Catalan Opening – A Complete Guide

The Catalan Opening is a hypermodern opening introduced to the chess world by Savielly Tartakower in Barcelona back in 1929. It arises after the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 (other move orders are posiible). The Catalan Opening in chess is a powerful weapon for positional players who enjoy playing 1.d4.

the catalan opening a complete guide

White avoids the Nimzo-Indian Defense by playing Nf3 instead of Nc3. Another characteristic move in the Catalan Opening is Bg2, putting pressure on the black queenside and inhibiting his queenside development.

There are several possible moves orders for White to choose from, but most of them lead to the typical position shown in the diagram below. For example, 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0

The Catalan Opening Starting Position
A Typical Starting Position in the Catalan Opening

In this guide, you will learn the typical tactics and strategies of the Catalan Opening. You will also learn how to use the various opening move orders to reach comfortable playing positions.

The Catalan Opening is a dangerous weapon for white where understanding the plans and piece placement allows you to safely navigate the opening. There’s no need to memorize cutting-edge, razor-sharp opening variations.

IM Mat Kolosowski knows all about the attacking potential contained within White’s seemingly quiet approach. Here he demonstrates how to attack the castled king.

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes

Some of the Best Chess Players of All Time Have Played the Catalan

The Catalan Opening has been played by many world champions and many top players globally, both past and present.

The list of world champions to have played the Catalan Opening includes Smyslov, Petrosian, Karpov, and Kramnik

Among the top players in the world, Victor Korchnoi, Bent Larsen, and Boris Gelfand have all played the Catalan Opening with success.

The Ideas Within the Flexible Catalan Opening

Because the Catalan Opening is system-based, there is a lot of room for transpositions in the opening. White can use this to neatly sidestep some of Black’s defensive setups to reduce the theoretical workload.

The key move in transposing is to withhold c4 until move 5 or 6. This denies black the option of entering the lines beginning with 4…dxc4

One possible way the game might start is 1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.0-0 Be7 5.c4 0-0 6.d4 when Black has to choose between a Closed Catalan Opening with 6…Nbd7 or the main line with 6…dxc4.

The Catalan Opening Starting Position
The Catalan Opening Starting Position

Instead of adopting a flank opening, it is possible to play d4 without an early c4. For example 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 with 0-0 and c4 to follow.

alternative move order in the catalan opening
Flexible move order is one of the many advantages of the Catalan Opening.

The Closed Catalan Opening

In the Closed Catalan Opening, black is willing to accept a cramped but solid position without any weaknesses.

Practice has proven that the black position is not the easiest to play.

After the move 7.Qc2, White has lost less than 20% of the games played from this position. It seems the space advantage may be worth a lot more than it appears at first glance.

Closed Catalan Opening with 7.Qc2

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 Nbd7 7.Qc2

closed catalan opening starting position
Closed Catalan Opening starting position

The main alternative for White is 7.Nc3, which is a gambit line and will be examined next.

Black usually plays 7…c6 to support his center and blunt the g2 bishop. Now White has the simple strategy of 8.Nbd2 and e4.

8.Nbd2 b6 9.e4

catalan closed 9.e4
Closed Catalan 9.e4

By far, the most common response by Black is 9…Bb7, but at club level, you are likely to face 9…dxe4.

After 9…Bb7, the center often becomes blocked. White will play e5 creating a blocked center. 

When playing a flexible opening like the Catalan Opening in chess, it is vital to have a flexible mindset.

Once the center gets closedexchanging your light-squared bishop is essential!

In positions like this, the fianchettoed bishop is not a very strong piece.

The following game shows how White can use his space advantage to make life very challenging for Black. GM Bauer also used the semi-open e-file and open c-file to excellent effect.

Included is GM Sandro Mareco showing us how to deal with 9…dxe4 emphatically!

Bauer, Ch – Huss, A., 1-0, 23rd Martigny Open 2014

Closed Catalan Opening with 7.Nc3

At first glance, it looks as if Black can keep his pawn because his knight can come to b6 after …dxc4. However, white gets control of the center with e4 and can use this with devastating effect!

This variation of the Catalan Opening is a clear example of why capturing away from the center with a pawn is seldom recommended.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0Nbd7 7.Nc3

closed catalan opening 7.nc3
Closed Catalan Opening 7.Nc3

Despite being played between two players rated above 2500, the next game only lasted 26 moves. 

Jaulneau, Christophe – Marczell, Ing. Peter, 1-0, POR75/A (POR), 2012

Black Declines the Gambit with 7…c6

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 Nbd7 7.Nc3 c6

closed catalan 7.nc3 c6
Closed Catalan 7.Nc3 c6

As the previous game indicated in the Catalan Opening in chess, Black might be better served to decline the pawn and bolster his center with 7…c6 instead.

