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I have read a lot of messages on different Forums about the merits of beginning with 1.Nf3 or beginning with 1.d4.

And a very big number of people said essentially this:

One of the advantages of starting with 1.Nf3 2. c4 is that it avoids the Benoni while starting with 1. d4 2. c4 does not.

But I just don't understand why that is the case.

.

After 1. Nf3 2. c4, if White wants to try to avoid the Benoni he should delay d4. At some point Black will play ...c5. But White will play d4 anyway sooner or later, and when White does play d4 Black will answer with ...cxd4.

For example, from a Symmetrical English move order:

  1. Nf3 c5 2. c4 Nf6 3. g3 (3. Nc3 Nc6 4. g3 will transpose; while 3. Nc3 Nc6 4. d4 cxd4 5. Nxd4 instantly gets into roughly the same position) g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. O-O O-O 6. Nc3 Nc6 7. d4 (7. d3 is inferior and scores very poorly for White) cxd4 8. Nxd4

Or from a King's Indian Defense move order:

  1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. O-O (5. d4 c5 transposes) c5 6. Nc3 (6. d4 cxd4 transposes) Nc6 7. d4 cxd4 8. Nxd4

These seem to be White's best tries to try avoid the Benoni (or I should probably say "to delay entering in a Benoni") by beginning with 1. Nf3 2. c4. White has many other possibilities, but they end up reaching roughly the same position as above even quicker than in 8 moves (and the only moves that White can play to get a different position are rare and weaker).

I'm not sure if this position is considered as a Benoni or not (one database calls this an "English Benoni formation", another source calls this an "Anti Benoni"), but it doesn't matter if it's really a Benoni or not, the only important question is: does it make a difference if White begins with 1. d4 2. c4 instead?

  1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nf3 cxd4 4. Nxd4

Play can continue: 4... Nc6 5. Nc3 g6 6. g3 Bg7 7. Bg2 O-O 8. O-O

And we reach the exact same position!

Since I don't know if this position is considered as a Benoni or not, I don't know if White can or cannot avoid the Benoni by starting with 1. Nf3 2. c4, and I don't know if White can or cannot avoid the Benoni by starting with 1. d4 2. c4.

But this doesn't matter, because the point is: beginning with 1. Nf3 2. c4 or with 1. d4 2. c4 does not seem to make a difference if White wants to avoid the Benoni, since White ends up in the exact same position regardless of if he starts with 1. Nf3 2. c4 or with 1. d4 2. d4.

So the statement "one of the advantages of starting with 1.Nf3 2. c4 is that it avoids the Benoni while starting with 1. d4 2. c4 does not" should be false.

But obviously I must be wrong, I must be missing something, because I've seen dozens of people (some were very high rated) say that 1. Nf3 2. c4 avoids the Benoni while 1. d4 2. c4 does not.

3

With both move orders white can avoid the Benoni. The difference is all about which sidelines you allow and which ones you don't.

1. Nf3 c5 2. c4 is generally considered the most flexible move order for white since they can wait and play d4 at the moment of their choosing.

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nf3 cxd4 4. Nxd4 on the other hand gives black extra options, for instance the interesting gambit

    [FEN ""]
    1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nf3 cxd4 4. Nxd4 e5 5. Nb5 d5 6. cxd5 Bc5 

Have a look at the following game where I was the victim: Madsen-Hodgson.

Another option black has after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nf3 cxd4 4. Nxd4 is to play like Kramnik did against Kasparov.

   [FEN ""]
   [Event "Braingames World Chess Championship"]
   [Site "London"]
   [Date "2000.10.19"]
   [Round "7"]
   [Result "1/2-1/2"]
   [White "Garry Kasparov"]
   [Black "Vladimir Kramnik"]
   [ECO "A31"]
   [WhiteElo "2849"]
   [BlackElo "2770"]
   [PlyCount "21"]

   1. c4 c5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Nc3 e6 6. g3 Qc7
   7. Qd3 (7.Bg2) Nc6 8. Nxc6 dxc6 9. Bg2 e5 10. O-O Be6 11. Na4 1/2-1/2

To get an advantage in this variation, white might have to sacrifice the c4 pawn instead of covering it with 7. Qd3.

A third option black has is to enter the Hedgehog with

    [FEN ""]
    1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nf3 cxd4 4. Nxd4 b6 (4... b6 5.g3?)

In this move order white should not fianchetto the bishop with 5.g3 since black's bishop is first on the long diagonal.

  • I think this is the best answer so far. This gambit seems to score well for Black, but this might simply be due to the fact that the White players didn't know how to play against it. I've done some search on this gambit, and it seems that White can obtain an advantage bigger than his usual first move advantage if he plays 7. N5c3 O-O 8. g3 – Fate Jun 6 '15 at 6:01
  • Could you elaborate on "1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nf3 cxd4 4. Nxd4 on the other hand gives black extra options" ? Except for the gambit, what would Black's other extra options be ? And do you think that 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nf3 is really much weaker than entering the true Benoni (+Benko) with 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 ? – Fate Jun 6 '15 at 6:05
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The simple version, with no variations: With 1 Nf3 2 c4 White is basically declaring the desire not to play Benoni. And if Black decides to go for it willy-nilly, Black knows they will quite likely end up in various variations of the Queen's Indian, the QGD (probably Tarrasch) or the Sicilian, including many Maroczy Bind possibilities. So Black chooses another line. more suited to the temperament of a Benoni player.

