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I was playing with the Black pieces online today, and faced a very strange opening:

[fen ""]
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d3 Nf6 4. Be2

I check the database, and it seems that 4...d5 is good for black but I didn't understand the strategy behind it at all. Here are a few moves from the database:

[fen ""]
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d3 Nf6 4. Be2 d5 5. Nbd2 Bc5 6. O-O O-O 7. c3 a5 8. Qc2 Re8 9. b3

I don't understand what Black is playing for here. Like what the plans are. I would really appreciate some feedback or references where I can read more about it. My understanding is that the Black pieces look like a position from an Italian opening. But I felt that the Italian plans don't work here tactically (like maneuvering Nc6-e7-g6).

I'm also open to other suggestions, such as playing 5...g6 (but I also didn't understand the plans behind it in this position).

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  • I don't have an official rating. But I play on Lichess and chesscom, and my rating in classical time controls is around 2300, and in rapid around 2200. I play strategically a lot, focus on pawn structure, and have an opening repertoire. – Guess601 Aug 17 '20 at 6:08
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    Are you familiar with this position with colour reversed, the Hanham Philidor were there is a lot of games, theory and litterature ? – Evargalo Aug 17 '20 at 8:45
  • @Evargalo it seems that I'm not because I play 4. dxe5 when I play with White. On the other hand, some openings don't have the same plans when colors are reversed. Is it the case for Hanham Philidor? And do you think it would be a better idea to study this line with White? Thanks for the suggestion. – Guess601 Aug 17 '20 at 15:48
  • @Guess601 If you play 4.de5 with White, what is wrong with 4...de4 here ? In the quiet positions with symetrical pawn structures you reach, the extra tempo will hardly make a big difference... Moreover, Be2 is passive and White will probably play Bd3 or Bc4 later on, which might very well transpose right into the line you play with White ! – Evargalo Aug 17 '20 at 16:21
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    It might also help to know that the "new" name for this opening is the Black Lion, coined and played consistently with colors reversed by GM Simon Williams. His youtube channel has many games from this position where he talks through his thought process about what pawn breaks/plans are good or bad for each player. – NoseKnowsAll Aug 17 '20 at 22:26
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The basic idea with ...d5, ...Bc5 is just to gain some centre space. I wouldn't really compare this position's plans to the Italian, as they're not that similar. Black's pushed ...d5 early on, and the opponent's (White) knight is on d2 instead of c3.

Analysis for 8.b3: one move for Black in the database is 8...Re8 (or 8...Qe7), supporting the e5-pawn. Now playing ...d4 is an idea, since cxd4 can be answered with ...Nxd4 (as the e5-pawn won't hang). In the case of 9.Bb2, 9...Bb6 10.Re1 Bg4 11.Qc2 Qd6 looks nice for Black. Pushing ...d4 at some point is still in the cards. Black could also consider some ...Qc5 move, pinning the c3-pawn and targeting the f2-pawn. Adding more pressure on the d-file with ...Rad8 looks reasonable.

Analysis for 8.Qc2: 8...Re8 9.b3 could be met with 9...Ba7 (or 9...Bb6), preventing White's queen from x-raying the bishop. This makes ...d4 safer to play. After 10.Bb2 h6 (stopping Ng5 if Black decides to play ...Be6 at some point) 11.Rfe1 Qd6 12.Bf1 Bg4, we have a similar position to what was reached for the line looked at in 8.b3. The plans are similar to what they were there.

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  • Thanks for the analysis and plans. So it seems that preparing d4 for black is the way to go. I struggled in this position because I didn't see a pawn break that Black can play for. Do you recommend playing this variation also with White (when colors are reversed)? – Guess601 Aug 17 '20 at 20:29
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    @Guess601 ...d4 is definitely a key idea but I wouldn't rely on playing it no matter what in every single case. If you're comfortable in these positions, it's definitely fine to play it with White too (considering how Black is quite comfortable is here). – Inertial Ignorance Aug 17 '20 at 20:44
  • btw, do you recommend playing 4. dxe5 Nxe4 5. Qd5 for White? It's called the Nimzovich or Rellstab variation. I looked at a couple of lines and saw that White has the initiative but nothing concrete imo. Which variation do you prefer: Rellstab or Improved Hanham variation (the one that we were talking about before) for White? – Guess601 Aug 17 '20 at 22:08
  • @Guess601 After 5.Qd5 Nc5 6.Bg5, Black has a few responses. 6...Qd7 7.exd6 Bxd6 8.Nc3 Nc6 9.Nb5!? (or 9.0-0-0) may give White some chances for an edge. Or 6...Be6 7.Qxc5 dxc5 8.Bxd8 Kxd8 9.Ng5 looks kind of like a really nice version of the Berlin Endgame. 6...Be7 7.exd6 cxd6 (or 7...Qxd6 8.Nc3 Qxd5 9.Nxd5) 8.Nc3 h6 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Be2 is favourable for White. So all in all this 4.dxe5 line looks promising, and it's probably a better choice than the Hanham variation. I think 4.dxe5 is a good reason 3...Nf6 isn't that popular. A better way for Black to reach the Hanham is through 1...d6. – Inertial Ignorance Aug 17 '20 at 22:40
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In most open games black equalizes if he can get in d5 because it frees the position and will leave him with at least an equal center.

In the position you gave, after the pawns are traded, blacks's e5 pawn is better than white's d3 pawn because of the squares it controls. It occupies the e5 square and controls the d4 square. White's pawn only controls e4.

On top of that, both of black's bishops are free to move whereas white's KS bishop is blocked by its own pawn on d3.

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