Strike Back Now With the Modern Defense – A Complete Chess Opening Guide

The Modern Defense is a chess opening for Black that arises after the moves 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7.

The Modern Defense A Complete Guide blog image

Why wait to counter-attack with Black when the Modern Defense allows you to do it on move one?

White will usually find the invitation to show you what he’s got irresistible. In contrast, you don’t have to reveal your plans right away.

Whoever said having the first move gives White an advantage obviously didn’t play the Modern Defense. Black gets to see what strategy his opponent plans on using right from the early moves.

Will White try to go for the kill early in the game with h4? Will he settle for a positional line with Nf3 and Bd3?

You will soon know and can react accordingly.

Estimated reading time: 19 minutes

Powerful Ideas in the Modern Defense

The Modern Defense allows Black to learn a lot about his opponent’s playing style. This guides Black in deciding the optimum way of striking back!

starting position modern defense
Starting position of the dynamic Modern Defense

When White plays a positional line, Black can set the board on fire with tactics. Any White player trying a fast attack will get met with calm defense that smothers the heat of an early attack.

In the Modern Defense, as in many openings, knowing your pawn breaks is crucial. This helps Black successfully implement a bend-but-don’t-break strategy.

Black’s initial position is often cramped, but these freeing pawn breaks show the dynamic potential of the Modern Defense.

Black is often well-advised to take his time before castling. There is little to fear from White’s kingside pawn storm if your king watches from the center.

Keep in mind that every attack in chess comes at a cost. This can be in sacrificed material or in positional concessions like weak squares left behind the pawns.

nowadays the dynamic element is more important in chess blog image

The well-prepared Black player will look forward to seeing White launch an attack. Playing the Modern Defense allows you to reap the rewards of White’s attack without offering anything in return.

There are plenty of opportunities for White to over-extend and hand black everything he needs for victory.

The Many Variations of the Modern Defense

No matter what White plays the reply 1…g6 does nothing to challenge the occupation of the center. This gives White a lot of options.

White can establish a broad center or settle for more modest central gains supported by the c-pawn. Striking a balance between all-out aggression and central control is a strategy that usually serves White best.

White Plays an Early h4

1.e4 g6 2.h4 Nf6

early h4 in the modern
White attacks with an early h4 in the Modern Defense

The move 2…Nf6 can involve a pawn sacrifice if White continues with 3.e5 Nh5 4.Be2 threatening to capture twice on h5.

early h4 pawn sacrifice
Black sacrifices a pawn to save time

Since the Modern Defense isn’t suitable for safety-first players, go ahead and sacrifice the pawn. You made the commitment when you placed your knight on h5.

Saving the tempo by leaving the knight on h5 is worth more than the pawn!

Black will gain at least adequate compensation for the pawn.

Knowing how to defend against an early h4 is important. This is a favorite approach of Grandmaster Simon Williams, aka the GingerGM, against fianchetto defenses. You can trust GM Damian Lemos to guide you to a sound middlegame position:

If you can’t resist moving the knight, then you might find the Pirc Defense more to your liking. GM Damian Lemos has got your back with a fighting repertoire in the Pirc Defense too!

Predojevic, B. – Andreikin, D., 0-1, Hasselbacken Open 2016

White Chooses the e4, d4, and c4 Center

There are many ways to reach this position, but Black presses ahead with his plan no matter how White approaches it.

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4 or 1.d4 g6 2.e4 Bg7 3.c4 both bring us to the following position.

modern defense d4 e 4 c4 center
Modern Defense White establishes the e4,d4, and c4 center

Black might be adopting a hypermodern approach, but there comes a point when striking back in the center is needed. One of the best ways to go about it is 3…d6 4.Nc3 e5

Black strikes back in the center with 4...e5
Modern Defense with 4…e5

When White’s most popular moves are:

  • 5.d5
  • 5.Nf3
  • 5.dxe5

The Space Grabbing 5.d5

This move is often an automatic response from White. Black’s position is cramped, so why not push him back even further?

When you choose to play the Modern Defense, these are the moves you are seeking to provoke.

