The Modern Defense is a King’s Pawn Opening, which starts with the moves 1.e4 g6 and the opening is closely related to the Pirc Defense as they can easily transpose to each other. At the same time, it employs the principles of the hypermodern school of chess, meaning that black allows white to build a strong center with pawns and then try to disrupt it with a timely counterattack.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Austrian chess player Karl Robatsch made serious contributions to the opening theory of Modern Defense. Therefore, the move order is also known as the Robatsch Defense. While the Modern Defense is not frequently seen in today’s elite-level chess, it is still occasionally employed as a strategic weapon due to the imbalances it creates on the board.
Winning Percentages on both sides
|Win for white
|Win for black
The Modern Opening is a flexible and complex system that can be transposed from many lines as well as can transpose into different systems. At the same time, the line creates an asymmetrical pawn structure on the board, which allows black to follow a clear plan to seek a counterplay and play for a win. So the opening is oftentimes preferred as a surprise weapon with the intention of playing for more than equalizing the game as black.
As a product of hypermodern philosophy, the Modern Defense shares a similar strategic approach to the Grunfeld Defense, focusing on applying pressure to white’s central pawn structure, specifically targeting the d4 pawn. The most thematic way to disrupt white’s center is to play …c5 at the right time, complementing the pressure of the fianchettoed bishop on g7 on the long diagonal. Mass exchanges of pieces typically don’t happen until the middlegame, when both sides have completed their development. This means the tension in the center will be maintained for a while, usually until both sides start launching a wing attack. White can choose to castle queenside, followed by a kingside attack with h4 or castle kingside and try to consolidate black’s queenside expansion by playing moves like a4. Black therefore has to often adapt white’s decision of game plan and seek a counterplay accordingly.
Modern Defense Theory
The Modern Defense is characterized by the setup of black with …g6, …d6, …Bg7 and can be played with different move orders. This setup is almost identical to Pirc Defense in appearance, with the difference that in Modern Defense, black delays the development …Nf6 to restrain white from playing e5 and it is therefore considered less risky than Pirc Defense. Against the Modern Opening, white has a free hand to choose the setup they wish. The most standard and natural line is to develop pieces to launch a kingside attack: 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Be3 a6 5.Qd2, known as the Standard Defense. A relatively more aggressive setup for white against 3…d6 is the Pseudo-Austrian Attack with 4.f4. Alternatively, black can play 3…c5, in a similar fashion to the Accelerated Dragon variation of the Sicilian Defense in order to disrupt white’s center early with 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c5 (Pterodactyl Variation). Lastly, instead of 3.Nc3, white may attempt to occupy a broader pawn center with the Averbakh System: 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4.
Standard Defense: 4.Be3 a6 5.Qd2
After 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7, white has to make the first critical decision for their opening setup by choosing between 3.c4 and 3.Nc3. The latter is the most played continuation and aims for quick queenside development. Black then restrains the white center with 3…d6, preparing …e5 or …c5 later, and white will continue to develop queenside pieces with 4.Be3. This setup by white is also known as 150 Attack and white has a clear plan of eliminating black’s dark-squared bishop, which is the key piece in black’s set up. Unless black wants to transpose to the Pirc Defense with 4…Nf6, black now has two main ways to continue, and both of them involve expanding on the queenside: The first option is 4…c6 5.Qd2 b5 6.Bd3 (6.0-0-0 Qa5 with promising attacking chances for black) Nd7
But the most flexible and a more popular option after 4.Be3 is 4…a6. Black’s intention is the same as with 4…c6, aiming to expand on the queenside by playing …b5. It is important to note that this idea is efficient only if white has developed Nc3, because the idea behind …b5 is to advance to …b4 to dislodge the knight and attack the pawn on e4 with Bb7-Nf6. 5.Qd2, not only preparing queenside castle but also preparing Bh6, once the g8-Knight develops, 5…b5 6.f3 Nd7, still delaying …Nf6 and preparing …c5. Now white can either challenge black on the queenside with 7.a4 or directly launch a kingside attack with 7.h4, which is the most commonly played move.
