Back from the death? Two titles to revive the Benoni

by ChessBase
9/7/2020 – In a review published in Chess Life, John Watson looks at two titles that seek to reestablish the Benoni as an elite opening, Rustam Kasimdzhanov’s “The Benoni Is Back In Business” and John Doknjas’ “Opening Repertoire - The Modern Benoni”. According to the renowned American author, coach and critic, both authors “share a number of original novelties that are essential to making the case for the lines they are advocating”.

The Benoni is back in business The Benoni is back in business

On top level the Benoni is a rare guest but with this DVD Rustam Kasimdzhanov this might change. New ways and approaches in most lines and countless improvements of official theory will show you how to play this opening at any level with success.


Two titles to revive the Benoni

By John Watson

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Chess Life and is posted here with permission. Learn more about US Chess by clicking here

Many years ago, GM Garry Kasparov was leading a training seminar with promising young players and was asked, “What is a good line against the Modern Benoni?” He is said to have replied, “What isn’t good against the Modern Benoni?” While a bit overstated, Kasparov’s skepticism reflected the tenor of professional opinion about 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 during the first 15 years of this century. While there were always exceptions, most grandmasters avoided the Benoni as Black, only entering certain lines via convenient move orders (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 c5, for example).

Recently that’s been changing. Assisted by their computer engines, dedicated players and analysts have revived Black’s chances in one variation after another. Hence the title of GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov’s DVD/video series The Benoni Is Back In Business, and the timeliness of John Doknjas’ book, Opening Repertoire - The Modern Benoni. I should note that these new offerings revise and expand upon the analysis given in The Modern Benoni by GM Marian Petrov (Quality Chess, 2013) and GM Milos Pavlovic’s Reloaded Weapons in the Benoni (Thinkers Publishing, 2017), excellent and original books in their own right.

Kasimdzhanov talks the viewer through his analysis in five main video sections; this is an intense learning process, but it’s a pleasure to hear a former FIDE World Champion intersperse comments about thematic ideas, typical tricks, practical considerations, and idiosyncratic similarities with other openings. The package includes famous games, interactive exercises, repertoire training, and practice positions for the student. You can order the physical DVD, but I suspect that most players will prefer the speed and convenience of downloading the material.

In general, opening videos cover less territory than full-length books, so it’s appropriate that Kasimdzhanov limits his coverage to the more typical professional order 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.d5 exd5 5.cxd5 d6, which avoids White systems without an early Nf3, e.g., variations with f2-f4, f2-f3, and/or Nge2. Incidentally, that order allows the rare move 6.e4!? (6... Nxe4?? 7.Qa4+), delaying Nc3 in favor of other setups, so Kasimdzhanov suggests that 4...d6 is more convenient than 4...exd5, when White cannot profitably avoid 5.Nc3 exd5 6.cxd5 g6, transposing back to the main position. A nice tip!

Doknjas’ book covers more territory by also including all the 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.d5 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 lines that aren’t followed by Nf3. As with many Everyman books, it can also be purchased online in ebook form, with the entire book included (contents, introduction, variations, and commentary); I prefer this format because the PGN files are so convenient to analyze, update, and supplement with other material.

Both authors share a number of original novelties that are essential to making the case for the lines they are advocating. They also pay particular attention to main lines that have been causing the most problems in professional play. Let me give a few examples.

In my experience, the line 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.Bf4 has long been a real threat to the Benoni. Both of our authors propose playing 7...Bg7. That seems uncontroversial, but over the past 20 years, I would say that most books and articles offering a Benoni repertoire have preferred 7...a6 here, in order to avoid the awkward 7...Bg7 8.Qa4+. One problem with that choice is that White’s setup after 7...a6 8.a4 Bg7 9.h3 0-0 10.e3 has proven  troublesome for Black, who hasn’t established a truly convincing equalizing line. By playing 7...Bg7, Black can meet 8.h3 0-0 9.e3 with 9...Na6 intending ...Nc7, a promising setup that both Kasimdzhanov and Doknjas explore in depth.

The drawback is that 7...Bg7 8.Qa4+ Bd7 9.Qb3 demands a robust response if Black isn’t to stand markedly worse. 


