The Tarrasch Defense is a response to the Queen’s Gambit, and begins with 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5
It’s easy to see the appeal of black’s third move. In the Tarrasch Defense, Black neutralizes white’s central space advantage and places a second pawn in the center of the board.
The main downside of the Tarrasch Defense is that black can be saddled with an isolated d-pawn in many lines. Black achieves his aim of central superiority (which is quite a feat – it’s not often that black can emerge from the opening with a space advantage!), but white will attempt to turn black’s central pawns into a liability.
Let’s take a look at how the game can progress:
This is white’s most popular set-up. By exchanging on d5, white ensures that black’s d-pawn is likely to become isolated later after the other two central pawns eventually get exchanged. Then, white fianchettos the light-squared bishop to g2, where it will take aim at black’s d5 pawn.
Black’s main move is 6…Nf6, and now after both players finish kingside development with 7. Bg2 Be7 8. 0-0 0-0, white’s most popular move is 9. Bg5
This move is logical for two main reasons. We know that d5 could be the primary target for white to latch onto, and this move threatens to exchange off a key defender of this pawn.
Secondly, if white is able to play Bxf6 next turn, black doesn’t have a good response. Taking with the pawn wrecks the black king’s shelter, while taking with the bishop would undefend the c5 pawn.
Because of these factors, this move generally forces black to clarify the pawn tension in the center with 9…cxd4 (lines involving …c4 instead will be examined in the next section).
After 10. Nxd4, black takes the opportunity to put the question to the white bishop with 10…h6
This is a good moment to challenge the bishop. At first it looks like 11. Bxf6 Bxf6 is good for white, as the d5 pawn is left without adequate defense. However, white’s knight on d4 would be loose as well, and white doesn’t have time to win the black pawn.
Because of this, 11. Be3 is the main move, increasing white’s control of the d4 square – a valuable outpost in front of the isolated pawn!
After 11…Re8 12. Rc1 Bf8, it becomes clear that it will be difficult for white to win the d5-pawn outright. White often decides to change the pawn structure with 13. Nxc6 bxc6 14. Na4:
Black’s d-pawn is no longer isolated, but black’s center is still a target.
The d-and-c pawns are called “hanging pawns” or the “isolated couple.” They could become strong if they could begin rolling down the board, but for the time being, white has wonderful control of the c5 and d4 squares, and the pawns have a tough time moving!
At multiple points in the main line Tarrasch Defense, black has the opportunity to play …c4, avoiding the isolation of his d-pawn.
For example, let’s consider the position after 6…c4:
This pawn structure is known from the Panov variation of the Caro-Kann, when white advances with c5.
In this version of the “Advance Panov” structure, black has a powerful 3-on-2 queenside pawn majority, which could be valuable or even decisive in many endgames. But white can play a pawn break with e2-e4 or b2-b3, combined with pressure against the d5 pawn, to spoil black’s plans.
Play might proceed 7. Bg2 Bb4 (perhaps seeking to remove an attacker of the d5 pawn) 8. 0-0 Nge7 (8…Nf6 9. Bg5 is a bit annoying for black, without the bishop on e7 to break the pin!), 9. e4!
White succeeds in breaking up the black center.
Even if black temporarily wins a pawn with 9…Bxc3 10. bxc3 dxe4, black’s c4 and e4 pawns are much too weak to survive. 11. Nd2 would win a pawn back immediately with a simple fork, for example.
After 9…dxe4 10. Nxe4, ironically it’s white who now has an isolated d-pawn. But white could argue that the lonely c4 pawn is even a bigger liability!
We’ve looked at a lot of the key ideas of the main line Tarrasch Defense. The second half of the video above explorers some of the alternatives that can occur early on.
To show one, white has the option of playing 4. cxd5 exd5 5. dxc5:
Black isn’t able to recapture the c5 pawn immediately, as after 5…Bxc5 6. Qxd5, white remains a solid pawn to the good.
Instead black needs to play 5…d4, but after 6. Na4 (6. Ne4 is also possible, but 6…Bf5 is annoying for white to deal with), it may require a little work for black to recover their lost pawn. Only line goes 6…Nc6 7. Nf3 Bxc5 (a tactical shot!) 8. Nxc5 Qa5+, restoring material equality after white’s knight is recaptured.
Another early alternative is for black to meet 4. cxd5 with 4…cxd4, instead of recapturing the d5 pawn.
Unfortunately for black, 5. Qa4+! is quite powerful here. Moving a knight or bishop to the d7 square isn’t what black has in mind, since white could recapture on d4 and maintain an extra pawn. 5…Qd7 is also inadequate because of 6. Nb5!, when Nc7+ is a serious threat.
The Tarrasch Defense is a viable defense to the Queen’s Gambit. Black succeeds in eliminating white’s space advantage, and often obtaining a superiority in central control himself! But nothing comes for free – in the main lines, white obtains good pressure against the black center.
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