White’s most popular response is 8.b3, but 8.Nd2 has the best winning percentage!

Once again, White is employing the strategy of placing a knight on d2 to support the e4 advance. Moving the knight from f3 to d2 also allows white’s Catalan bishop to become active along the h1-a8 diagonal.

In the next game, notice how the bishop on e3 does a great job defending the white central wedge despite being trapped behind pawns on the same color squares. 

This bishop ends up playing a winning role in the resulting endgame.

Once again, if Black captures the pawn with …dxe4, he gives white the space advantage and more active piece play. 

Hungaski, R. – Ortiz Suarez, I., 1-0, 12th American Continental, 2017

Catalan Opening Mainline

The Open Catalan is characterized by black capturing on c4. Play can begin with many different move orders, but a common way of reaching the starting position is

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4

catalan opening mainline
Catalan Opening Mainline

Now white has two main responses, 7.Qc2, and 7.Ne5.

Catalan Opening Mainline – 7.Qc2

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2

catalan mainline 7.qc2
Catalan Mainline 7.Qc2

Play continues in very thematic fashion with 7…a6 8.Qxc4 b5 9.Qc2 Bb7 10.Bb4

catalan mainline 9...bb7
Catalan Mainline 9…Bb7

There is little doubt 10.Bd2 is the main move, but with it comes a hefty theoretical workload. 10.Bf4 is a sound alternative that offers excellent practical chances to play for a win.

Magnus Carlsen, Maxime Vachier Lagrave, and Vladimir Kramnik have all played 10.Bf4!

This developing move is a provocative one that hopes to tempt Black into playing …Nd5 and …Nxf4. You are likely to find club players more likely to play in this manner.

Stronger players will realize white’s kingside weaknesses are not as significant as they appear. Combined with the loss of tempi in moving the knight twice, a more sensible approach by Black is to continue developing with 10…Nc6!

Short, N. – Hou Yifan, 1-0, 2016

In the next video, IM Mat Kolosowski to show how from a seemingly quiet position, White can place incredible pressure on Black’s position.

Catalan Opening Mainline – 7.Ne5

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Ne5 Nc6

catalan opening mainline 7.ne5
Catalan Opening Mainline 7.Ne5

The theory holds this move by Black as responsible for making 7.Ne5 obsolete. However, you must wonder how somebody is comfortable playing Black with such a shattered pawn formation?

Before 7…Nc6, the recommended move was 7…c5, but this allowed White to transition to a nice endgame with 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.Qxd8 Rxd8.

A person has to think the Catalan Opening in chess is a good choice with White if doubled, isolated pawns are an improvement for Black. Is the easier development enough to compensate Black for this pawn weakness?

Despite the pawn weaknesses, this line is not to be taken lightly by White!

Many of today’s strongest players, including Nakamura, So, and Grischuk, have been willing to play this position with Black. This is a good line for you to explore with a silicone friend.

In the meantime, here is a game showing how Black’s pawn weakness stayed with him throughout the game. Even former world champion Anatoly Karpov couldn’t find a way to win with the black pieces in this variation.

Georgiev, Kiril – Karpov, Anatoly, 1-0, FIDE GP, 2002

Mainline Catalan Opening 6.Qc2

If you wish to reduce your theoretical workload even further, there is a perfectly playable alternative for White in 6.Qc2 instead of 6.O-O.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Qc2

Catalan Opening Mainline 6.Qc2
Catalan Opening Mainline 6.Qc2

Now 6…c5 is regarded as Black’s best move. Once again, striking back in the center.

However, White has the popular 7.0-0 and the interesting 7.dxc5. Levon Aronian used 7.0-0 in the next game to defeat Magnus Carlsen. 

Any opening line used to defeat Magnus Carlsen is worth including in your repertoire. The most important factor must always remain your comfort level in the positions that arise from the opening.

Aronian, L. – Carlsen, M., 1-0, Zurich CC Rapid 2014

Instead of 6…c5, Black can choose to transpose to the Open Catalan with 6…dxc4. Once again, White is advised to enter an endgame with greater control of the center and his influential Catalan bishop.

Here are two ways to play the endgame with White. 

When playing the Catalan Opening, the bishop on g2 is undoubtedly a powerful piece, but you should not be afraid to exchange it if you can gain an advantage. 

Yevseev, Denis – Malakhatko, Vadim, 1-0, RUS-Cup, 2000

The Open Catalan with 4…dxc4

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3

open catalan opening 4...dxc4
Open Variation of the Catalan Opening 4…dxc4

Black takes up the challenge of allowing White to occupy the center with his pawns in the hope of gaining counterplay by attacking the white center.

This is a double-edged approach, and the Catalan Opening in chess is dangerous enough without any additional help from Black.

In return for giving up the center, Black can choose to hold on to his extra pawn. This makes perfect sense because if you grant your opponent control of the center, you do not want to do it for free. 

