The line may seem suspicious at first, but after a few precise moves (some may say artificial moves) by Black an interesting middlegame position is reached.

I did some analysis on my own and probably the strongest line for White is the early Bb5 line, but even there an interesting, unbalanced game arises.

From my analysis, Black eventually reaches equality (at least practically). I use "!" to mark moves that make the variation work.

[FEN ""]
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d3 d5!? 5. exd5 Nxd5 6. O-O Nb6! {Not an excellent move, but a key move for the variation. Now the Queen does not have to defend the knight and is allowed to go to e7} 7. Bb3 {This natural move is the most played} (7. Bb5 {Is the critical continuation. White is pressuring e5} Bd6 8. Bxc6+ {Eliminating the defender first is the most precise way to win the pawn on e5} (8. Nxe5 Bxe5 9. Re1 {This plan does not win a pawn} O-O 10. Bxc6 Bxh2+ 11. Kxh2 Qd6+ 12. Kg1 Qxc6)(8. Re1 f6 9. d4 O-O 10. dxe5 Nxe5 11. Nxe5 fxe5 12. Nc3 Bf5 13. Ne4 Bb4 14. c3 Qxd1 15. Rxd1 Be7 16. Re1 Rad8) 8... bxc6 9. Nxe5 Bxe5 10. Re1 {This line requires some artificial solution from Black} Qe7 11. f4 Bd4+ 12. Kh1 Be6 13. f5 O-O 14. fxe6 Nd5) 7... Bg4! {Indirectly defending e5, disallowing Ng5 and paving the road for long castle by Black} 8. h3 Bh5 9. Re1 Qe7! {This move looks rather artificial but it protects e5 and allows the king to leave the center, which is under pressure} 10. a4 (10. Qe2 f6) {Forcing ...a5 is beneficial to White, as it weakens Black's king shelter} (10. c3 {The game takes similar shape without a4 a5 interposed} O-O-O 11. d4 f6 12. Nbd2 g5 13. Nf1 Kb8 14. Ng3 Bg6) 10... a5 11. Nc3 (11. Be3 O-O-O 12. Bxb6 cxb6 13. Nc3 Kb8 14. Nb5 f5) O-O-O 12. Nb5 Kb8 13. Qe2 f6 14. c3 g5 15. d4 {Practically a totally equal position}

Is there something I am missing? Is Black hopeless at the end of some of the lines?

  • I think it's the 7.Bb5, 8.Re1 line that makes the difference. White has won every single game I found from that position. In the line you show, Black will probably end up in an inferior endgame due to the isolated pawn
    – David
    Oct 19 at 20:59
  • @David How many games have you found? In my DB there are only 5, 4 wins by White and 1 by Black. But some games count as White wins, when the final position is equal (lichess.org/D4sCaZ9Z). Apart from that, in all games that followed my variation, the move 11...Bxe5 was played. It seems to be crucial to take with the f-pawn. It generates pressure on f2, gives the Queen some mobility and allows for tricks like 12. Bd3 e4!? 13. Bxe4 Bxh2 14. Kxh2 Qh4+ 15. Kg1 Qxf2+
    – B.Swan
    Oct 19 at 22:06
  • Also the sample size of high level games in the line is so low, I do not know if one can infer anything about the quality of the line. Especially if 2 of the 5 games feature the same matchup of players, drawing a conclusion is problematic. In the Lichess player DB there are 128 games after 8...f6 9. d4 0-0 and the score slightly favors Black, which also would indicate practical equality. But your assessment about the isolated pawn is probably the right call.
    – B.Swan
    Oct 19 at 22:12
  • In that 7.Bb5, Re1 line (I agree with David, it looks critical) I wonder why White should hurry with 10.de5 rather than 10.Bc6 bc6 11.de5 fe5 (11...Be5 12.Qd8 Rd8 13.Ne5 fe5 14.Nc3 is a cheerless endgame for Black) 12.Ng5 intending Nc3, b3, Nge4, Be3 or Bb2. If Black cannot capitalize at once on his slight development advantage, he will suffer with his numerous pawn weaknesses.
    – Evargalo
    Oct 20 at 6:20

There are probably several ways of obtaining an advantage but the most convincing one I can come up with is this:

[fen "r1bqkb1r/ppp2ppp/1nn5/4p3/2B5/3P1N2/PPP2PPP/RNBQ1RK1 w kq - 2 7"]

7.Bb5 Bd6 8.Bxc6+ bxc6 9.Nxe5 Bxe5 10.Re1 Qe7 (10...f6 11.d4 O-O 12.dxe5 Qxd1 13.Rxd1 fxe5) 11.Kh1 O-O 12.f4 f6 13.fxe5 fxe5 14.Be3

In the position after 10.Re1, Stockfish 14 NNUE gives +0.8 at depth 41. That's a great opening advantage and the final position seems fairly miserable for black because of the bad pawn structure.

Some comments have focused on the earlier 8.Re1 variation. Maybe that's because there are a couple of games in the database that have continued like that. I'm sure that variation gives an advantage for white as well, but I don't think one should give much value on non-prepared GM moves.

  • Weirdly enough strong engines view the ending as equal (or rather holdable, Black is without prospects) after activating Black's bishop via c5, Bb7, but every path I've clicked through ends in a rook endgame a pawn down, and Black is left reacting to White's plans to prevent worse outcomes.
    – B.Swan
    Oct 21 at 14:02

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