The Italian Revival

Let us take a hypothetical trip through time to the past.

The date is March 24, 1858.  In the middle of New Orleans, a bustling port city at the time, two people sit at a chess board surrounded by a crowd of people.  With the white pieces, a well-known expert by the name of Paul Morphy; with the black pieces, the notorious “NN.”  The game starts with:

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bc4

The Italian was an opening emblematic of the 19th century, which was really the Romantic Era of chess.  Almost any game that started with double King pawn would go down this path or the King’s Gambit, another Romantic Era opening.  Almost all of these games were highly tactical and there was always, as GM Alexei Shirov would say, “fire on the board.”  A few other examples of this type of play can be found in Anderssen-Kieseritzky (1851) and Morphy-Schrufer (1859).  It was not until many years later that the majority of players realized that these tactical games in the Italian almost always favored White, and most Black players switched to the Giuoco Piano (3. … Bc5).  White attempted to punish the early bishop development with an early c3-d4 push in the center.  This formation had early success, but Black found the eventual

  1. c3 Nf6
  2. d4 exd4
  3. cxd4 Bb4+
  4. Bd2 Bxd2+
  5. Nbxd2 d5!

which equalized immediately.  White briefly tried to avoid this equalizing move altogether by playing 7. Nc3, called the Moeller Attack, but even that was refuted.  With these new findings by Black picking up, the Italian declined in popularity altogether in favor of another King Pawn opening that was gradually increasing in popularity in the shadows of the Italian.  This opening was none other than the Ruy Lopez, which offered White with a measure of flexibility that the c3-d4 lines of the Italian never allowed.  Noticing the popularity and success of the Ruy Lopez, die-hard Italian players imitated some of the positions that came out of the Ruy Lopez with a c3-d3 setup, but the Ruy Lopez still triumphed over for the longest time.

Now, let’s travel forward through time, but not quite to the present.  The year is 2013, but no specific date.  Almost every game that opens with 1. e4 goes into a Ruy Lopez.  The opening is characterized by the moves

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5

This trend is clearly shown in the World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand late in the year, where 4 out of the 6 games that opened with e4 headed into a Ruy Lopez.  However, the key reason why I bring up this match, in particular, is because of the evident rise in popularity of the Berlin defense (3. … Nf6), which was quickly becoming a trustworthy line against the Ruy Lopez.  In the 2013 WCC match, all of the Ruy Lopez games went into a Berlin, and not surprisingly, 75% of them were drawn, and the lone decisive result was a win for Black.  The 2013 year was part of the “back-end” of the decade-long rise of the Berlin, which was first used with great success by Vladimir Kramnik against Garry Kasparov in the WCC match of 2000.

Now, we come back to present day.  Since Black proved that the Berlin was an extremely tough setup to beat, White has tried a number of different attempts to sidestep the line.  One fairly popular route that emerged right out of the 2013 year was the move 4. d3.  From there, there are a couple of different paths that players have taken, including a rather intriguing formation where White captures the knight on c6, forces Black to double his pawns with dxc6, and continuing with Nb1-d2-c4 and Bc1-d2-c3 where pressure is applied to the e5 pawn.  The relatively mundane 4. Nc3 has also been experimented with from time to time, but more as a surprise attempt than an attempt to gain an advantage.  However, the most interesting try of late has been to eschew the Ruy Lopez completely and instead try – you guessed it – the Italian once again.  However, the variations that seem to appeal to the players of today are far different in nature than the ones we have previously examined.  For one, Black is now far more willing to strike in the center early with d5 instead of going for a slow, maneuvering game.  Meanwhile, White seems to prefer variations where Black does play d6 and keep the center closed for the time being.  As a result, we arrive at one of our key differences in the new Italian “reimagined.”

  1. White delays the c2-c3 push until Black commits to d6, instead opting for play on the flanks.

The reason for delaying this push is that Black’s d5 thrust in the center comes with less effect, as White now has more ways to develop pieces into the newly-opened center.  However, this reluctance to play an early c2-c3 leads to what classical Italian players may consider a crucial drawback – the light square bishop, aka the “Italian Bishop,” no longer has a safe haven on c2.  In the typical Italian lines, as we’ll call it, White has a c3-d3 phalanx setup; Black typically kicks the bishop once with a b7-b5 push and sometimes offers a trade of light squared bishops with Be6, but White usually avoids the trade with the retreat from c4-b3-c2.  With the new system, however, White prefers to inhibit b7-b5 (although this push is sometimes possible due to tactics, as will be shown in games later) with an a2-a4 push and is thus unable to retreat in time in order to avoid the trade.  As a result, White makes the most of what arises from the bishop swap, as it requires Black to spend multiple tempi, and we arrive at our second key difference.

  1. If Black offers a trade of light squared bishops, White allows the trade in return for the relatively uninhibited advance of the queenside pawns.

If everything goes according to plan, White is able to pawn storm with a4, b4, b5 and kick the knight from c6.  The resulting lead in queenside space can be deterministic of the later stages and possibly the result of the game.  However, if Black does not offer the trade of bishops, the player has to find play elsewhere, which typically consists of the well-known knight maneuver to the kingside.  This allows White to counteract in the center with a d4 push much earlier than in the classical Italian variations.  This leads us to our third and final key difference.

  1. White is often able to push with d4 much earlier in the game if Black does not directly challenge control of the center with the bishop trade offer; this push is made easier by the restricted play that Black has with the queenside pawns.

If the d4 push is achieved, the focus of play reverts back to the center, where both sides have dynamic opportunities to push their agenda.  Black often tries to gain control of the f4-square and later the kingside, while White usually tries to play in the center or the queenside and punish Black’s potentially awkward piece placement.  There are many games that have already been played in this opening in the last year or so, but there were a select few that really stood out to me.  Those were Kramnik-Mamedyarov (2017), Anand-So (2017)MVL-So (2017), and MVL-Aronian (2017).  These games illustrate the key concepts of both sides in this new version of the Italian, and it will be interesting to see how long these lines stick around.  The presence of play in all sectors of the board can lead to exciting games, both position and tactical, for both sides.  The ability to play for an advantage from both sides, whether static or dynamic, makes this opening an ideal one for tournament play, and its current popularity among the world’s top players definitely makes it an opening to keep an eye out for in future games.  And, as always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.

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One thought on “The Italian Revival

  1. It’s definitely fascinating that the Italian is back, after all these centuries! Amusingly, I remember playing the trappy Moeller Attack as White in the early 1980s, but engines have buried that once and for all.

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