From this position, the top three choices by Black on move five are:

  1. 5…a6
  2. 5….Nc6
  3. 5…c5

4…dxc4 5.Nf3 a6

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 a6

open catalan 5...a6
Open Variation of the Catalan 5…a6

Black signals his intention to hold onto the pawn. 

Believe it or not but White can even offer a second pawn and make it one of his central pawns to boot!

6.0-0 Nc6 7.Nc3 Rb8 8.e4 Be7 9.Qe2

open variation of the catalan 9.qe2
Open Variation of the Catalan 9.Qe2

This move allows black to capture the d4-pawn or to consolidate with …b5. The whole idea behind placing the rook on b8 was to support …b5, so there is really no point in avoiding this pawn advance.

Unless it’s to win another pawn!

There will always be players who grab whatever is on offer and trust they can safely navigate through the initiative they give their opponent.

The positional Catalan Opening in chess openings shows it’s very familiar with tactics too!

Here are two games clearly demonstrating the compensation White gets is not to be underestimated.

Even though he was two pawns down after allowing 9…Nxd4, Evgeny Bareev was still willing to exchange queens in the middlegame. 

He also allowed black to obtain a dangerous passed pawn on the seventh rank. Enjoy this excellent back-and-forth tussle!

In the other game, Yuri Shulman chose to consolidate with 9…b5. This proved to be a wise choice and helped him make it through to a king and queen endgame.

Mikhalevski, Victor – Shulman, Yuri, 1-0, Khanty-Mansiysk ol (Men) 39th, 2010

Of course, White can adopt a more cautious approach and avoid the pawn gambit by playing 7.e3. In chess, there are times when not rushing in makes a lot of sense, even if it means giving up a tempo.

8.Qe2 is the most often played move, but 8.Nc3 deserves consideration. This could be fertile ground for a novelty or at least a second option up your sleeve.

In the next game, it is no surprise that a lot of the play took place in the center of the board. 

Aronian, Levon – Morozevich, Alexander, 1-0, Amber-rapid 18th, 2009

4…dxc4 5.Nf3 Nc6

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 Nc6

open variation of the catalan opening 5...nc6
Open variation of the Catalan Opening 5…Nc6

This is an excellent approach by Black that in no way denies him from playing dynamically. The knight on c6 puts pressure on d4, supports the e5-pawn advance, and allows …Rb8 and …b5 to defend the c4-pawn.

There is no reason to deviate from the most popular moves until you reach move 8. 

6.Qa4 Bb4+ 7.Bd2 Nd5

open variation of the catalan 7...nd5
Open variation of the Catalan 7…Nd5

Now instead of heading for the endgame with 8.Bxb4, White can play 8.Qb5

Despite being outranked by a staggering 195 Elo! Flores Rios used 8.Qb5 to defeat his opponent rated 2724. 

Take note of the lead in development and open files he got in return for the pawn. 

Flores Rios, M. – Fedoseev, Vl3, 1-0, PRO League KO Stage 2018

4…dxc4 5.Nf3 c5

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.Nf3 c5

open variation of the catalan opening 5...c5
Open variation of the Catalan Opening 5…c5

Unsurprisingly, when Black counters with play in the center, things go a lot better. This is a variation where White’s best choice is to keep it simple and head for an endgame.

Black can return the pawn and break up White’s pawn structure with …c3, but White is playing for two results. 

The endgame is reached after 6.0-0 Nc6 7.dxc5 Qxd1 8.Rxd1 Bxc5 9.Nbd2 c3 10.bxc3 0-0

Open variation of the Catalan 10...O-O
Open variation of the Catalan 10…O-O

Playing an opening that requires you to know your endgames is an excellent way to improve your all-around chess skills.

GM Grigor Grigorov shares both his wisdom of Catalan endgames and his love of them in this very instructive video.

Take a look at how Maxime Vachier Lagrave uses his knight, which ends up on a1 and d1 en route to c3. Later this tireless knight becomes the hero of the endgame. 

16.f3 is a move worth investigating. Black will undoubtedly learn the best way to play against this move, but you can use it in your games until he does.

Vachier Lagrave, M. – So, W., 1-0, Cote d’Ivoire Blitz 2019

Final Thoughts

The Catalan Opening has proven itself to be an attacking weapon well-suited for positional players. 

There is enough flexibility in the move order to allow you to reduce your must-know opening theory significantly.

It would be best if you still put in the time, but you can focus more on understanding the opening than memorizing razor-sharp lines in the Catalan Opening.

Playing the Catalan Opening will ensure you become a well-rounded chess player while giving you every chance to play for a win.

Another bonus is if you want to make it harder for opponents to prepare for you, the Reti Opening is a similar opening that will round off your opening repertoire very nicely.

Also, be sure to read:

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