The Benoni Defense is a family of chess openings that present an interesting and unorthodox response to the queen’s pawn opening.
What they all have in common is black’s use of c5.
We look to shed better insight on this under-explored defense, going through the specifics of move order, theory, strategy, and purpose, different variations, its history, its suitability for beginners and intermediates, and its frequency of usage at the grandmaster level.
Move Order of the Benoni Defense
The Benoni Defense starts with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5.
Here, White seeks to control the center with their pawn on d4 and c4, while Black counters by challenging the central d4 pawn with 2…c5.
After 3.d5, Black typically commits to a strategy of counter-attacking play, relying on piece activity rather than solid pawn structure.
Old Benoni Defense
The Old Benoni Defense starts with the moves 1. d4 c5.
Theory, Strategy, and Purpose of the Benoni Defense
The theory behind the Old Benoni Defense revolves around giving White the control of the center initially, and then undermining it with accurate piece play and timely pawn breaks.
Black generally aims to create imbalanced positions that can lead to complex middlegame situations.
The strategy for Black in this defense is to counter-attack instead of establishing a strong pawn center.
The purpose of the Old Benoni Defense is to surprise the opponent, steer the game into less known territories, and generate dynamic counterplay.
Variations of the Benoni Defense
The Benoni Defense has several interesting variations, each offering different tactical and strategic opportunities.
One of the main ones is the Czech Benoni, also known as the Hromodka System, characterized by the move 3…e5, leading to a closed, maneuvering game.
Other options include the Schmid Benoni and the Snake Benoni, both of which offer a rich variety of middlegame plans for both sides.
Let’s look at some other variations of the Benoni Defense
Old Benoni: 1.d4 c5
The Old Benoni opening starts with the moves 1.d4 c5.
Unlike the Modern Benoni, Black immediately attacks the center without first developing a knight to f6.
The strategy behind this opening is to disrupt White’s central control from the get-go.
It aims to challenge White’s traditional approach to occupying the center, leading to potentially dynamic and unusual positions.
Its purpose is to take the game into less familiar territory, potentially causing an opponent to fall out of their comfort zone.
Czech Benoni: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e5
In the Czech Benoni, Black deliberately allows White to establish a broad pawn center with pawns on d5 and e4.
After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e5, the game typically leads to a closed, strategic battle where pawn structure and piece placement are of utmost importance.
The purpose of this opening is to create a solid, though somewhat passive, structure where Black can aim for long-term counterplay based on tactical opportunities in the middlegame.
Benko Gambit: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5
The Benko Gambit begins with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5.
In this variation, Black offers a pawn sacrifice early on to open lines on the queenside.
The objective is to create counterplay against White’s position, particularly targeting the a and b files.
The strategy is not so much about material, but about gaining active piece play and creating potential weaknesses in White’s position.
Blumenfeld Countergambit: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nf3 b5
The Blumenfeld Countergambit is a variant of the Modern Benoni and starts with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nf3 b5.
Black’s idea here is to challenge White’s control of the center by undermining the d5 pawn, at the expense of offering a pawn sacrifice.
The purpose is to gain quick development and control of the center, leading to aggressive attacking chances in the middlegame.
Snake Benoni: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 Bd6
The Snake Benoni begins with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 Bd6.
Here, Black adopts an unusual setup, allowing White to advance in the center while Black positions the bishop on d6.
The strategy behind this line is to create an unconventional position that can lead to unexpected tactics and strategies.
The purpose is to steer the game away from well-trodden paths, potentially making an opponent uncomfortable with the unfamiliar structure.
Old Benoni Transposition to Spielmann-Indian Variation
The Old Benoni Defense can transpose to the Spielmann-Indian Variation of the Indian game via the line:
1. d4 c5 2. d5 e6 3. Nc3 d6 4. e4 Nf6 5. Nf3
White can proceed by checking the black king, which black will generally respond to by blocking with the light-squared bishop.