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4 d6 4.Nc3 e5 5.d5

modern defense e4 d4 c4 with 5.d5
Modern Defense 5.d5

Black can play in King’s Indian Defense style with a gain in tempo because the knight is not on f6.

5…Nd7 6.Bd3 a5 7.Nge2 Nc5 8.Bc2 Ne7

Black meets 8.d5 with 8...ne7
Modern Defense 8…Ne7

Black will castle short and push the f-pawn. A simple strategy that packs a punch, as the next game clearly demonstrates.

White was overrun in only 21 moves!

L’Ami, Alina – Andreikin, D., 0-1, Eurasian Blitz Chess Cup, 2016

The Development First Approach With 5.Nf3

This is a natural move and one you are likely to encounter often. Your first instinct to pin the knight is a good one.

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4 d6 4.Nc3 e5 5.Nf3

modern defense d4 e4 c4 center 5.nf3
Modern Defense d4 e4 c4 center 5.Nf3

After 5…Bg4 Black threatens to capture on d4. White can advance the pawn and then either break the pin with Be2 or put the question to the bishop with h3.

5…Bg4 6.d5 Nd7 7.Be2

White breaks the pin with 7.be2
Modern Defense d4 e4 c4 center 7.Be2

Against both 7.Be2 and 7.h3, Black plays 7…Bxf3. Since the position is closed, the White bishops find themselves limited in scope.

Once again, Black does well to secure the c5 square for his knight with 7…a5. This prevents White from gaining space on the queenside with tempo by attacking the knight with b4.

In the next game, Arabidze bravely chose to castle by hand. Even though White managed to dislodge the knight from c5 with b4, although it took a lot of time.

Petrukhina, I. – Arabidze, M., 0-1, World Junior Girls 2014

Entering an Endgame With 5.dxe5

Despite how it might appear, this line poses very little danger for Black. The pawn on e5 might block the bishop on g7 but look at how weak the d4-square is for White.

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4 d6 4.Nc3 e5 5.dxe5

modern defense d4 e4 c4 center 5.dxe5
Modern Defense 5.dxe5

There follows 5…dxe5 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8 reaching the following position

White transitions to an endgame with dxe5
Modern Defense 6…Kxd8

Even a player rated over 2700 couldn’t prove any advantage. In fact, in a battle of two players rated over 2700, it was black who won!

Take a look at these two games by Alexander Morozevich, who came out on top with the black pieces in both games.

Bareev, Evgeny – Morozevich, Alexander, 0-1, Amber-rapid 14th, 2005

The Modern Defense with 4.c3

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.c3

Modern Defense - White supports the center with 4.c3
Modern Defense – White supports the center with 4.c3

This is a sensible move by White which seeks to take the sting out of the bishop on g7. Russian-Dutch GM Sergei Tiviakov is fond of this system when faced with the Modern Defense.

Any system adopted by a player rated 2600+ is one you need to respect!

Fortunately, respecting a strategy does not mean fearing it.

Sensible developing moves is the best approach by Black in the hopes of tempting White to play d5. A crucial strategy for Black in the Modern Defense is to get White to over-reach by pushing his pawns.

The strength of a broad center lies in its mobility, and here Black can close the center with …e5. If White captures en passant, we bring another pawn into the center with …fxe6.

Play usually continues with 4…Nf6 5.Bd3 0-0 6.0-0 Nc6

modern with 6...nc6
Modern Defense with 6…Nc6

White can continue developing pieces or play the pawn advance d5. The three main choices are:

  • 7.Re1
  • 7.Nbd2
  • 7.d5

The first was the choice of Levon Aronian, who used it to defeat World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, making it a good starting point.

Aronian was kind enough to show us how to play against 7.Re1 too!

7.Nbd2 ended in a quick draw between two 2700 rated grandmasters and continues the unambitious theme of this system.

7.d5 is the move you will likely meet most frequently.

Modern Defense 4.c3 Variation with 7.Re1

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.c3 Nf6 5.Bd3 0-0 6.0-0 Nc6 7.Re1

Modern Defense 4.c3 Variation with 7.Re1
Modern Defense 4.c3 Variation with 7.Re1

The game will often continue with black playing in King’s Indian Defense fashion with …f5. It’s important not to neglect White’s queenside play and take prophylactic measures against this expansion.

