The King’s Indian Defense or Nimzo-Indian Defense?

Best Indian

When it comes to choosing a defense to 1.d4, many players choose an Indian Defense. The King’s Indian Defense and Nimzo-Indian Defense are two of the most well-known.

These are both excellent defenses, and either will serve you well. This is one of those rare opportunities you can choose between two wonderful options.

The most critical factor in choosing between them is your playing style. Do you prefer the typical middlegames in the Nimzo Indian Defense over those from the King’s Indian Defense?

GM Damian Lemos has taken a deep dive into the King’s Indian Defense. See how you can catch your opponents by surprise in the Classical Variation.

The Reliable, Fighting King’s Indian Defense

This chess opening, a favorite of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, suits players who:

  • Enjoy taking risks.
  • Like to battle for the initiative rather than defending against White’s slight first-move advantage.
  • Want to tempt White into over-extending.

The King’s Indian Defense begins with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg74.e4 d6

The starting position of the King's Indian Defense is reached after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6

In classic hypermodern style, Black invites White to take control of the center by occupying it with pawns. Unsurprisingly, one of the most aggressive approaches by White against the King’s Indian Defense is to accept the invitation and play the Four Pawns Attack with 5.f4.

This approach is doubled-edged because by advancing pawns early in the game, White creates weak squares behind them. Of course, Black must survive the attack before getting the chance to take advantage of the weak squares.

At the top level, the Four Pawns Attack is rarely played because Black usually knows how to defend.

Nobody is better than Garry Kasparov at demonstrating how to play against the Four Pawns Attack.

Larry Mark Christiansen – Garry Kasparov, 1982.09.16, Moscow Interzonal Round 7, Moscow URS

Instead, the Classical Variation (5.Nf3 and 6.Be2) is the more popular approach against the King’s Indian Defense.

White is content with pawns on e4, d4, and c4 and continues developing with Nf3 and Be2.

In chess, it is good to refrain from all-out aggression and ensure you develop your pieces.

Starting position for the King's Indian Defense Classical variation.

Black’s bishop on g7 is vital to the success of the opening. When the bishop becomes active on the long diagonal, Black is doing well.

The bishop can get blocked when Black challenges the center with …e5, a crucial pawn lever in the King’s Indian. A common motif to activate the bishop is to sacrifice a pawn by playing Nh5-f4 and allowing White to capture twice on f4 with the bishop and queen.

Pawn Play is Crucial in the King’s Indian

Against …e5, White usually responds with d5 and fixes the central pawns. The locked white pawn chain (e4 and d5) points toward the queenside, while the black pawn chain (d6 and e5) is directed at the kingside.

Pawn chains determine which side of the board to attack!

White’s typical plan is to expand on the queenside and infiltrate on c7. Black will look to advance on the kingside and launch an attack against the white king with …f5-f4 and …g5.

Because White often castles short in the King’s Indian Defense, making Black’s attacks more dangerous.  

There are many opportunities in the King’s Indian Defense for Black to expose the white king with piece sacrifices.

If you are hesitant to part with material, this is not your defense.

Naturally, an attacking opening like the King’s Indian Defense is tailor-made for Mikhail Tal.

Bent Larsen – Mikhail Tal, 1969.03.17, 0-1, Larsen – Tal 3rd place Candidates Playoff Round 5, Eersel NED Eersel NED

Nimzo-Indian Defense: Played by Many World Champions

The Nimzo-Indian Defense is not as sharp as the King’s Indian Defense.

The King’s Indian setup is one you can use against almost any opening by White after 1.d4, and it works against 1.Nf3 or 1.c4. That means you only need to find an opening against the other main move White can play – 1.e4.

If you choose the Nimzo-Indian, you will need a second opening against 3.Nf3.

The Nimzo-Indian begins with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4

Nimzo-Indian Defense starting position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4

The most striking feature of this position is that Black is only one move away from castling. Black has developed two pieces, and the e6 pawn is ready to support …d5, staking a claim in the center.

This chess opening is all about simple and direct opening play.

There is a price to pay, and that is giving White the bishop pair by capturing on c3. This concession is balanced by Black’s lead in development, better pawn structures, and a central pawn majority.

Other common strategic themes for black include:

  • Attack the doubled c-pawns with …b6, …Ba6, and Nc6-a5.
  • Blockade the position with …c5, …d6, and …e5 to restrict the white bishops.
  • Playing against White’s isolated pawn or hanging pawns.

White will attempt to play the freeing e4 and to gain the bishop pair without allowing any structural weakness. The move f3 is the most direct way of occupying the center with e4, but it does give Black a larger target to attack.