This variation has seen a tick up in popularity in recent years due to its general support by modern chess engines.
Variations of the Benoni Defense: ECO Codes – A43 to A79
Let’s look at the variations of the Benoni Defense as its featured in terms of classic ECO codes.
Old Benoni Defense
A43 1.d4 c5
The A43 line of the Old Benoni Defense starts with 1.d4 c5.
The strategy is for Black to immediately contest the center, aiming to disrupt the typical queen’s pawn opening setup of 1.d4 and 2.c4 by White.
Black’s purpose is to challenge White’s control of the center from the outset, steering the game into less explored territory and potentially causing the opponent to move out of their book knowledge earlier.
A44 1.d4 c5 2.d5 e5
In the A44 line, Black opts to maintain the tension in the center and aims to erect a pawn chain with 2…e5.
This creates a more closed game where pawn structure and maneuvering become vital.
The purpose of this move order is to challenge White’s broad pawn center while establishing a solid, albeit somewhat passive, structure that allows for tactical counterplay in the middlegame.
A56 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 (includes Czech Benoni)
In the A56 line, which includes the Czech Benoni, Black combines the ideas of the Indian Games (1…Nf6) and the Old Benoni (1…c5).
This move order allows Black to challenge the center while keeping more pieces on the board, leading to richer middlegame possibilities.
The strategic goal is to fight for central control and to create counter-attacking chances.
A57–A59 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 (Benko Gambit)
The A57–A59 line, known as the Benko Gambit, introduces a pawn sacrifice with 3…b5.
Black’s strategy in this gambit is to exchange a flank pawn for central pawn control and to create open lines for their rooks.
The purpose of the gambit is to provoke weaknesses in White’s camp and to create active piece play, especially along the a and b files.
A60 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6
In the A60 line, Black aims to break down White’s strong pawn center with 3…e6.
The strategy here is to disrupt White’s control of the center, induce pawn exchanges, and create opportunities for counterplay.
The purpose is to generate a dynamic, unbalanced game where piece activity becomes paramount.
A61 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6
The A61 line, which leads into the Modern Benoni, is characterized by the pawn breaks …e6 and …d5, followed by fianchettoing the kingside bishop.
The strategy here is to break down White’s pawn center, control the e5-square, and create dynamic counterplay.
The purpose of these moves is to achieve an asymmetrical pawn structure that provides diverse middlegame possibilities, focusing on piece activity over material balance.
BENONI DEFENSE – No-Nonsense Beginner Guide
A62 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.g3 Bg7 8.Bg2 0-0
The A62 line sees White setting up a Fianchetto on the kingside, reinforcing control of the center, and preparing to castle.
The strategy behind these moves is to establish a solid formation, control the long diagonal with the bishop, and add pressure on the center.
The purpose is to delay immediate confrontation, develop smoothly, and aim for a strategic middlegame.
A63 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.g3 Bg7 8.Bg2 0-0 9.0-0 Nbd7
In the A63 line, after castling, White continues with Nbd7. The idea is to prepare for e5 or b5 to challenge White’s central control.
The strategy is to increase pressure on the center, allowing for potential pawn breaks.
The purpose of this setup is to ensure adequate development of pieces and to prepare for possible counterattacks.
A64 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.g3 Bg7 8.Bg2 0-0 9.0-0 Nbd7 10.Nd2 a6 11.a4 Re8
In the A64 line, Black plays a6 and Re8, aiming to initiate pawn play on the queenside with b5, while simultaneously preparing for central operations.
The purpose is to establish more control over key squares and to set up potential pawn breaks to challenge White’s center.
A65 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4
In the A65 line of the Modern Benoni, White plays 6.e4, reinforcing their control over the center and preparing to deploy the f1-bishop.
The strategy for White is to establish a powerful pawn center and develop pieces harmoniously.
The purpose is to limit Black’s counterplay and aim for a strong initiative in the middlegame.
