The Alekhine Defense is a King’s Pawn Opening beginning with 1. e4 Nf6
Named for World Champion Alexander Alekhine, this opening has never caught on at the top levels of chess except as a surprise weapon – but in the right hands, it can be a dangerous surprise weapon indeed!
Black’s idea is quite provocative. Black attacks white’s e-pawn right away in the Alekhine Defense by developing the kingside knight, before staking out any central space.
If white defends the pawn with a move like 2. Nc3 or 2. d3, black can play 2…e5 and transpose to a symmetrical King’s Pawn Opening (1. e4 e5). But white will not be able to play any of the most ambitious lines, such as the Ruy Lopez or Italian Game, which generally develop the kingside knight to f3 before the queenside knight is developed.
Alternatively, black could play 2…d5 and keep the game in original territory.
But the real challenge to the idea of the Alekhine Defense comes after 1. e4 Nf6 2. e5
White seeks to punish black for not taking central space, by pushing forward and kicking this knight away.
2…Nd5 is almost always played here.
2…Ne4 would be very dangerous – the knight is in danger of being trapped.
The absurd-looking 2…Ng8!? – The Brooklyn Variation of the Alekhine Defense – has been played by World Champion Magnus Carlsen in a speed game, but for obvious reasons it has never been a popular choice. Developing a piece only to undevelop it next turn isn’t very appealing!
After white proceeds with their strategy of central occupation with 3. d4, black should play 3..d6 and begin tearing down the enormous white center – before black is suffocated by it.
Though black is cramped for the time being, we now see the idea of the Alekhine Defense. Black provokes white into extending into his territory, and now black is going to try to tear down the white center!
White now has 3 main options:
4. c4 Nb6 5. f4 is the Four Pawns Attack. White takes all the space he can get, and seeks to make black regret conceding the fight for central space!
4. c4 Nb6 5. exd6 is the Exchange Variation. White is content with their space advantage in the center and doesn’t seek to go “all-in.”
4. Nf3 is the modern variation. White doesn’t grab any more space for the time being, and begins his piece development.
It’s worth noting that these variations can sometimes be reached via different move orders. For example, white could play c4 (attacking the knight) before playing d4.
White also has some less-common sidelines with an early Bc4 – based around some tricks involving tactics on the f7 square – but black can defend with accurate play. Building a big center with pawns is by far the most common response to the Alekhine Defense.
4. c4 Nb6 5. f4 – The Four Pawns Attack
Is this the refutation to the Alekhine? White’s enormous space advantage is menacing, but after 5…dxe5 6. fxe5 Nc6 7. Be3 Bf5 8. Nc3 e6 9. Nf3 Be7
It appears that black is finding an active square for all of his pieces despite his space disadvantage.
Now white can either play 10. Be2 – a quieter option where white is content to maintain their space advantage and finish development – or really go for it with 10. d5, with some fireworks likely to result. For example, after 10…exd5 11. cxd5 Nb4 12. Nd4 Bd7 13. e6 fxe6 14. dxe6 Bc6:
White’s e-pawn is a menace, but a lot of black pieces are very active.
The Four Pawns Attack certainly puts black to the test, but black has some resources to fight back.
4. c4 Nb6 5. exd6 – The Exchange Variation
This is how I have generally handled the Alekhine Defense as of late, and I’m pretty satisfied with the results! Instead of going for the insanity of Four Pawns Attack, white is content to maintain their space advantage and develop.
The game may continue 5…cxd6 (the other recapture 5…exd6 is also played often) 6. Nc3 g6 7. Be3 Bg7 8. Rc1 0-0 9. b3
This is a popular set-up for white, developing the queenside before the kingside, in part to render black’s dark-squared-bishop harmless on the long diagonal.
After 9…Nc6, white puts their central pawns to use by playing 10. d5 Ne5 11. Be2!, denying the black knight access to the g4 square and only then following up by kicking it away with the f-pawn.
Black has some alternatives (such as 9…e5 inviting an exchange of queens), but this line tends to score well for white.
4. Nf3 – The Modern Variation
This has been very popular for white as of late – white simply maintains the strong point on e5 and continues with development.
Black often pins this knight with 4…Bg4, but white can respond with 5. Be2. It can often be advantageous to exchange pieces when cramped, but the immediate …Bxf3 would give white a strong light bishop on the long diagonal.
Instead black often plays 5…e6, content to finish their development. White often does the same and plays 6. 0-0.
White can opt at any point to play c4 and kick black’s central knight away, or to play h3 and seek to force black to exchange off his bishop and give white the bishop pair.
All in all, the provocative approach taken by black in the Alekhine Defense is considered somewhat dubious by most elite chess players, and I personally don’t know of any Master who uses the Alekhine as their main weapon against the King’s Pawn Opening. White has many ways to get a quite pleasant position against it.
That said, Alekhine Defense specialists can be found at the club level across the world, and even the pros bust it out on occasion as a surprise! If you’re up to the challenge and don’t mind being a little cramped, give the Alekhine Defense a try.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to sign up in the box below – I’ll send you a free “Move by Move Guide to Chess Thinking” and make sure you never miss new content.