The Tarrasch Defense, reached after the moves 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5, allows black to pose strategic questions to white in the Queen’s Pawn Opening right from the very beginning, and it is a variation of Queen’s Gambit Declined.
This Defense is one of the contributions of Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch to chess openings, who was one of the most formidable challengers of the first two world champions, Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanual Lasker, in the early 20th century. The very early and bold …c5 displays black’s tit-for-tat attitude towards white’s central hegemony. While it is not the first choice of top players nowadays, the opening philosophy behind the Tarrasch Defense is sound enough to be considered a serious option for black.
Winning percentages on both sides
|Win for white
|Win for black
By adopting an active approach right from the start of the game, black threatens to clear up the center with a series of pawn exchanges, which forces white to make a decision on how to resolve the tension. The pawn trade on d5 opens up the diagonal for the queen’s bishop, solving one of the major issues for black in similar systems in Queen’s Gambit Declined.
Black seizes free space for mobility and dynamic play, but this comes at the cost of a structural defect, namely a potential Isolated Queen’s Pawn (IQP) on d5. In the context of an IQP, white will almost always be content exchanging as many pieces as possible to transform the IQP into a long-term liability, while black has to seek ways to maximize piece activity on open lines and diagonals. For white, oftentimes a kingside fianchetto in this structure is the most reasonable idea to fight against the IQP. Black will employ a principled approach by putting the rooks on the open c- and e-files and making use of the strategic maneuvering of c6-Knight to c4 via a5.
Tarrasch Defense Theory
The primary question to answer when examining the Tarrasch Defense is what happens if white tries to win a pawn with 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.cxd5, with the anticipation of 5…Bxc5 and 6.Qxd5. Instead of recapturing 5…Bxc5, black has an intermezzo move that interferes with white’s objective to gain material: 5…d4. Therefore, white refrains from the greedy 5.dxc5 and instead the play continues with the natural 5.Nf3 Nc6, which is also the Main line of the Tarrasch Defense. 6.g3, the Rubinstein System, is usually white’s top choice, to which, black may respond with either 6…Nf6 or with 6.c4, known as the Swedish Variation. If black is feeling ambitious, they may turn the Tarrasch Defense into a sharp gambit by playing 4…cxd4. This line, where black sacrifices a pawn to gain initiative and increase attacking chances, is called the Shara Gambit.
The Main Line: 4. cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3
For the reasons stated above, white takes the natural path of development with 5.Nf3 and now 5…cxd4 would be captured with 6.Nxd4, since knights are great blockaders. But instead, black increases the tension in the center with 5…Nc6.
Now 6.dxc4 d4 7.Na4 Bxc5 8.Nxc5 Qa5+ 9.Bd2 Qxc5 would not cause too much headache for black; hence, most of the time, white takes another path and focuses on building up the pressure with a fianchetto: 6.g3. Black’s main response is 6…Nf6, but the Swedish Variation, 6…c4 has its own sensible ideas to try.
Rubinstein Variation: 6.g3 Nf6
6.g3 puts Tarrasch Defense under serious test. The move solves white’s development issue without having to play e3, which would block the path of the queen’s bishop. Both sides continue to develop and deploy their pieces with 6…Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0-0 0-0.
At this point, white has two main moves to consider to fight for an edge: 9.Bg5 and 9.dxc5. But both of them lead to a similar Isolated Queen’s Pawn structure with different nuances. 9.Bg5 is the standard move, putting indirect pressure on d5 and potentially pinning the knight in the case of dxc5 ..Bxc5. So, with 9…cxd4 black reacts immediately and becomes the one who captures the pawn first. After 10.Nxd4 h6 11.Be3 Re8, we reach the standard middlegame position of the Tarrasch Defense.
12.Qb3, renewing the pressure on black’s weakest point in the position, is met with 12…Na5. But black should not hurry with rerouting the knight to c4, because after 13.Qc2 Nc4 14.Bf4, black cannot defend against the Nxd5 threats. Instead, it is preferable to play 13…Bg4, which not only develops the bishop but also frees up the c8 square for the rook to seize control of the open c-file. 14.Nf5 Rc8 (14…Bxf5 15.Qxf5 d4 16.Rad1 and black loses the d-pawn) 15.Bd4 Bc5 with a balanced position for both sides.
