The Nimzo-Indian: An Essential Guide to One of the Best Chess Openings

The Nimzo-Indian Defense is a chess opening for Black that arises after the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4. It’s a hypermodern chess opening suitable for beginners and advanced players alike.

the nimzo indian defense a complete guide blog image

The Nimzo-Indian Defense can help you achieve a strong chess strategy and is one of the best chess openings for Black. It is:

Starting position of the Nimzo-Indian Defense.
Starting position of the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

The Nimzo-Indian Defense has been played by almost every world champion and challenger for the past 100 years!

The Nimzo-Indian Defense offers rapid development and a good position, making it ideal for chess players of all skill levels.

Learning how to use this dynamic and static advantage well will make you a better all-around chess player

The following video by GM Damian Lemos will introduce you to the ideas and strategies of this powerful defense. The Nimzo-Indian Defense has proved itself against the very best chess players of the past 100 years!

Estimated reading time: 19 minutes

The Nimzo-Indian Defense Is One of the Best Chess Openings

You can find the Nimzo-Indian Defense in the games of Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik, Vishy Anand, Magnus Carlsen, and other grandmasters.

Why is it so popular? Mostly because it can take many different forms while still providing an advantage for Black.

When successfully played, Black will, at the very least, have made a strong defense. At best, players will also have a fantastic range of tactical options at their fingertips.

The opening was first used by Aron Nimzowitsch, the founder of the hypermodern school of chess.

One of his principles was that players don’t need to fill the center of the chessboard with pawns to control it.

Instead, you can make your opponent do that hard work… and then make their pawns the targets of attack.

It’s an approach that has worked well not only for beginners, but many of the world’s strongest players.

So, the Nimzo-Indian Defense…

  • Is one of the best defenses against 1.d4
  • Offers an opportunity to double White’s c-pawns and block White’s bishops
  • It allows Black to protect the king and then gain control of the center
  • This leads to greater flexibility due to Black’s delayed pawn structure

The Nimzo-Indian Defense also offers black the opportunity to take white into unfamiliar territory with the Adjoran Gambit. This is a sound, exciting option you can use as a surprise weapon or to let white know he is in for a fight.

GM Damian Lemos will show you how to use the Adjoran Gambit in the Nimzo-Indian Defense to make full use of black’s lead in development.

The Adjoran Gambit is a great surprise weapon in the Capablanca Variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 4.a3

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.a3 Bxc3 5.bxc3 b6

samisch start
Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 4…b6

Black plans to attack the forward doubled-pawn on c4 by developing the bishop to a6 and playing …Nc6 and …Na5.

White plans on his bishop pair and large center making up for the structural weakness, so 6.f3 is a logical move. Black continues with his plan.

6…Ba6 7.e4 Nc6

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 7...nc6
Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 7…Nc6

and now white has three main attempts to gain an advantage:

  • 8.Bg5
  • 8.e5
  • 8.Bd3

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch Variation 8.Bg5

8.Bg5 is the most popular move when 8…Qc8 isn’t the most popular choice by black, but it has a 60% success rate! 

The idea behind 8…Qc8 is to break the pin on the knight and bring the queen to c6 via b7. From c6, the queen adds to the attack on the c4 pawn.

One of white’s pluses in the Nimzo-Indian Defense is his bishop pair, so black isn’t concerned about White capturing on f6.

Even if White does play Bxf6, Black can safely castle queenside and use the open g-file.

Talsma, Paul – Greet, Andrew, 0-1, Hastings Masters op 85th, 2010

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch Variation 8.e5

8.e5 Ng8 (Remember 8…Nh5? 9.g4 wins the knight) 9.Nh3 Na5 10.Qa4 Ne7

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 8.e5 with 10...Ne7
Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 8.e5 with 10…Ne7

Developing the knight to e7 is black’s most popular move, but once again, 10…Qc8 is an excellent move. Take a look at both 10…Ne7 and 10…Qc8 in the following game study. 

Sadorra, Julio Catalino – Izoria, Zviad, 0-1, Dallas UTD-A, 2009

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch Variation 8.Bd3

Black should continue with his plan to attack the c4-pawn and play 8…Na5 9.Qe2 c5 10.e5

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 8.Bd3 and 10.e5
Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 8.Bd3 and 10.e5

10.e5 is a tricky move when black must remember to play 10…Ng8, not 10…Nh5 when g4 traps the knight.

Here is a game showing how things can go horribly wrong for White in the Samisch variation of Nimzo-Indian Defense after 10.e5.