A66 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.f4
The A66 line introduces the aggressive 7.f4, supporting the e4 pawn and preparing to advance in the center.
The strategy is to fortify the strong pawn center and create potential for an aggressive kingside pawn storm.
The purpose is to dominate the center and restrict Black’s piece activity.
A67 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.f4 Bg7 8.Bb5+
This line of the Modern Benoni is named after Mark Taimanov.
The early Bb5+ check allows White to create some imbalances and develop with relative ease.
After 8.Bb5+, Black usually responds with either 8…Nbd7 or 8…Bd7.
The first choice seeks to simplify the position and get rid of the pin as quickly as possible, while the second choice prepares to castle and gives Black more flexibility in the center and on the queenside.
White’s idea in the Taimanov Variation is to disrupt Black’s piece coordination.
White will try to exploit the lead in development and the superior central control, but Black has counterplay on the queenside and in the center.
Four Pawns Attack
A68 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.f4 Bg7 8.Nf3 0-0
In the Four Pawns Attack, White chooses a very aggressive setup, aiming to control the center and create potential attacking chances against Black’s king.
However, this comes at the cost of leaving some weaknesses behind, especially if Black can successfully counterattack the center.
After 8.Nf3, Black usually aims to undermine White’s center, sometimes even opting for a pawn sacrifice with 8…b5.
Black also has more traditional plans like 8…Re8 and 8…Bg4.
White’s strategy in this line is to maintain the pawn center, complete development, and then start an offensive against Black’s position.
Black’s plans usually involve undermining the white center and counterattacking.
A69 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.f4 Bg7 8.Nf3 0-0 9.Be2 Re8
This is a continuation of the Four Pawns Attack. The idea behind 9.Be2 is to prepare to castle and defend the e4 pawn.
The rook move by Black (9…Re8) increases pressure on the e4 pawn and prepares the potential pawn break …Nxe4 or …f5.
White’s strategy remains consistent with the earlier explanation: maintain the pawn center, complete development, and then start an offensive against Black’s position.
Black’s rook move increases the central pressure, which in turn may prompt further action in the center or a pawn break to try and disrupt White’s plans.
It also connects the black rooks, preparing for any potential opening of the game.
A70 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3
In the A70 line, White has chosen a straightforward development scheme, aiming for solid control over the center.
The knight move prepares for kingside castling. Black usually continues with 7…Bg7 to develop the bishop to its most natural square, preparing to castle on the kingside.
A71 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Bg5
In the A71 line, White develops the bishop to g5, aiming to pin the knight on f6.
This move can prepare for a pawn push to e5. Black typically responds by unpinning with …h6.
A72 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0
In the A72 line, White develops the bishop to e2, preparing to castle on the kingside.
Black has also castled, which indicates that the game will enter a middlegame with both sides completing their development and vying for control of the center.
A73 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0
In the A73 line, both sides have castled kingside, and the major pieces are ready to enter the game.
From here, Black will look for counterplay typically on the queenside or in the center, while White will aim to use their spatial advantage to launch an attack or squeeze Black’s position.
A74 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0 a6
In the A74 line, Black’s move 9…a6 is often a preliminary to the b5 break, looking to challenge White’s control of the center and gain space on the queenside.
White can choose to counteract this plan in several ways, such as advancing the a-pawn (10.a4), repositioning the knight (10.Nd2), or even ignoring the threat and continue with their own plan.
A75 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0 a6 10.a4 Bg4
Here, 10…Bg4 pins the knight on f3, aiming to increase the pressure on the center, especially on the e4 pawn.
The usual idea for Black is to make it more difficult for White to keep control of the center and to prepare for the b5 break.
A76 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0 Re8
Black’s move 9…Re8 is an alternative to 9…a6, eyeing the e4 pawn and aiming to add pressure to the center.
It also frees up the f8 square for a potential rerouting of the knight.