The second alternative for white is the principled 12.Rc1. White’s intention is revealed after 12…Bf8 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.Na4, where the rook on c1 is now targeting the root of black’s central pawn chain. But black may now consider a surprise exchange sacrifice here: 14….Rxe3!?, ruining white’s pawn structure. After 15.fxe3 Qe8, defending c6 and attacking e3, both sides have a practical chance in the imbalanced position.
Swedish Variation: 6.g3 c4
The Swedish Variation, the decision to resolve the central tension by closing it with 6…c4, is not the most promising continuation for black in the Tarrasch Defense. The primary reason for that is that it allows white to undermine black’s pawn chain in the center with e4, transforming them into structural defects. One way white may attempt to disrupt black’s center would be 7.Bg2 Bb4 (prevents white’s b3 break but also reduces support on the e4 break due to the pin) 8.0-0 Nge7, avoiding Bg5 pin after …Nf6, and 9.e4. Now both white’s d4 pawn and black’s c4 pawn are targets, but white has a slight edge due to the more energetic placement of the pieces and the ability to exert pressure on the queenside pawns: 9…dxe4 Nxe4 10.0-0 11.Qc2 Bf5 12.Nh4 Nxd4 13.Qxc4 Bxe4 14.Bxe4 Nec6 would be a sample line for such a context.
Shara Gambit: 4.cxd5 cxd4
The game played between Vasja Pirc and Alexander Alekhine in 1931 could be pointed out as the model game for black in the Shara Gambit, where Alekhine demonstrated the dream scenario for black and how to make use of the initiative. With the moves 5.cxd5 cxd4 5.Qa4+ Bd7 6.Qxd4 exd5 7.Qxd5 Nc6 the game followed modern day theory until move eight, where white misplayed with 8.Bg5? instead of the more accurate 8.Nf3 Nf6 9.Qb3. Black’s main idea behind the pawn sacrifice in this gambit is not a mystery: develop pieces swiftly using the tempo on the queen. In some cases, black will castle queenside and hit multiple birds with one stone: piece deployment, king safety, and control of the d-file with the rook. Objectively, the Shara Gambit is not sound, but in the hands of a skilled tactician, black’s energetic piece placement in the open position can be transformed into a dangerous onslaught.
Common Trap (Shara Gambit)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 cxd4 5.Qxd4 Nc6, the knight cannot be captured due to the pin on the d-file, 6.Qd1 exd5 7.Nxd5 Be6 8.Nc3 Qxd1+ 9.Nxd1 0-0-0, black is not only deploying pieces but setting up a sneaky threat by controlling the open d-file with the rook, 10.Nc3?, the natural reaction to improve the knight’s position would be a blunder because of 10…Nb4, now white cannot deal with the double threat of …Nc2 on the next move. Moving out of the fork with 11.Rb1 would allow 11..Nc2# checkmate, but making luft for the king, e.g. 11.e3 would lose the rook after the 11…Nc2+ fork.
Pros and Cons
|Active piece play for harmonious development, especially the bishop pair, might come in handy in the open position
|Potentially vulnerable Isolated Queen’s Pawn, which may be a liability in the long run.
|Solves the general issue of the queen’s bishop
|Potential imbalances in the position make unexpected tactical blows possible for black.
|Compared to other defenses against the Queen’s Gambit Declined, limited variation choices
In the Tarrasch Defense, black needs to be ready to take the risk of playing with a potential Isolated Queen’s Pawn on d5, which may be stylistically suited for aggressive players and seasoned tacticians. In particular, if white does not know how to properly handle the pressure exerted by black, black may easily get into a comfortable position with natural moves. Although the modern day opening theory has discovered various effective strategic plans for white against the Tarrasch Defense, it still offers black the opportunity to consolidate their position and engage in active play.