Black needs to take some safety measures and deal with white’s aggressive approach by playing 7…h5 (7…h6 is also possible). A possible game continuation would be: 8.Nh3 Bb7 9.Ng5 Ngf6 10. 0-0-0 e6 11.Kb1 Qe7 and after ….Rc8 or …Rd8, black will attempt a pawn break in the center with …c6-c5 or …e5.
Pterodactyl Variation: 3…c5
In the Pterodactly Variation, black can expect white to either capture 4.dxc5 or play 4.d5. The latter transposes to a structure of Benoni Defense, so black has to be prepared for the ideas in that opening. After 4.dxc5, black continues to apply cross-diagonal pressure with 4…Qa5, double attacking the knight on c3.
However, white has no problems after 5.Bd2 Qxc5 and can cause black some trouble with 6.Nd5, threatening Bb4. For example, after 6…Na6 7.Nf3 e6 8.Bc3 and white manages to exchange black’s key piece on g7, creating structural dark-square weaknesses. Therefore, the Pterodactly Variation is not very commonly played by black.
Pseudo-Austrian Attack: 4.f4
The Pseudo-Austrian Attack with 4.f4 is one of the most aggressive approaches white can employ against Modern Defense. The basic idea behind 4.f4 is to support the advance of e5 and seize a space advantage. At the same time e5 will weaken the control of d5 square, so black will usually transpose to Pirc Defense by playing 4…Nf6 and aiming not only to castle quickly but also to meet 5.Nf3 0-0 6.e5 dxe5 7.fxe5 with 7…Nd5. Therefore, white should not hurry with e5 and continue with development 6.Bd3.
On the other hand, white has spent some time building a center with pawn moves, while has black completed development on the kingside and is therefore ready to undermine white’s center with either 6…Na6 7.0-0 c5 or 6…Nc6 7.0-0 e5 followed by …Bg4, pinning the knight.
Averbakh System: 3.c4
Similar to the Austrian Attack with 4.f4, Averbakh System with 3.c4 is another way white can try to occupy the center to control as many key squares as possible. This system is quite versatile and has a high chance of transposing to the King’s Indian Defense. Therefore, it is recommended for black to be familiar with the ideas of the opening. On the other hand, 3.c4 deprives white of the support of the pawn on d4 with c3 later as well as blocking Bc4. After 3…d6 4.Nc3, black can transpose to King’s Indian Defense with 4…Nd7 or 4…Nf6. The most common way for black to keep the game in the territory of Modern Opening is 4..e5. Transitioning into the endgame with 5.dxe5 dxe5 6.Qxd8 Kxd8 gives white no advantage, so white usually prefers to close the position with 5.d5
The main idea for black in this pawn structure is to eventually play ..f5. 5…f5 now would be premature, so black usually prepares the pawn break with 5…a5 (stopping white’s b4) 6.Bd3 Na6 7.Nge2 Nc5 8.Bc2 Nf6 9. 0-0 0-0 10.f3 Ne8 followed by …f5 next.
Pros and Cons
|Rich middlegame positions with counterattacking chances to play for a win as black.
|Space advantage and easier piece play for white
|poses a challenge for opponents in preparation due to its versatility and ability to transpose into various pawn structures
|White determines on which side of the board the action happens. Black has to adapt white’s game plans.
In conclusion, the Modern Defense offers a dynamic and unorthodox opening choice with its hypermodern philosophy. The opening is versatile, and due to potential transpositions, it requires a certain degree of familiarity with structures that occur in King’s Indian Defense or Benoni Defense. However, the line also carries risks, such as leading to a passive position for black. Therefore, precise move orders and good timing of counterattacks are essential. Overall, the Modern Defense is rather suited for intermediate to advanced players, but it can also help beginners gain familiarity with game
Do grandmasters play the Modern Defense?
Yes, grandmasters do play the Modern Defense. It’s a flexible and dynamic opening that has been employed by many top-level players, especially those who prefer unorthodox and less predictable lines.
Is the Modern Defense a good opening?
The Modern Defense is considered a good opening for players who enjoy a hypermodern style of play. It allows for a strong counter-attack and control of the center from a distance. However, its effectiveness can depend on the player’s style and proficiency in handling asymmetrical positions.