Nimzo-Indian Capablanca variation 4.Qc2
Nimzo-Indian Defense Capablanca Variation 4.Qc2

The most reliable way of avoiding doubled c-pawns is the Capablanca variation with 4.Qc2. Although White can recapture on c3 with Qxc3 and preserve the pawn structure, Black can use the tempi gained by the queen moving at least twice.

After …Ne4, the white queen will need to move from c3 and costs White another tempo.

World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik is one of the world champions to play the Nimzo-Indian Defense. He only needed twenty-two moves to dismantle the Capablanca Variation.

Paul Keres – Mikhail Botvinnik 1941.03.26, 0-1, USSR Absolute Championship Round 3, Leningrad- Moscow URS

Strong Pawn Play in the Nimzo-Indian Defense

Getting the pawn structure correct in the Nimzo-Indian Defense is a vital part of the strategy you choose to adopt. This strategy largely depends on how White decides to meet this solid defense.

Your strategy to blockade or attack White’s pawn weaknesses is only possible if …Bxc3 is answered with bxc3. Then you can play …b6 to allow …Ba6 and …Na5.

If you adopt a light-squared strategy with …Bb7 and …Ne4, then …d6 and …f5 are the pawn moves to support your strategy.

The light-square strategy is not the only strategy you can adopt.

A dark-square strategy makes sense since you will have exchanged your “bad” bishop on c3.

The pawn structure with pawns on c5, d6, and e5 is excellent for the light-squared bishop. With the locked pawn structure understanding how to play the position is more important than learning theoretical variations.

Here is a game showing the effectiveness of the dark square strategy combined with attacking the weak doubled pawns in the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

Babu, N Sudhakar – Parameswaran, Tiruchi N, 1992, 0-1, Goodricke op 03rd Round 3, Kolkata

Meeting 3.Nf3 With Another Indian Defense

As mentioned earlier, if you choose to play the Nimzo-Indian Defense, you will need another opening against 3.Nf3. Fortunately, two excellent choices use strategies and ideas similar to the Nimzo-Indian.

These openings are easy to learn and play because you need not fear getting caught in a razor-sharp line.

These two openings are the Queen’s Indian Defense and the Bogo-Indian Defense.

Meeting 3.Nf3 With the Queen’s Indian Defense

The Queen’s Indian Defense begins with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6.

Starting position of the Queen's Indian Defense

Black’s strategy is to keep hold of the central light squares with the bishop on b7 and the knight on f6 covering d5 and e4. A common strategy is to occupy e4 with a knight and support it with …f5.

Along with …f5, another typical pawn move is …d5, which occupies one of the central light squares and strengthens Black’s control of e4.

Vladimir Kramnik used the Queen’s Indian Defense to defeat Garry Kasparov.

Kasparov, Garry – Kramnik, Vladimir, 2001.06.05, 0-1, Champions Club m 5′ Round 1, Kasparovchess INT

Playing the Bogo-Indian Defense Against 3.Nf3

One of the advantages of the Bogo-Indian is that you can meet both 3.Nf3 and 3.g3 with 3…Bb4+.

The Bogo-Indian is characterized by the check with 3…Bb4+ after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3.

Bogo-Indian-starting-position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4+

There’s no need to learn another variation against the Catalan Opening.

The Bogo-Indian Defense lends itself nicely to the same dark-square strategy of the Nimzo-Indian since the dark-squared bishop will get exchanged on d2 after either 4.Nd2 or 4.Bd2. Choosing openings with the same strategy saves you time and leads to middlegame positions you know how to play better than your opponent.

Current World Champion Magnus Carlsen used the Bogo-Indian Defense to defeat MVL.

Vachier Lagrave, Maxime – Carlsen, M., 2016.06.20, 0-1, GCT Blitz YourNextMove Round 13.5, Leuven BEL

In Conclusion

The choice between the King’s Indian Defense and the Nimzo-Indian Defense is not easy. However, it is good to know that both are excellent openings and are played by many world chess champions.

Undoubtedly, the King’s Indian Defense is the more aggressive option and leads to exciting, double-edged positions. On the plus side, you can use it against three of White’s main opening choices.

Although not as sharp, the Nimzo-Indian Defense is a solid, reliable option against 1.d4. Even though you need to learn a second opening, it is well-suited to positional players.

Statistically, 2…e6 is played slightly more often than 2…g6, but it does not matter what the statistics say. You will not win games playing uncomfortable positions.

Are you looking to explore the King’s Indian Defense further? Then take advantage of the fact that GM Damian Lemos has done the hard work for you!

His Deep Dive opening course on the King’s Indian Defense will provide you with a complete repertoire and covers all the main variations of the King’s Indian Defense.

Once you have completed the “King’s Indian Defense (Lemos Deep Dive)” course, you will play this excellent defense confidently. Grab your copy now to save 50% and get instant access.

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