Even if White finds 10. Be3, which is the best move, Black has good chances for a win.

Dubrovin, R. – Roiz, M., 0-1, World Rapid 2018

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 4.f3

In this variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense, where White doesn’t waste a tempo on 4.a3 back usually retreats his bishop to e7. 

Once again, it’s essential to keep the move …Qh4 in mind after white plays f3.

This tactic gives black the option of playing a temporary piece sacrifice on g4.

Black must strike back in the center soon, or else he risks being overrun by white’s center. That’s why Black meets 4.f3 with 4…d5.

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 4.f3 d5
Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 4.f3 d5

After 5.a3 Be7 6.e4 dxe4 7.fxe4 e5! Is the key move for black.

White’s position would be in ruins after 8.dxe5 Qxd1+ 9.Kxd1 Ng4 threatening …Nf2 and …Nxe5.

This is why white plays 8.d5 and after 8…Bc5 9.Bg5 O-O we reach the following position.

Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 4.f3 with 9...O-O
Nimzo-Indian Defense Samisch 4.f3 with 9…O-O

Here is the current world champion playing the Nimzo-Indian Defense against one of today’s strongest attacking players – GM Hikaru Nakamura

Nakamura, Hi – Carlsen, M., 0-1, Zurich Chess Challenge 2014

Former World Champion Capablanca’s Choice – 4.Qc2

Currently, the most popular way nowadays to meet the Nimzo-Indian Defense, 4.Qc2, was also the choice of World Champion Capablanca. 

The queen on c2 serves the dual purpose of supporting e4 and avoiding doubled-pawns. 

There are three good ways for Black to meet 4.Qc2. 

Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Qc2
Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Qc2
  • 4…Nc6,
  • 4…O-O, the most popular, and
  • 4…c5

In this video, GM Eugen Perelshteyn will show you how to play 4…Nc6 against Capablanca’s favorite move in the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

Castling on move four is the safest option. Since you know you plan on castling, it makes sense to play it instead of 4…c5. You might not play …c5, but you are sure to play …O-O.

The move 4…c5 is more dynamic and has a slightly higher winning percentage.

This move also has the advantage of easing your theoretical workload as it is played in many variations of the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

White will almost always capture with 5.dxc5 when 5…Na6 is in keeping with the dynamic spirit of this opening variation.

Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Qc2 O-O

4…O-O has been played by two recent world champions – Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik

Play usually continues with 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Qxc3. Now 6…b6 is in keeping with the spirit of the Nimzo-Indian Defense and was the move chosen by Kasparov and Kramnik.

nimzo indian defense 4.qc2 with 6...b6
Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Qc2 O-O and 6…b6

Here is a game between these two giants played in their World Championship match from 2000.

Kramnik, Vladimir – Kasparov, Garry, 1/2-1/2, World Championship, 2000

In chess, it is essential to be aware of the resources and strategies available to your opponent. The Nimzo-Indian Defense can easily hold its own against all of white’s attacking plans.

Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Qc2 c5

4…c5 This move is met with 5.dxc5 by white, who gets the semi-open d-file and pressure against the backward d-pawn as compensation. Black need not hurry to recapture since the pawn is not escaping. 

nimzo indian defense 4.qc2 c5
Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Qc2 c5

Although 5…Na6 is the most dynamic response playing 5…O-O and then 6…Na6 is another good plan and was the choice of strong Armenian chess grandmaster Levon Aronian in this variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

The following game study contains both 5…Na6 and Aronian’s approach.

Li, Chao B – Wang, Yue, 0-1, Shenzhen Celebrity 1st, 2011

Rubenstein Variation 4.e3

The Rubenstein Variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense is deceptively dangerous. White will follow 4.e3 with either 5.Bd3 or 5.Ne2.

The move 5.Ne2 prevents black from doubling white’s pawns while 5.Bd3 lends support to the e4-square. Black needs to remember that White hasn’t ruled out playing e4 by playing 4.e3.

Because white retains the option of playing e4, a good response by Black is 4…b6. The bishop on b7 will help the knight on f6 control the critical e4 square. Another good reason to play 4…b6 is that it is effective against both 5.Ne2 and 5.Bd3.

rubenstein variation of the nimzo-indian defense 4.e3 b6
Nimzo-Indian Defense Rubenstein Variation 4.e3 b6

Playing …b6 doesn’t mean black won’t play …c5 or …d5. If you are considering playing …d5 after …b6 be very careful white can’t play Qa4+

The move …b6 leaves the c6-square undefended and means you can’t meet Qa4+ with …Nc6 defending the bishop on b4.