Playing …e5 gives the Black knight a lovely square on e7 from where it supports the f5 advance.

One of the many advantages of playing the Modern Defense is knowing the general plans is more important than memorizing theory. 

You will also find many common strategies for Black to use against the different setups chosen by White.

Although moving the same piece in the opening is seen as a loss of tempo, thus something to avoid, in this instance, Black gains more than enough compensation.

7…e5 8.h3 Re8 9.d5 Ne7 10.c4 h6 11.Nc3 Nd7 12.Rb1 a5 13.a3 f5

modern d4 c3 13...f5
Modern Defense 4.c3 Variation with 13…f5

In the next game, Aronian didn’t rush his kingside attack. The White king might have escaped, but the advanced pawns proved decisive for Black.

Predojevic, B. – Aronian, L., 0-1, Bundesliga 2016-17, 2017 

Modern Defense 4.c3 Variation With 7.d5

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.c3 Nf6 5.Bd3 0-0 6.0-0 Nc6 7.d5

modern d4 c3 with 7.d5
Modern Defense 4.c3 Variation with 7.d5

The knight will re-establish itself on c5 via b8 and a6. Although the Modern Defense contains a lot of tactical play, it can also be played in a positional way.

No opening lasts for long if it neglects the tried-and-true tenets of chess.

Knights need outposts and attack your opponent’s center being two important ones to keep in mind in this variation.

That means Black should favor …e6 over …e5. Because attacking the base of a pawn chain is the most frequently given advice does not mean you can’t attack from the front.

When the Black rook is on e8, you want to open the file instead of shutting things down with …e5. Capturing on d5 with …exd5 does just that.

The bishop on g7 is a great attacking piece with no pawns on e5 and d4!

The best openings are the ones with the simplest of plans. Here you simply need to remember …Nc6 to induce d5, the knight goes to c5 via a6, …a5 to stop b4, and …e6 with …exd5 to open things up for the rook.

And you thought playing the Modern Defense was hard work. This is so simple it’s almost embarrassing.

Here’s how play might unfold:

7…Nb8 8.h3 e6 9.c4 Na6 10.Nc3 Re8 11.Re1 Nc5 12.Bc2 a5

modern d4 c3 with 12...a5
Modern Defense 4.c3 Variation with 12…a5

Can you guess what Black played on move 13 after White developed with Be3? Yes, 13…exd5!

Speaking of embarrassment, take a look at how Alexander Morozevich destroyed World Chess Champion challenger GM Boris Gelfand. Boris was rated over 2720 at the time the game was played.

Gelfand, Boris – Morozevich, Alexander, 0-1, Moscow Tal Memorial Blitz, 2008

Modern Defense: The f4, e4, and d4 Center

Occupying the center with pawns makes a lot of sense from White’s perspective. The moves …g6 and …Bg7 do nothing to fight directly for the center.

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.f4 d5

modern defense broad center f4 e4 d4
Modern Defense when White establishes the f4, e4, and d4 center

Keep in mind that 4.Nc3 would lose a pawn after 4…dxe4 5.Nxe4 Qxd4! Now Black is a pawn up, and White can’t block the h8-a1 diagonal with e5.

This is also why trying to win a tempo fails for White since 4.exd5 Qxd5 5.Nc3 also loses the d4 pawn. 

Striking in the center with …e5 or …d5 is often a good way for Black to equalize in the opening. Here it works as early as move three!

In the database at lichess.org, the move e5 is played 103 times and exd5 a mere 3 times.

Now Black finds himself in a position more often found in the French Defense Advance Variation. The advantage he has here is that …e6 hasn’t been played.

Black can develop his knight on h6 without fear of his pawn structure being weakened. The knight will continue on to f5, where it places pressure on d4.

Using pawn breaks reminiscent of the French Defense – …c5 and …f6 – works well for Black in this position. 