Kazimdzhanov boldly advocates 9...b5!?, a wild pawn sacrifice that has been around for years, but with a poor reputation. What is arguably the main line goes 10.Bxd6 Qb6 11.Be5 0-0 12.e3 c4 13.Qd1 b4, and Kasimdzhanov, with the help of some novelties, demonstrates convincingly that Black has real compensation. Equally importantly, from a practical point of view, is that these positions are as easy for Black to play as for White. For a serious tournament player, this section is a gem.

Doknjas chooses 9...Qc7 instead, and succeeds in showing that it is at any rate playable in practice. In particular, he demonstrates that several lines in which Leela expresses a clear advantage for White are well within drawing bounds. It’s a terrific analytical achievement, but tempered by the reality that White has a great many ways to create problems, often requiring precise defensive technique on Black’s part. As a practical matter, adjusting to such a variety of plans is difficult over the board. Unless you’re a workaholic with an exceptional memory, 9...Qc7 may not be the best line to depend upon as your sole response to the Bf4 lines.

Another ultra-critical variation is the so-called “Flick Knife Attack,” 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.d5 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.f4 Bg7 8.Bb5+. This used to be considered practically a refutation of the Benoni. Recent theory has changed that, and Doknjas does a thorough job of proving Black’s case. Here you should be warned that he recommends some lines after 8...Nfd7 9.a4 0-0 that are fine, but need to be known out to move 20 or further. As an alternative, Doknjas revisits the rare move 9... Na6. Black’s idea after 10.Nf3 Nb4 11.0-0 is to get the move 11... a6 in before White has played Re1 allowing Bf1 (which happens in the main 9... 0-0 line). 


This alternative order was used in the most famous “Flick Knife” game ever played:


Grandmasters gave up on this line thereafter, turning to 9...0-0 (or upon occasion, 9...Qh4+). But Doknjas proves that in Kasparov-Nunn, the move 16...Re8!, hardly ever played, will suffice for equality if handled properly. This is the kind of knowledge that a book or a video can give you which you would very likely miss if your study was based solely on databases and a powerful engine.

The Modern Main Line used to be another Benoni-killer. It goes 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nf3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nc3 g6 7.e4 (or 7.h3) 7...Bg7 8.h3 0-0 9.Bd3.


Both authors answer this with 9... b5. In fact, that has been considered completely sound for Black, if sometimes drawish, for quite a few years now, and few top players seem interested in challenging that assessment. In order for Black to retain more winning chances, Doknjas analyses the alternative 9...Re8 10.0-0 Nbd7, when one fascinating line goes 11.Re1 Ne5 12.Nxe5 Rxe5 13.Bf4 Nh5!? 14.Bxe5 Bxe5 with promising attacking chances for the Exchange.

The most “respectable” Benoni line commonly arises from the Catalan move order 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 c5 4.d5 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nc3 g6 7.Bg2 Bg7 8.Nf3 0-0 9.0-0. Both authors advocate 9...Re8, and on 10.Bf4, the fashionable 10...Bf5, with masses of analysis. In my opinion, the positions after 11.Nh4 Bg4 12.Qd2 b5 13.Nxb5 Rxe2 14.Qc1 Ne4 15.Bxe4 Rxe4 16.Nxd6 are rather difficult for Black and offer few positive chances, whereas the option 11...Bc8 is reasonably sound but only draws if White opts for 12.Nf3 Bf5 13.Nh4, etc. So it might have been helpful to provide an alternative; I like what I’ve seen from recent games with 10...h6, for example.

Similarly, in the main line with 10.Nd2 a6 11.a4 Nbd7 12.h3, decades of theory and practice with 12...Rb8 13.Nc4 Ne5 14.Na3 Nh5 15.e4 extends through 25 moves and can become rather oppressive. While that’s playable enough, Doknjas’ advocacy of 12...b6 is refreshing, especially since it scores exceptionally well.

Kasimdzhanov makes the bold claim that “this opening can be played on any imaginable level” and “can be made to work in all lines.” That remains to be seen, of course, but together with their predecessors, these two authors have taken great strides in reestablishing the Benoni as an elite opening.

The Benoni is back in business

On top level the Benoni is a rare guest but with this DVD Rustam Kasimdzhanov this might change. New ways and approaches in most lines and countless improvements of official theory will show you how to play this opening at any level with success.

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