Yes, it's possible for White to steer for many of those same positions starting with 1 d4 (1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 e3 being one approach). But playing 1 d4 just encourages Black to try and play Benoni, and in this case, the avoidance lines all are required to have the pawn on d4, not always the optimum choice.

There are some lines available in the 1 Nf3 / 2 c4 beginning that work better with the d-pawn on d3 (or even d2, letting White use a timely d4 to attack Black's center). Playing Nf3 and c4 first leaves those options open for White, and tells Black up front that White isn't going to put up with any of that Benoni nonsense, hence Black typically doesn't try to play it.

And so, White avoids it.

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The first thing that sprung to mind you said people say 1. Nf3 avoids the Benoni was that are talking about responding to 1...c5 with 2. e4, which leads to the Sicilian. However, the openings you have shown in your post are actually all members of the Symmetrical English, not the Benoni proper. The typical starting position for the Benoni occurs after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5. This is why 1. Nf3 avoids the Benoni.

  • I think the number of Nf3/d4 players that also have a repertoire against all the sicilian lines isn't that huge. In fact it is much more likely that a Benoni player has a sicilian in his black repertoire. – BlindKungFuMaster Jun 4 '15 at 14:16
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I'm not an expert on these lines and I don't see a difference in that respect between Nf3+c4 and d4+c4.

I do, however, see a difference between 1.d4 and 1.Nf3/1.c4. 1.d4 can be met by 1…c5 which leads to a "real" Benoni structure, because you cannot really answer it with Nf3: 1.d4 c5 2.Nf3 cxd4 3.Nxd4 d5!

So if you don't want to be passive with 2.e3 or 2.c3 you would have to play 2.d5, when 2…e5 leads to the Czech-Benoni and a later e6 might still lead to a modern Benoni, although white is probably better off playing e4 instead of c4.

  • Doesn't 1.d4 c5 2.e4 also avoid the Benoni? – bof Jun 4 '15 at 13:14
  • @bof: Well yes, but it only works if White has the Smith-Morra gambit of the Sicilian in his repertoire. And since White played 1. d4 and not 1. e4 we should presume that the probability that White has the Smith-Morra gambit of the Sicilian in his repertoire is extremely low. – Fate Jun 4 '15 at 13:32
  • @BlindKungFuMaster: Good point, I forgot about the old Benoni. But there is a reason why 1...c5 is only the 7th most popular response to 1. d4 (it's 36 times less popular than 1...Nf6). White can choose not to transpose into regular Benonis and place his Knight on c3 without advancing his c Pawn first. Since c4 won't be occupied by a White Pawn, White can then plan to place his other Knight to c4. White can play 2. d5 Nf6 3. Nc3 or 2. d5 d6 3. e4 or 2. d5 e5 3. e4 d6 4. Nc3 or 2. d5 e6 3. Nc3 which are really much better for White than the usual Benonis. – Fate Jun 4 '15 at 13:40
  • The point of avoiding the Benoni isn't that the Benoni is such a strong line for black. The point is avoiding a very specific and sharp position, even though white is theoretically more than ok. So getting an even better Benoni (Old Benoni) or getting another very sharp and specific position (Smith-Morra) is only going to sway some of the Benoni avoiders. – BlindKungFuMaster Jun 4 '15 at 14:06
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One of the main ideas of hypermodern defenses such as the Benoni is to chisel away at white's 'big' centre with moves like 2...c5 after 1.d4 Nf6, and 2.c4 (chewing away at the d4 pawn). A move order such as 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 does not give black any target at d4 and black must be prepared for English-opening structures with white's pawn on d3(not d4). Additionally, even if white eventually plays d4(after about 5 moves), the Czech Benoni, Snake Benoni as well as a few other Benoni variants and gambits will have been sidestepped.

  • d3 is inferior to d4 and also scores very poorly for White. In the question we must presume that White wants to play d4 sooner or later. We must assume that White plays 1. Nf3 as a transpositional tool to reach 1. d4 openings, but that he starts with 1. Nf3 in order to avoid the Benoni (positions arising after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 and then either 3. d5 or 3. Nf3) and avoid nothing else (except of course the Budapest Gambit and the Albin Countergambit) : so White doesn't wish to hold his d Pawn forever and play some Reti setups, nor does he wish to enter in the Open Sicilian. – Fate Jun 4 '15 at 14:14
  • And as for sidestepping the Czech Benoni and the Snake Benoni, you are correct that starting with 1. Nf3 does sidestep them, but you can also sidestep them by starting with 1. d4 : 1...Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. Nf3 and White has avoided the Snake Benoni and the Czech Benoni. – Fate Jun 4 '15 at 14:14
  • Yes basically you can sidestep any benoni or benko by simply refusing to play d5 after black goes c5 (leaving your pawn on d4) however this plays into blacks hand as it allows black to exchange the c5 pawn for whites d4 pawn, which isnt to whites fancy, this is why white would prefer to avoid those benoni variants without exchanging the d pawn as early as the third move (by holding out on d4 push).I disagree with your presumption that d3 scores poorly for white as your simply suggesting that the entire symmetrical english setup scores poorly for white, this is rather subjective, biased even. – Rickka Jun 4 '15 at 14:40
  • In the Symmetrical English where Black holds his d Pawn (to try to get into a Benoni), White plays d4 much more often than d3. Anyway, just look in an opening explorer (ChessOK for example): d3 scores below 50%, while d4 scores around 65% (with samples of more than 1000 games). – Fate Jun 4 '15 at 14:55

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