanced middlegame.
The Asymmetrical 5…cxd6
Things to keep in mind when playing 5…cxd6 are
- White can give Black little to attack by developing with Nc3, Be3, Rc1, and b3. You will need to play a patient, more positional game against this set-up.
- It will also take Black an extra tempo to develop the dark-square bishop on g7.
Take a look at how GM Hikaru Nakamura plays against the Exchange Variation.
White sometimes responds to …cxd6 by pushing the d-pawn. Here is a model game to show you how to play against this attempt to seize more space.
The More Positional 5…exd6
There will be days when you want to play a calmer, more positional game.
Because the choice between 5…cxd6 and 5…exd6 is more a matter of choice here is a model game and a couple of things to keep in mind.
When capturing with 5…exd6 Black must accept
- there are fewer chances for attacks as the positions tend to be quite solid.
- His light square bishop is best kept on c8 until it can be safely developed without becoming a target for White to harass.
The Alekhine Defense Chase Variation
Most of your opponents who choose the Chase Variation do so for the tactical opportunities it provides and not because theory favors White.
1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.c4 Nb6 4.c5 Nd5
The two advanced pawns will get exchanged or sacrificed by White in the hope of gaining the initiative on the kingside. White’s play has been consistent and will continue similarly only with a piece instead of a pawn.
White will either attack the knight with 5.Nc3 or 5.Bc4.
After 5.Nc3 Black should branch out into lesser-known territory with 5…c6. Statistically, this move is as good as the more common 5…e6 and is more likely to come as a surprise.
Let’s follow the advice of Mikhail Tal – “You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.”
So we spurn the well-trodden path of 5…e6 and follow in the footsteps of Jose Luis Fernando Garcia.
Here is one of his games to show you the richness of the Alekhine Defense.
The Mainline 6.Nc3
In response to 5.Bc4, we defend the knight once again with …c6. This is the best way to play for a win with Black.
Black’s position remains solid and he will often manage to get a pawn majority in the center.
Following the moves 5.Bc4 c6 the main continuation is 6.Nc3 when a simple strategy for black is 6…Nxc3 7.dxc3 d5 8.cxd6 exd6 9.Nf3 d5 10.Bd3.
Take a look at this well-played game by Stefan Schmidt which serves as a reminder of how important it is to study your endgames.
Playing a double-edged opening like the Alekhine Defense means being an all-around good player, something every chess player should strive to become.
There is little to fear from the Chase Variation. The theoretical burden required to reach an entirely playable position for Black is not a heavy one.
That is why it’s hardly surprising the most popular choice by White is the Classical or Modern Variation and, as you are about to learn, Black can hold his own here too.
The Alekhine Defense Modern or Classical Variation
Today the approach used most often by white to deal with the counter-attacking Alekhine Defense is 4.Nf3. White refuses to help Black by providing a target and continues with a natural developing move instead.
It’s no surprise the most dangerous option available to White is also the most principled variation. A sound developing move is often a good option.
Because of the popularity this variation has today in this section, you get a choice of the older traditional line – 4…Bg4, or a modern approach – 4…g6.
You could choose to learn both and use one as a surprise weapon.
The Traditional 4…Bg4
When playing an opening it’s important to be aware of your plans when selecting your moves.
Knowing why you are playing a move, in any phase of a chess games, is as critical as knowing the order of the moves. In most openings understanding the reason for the move is more important.
Since Black usually directs his play against the e5-pawn and his light-squared bishop can’t attack e5, it makes sense to exchange it for a defender of e5.
Another benefit to playing 4…Bg4 is you won’t get stuck with a bad bishop on c8.
Now it’s time to see how this thinking plays out at the board.
1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Be2 e6.
In this instance …e6 is in keeping with the reason behind choosing 4….Bg4. Also, White often captures on d6, and the recapture …cxd6 gives Black another central pawn.
Playing principled chess is a good way to create a good position with simple moves and without the need to learn sharp theoretical lines.
The biggest decision facing White is to decide between keeping his e5 bridgehead or exchanging on d6 and inducing an asymmetrical pawn structure.
If White puts the question to the bishop with h3 it’s best to respond with …Bh5. The knight is unlikely to move so it’s best to maintain the tension for as long as possible.
Retreating the bishop to h5 also keeps the bishop on e2.
Play might continue 6.h3 Bh5 7.c4 Nb6 8.exd6 cxd6 9.Nc3 Be7 10.Be3 d5
Here is a wonderful game played by the attack-minded chess prodigy Richard Rapport:
The Lev Alburt Variation (4…g6)
GM Lev Alburt did the most to make 4…g6 a playable line and in honor of his efforts the variation is named after him.
The mainline of the variation leads to an exchange of queen’s but the position is deceptive in its simplicity. There is a lot of play in the position despite how it appears.
1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 g6 5.Bc4 Nb6 6.Bb3 Bg7 7.Ng5 e6 8.Qf3 Qe7 9.Ne4 dxe5 10.Bg5 Qb4+ 11.c3 Qa5 12.Bf6 Bxf6 13.Qxf6 O-O 14.Qxe5 Qxe5 15. dxe5
To safely navigate the opening you need to be mindful to defend against White’s threats. Remember, an early attack when White isn’t fully developed is unlikely to be successful.
Once again the focus of Black’s strategy is to put pressure on the e5 pawn. Allowing White to reinforce this bridgehead will turn the bishop on g7 into a very bad piece for a long time.
A single bad piece, like one bad apple, can spoil the bunch.
Here is a game between Kovalev, VI – Bortnyk, Olexandr, 0-1, 2016 that shows how exciting the game can become.
White can choose to deviate with either 7.Qe2 or 7. O-O.
No matter which move White chooses, Black usually continues similarly.
Take a look at the following model game of black’s play.
Final Words On The Alekhine Defense
After careful examination of the Alekhine Defense it’s clear to see there is no theoretical justification to label this dynamic defense as unsound.
The Alekhine Defense has withstood almost one hundred years of attempts to refute it.
The most striking fact is that all these attempts are aimed at an opening named after a world champion held in very high regard by almost every chess player. Would such a great player give his name to an opening if it weren’t sound?
Simple logic would lead you to conclude he wouldn’t which means there’s every reason to take up this unusual, spirited, counter-attacking defense.
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Computers may have revealed that many of Tal’s sacrifices were unsound but they haven’t done the same for the provocative Alekhine Defense.
Not only can you play this defense with as much confidence in your opening as any other chess player has in their opening but the chances are you will have lots more fun than them to boot!