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Recently top GMs are playing a London system type setup with Nc3 before c4. I can't imagine they are going for cheap tricks with Nb5, but I am not seeing a valid positional idea behind the move either. For example Carlsen-Ding 2017

[FEN ""] 
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bf4 g6 3.Nc3 d5
  • Carlsen inspired by GM Mark Hebden? He's been playing these Bf4 lines for decades. – TheMathemagician Nov 17 '17 at 12:31
  • I am asking specifically to Nc3 in front of the c-pawn, not Bf4 in general. – Ywapom Nov 17 '17 at 17:03
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If you want to know whether the knight is badly placed on c3, you have to think about your plan. Normally, in d-pawn openings you want to play c4 to attack Black's hold on the center on d5. Here, this is not White's plan. Instead:

  • White may want to play h4-h5 and attack Black on the kingside. This means White may want to follow up with Qd2 and 0-0-0.

  • Another idea is the play a gambit with e4. If Black takes dxe4, the knight isn't so bad on c3.

The badly placed knight on c3 is a small price to pay for "getting it out of the way", since it wouldn't do much for the attack elsewhere (it's block in the queen's best square on d2, and a3 is an even worse square).

You are right that according to conventional chess wisdom, you shouldn't play like this. But this kind of system is not conventional! Highly creative players like Jobava play this way (In fact, this setup is named after Jobava). Check out some of his games here.

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    While waiting for an answer I thought that 1.d4 Nf6 2.Bf4 g6 3.Nc3 is a good way to encourage 3...d5 else go into a Pirc. And I have tried this with the idea of pushing the h-pawn with mixed success. – Ywapom Feb 28 '18 at 22:27
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It's normal developing move after all. I doubt the knight stands there so badly. It keeps Bg7 stupid as c5 can now be hard for black to achieve. It controls d5 and e4. You probably don't see much point in white's play, but try to find what's black going to do. If you make weird looking move only to force opponent to do the same, your move is probably not so bad. I don't say it's briliant, but it doesn't look bad, too. The knight doesn't have to be there forever and black may be forced to make a lot of concessions too.

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  • "Normal developing move" is not an idea. It is commonly accepted that it is not best to block your c-pawn in queen pawn openings, so I expect there is something more in mind than just making a move. – Ywapom Nov 21 '17 at 19:43
  • @Ywapom: I guess it is a combination of "normal developing move" combined with the need to try something new/less analyzed/less drawish. Also as far as I understand, in the London system you usually don't go for pawn breaks with c4 early on. Lastly after black played g6 it might be less attractive for black to play c5 which could be a natural reaction to Nc3 in other lines. – user1583209 Jan 11 '18 at 21:21
  • I don't agree with comments saying it discourages c5 and "normal developing move" is not a plan. Nc3 is very committal! My current thinking is that it s played to provoke d5 or transpose to an e4 opening. – Ywapom Jan 11 '18 at 21:48
  • Also, it is nowadays accepted and well-know that developing doesn't mean bringing your pieces out, rather it means bringing your pieces to the best squares they may belong to (if Nh1 is the best square in one particular line, then Nh1 is by all means a developing move). – gented Mar 1 '18 at 14:39
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A black player who wants to play the King's Indian, but encounters the London instead, often chooses a system with the move ...d6. For instance, the book "Fighting the anti-King's Indians" by Yelena Dembo advocates such a system. The pawn on d6 restricts white's bishop on f4, and common white plans such as putting a knight on e5. This system scores very well for black.

With the move order 2.Bf4 3.Nc3, white threatens to play 4.e4, transposing into a Pirc. The move Bf4 isn't common in that, but Be3 and Bg5 are and they are often followed by a later Bh6 by white, so this system can transpose into a reasonably normal Pirc. That's an opening black may not want to play.

So black plays ...d5 to prevent e4.

As a result, Nc3 is in a slightly strange square, but Black has been prevented from playing his very favourable ...d6 setup and now has to make the slightly unusual combination of ...d5 and ...g6 work somehow. This is a little explored situation and the players are on their own. The best player is likely to win.

That's what Carlsen wants, as he is the best player.

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