Rubenstein Variation with 5.Ne2

5.Ne2 is by far White’s most popular choice in the Rubinstein Variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense. In addition to preventing black from doubling pawns with …Bxc3, the knight can support the e4 advance after Ng3.

rubinstein variation 4.e3 with 5.ne2
Nimzo-Indian Defense Rubinstein variation 4.e3 with 5.Ne2

Black can occupy the e4-square with 5….Ne4. This move also renews the threat of doubling white’s pawns and makes …Qh4 a good candidate move. 

The move …Qh4 might not win material, but it can cause white to make serious positional compromises. For example, 6.a3 Qh4 7.g3 Qf6 8.f4.

rubinstein variation weak white squares
Rubinstein variation weak white squares

A bishop on b7 will be a monster, and Black will create doubled pawns on the c-file by exchanging twice on c3.

That’s why white usually plays 6.Qc2 instead of 6.a3. The queen development means white will avoid weakening his pawn structure which is typical of the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

Play is likely to continue 6…Bb7 7.a3 Bxc3 8.Nxc3 Nxc3 9.Qxc3 O-O

rubinstein variation 5.ne2 with 9...o o
Nimzo-Indian Defense Rubinstein variation 5.Ne2 with 9…O-O

At the cost of his development, white has achieved his goal of obtaining the bishop pair without structural damage. Catching up in development can be tricky for White.

Essential moves for Black to keep in mind in this variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense are …Qh4, f5, and Nd7-f6.

Dubov, Daniil – Moiseenko, Alexander, 0-1, FIDE World Blitz 2013

In the following video GM Mihail Marin explains black’s alternative plan of developing the bishop to a6 and applying pressure on the c4-pawn.

Rubenstein Variation 5.Bd3

Against 5.Bd3 Black can continue in the same manner as he played against 5.Ne2 with …Bb7 and …Ne4. A typical line continues 5…Bb7 6.Nf3 Ne4 7.Qc2 Bxc3 8.bxc3 f5 9.O-O O-O

rubenstein variation 4.e3 and 5.bd3 with 9...o o 1
Nimzo-Indian Defense Rubenstein Variation 4.e3 and 5.Bd3 with 9…O-O

Here is Spanish Super GM Vallejo Pons showing us how to play this position in the Nimzo-Indian Defense with the black pieces.

Bu Xiangzhi – Vallejo Pons, F., 0-1, World Blitz 2016

Nimzo-Indian Defense Leningrad System 4.Bg5

In the Leningrad System of the Nimzo-Indian Defense White chooses to ignore the pin on his knight and counter with a pin of his own.

The main point behind Bg5 is not to exchange it on f6 but to make Black weaken his kingside pawn structure.

Here is GM Niclas Huschenbeth showing you how an aggressive approach by white can often backfire on him and leave black with the opening advantage in the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bg5 we reach the starting position of the Leningrad System.

Nimzo-Indian Defense Leningrad system 4.bg5
Nimzo-Indian Defense Leningrad system 4.Bg5

The next few moves are very thematic. Play continues 4…h6 5.Bh4 c5 6.d5 d6 7.e3 Bxc3 8.bxc3 e5 9.Qc2 Qe7

Nimzo-Indian Defense Leningrad system 9...qe7
Nimzo-Indian Defense Leningrad system 9…Qe7

Because black plays …g5, the queen is safe on e7 and supports the pawn advance …e4. This pawn advance creates a good square for a black knight on e5.

A knight on e5 can be such a powerful piece that it is often worth sacrificing the pawn on e4 to free up the e5-square.

Enjoy learning how to play this position of the Nimzo-Indian Defense from former World Champion Anatoly Karpov.

Jussupow, Artur – Karpov, Anatoly, 0-1, Hofmann Cup, 1995

Instead of 9…Qe7 black can play 9…Nbd7, which usually ends in a draw. This could be a good choice if you find yourself playing a much stronger opponent.

Take a look at these two games where a draw was agreed as early as move 13! The second game lasted twice as long before the players agreed to a draw on move 26.

Ionescu, Constantin – Kalesis, Nikolaos, 1/2-1/2, Berga op, 1995

Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.g3

After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.g3

nimzo indian 4.g3
Nimzo-Indian 4.g3

The move 4.g3 means black must look for an alternative to a queenside fianchetto. 

Because White has started development on the flank, it makes sense for Black to play in the center.

The move …c5 is a logical choice and explains why it’s the most played response to 4.g3.

