How to Beat the Slav Defense with the Exchange Variation

play the enticing slav exchange variation

At the top-level of chess, the Slav Defense is often the defense of choice against 1.d4. This popularity at high levels ensures it’s also a favorite of many club players.

There is a good reason for its popularity. The Slav Defense is employed by players who want a solid position with easy piece development.

Always remember no defense is perfect, or else it would be the only one played. 

Yes, the Slav Defense is a tough nut to crack. Fortunately, we have the perfect nutcracker in the enticing Exchange Variation.

Watch this video introduction on the Exchange Slav Defense by GM Alex Lenderman to get a better picture of what this opening is about:

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Why the Slav Defense Exchange Variation?

Once considered very drawish, our growing understanding of chess has changed this perspective.

slav exchange
Slav Exchange

The Exchange Variation has been employed at the top-level by Aronian, Morozevich, So, and Kramnik. In fact, Wesley So used it to defeat the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen.

Apart from its effectiveness, the Exchange Variation does not require you to memorize lots of sharp variations nor worry about losing because you forgot a critical move.

Your deep understanding of the positions will help you emerge victorious in positions theory says is equal. Black still needs to play out these positions and prove he has obtained equality.

What is the Slav Defense Exchange Variation?

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Nc6 6.e3 brings us to the main starting position of the Slav Defense Exchange Variation.

slav exchange starting position
Slav Exchange Variation starting position

White’s plan is to put pressure down the open c-file and combine this with central piece play on the dark squares.

Holding back on developing his kingside knight allows white the option of playing Nf3 or Ne2. This is particularly useful against …Bg4 because white can meet it with f3.

In terms of move order, white will simply develop with 4.Nc3 followed by 5.Bf4. Playing 4.Bf4 allows black the option of 4….Qb6.

This is more effective on the fourth move because the white knight is still undeveloped.

Remember the adage “Knights before bishops.” and you’ll deny black this strong option.

If you can deny your opponent an annoying option in the opening, why not do it?

Black’s Options in the Slav Defense Exchange Variation

Apart from 4…Nf6 black has tried 4…Nc6 and 4…e5. While on move 5 instead of …Nc6, Black has sought to take advantage of the bishop move by attacking b2 with 5…Qb6.

Black attacks the b2 pawn with 5...Qb6. White will often sacrifice the pawn.
Black attacks the b2 pawn with 5…Qb6. White will often sacrifice the pawn.

White is best advised to ignore the threat to his b2 pawn and continue with his development. Black has yet to prove white doesn’t have adequate compensation for this pawn sacrifice.

You will find in chess, and the Slav Defense is no exception, the pawn on b2 is very often poisoned! Think very carefully before you take the bait.

The Main Options for Black on Move 6

After 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Nc6 6.e3 we reach this position:

slav exchange position at move 6. In the Slav Exchange Variation black has three main moves to choose from. These options are 6...e6, 6...Bf5, 6...Bg4
In the Slav Exchange Variation black has three main moves to choose from. These options are 6…e6, 6…Bf5, 6…Bg4

Black has three choices main choices:

  • 6…e6
  • 6…Bf5
  • 6…Bg4

A modern approach is to play the prophylactic 6…a6, but this often transposes with black playing 7…Bf5 or 7…Bg4.

The dual-purpose move 7.Rc1 serves white well in this position. White sticks to controlling the open c-file and waits to see where black will develop his bishop.

Fourth Move Alternatives By Black

Against 4…Nc6 white strikes back in the center with 5.e4.

slav 4...nc6 5.e4
Meet 4…Nc6 with 5.e4!

And after 5…dxe4 6.d5 Ne5 7.Qa4+ Bd7 8.Qxe4 Ng6 9.Bc4, white has a very nice position.

4...nc6
Slav 4…Nc6 variation after 9.Bc4 – white has easy development and a comfortable position.

4…e5 is only played by opponents who hope you play chess as badly as they do. There is absolutely nothing to fear from this move.

Meet this feeble attempt at a sucker-punch with 5.dxe5 d4 6.Ne4 Qa5+ 7.Nd2 Nc6 8.Ngf3

slav 4...e5 8.nf3
Against 4…e5 white will adopt a kingside fianchetto and keep an advantage going into the middlegame.

White will fianchetto the bishop on g2, castle and enter the middlegame with an advantage. 

When black plays 5…Qb6, you can expect him to accept your sacrifice of the b2-pawn. Otherwise, why play it instead of developing one of his pieces?

The Slav Exchange Variation with 5...Qb6. This position is reached is reached after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Qb6
The Slav Exchange Variation with 5…Qb6. This position is reached is reached after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Qb6

Prepare for …Qxb2 with 6.Rc1 defending your knight and bringing your rook to the open c-file. 

