The Benoni Defense is a Queen’s Pawn Opening beginning with the moves 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5
In the Benoni Defense, black challenges the white d4-pawn early on with the move …c5. This opening is known for creating dynamic, imbalanced positions where each side will have a chance to play for a win!
As in many other openings, black is not afraid of the d-pawn capturing the c-pawn here. If white plays 3. dxc5 e6, it’s not easy at all for white to maintain their extra pawn. For example, after 4. b4 a5:
White’s pawn structure will collapse. A possible continuation could be 5. Bd2 axb4 6. Bxb4 Na6, with a double attack on the bishop and the weak c5 pawn.
Instead, white’s most popular response to the Benoni Defense is to advance with 3. d5 and claim a space advantage.
White has other possible options here (such as 3. Nf3, covered at the end of the above video), but 3. d5 is by far the most popular. White avoids the exchange of black’s flank pawn for white’s central d-pawn, and secures an edge in central space.
In this position, black has a couple options. 3…b5 is a very popular pawn sacrifice known as the Benko Gambit, which I briefly cover in the video above. This is a unique system which deserves its own article – I would consider the Benko to be a separate opening from the main lines of the Benoni Defense!
If black does not wish to make this pawn sacrifice, then 3…e6 is the main move,entering the main line of the Benoni.
Black challenges white’s advanced d-pawn. After 4. Nc3 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. e4 g6
We arrive at the starting position of the mainline Benoni.
The position is already highly imbalanced. White has a central space advantage, but black has a queenside 3-on-2 pawn majority that they will attempt to set in motion. Black’s dark-bishop can be powerful on the long diagonal, influencing the queenside while protecting the black king.
One line continues 7. Nf3 Bg7 8. h3 (white often spends a tempo to play this move, as it leaves the c8 bishop without a good square) 8…0-0 9. Bd3 b5!
Black sets the queenside majority in motion. The b-pawn is attacked by two different white pieces, but tactically this works out – black is exploiting the fact that white spent a tempo on that h3 move instead of castling!
After 9. Nxb5 Re8, white can’t defend their e-pawn (after 10. Nc3, black can play …Nxe4 anyways followed by …f5, making use of the pin on the e-file).
Likewise, 9. Bxb5 Nxe4 exploits the position of the white king, as after 10. Nxe4 Qa5+, black wins their piece back.
The war between white’s central pawn mass and black’s queenside superiority will rage on, with an exciting battle to follow.
One aggressive option for white is to play 7. f4
White takes even more central space, threatening to drive the black knight away with a well-timed e5 if black isn’t careful!
After 7…Bg7, 8. Bb5+ is the main move. This well-timed check can cause a problem for black is black is not careful. The natural 8…Nbd7?! is considered subpar because it takes away the f6 knight’s retreat square, allowing white to play 9. e5! effectively.
After 9…dxe5 10. fxe5 Nh5, white is able to play 11. e6 with a dangerous attack
Instead, 8…Nfd7 is the main move, and here white often plays 9. a4!, slowing down black’s queenside majority. After 9…0-0 10. Nf3 Na6 11. 0-0 Nc7 12. Bd3 a6 13. Re1 Re8 14. Be3 Rb8:
Black is finally ready for …b5.
On move 3, black has an interesting alternative to play 3…e5 instead of 3…e6
White will not often take this pawn en passant, as after 4. dxe6 fxe6, black has great central control and may be able to follow up with a later …d5.
Instead, after 4. e4 d6, we arrive at a position with a completely locked center.
The game will likely develop slowly from here, with the central lines closed to both side’s pieces! Both players should consider preparing their two possible pawn breaks: …f5 and …b5 for black, and f4 and b4 for white.
Black occasionally plays a different move order to reach the Benoni Defense set-up. Many of these move orders will transpose back to the main line, but there are some independent possibilities! One intriguing example is 1. d4 c5 2. d5 f5
Black’s creativity is admirable – black takes the time to make a later e2-e4 harder to achieve before continuing on with the typical Benoni set-up! Of course, this move is never without its downsides, as it exposes the short diagonal to the king.
The Benoni Defense is an exciting opening that leads to some highly imbalanced positions. Black’s queenside pawn majority is often a long-term asset, but black must contend with white’s central space advantage and ensure that they do not fall prey to an attack!
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