In this variation, Black does not have to part with his dark-squared bishop. Along with …c5, another central counter-attacking move for Black is …e5.

Take a look at how Wesley So used both these pawn breaks to hold Magnus Carlsen to a draw. In fact, Wesley So was a pawn up when they agreed to a draw.

Carlsen, M. – So, W., 1/2-1/2, Tata Steel India Blitz, 2019

thematic strategy for Black is to meet white’s flank development with a counter-attack in the center. 

Black can prepare the central advance with the move …d6 intending …e5. This move tempts white to close the h1-a8 diagonal with d5 and threatens to block the diagonal with …e4 and …d5.

Play might continue 4…O-O 5.Bg2 d6 6.Nf3 Bxc3 7.bxc3 Nc6 8.O-O e5 9.Qa4 Bd7

nimzo indian 4.g3 with 9...bd7
Nimzo Indian 4.g3 with 9…Bd7

Although White has the bishop pair, black’s position is very solid and has no weaknesses. Black’s pieces are well-centralized too. 

Xu, Xiangyu – Le Quang Liem, 0-1, Asian Continental Blitz, 2019

Although 4…c5 is the most played move 4…O-O has scored higher!

Once again, it makes sense to play the move you are sure to play first. Another option for Black is to play …d5 transposing to a Catalan where black could capture on c4 and keep the pawn.

Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Bd2

You are likely to encounter the move 4.Bd2 a lot more at the club level than against top opponents. Although breaking the pin and preventing structural damage is logical, it is a passive approach. 

Black will often establish his knight on e4 and support it with …f5. Driving the knight back with f3 will leave white vulnerable to …Qh4+. 

Even though it is a seldom played move, Black must know how to meet it. Fortunately for black, he has two good responses.

After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bd2 we reach the following position

Nimzo-Indian defense 4.bd2
Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Bd2

Now Black can choose between either 4…O-O or 4…b6

4…O-O has been played by Magnus Carlsen and Nigel Short. Interestingly enough, they both fianchettoed the bishop on b7 soon after castling. 

After 4…O-O white’s most common responses are 5.Nf3 and 5.e3 when black continues with his plan to develop the bishop on b7 and claim space in the center with …d5.

Here are two games by Nigel Short showing you how to meet these two moves.

Li Chao2 – Short, N., 0-1, 42nd Olympiad 2016

After 4…b6, the most common response by White is 5.Nf3. White might opt for a kingside fianchetto against 4…b6 since the diagonal is open, but black has nothing to fear.

Here is a game by Sergey Karjakin that clearly demonstrates black’s strategy of striking back with …c5 and …d5.

Mamedyarov, S. – Karjakin, Sergey, 1/2-1/2, FIDE World Cup 2015

Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Qb3

On b3, the queen prevents the doubling of pawns and attacks the bishop. The downside for White is that the queen is misplaced on b3. 

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qb3

Nimzo-Indian defense4.qb3
Nimzo-Indian Defense 4.Qb3

Black equalizes without any trouble by controlling the light squares with …b6, …Bb7, and …f5.

See how Radoslaw Wojtaszek used his light-squared bishop to force a resignation from White.

Pakleza, Zbigniew – Wojtaszek, Radoslaw, 0-1, Warsaw AIG Life rapid 7th, 2007

Sidelines can be tricky and you will often run into them at the club level so it pays to be well-prepared against them. Even though they are unlikely to pose much of a threat there is a reason people play them.

Fortunately, strong players like GM Mihail Marin are willing to advise us about how best to navigate these tricky waters. Here is his suggestion on how to meet 4.Qb3.

Final Thoughts on the Nimzo-Indian Defense

The Nimzo-Indian is one of the best chess openings for black. It is strong for beginners and advanced players alike who appreciate openings that give them lots of options.

Choosing the Nimzo-Indian Defense gives you the perfect blend of dynamic play and a sound structure. 

You get to enjoy winning chances in the middlegame while knowing your position will be solid in the endgame.

Many of the world’s most aggressive players play the Nimzo-Indian Defense, which should give you the confidence to adopt it. 

There aren’t many defenses for Black that offer good winning chances without playing a speculative gambit or accepting structural damage. 

Act Now and Save 84%! The Nimzo-Indian Defense Super Mega Bundle is Only $49! This complete package will provide you with much more than the opening moves. You will gain a deep understanding of the ideas and strategies of the Nimzo-Indian Defense. Usually, $299 this Super Mega Bundle is only $49 for a limited time!

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