After 6…Bd7 7.e3 Qxb2 8.Bd3 e6 9.Nge2 Qa3 10.O-O a6 11.e4 white has seized the initiative, and that is worth much more than his sacrificed pawn.

Take a look at how Anton Shomoev dealt with 5…Qb6. His courageous play involved the sacrifice of not one but two pawns.

Already, in the Exchange Variation, there is the opportunity to gain an advantage as early as move 4 or 5.

Time is a precious commodity in chess and in the Slav Defense. Don’t go looking to win pawns in the opening unless they are central pawns.  

Black’s Three Main Choices on Move 6

The main tabiya of the Exchange Variation is reached by 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Nc6 6.e3.

exchange starting position
A standard position in the Slav Defense Exchange Variation

Here we will consider 6…e6, 6…Bf5, and 6…Bg4.

Remember, …Bf5 and …Bg4 can occur at move 7 if black chooses to play 6…a6 but as white, we continue with our standard, schematic play.

This is the advantage you have choosing a schematic rather than theoretical opening in chess. Learning the ideas of an opening in chess, like the Slav Defense Exchange Variation, allows you to meet transpositions confidently.

6…e6

This passive defense is surprisingly popular and is even played by grandmasters rated above 2600 Elo.

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Nc6 6.e3 e6.

slav exchange 6...e6
Slav Exchange with 6…e6

Now a good approach for white is 7.Bd3 a6 8.Rc1 Bd7 9.h3 giving the bishop a retreat square on h2 if black plays …Nh5.

After 9…b5 10.Nf3 Be7 11.O-O O-O 12.Ne5 is consistent with white’s plan to play on the dark squares and along the c-file.

White has well centralized pieces and the better light-squared bishop
White has well centralized pieces and the better light-squared bishop

Notice how effectively white combined play on the dark squares and the open c-file in the following model game by Alexander Rakhmanov.

As you can see from this game, white gets to launch a nice pawn storm against the black king. In the final position black still has a bad bishop while white has a well-placed knight in the center.

6…Bf5

When black plays 6…Bf5 white has the option of playing a series of queen moves to distract the bishop from f5. Allowing his bishop to develop on d3.

slav exchange 6...bf5
Slav Exchange 6…Bf5

Play can continue with 7.Qb3 Na5 8.Qa4+ Bd7 9.Qc2 e6 10.Bd3 Nc6 11.a3 Nh5 when white will play either 12.Be5 or 12.Bg3.

slav exchange 6...bf5 with 12.bg3 Once again black has a bad bishop on d7.
Slav Exchange Variation 6…Bf5 with 12.Bg3. Once again black has a bad bishop on d7.

Notice that in the following game, White plays 17.Kf2. The king often finds safety on this square in the Exchange Variation against both …Bf5 and …Bg4.

6…Bg4

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Nc6 6.e3 Bg4.

Slav Exchange 6...Bg4 when White again responds by attacking the weak b7 pawn with 7.Qb3
Slav Exchange 6…Bg4 when White again responds by attacking the weak b7 pawn with 7.Qb3

One of the advantages of playing the Slav Exchange Variation is the number of common strategies that white plays. Against 6…Bg4 we once again make use of the undefended b-pawn to play 7.Qb3.

For example, 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bf4 Nc6 6.e3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Na5 8.Qa4+ Bd7 9.Qc2 e6 10.Bd3.

 6...Bg4 allows white to establish a queen and bishop battery
Slav Exchange 6…Bg4 allows white to establish a queen and bishop battery

The following game shows just how dangerous the Slav Defense Exchange Variation can be.

Notice how the black knights find outposts on the central dark squares c5 and e5. Yet another recurring chess theme in the Slav Defense Exchange Variation.

Final Thoughts on Beating the Slav Defense

The practical advantage in chess you get with the Slav Defense Exchange Variation is bigger than the theoretical variation.

Choosing this opening by no means suggests you are willing to settle for a draw. What you are saying is the better chess player will win.

That’s why it’s important to work on improving your middlegame and endgame skills. The Slav Defense Exchange Variation will help you become a better chess player.

Also keep in mind, the positions that arise are often easier for white to play.

Navigating the opening only requires knowing a few key concepts which will lead you to a sound middlegame position. Learning how to use your minor pieces effectively will prove rewarding not only in this opening.

Making the most of the Slav Defense Exchange Variation requires knowing the fundamental concepts of minor piece play and controlling the open file.

Stuff every chess player must master if they wish to improve their playing strength.

Act now and Get 50% Off! Learn how to play the Slav Defense Exchange Variation from one of America’s strongest grandmasters. Let GM Aleksandr Lenderman teach you all the positional advantages white holds. Only $19!

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