Opening Overhaul 1: The London System

As promised, today’s article will be the first installment of the Opening Overhaul.  In case you haven’t read the preview I posted last time, I will quickly summarize what this series is going to look like.  Each article will focus on a specific opening.  These articles will start with a brief discussion of the opening’s origins and its defining moves, positions, and//or ideas.  Afterward, I will go into some of the newer ideas in the opening, illustrating how the opening has evolved since it first appeared on the board.  Of course, notable and/or recent games from renowned players or even myself (where applicable) will be included as well.

d4

Overview

This week, we’ll be starting with the London System, a solid system for White that has been around for a long time.  The name of the system has its origins in the 1922 tournament in London when players began employing the line as a way to meet any Black response, especially the newer, hypermodern setups.  In the first few decades of play, this was the essential motive behind playing the London System – playing an opening with not much theory as the plans stay fairly constant with any Black response.  Some may have called it “playing for a draw.”  But, as the opening stuck around, the amount of theory in the opening increased, eventually to the point where people would consciously play the London System with the intent of playing for a win.

Classically, the defining moves for the London System are d4, Nf3, and Bf4 as the first three moves.  Sample starting move orders include, but are not limited to:

  1. d4 d5
  2. Nf3 e6
  3. Bf4 Nf6

Or:

  1. d4 Nf6
  2. Bf4 g6
  3. Nf3 Bg7

And so on.

LondonSystem1
A textbook London System position

The Plans

Typically, late opening/early middlegame ideas for White revolve around a few things:

  1. An e4 pawn break – when the d4 pawn is adequately supported, many times with pawns on c3 and e3, White builds up for an e3-e4 pawn break. This central break often leads to at least one minor piece trade, which opens up White’s somewhat cramped position.  It also allows the rooks to focus on the oft-open e-file.
  2. Control of the dark squares – by supporting the d4 pawn with pawns on c3 and e3 and having a bishop on f4 and a knight on f3, White often decides to focus on dark square control in the center. If White is able to establish dominant dark square control, the player is often able to maneuver pieces to holes in Black’s position and attack other sides of the board.
  3. Early queen trade – Black sometimes plays for lines with c5 and Qb6 ideas, aiming at the unprotected b2 pawn. However, White can sometimes challenge this attack by playing Qb3, offering a trade of queens.  If Black trades on b3, White recaptures with axb3, opening the rook on a1 and giving White a favorable endgame.

Interestingly enough, Black’s ideas in the London System revolve around somewhat similar concepts:

  1. An e5 pawn break – Just as White sometimes aims to break with e4, one of Black’s common ideas against the London System is to break with e5 before White can accomplish his own break. The advantage of this break for black is that, with White’s bishop on f4 and knight on f3, the push with e5 can come with great effect by gaining tempi on those minor pieces.  It can also help Black untangle his position as well, depending on how Black organizes his pieces before the break.
  2. Attacking the queenside – Since White moves his dark-squared bishop away from protecting the queenside fairly early, Black has a couple ways to try to exploit that in the opening and middlegame – namely, with the queen and with a pawn storm.
    • With the queen – As briefly mentioned earlier, the combination of c5 (hitting d4) and Qb6 is typical for Black as it activates the queen and hits the weak b2 pawn. This can sometimes create problems for White in regards to how to protect against the threat, especially if White has not played c3 yet since he wouldn’t be able to challenge the queen with Qb3.
    • With pawns – The other method of attacking the queenside is with a pawn storm. Depending on whether Black pushes his d-pawn to d6 or d5, the pawn storm can be organized differently.  If Black pushes d6, then he can follow with an eventual c5, a6, and b5 with the idea of b4, if allowed.  If Black pushes d5, then he can follow with c5, a6, c4, b5 with eventual b4, if allowed.  Either way, the goal of the pawn storm is the same – undermine the pawn support of the center and open lines.
  3. Trading off minor pieces – In a way, in the London System, White only uses half of his minor pieces in the opening phase of the game. White has the bishop on f4 and a knight on f3 which are directly involved in the fight for the center, but the light-squared bishop and queen’s knight are not.  Thus, Black often tries to get rid of the dark-squared bishop, either by using a knight with Nf6-Nh5-Nxf4(g3) or by challenging with his own dark squared bishop (Bd6).

Games

One game that exemplifies the second plan for White (as elaborated on, above) is actually from London 1922, between two very strong chess players in Akiba Rubinstein and Savielly Tartakower.

Rubinstein – Tartakower, London, 1922

 As we saw in this game, Rubinstein was focused from the start on trying to control the dark squares in the center and eventually on the flanks.  This control that he builds on allows him the luxury to eventually shuffle pieces around, including his king, and prepare for an attack, while all Black can do is scramble to defend while not having much mobility for any of his pieces.  While the end result isn’t directly connected to the opening, the fact that Rubinstein was able to establish dark square control in order to facilitate his later attack is a testament to the dangerous potential of the London System.

New Ideas

As with any opening, though, the London System has evolved over the years.  In my opinion, in fact, the London System may be at the forefront in terms of examples of openings that have evolved recently.  I have seen an uncountable number of games over the past six to twelve months where new ideas have been played and experimented with.

While I’m obviously no expert on this opening as I don’t play it myself, my observations have deemed that, in these new lines of the London System, White is focusing more on the dark square control plan and somewhat moving away from the e4 break plan.  While streamlined opening ideas can sometimes be bad as a player’s moves may become more predictable, it seems as if the aggressiveness of White in these new lines offsets that negative.

These new ideas revolve around an early Bg3 retreat (from f4), an early Ne5, and sometimes even f4 for White if given the time.  If Black doesn’t play well or does not know how to play against this plan, White can slowly build up, at which point the position becomes a more favorable version of the Stonewall for White as his dark-squared bishop is already outside the central pawn chains.

LondonSystem2
A possible position arising from newer London System ideas

With new ideas like this continually changing the face of the London System, I expect the opening to continue as one of the most popular chess openings.  While it is sometimes given a bad reputation for being a draw-ish opening, the potential exists for it to become a dangerous weapon, and thus, chess players will continue to play the opening for many years to come.

And, with that said, thanks for reading! I hope this article was enjoyable as it is something different than what I’ve written recently.  Next time out, I’ll be covering another opening, but you’ll have to wait for the details :).

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