A77 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0 Re8 10.Nd2
White’s move 10.Nd2 aims to reinforce the control over the e4 pawn and prepares for a potential f4 push.
It also opens up the bishop’s diagonal.
A78 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0 Re8 10.Nd2 Na6
In the A78 line, Black develops the knight to a6, from where it can potentially be rerouted to c7 to support a b5 break or hop into b4.
A79 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0 Re8 10.Nd2 Na6 11.f3
White’s 11.f3 further bolsters the center, especially the e4 pawn, but also prepares a potential g4 advance.
It’s worth noting that this slightly weakens the king’s safety and takes the f3 square away from the knight. Black might continue with …Nc7 and …b5 or with a central break …f5.
Franco-Benoni Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 c5)
The Franco-Benoni Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 c5) is an unorthodox and offbeat choice for black.
It combines elements of the French Defense (1…e6) with ideas common in the Benoni Defense.
In response to 1.e4 e6, white plays 2.d4, aiming to control the center.
However, instead of following traditional French Defense lines with 2…d5, black chooses 2…c5.
This move directly challenges white’s control of the d4 square and can potentially lead to open or semi-open positions.
Black’s strategy involves undermining white’s central pawn duo (d4 and e4) and often involves quick development and pressure along the c-file after …cxd4.
It might also involve a later …d5 break to challenge white’s central control.
Note that black is delaying the development of the knight on g8, possibly to maintain the flexibility of playing …f5 to challenge the e4 pawn.
White, on the other hand, can play 3.d5, pushing the pawn to limit black’s options, or 3.Nf3, aiming to support the center while developing a piece, or even 3.c3, fortifying the d4 square and preparing a possible center expansion.
This opening often leads to asymmetrical and dynamic positions, with black aiming for counterplay against white’s central structure.
However, it is not as theoretically well-explored as other more mainstream defenses, so both players will need to rely more on their understanding of the positions and plans rather than memorized lines.
While it can be a surprise weapon in amateur play, it is rarely seen at the highest levels of play due to the fact that white can establish a broad pawn center with relative ease.
Benoni Defense: Modern, Knight’s Tour Variation
The Modern Benoni Defense, Knight’s Tour Variation goes by the line:
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.Nd2 Bg7 8.e4 O-O
It can also be reached via transposition with lines like:
1. c4 e6 2. d4 c5 3. d5 exd5 4. cxd5 d6 5. Nf3 g6 6. e4 Nf6 7. Nc3 Bg7 8. Nd2
The most common continuation is almost always 9. Be2 (97% of the time), though 9. a4 is also a solid and vastly underrated move.
Evaluation of the Benoni Defense
The Benoni Defense, depending on the variation, is generally evaluated at around +0.60 to +0.90 for white.
History of the Old Benoni Defense
The Old Benoni Defense, although not as popular today, has a rich history in the game of chess.
It can be traced back to the 16th century, where it was included in one of the earliest books on modern chess, written by Ruy López.
However, it gained significant attention in the 20th century when it was employed by several notable players at the international level.
Whether the Benoni Defense Is Good for Beginners or Intermediates
The Benoni Defense can be a good opening for beginners and intermediates, as it encourages understanding the concepts of pawn structure, piece activity, and imbalances early on.
However, it requires careful handling because a small mistake can lead to a difficult position.
For intermediate players who understand these concepts well, the Benoni can offer exciting counter-attacking possibilities.
How Often the Benoni Defense Played at the Grandmaster Level
The Benoni Defense is not a common sight in grandmaster games, mainly due to the perceived weakness of ceding the center to White.
However, it is still employed occasionally as a surprise weapon or in situations where a dynamic, unbalanced game is sought after.
It is more commonly seen at club levels or in rapid and blitz games, where its unpredictability can be a significant advantage.
FAQs – Old Benoni Defense
1. What is the Benoni Defense in chess?
The Benoni Defense is a chess opening that begins with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5.
