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I am starting to pick up the Vienna Game but I'm struggling to find a satisfactory response to 2...Nc6, the Max Lange Defense. The main moves according to theory here are 3. Nf3, 3. Bc4, 3. f4, 3. g3.

    1. Nf3 just transposes into Four Knights territory, and I do not want to play the Four Knights because it just looks really symmetric and boring to me.
    1. Bc4 is what I want to make work, but it seems to me like Black can equalize too easily if they know a move or two. After 3...Nf6 4. d3 Na5! you lose the bishop pair, and according to Lichess this doesn't have a great winrate for White. Any move other than 4. d3 results in 4...Nxe4 5. Nxe4 d5!
    1. f4 is essentially a delayed King's Gambit due to the lack of a knight on f6, so it seems kind of risky to me.
  • I'm not familiar with the positional ideas behind 3. g3. As a beginner, I guess I'm looking for something more aggressive (but sound)?
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  • Firstly can you tell us what you are planning against Nf6 (and maybe Bc5)? that might give a bit of context. It's much easier to learn an opening if you try to stick to related lines where possible. Secondly no opening leads to a proven advantage to either side. As such whatever you choose there will be lines where you will have to work harder.
    – Ian Bush
    Feb 17 at 10:15
  • I don't play the Vienna, but for the g3 lines it does look to me as though white is trying to play something like a Kings Indian Attack or a Closed Sicilian - so there might be useful ideas there which you can use after 3 g3
    – Ian Bush
    Feb 17 at 10:16
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    What about the Vienna Game is most appealing to you? The only real "advantage" it has over playing 2.Nf3 is the fact that you can push your f-pawn forward and play the gambit line as a sort of "improved" king's gambit. Is there something concrete that you dislike about 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 as white that pushes you to look for alternatives?
    – Scounged
    Feb 17 at 13:38
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    If you don't want boring, why not be risky? Feb 17 at 15:50
  • @IanBush Against 2...Nf6 I play the Vienna Gambit, which leads to an OK position even if Black knows what they're doing.
    – James Ko
    Feb 17 at 20:28
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I picked up the Vienna Gambit a year ago and ran into the same quandary over 2. ... Nc6, I generally agree with your assessment of each candidate move, and I don't see that you have much real choice apart from those four. Taking into account that your preferred line is the Vienna Gambit, and that you'd like to be able to deal with alternatives to 2. ... Nf6 in a similar spirit:

    1. Nf3 definitely isn't what you want! If you were comfortable/happy with 3. Nf3, you'd play 2. Nf3 instead of the Vienna.
    1. Bc4 is a pity. Before switching to the Vienna Gambit, I was originally drawn to the 3. Bc4 Vienna because of the fairly reliable prospect of getting 5. f4 without gambitting the pawn, but indeed, Black can and should spoil your fun by trading off your bishop with Na5 as soon as you've played d3. The resulting position is playable, but as with the Four Knights, generally not much fun for the sort of player who'd opt for the Vienna to begin with. In practice, a lot of players unfamiliar with the Vienna will instead give you 3. ... Bc5 4. Qg4!, so this could be a workable choice in club-level blitz, but "hope chess" should never be the basis of a repertoire decision.
    1. g3 is a much slower and less forceful way to achieve f2-f4 and results in positions of a very different character from developing the Bf1 to c4 or b5. Once again, playable, but not in the spirit of the Vienna Gambit.

My recommendation is to take a closer look at 1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. f4. Granted that it's a transposition to the King's Gambit where Black can take the pawn freely without fear of 4. e5 ideas found in the Vienna Gambit, but I think you'll find that the character is about as close as you're going to get to the Vienna Gambit without risking the boring Na5 lines of 3. Bc4, and in chess we don't have the luxury of always getting exactly the flavor of game we'd like. If your concern is that it's riskier than you prefer, consider the following:

  • Going back to the Vienna Gambit proper, remember that Black can accept the gambit and walk into 4. e5. It's a bad decision, but it's not an instant loss, it's hardly risk-free for White, and it will require some technique from you to fully take advantage of Black's misstep. By playing the Vienna Gambit, you sign on to occasionally play the crazy King's Gambit-ish positions that result from Black accepting the gambit. In this sense the 2. ... Nc6 3. f4 lines are similar in character to the Vienna Gambit.
  • With Nc3 and Nc6 having been played, a quick d7-d5 is ruled out. You're playing a King's Gambit where Black doesn't have access to the Falkbeer Countergambit 2. ... d5 or the Abbazia Defense 2. ... exf4 3. Nf3 d5. Black has fewer credible replies, and can't really decline the gambit except in ways that permit you to keep your pawn on f4 and transpose into 3. Bc4 Vienna lines where Black hasn't played Na5, which should be pleasant enough for a Vienna Gambit player.
  • If Black does accept the gambit, presumably you're going to respond 4. Nf3; if you're happy with Vienna Gambit levels of risk but not King's Gambit levels of risk, then allowing 4. ... Qh5+ and having to move your king is probably not your cup of tea. So now we're looking at the 3. Nf3 King's Gambit proper, except the presence of Nc3 and Nc6 limits Black's options and slightly modifies the character of the remaining choices, a small plus to the Vienna player in terms of familiarity that should decrease the risk. You're also one move closer to being able to castle long, generally desirable both for safety and for achieving positions closer to what you would have gotten out of the Vienna Gambit main lines from 3. ... d5 4. fxe5 Nxe4. In many cases you have a decent prospect to fight for d2-d4 and Bxf4.

There are two main issues for you to consider in the lines after 1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. f4 exf4 4. Nf3. If you can reconcile these with your tastes and aptitudes, then I think 3. f4 should be absolutely fine for you.

  • Just as in the King's Gambit, even if you opt for Nf3, Black may play Be7 and uncommon Bh4+ ideas that will require you to either move your king or (if you played Bc4 in advance) castle short in a tricky position where you have neither f nor g pawns and Black is bearing down on you. The database stats are encouraging either way, but you will need to know what you're doing and you will need to be comfortable playing in some really madcap positions.
  • Nc3 and Nc6 aren't solely an improvement for White; the presence of Nc6 means that if Black holds the f4 pawn with 4. ... g5 (by far the most popular choice), and then pushes 5. ... g4 (popular if you play 5. d4 or 5. Bc4, all but guaranteed if you play 5. h4), now you can't simply play Ne5 and preserve some degree of sanity. With Black's Nc6 preventing you from escaping to e5, you basically need to be prepared to sack the knight, whether that's 5. d4 g4 6. Bc4 gxf3 (or Bc4 first and then d4) in the style of the Muzio Gambit, or 5. h4 g4 6. Ng5 h6 7. Nxf7. Just about the only alternative to sacking the knight (aside from retreating it...) is 4. ... g5 5. d4 g4 6. Ne5 Nxe5 7. dxe5 Qh4+, which to me looks considerably weaker. Good news, both knight sacks are playable if you know what you're doing. Bad news, most likely neither of them is perfectly to your taste if you opted for the Vienna Gambit over the King's Gambit.

In the end, no opening is going to give us exactly what we want 100% of the time. 1. e4 players get to pick their poison between the Ruy (the Berlin stifles the greatest attacking players), the Italian (3. ... Bc5 can be a slog, unless you like the Evans Gambit), the Scotch (3. ... Bc5 again...), various gambits of the d4 pawn, the King's Gambit with Black's numerous strong retorts and White's razor-thin margin for error, and the Vienna with the potential drawbacks you've noted in each major variation. The other possible first moves for White all have their own equivalent issues. Take your pick, either based on which troublesome lines you're most likely to meet, or based on which troublesome lines you would most prefer to never meet. I've tried most everything listed here and found that my personal preference is the Vienna Gambit, with 3. f4 in the case of 2. ... Nc6, and while it's certainly not a choice without drawbacks, you don't have any choices that are wholly without drawbacks. My advice is to examine the 2. ... Nc6 3. f4 lines a little more closely and decide whether potentially being forced to sacrifice a knight every now and then is preferable to your grievances with the alternative third moves.

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  • Nice, detailed answer. Some of the Steinitz games where he allows Qh4+ (such as this one) are actually quite interesting. If nothing else, it would confuse most Black players. Feb 22 at 1:32
  • @JohnColeman Thank you! I don't think the alternatives to 4. Nf3 are necessarily weak, but stylistically I don't think trading king safety for rapid development is a fit if OP is worried about 3. f4 being too risky as-is. Still, interesting, Chesstempo has Steinitz having scored 67.6% in 17 games after 4. ... Qh4+. There's more bite to it than I realized. Crazy to see Steinitz move his king three times in the opening and still look firmly in control!
    – KnightFork
    Feb 22 at 2:48
  • Apparently Korchnoi actually recommended 3. ... Nf6 for Black, in the 3. Bc4 King's Gambit, and believed in it strongly enough that he played it against Spassky (draw). I think of Korchnoi as having been a stern pragmatist who had a particularly poor opinion of the King's Gambit, so him not preferring to "punish" 3. Bc4 with Qh4+ is very striking. Maybe I'll give 4. d4 a shot in the Vienna lines sometime.
    – KnightFork
    Feb 22 at 2:56

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