After the moves 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.f4 d5 4.e5 Nh6 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Bd3 c5! Black is doing very well.

modern broad center f4 e4 d4 with 6...c5
Modern Defense – fighting the large White center with 6…c5

Black has lots of space to develop his pieces and an easy strategy to remember – put pressure on the White center.

Thanks to the knight on h6 and bishop on c8, Black has the f5 square firmly under control.

Play continues thematically until move 10 when White can play either 10.Be3 or 10.0-0

Here is GM Damian Lemos to share more about the advantages black has in this variation. The flexibility of the Modern Defense lends itself to many different approaches, but the ideas remain consistent.

In the next game, GM Vasile Sanduleac sacrificed a pawn to open the position for his bishops. A courageous strategy that led to him winning a minor piece.

Moldoveanu, Emil – Sanduleac, Vasile, 0-1, Bucharest PBP, 1995

Modern Defense With e4, d4 and Nc3

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c6

white chooses classical development with 3.nc3
White chooses classical development with 3.Nc3

In this variation, Black employs the same strategy of luring White into pushing a central pawn. This time it is the e-pawn we tempt White to advance after 4.f4 d5 5.e5 Nh6

modern e4 d4 and nc3 with 6.be3
Modern Defense classical development with 3.Nc3 and 6.Be3

Once again, Black will play in the style of the French Defense. The pawn breaks with …f6 and …c5 are crucial to open lines and pressure the white center.

Again by not playing the e6-pawn advance, Black retains the option of meeting 6.Nf3 with …Bg4. Notice how the knight on h6 supports the bishop on g4 and can find a lovely square on f5.

Many players with White will hold off on developing the knight to f3 because of the pin. Black can meet 6.Be3 with 6…Qb6. Attacking the b2-pawn, which Be3 left undefended.

After Black castles and plays …f6, his rook will soon become very active on the f-file.

Take a look at how Julian Hodgson played across the board in his game against Jesper Hall. 

There is an exciting knight maneuver you can use in your own games as a surprise weapon. 

Hall, Jesper – Hodgson, Julian M, 0-1, Bundesliga 0102, 2002

Modern Defense: White plays 4.Bc4

Playing patiently is often a good strategy in chess, no matter which color you are playing. The move Bc4 is a waiting move, but it does offer Black a tactical opportunity to equalize early.

Once again GM Damian Lemos shares a good alternative strategy for Black in the Modern Defense – the Hippo setup.

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.Bc4

modern defense 4.bc4 variation
Modern Defense 4.Bc4 variation

Black can play 4…Nf6 attacking the e4-pawn. White can defend it with 5.Nc3 if he is willing to allow black to force the trade of pieces with 5…Nxe4 followed by 6…d5!

This fork is only possible because White developed the bishop to c4!

That’s why White usually defends the pawn with 5.Qe2. By capturing on e4 with the queen, White prevents …d5.

The aggressive development of the bishop on c4 looks more intimidating than it is. However, if you prefer a safe approach, 4…e6 instead of 4…Nf6 is a perfectly sound way to play.

GM Hikaru Nakamura shows us Black can hold his own in the face of White’s aggression. Here he takes on one of the world’s best players Maxime Vachier Lagrave.

Vachier Lagrave, M. – Nakamura, Hi, 1/2-1/2, Saint Louis Blitz 2018

Final Thoughts on the Modern Defense

Right from the very first move, Black starts to unbalance the position. Since every chess game starts from an equal position, something must change the status quo.

The Modern Defense uses the best strategies from many kingside fianchetto openings. Adopting this opening allows you to keep your opponent guessing.

He can’t roll out his favored approach against the King’s Defense because you have played something different. 

The dangerous Bg5 line against the Pirc doesn’t work because your knight isn’t committed to the f6 square.

The Modern Defense is a vigorous defense you can use against almost any opening move by White with every chance of getting a win!

Act Now! For a Limited Time get 50% Off! Deep Dive: The Modern Defense by GM Damian Lemos covering all the important variations. This Deep Dive will teach you everything you need to know to play the Modern Defense confidently and take the fight to white. Add a new weapon to your repertoire for only $29.99!

Also, be sure to read:

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