It is characterized by Black attempting to challenge White’s control of the center, specifically the e4 and d5 squares, and often leads to asymmetrical, complex, and aggressive positions.
2. How is the Old Benoni Defense different from the Modern Benoni Defense?
While both the Old and the Modern Benoni Defenses aim to counter White’s central pawn structure, they do so with slightly different move orders.
The Modern Benoni Defense typically begins with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 and focuses on a rapid development of pieces with the intention of breaking white’s center at an opportune moment.
The Old Benoni Defense, starting with 1.d4 c5, can lead to more closed positions and is generally considered to offer Black fewer counterattacking opportunities than the Modern Benoni.
3. What are some key strategic goals for Black in the Old Benoni Defense?
Black’s strategic goals in the Old Benoni Defense often include challenging White’s central pawns, gaining control of the e4 and d5 squares, developing the minor pieces rapidly, and potentially launching a queenside or central counterattack once fully developed.
The timely execution of …e6 or …d6, breaking up White’s central pawn chain, is also a common theme.
4. What are the typical pawn structures in the Old Benoni Defense?
The typical pawn structure in the Old Benoni Defense sees White’s pawns on d5 and e4 against Black’s pawns on d6 and e5 (if Black has successfully executed …e5).
This formation can give White a space advantage, but also potentially expose the d5 pawn as a weakness that Black can target.
5. How should White respond to the Old Benoni Defense?
White has a few different ways to approach the Old Benoni Defense.
A common plan involves developing the knights to c3 and f3, placing the bishop on d3 or e2, and potentially pushing e4-e5 at an opportune moment to challenge Black’s setup. White may also opt for a more positional approach, aiming to control key central squares and limit Black’s counterplay.
6. What are the key tactical themes in the Old Benoni Defense?
Key tactical themes in the Old Benoni Defense include pawn breaks (such as …e6 or …b5 for Black, and e4-e5 for White), piece sacrifices for initiative or to open up the position, and exploiting weaknesses in the opponent’s pawn structure. The central and queenside squares often become key battlegrounds.
7. What are some famous games played with the Old Benoni Defense?
Some famous games that featured the Old Benoni Defense include Botvinnik vs. Capablanca, AVRO 1938, and Tal vs. Hecht, 1962.
These games showcase the opening’s potential for generating complex, tactical battles.
8. Is the Old Benoni Defense a good choice for beginners?
The Old Benoni Defense is a somewhat double-edged choice for beginners.
On the one hand, it can lead to interesting, asymmetrical positions that help new players develop tactical awareness and strategic thinking.
On the other hand, it can also lead to challenging positions where accurate play is required to avoid falling into a disadvantageous situation.
A beginner who is keen on learning this defense should be prepared to study it thoroughly.
9. How to improve my game when playing with the Old Benoni Defense?
Improving your game with the Old Benoni Defense can be achieved by consistent study and practice.
Reviewing grandmaster games that used this opening, studying the various lines and understanding their strategic and tactical ideas, using computer analysis to explore different lines, and playing games with this opening and analyzing them afterward are all effective methods of improving your performance with the Old Benoni Defense.
10. What are the common traps and pitfalls in the Old Benoni Defense?
In the Old Benoni Defense, a common pitfall for Black is neglecting development in the pursuit of aggressive counterplay, leading to a vulnerable position.
For White, a common trap is underestimating Black’s potential for counterattacks on the queenside or in the center.
Both players need to pay careful attention to pawn structure and piece activity. It’s also important to remain aware of potential tactical threats, as the position can become very sharp and complex.
The Benoni Defense is a fascinating opening that offers a wide range of strategic and tactical ideas.
Despite not being a mainstream choice at the highest levels, its principles and resulting positions can be incredibly instructive, especially for those looking to understand the nuances of pawn structure, piece activity, and dynamic play.
It remains a potent surprise weapon in the hands of those who understand its intricacies and are ready to embrace its unorthodox nature.