The Italian Game is a King’s Pawn Opening beginning with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4.

 

White develops the bishop to c4

Like the Ruy Lopez , the Italian Game is known for its adherence to classical opening principles.  White and black both grab central space on move one, and develop a knight on move two.  With 3. Bc4, white accomplishes three things:

  • White develops another piece
  • White gets closer to castling kingside
  • White eyes the weak f7 square with the bishop. This is the weakest square in the black position (defended by only the king).

Black’s two main options in the Italian Opening are 3…Nf6 and the more popular 3…Bc5.  3…Be7 and 3…d6 are playable, but considered somewhat passive. Let’s look into black’s two most popular options:

3…Nf6: More dangerous than it looks!

Will white play passively or aggresively?

At first glance, this seems to be the most logical move black could play. What could be wrong with developing a piece, getting closer to castling, and attacking white’s undefended King’s Pawn?

White often plays 4. d3, and after black plays the natural 4…Bc5, we transpose to a variation of the 3…Bc5 line examined later in this article.

However, I don’t recommend playing 3…Nf6 to anyone who doesn’t love delving deep into memorized opening lines, because it gives white the option to play the super-sharp 4. Ng5:

White plays Ng5 to target g7

This move highlights one of the key features of the Italian Opening – the pressure against the f7 square.

Now, ordinarily it would be wrong for white to play a move like this in the opening. White only has two pieces developed, and it already moving one of them again instead of continuing to develop their pieces and get castled! But it turns out, in this specific position, it’s not easy for black to deal with the threat to the f7 pawn by conventional means.

This line gets very complicated, very fast. Almost every possible continuation involves one side or the other sacrificing material!

4…d5 looks to be the only way to defend f7. Now 5. exd5, and if 5…Nxd5:

Black takes the d5 pawn but now white can sacrifice on f7

6. Nxf7! This piece sacrifice, known as the Fried Liver Attack, seems to come from nowhere! Black has no choice but to accept it to avoid decisive material losses. 6…Kxf7 7. Qf3+

White forks the king and knight. 7…Ke8 8. Bxd5 is not playable for black – white regains the lost piece with interest. White’s up a pawn and black can’t castle.

Black is forced instead to play 7…Ke6! After 8. Nc3 the battle lines are clear. White is down a piece, but black’s king is extremely vulnerable. This is not a line for the faint of heart to play – with either color!

 

Many black players want to avoid this line.  Black has a couple alternatives on move 5 instead of recapturing the pawn with the knight:

Black wants to avoid the Fried Liver

5…b5!? Is an amusing move. If the Bishop takes this undefended pawn, black can capture on d5 with the queen and fork the bishop and g2 pawn. The surprising 6. Bf1! is the main line, and while white is forced to undevelop a piece, it’s still not easy for black to regain the pawn (6…Qxd5 7. Nc3! Or 6…Nxd5 7. Bxb5!, now that the queen fork no longer exists)

5…Na5 is the most popular choice. If white bails out by retreating the bishop, the whole white opening is a failure – black regains the d5 pawn and white’s g5 knight makes no sense. 6. Bb5+ c6 7. dxc6 bxc6.  White exchanges off the d5 pawn, assuring themselves of being up a pawn in the long-term. But black has a lot of compensation. The white pieces are not coordinated, and black has a space advantage. 8. Be2 h6 9. Nf3 e4 is a common continuation – black expands in the center.

 

Shockingly, black even has a 4th move alternative – they can allow the f7 pawn to be captured! After 4…Bc5:

Black allows white to take on f7!

This is the Traxler Countergambit. Giving up the f7 pawn looks ridiculous, but black has some crafty ideas here! Just to show one: 5. Nxf7 Bxf2+!, and white shouldn’t take this bishop: 6. Kxf2? Nxe4+ 7. Kg1 Qh4 and black has a strong attack. Instead 6. Kf1! is usually played, with a crazy game sure to follow.

 

In conclusion, 3…Nf6 is a fine move to play – but if you’re going to play it, make sure you know how you’re going to respond to the dangerous 4. Ng5 line!

 

3…Bc5: The Giuoco Piano

Black plays Bc5. White decides what to do

The name means “Quiet Game” in Italian – and compared to the insanity we witnessed in the above line, this line is much quieter indeed!

It’s worth noting that black will not have to worry about Ng5 ideas in this line. For example, if white plays 4. d3, black can safely play the logical 4…Nf6. In this case, 5. Ng5? accomplishes nothing except violating the opening principles, as after 5…0-0 black adequately defends f7 with no problems.

White has a future options after black develops their bishop:

4. c3 is white’s most popular move. White sometimes delays the c3 idea until after castling as well.  Playing a quick c3 and d4 is very logical for white, taking space in the center and kicking black’s bishop away. 4…Nf6 5. d4 exd4 6. cxd5 Bb4+ 7. Bd2 Bxd2+ 8. Nbxd2 d5!:

Black strikes in the center with the d-pawn

Is an illustration of how this line can proceed. White succeeds in taking over the whole center temporarily, but black can fight back for some space of their own with this well-timed strike.

 

4. d3 is the “Giuoco Pianissimo” – the Very Quiet Game. Black can play 4…Nf6, and the game will proceed without any immediate tactics. Both sides will be able to finish development.

 

Finally, 4. b4!? Is the aggressive Evans Gambit. The idea of this strange-looking pawn sacrifice is clever. In contrast with the 4. c3 variation mentioned above, white wants to draw a black piece onto the b4 square so that they can play c2-c3 with a “tempo,” speeding up white’s conquest of the center! 4…Bxb4 5. c3 Ba5 6. d4 illustrates this point – white has some compensation for being a pawn down.

 

The Italian Game is a well-respected opening rooted in fundamental opening principles. Give it a try in your games!

 

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Blake

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