Review: Sipke Ernst’s positional 1.d4 repertoire

by Christian Hoethe
5/25/2024 – If you want to improve your chess, you need a repertoire, but developing a repertoire on your own can be tedious. This is where recommendations from GMs can help. In a new ChessBase course, Dutch GM and FIDE Trainer Sipke Ernst has developed a repertoire for anyone who plays or intends to play 1.d4. Christian Hoethe went over the course and came to the conclusion that White can easily “make his/her opponent sweat” with this repertoire.

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Critical continuations and sharp alternatives

ChessBase has published a very interesting trilogy: “A practical repertoire for the positional player after 1.d4” by Dutch grandmaster Sipke Ernst. Ernst, a former member of the Dutch national team and a FIDE Trainer, organises the wealth of material in his repertoire as follows.

Volume 1 deals with all the main and secondary variations after 1.d4 d5: the centrepiece here is of course the orthodox Queen’s Gambit Declined, against which Ernst recommends the exchange variation with 4.cxd5 after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6.

In my opinion, this is a good practical decision, as it avoids various theoretically critical defences such as the Vienna or the Ragozin. Ernst deals intensively both with the improved Tarrasch Defence, which arises after 4...Nxd5, and of course with the main continuation 4...exd5.

Against the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, Ernst recommends the modern 1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 e6 5.Bxc4 a6 6.O-O c5 7.Re1!?, which has the practical advantage of being relatively rare at club level.

The Semi-Slav after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 is answered positionally with 6.Qc2 Bd6 7.b3 — instead of, for example, 7.g4!?.

I found his recommendation to tackle the typical triangle move sequence 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c6 with the sharp Marshall Gambit 4.e4!? a little surprising. In the sequence 4...dxe4 5.Nxe4 Bb4+ 6.Bd2 Qxd4 7.Bxb4 Qxe4+ 8.Be2 White sacrifices a pawn for quicker development and the bishop pair, but Black gets a solid position in exchange.

For players who have specialised in this line from the black side thanks to the publications of Sherbakov, Krasenkov and Semkov, 4.e4 is of course the critical continuation. They will therefore encounter it regularly and will have prepared it in detail. In my opinion, this is a small advantage, but one that should not be underestimated, as they will be very familiar with the subtleties. The situation is correspondingly different for the player with white because, unlike the Nimzo or King’s Indian, he is much less likely to get the Triangle Slav on the board.

In line with GM Ernst’s recommendations on the Semi-Slav, I would therefore have found 4.e3 more coherent. But sometimes it’s helpful to have a bit more “fire on board” if you want it!

A possible alternative for the gambit after 5...Bb4+ is 6.Nc3, as in the famous game Carlsen-Anand, Chennai 2013, which Carlsen won.

The Dubov Variation of the Tarrasch Defence is also a difficult nut for White to crack, which is why many recommendations aim for 6.dxc5! — as by GMs Pert and Kornev. GM Ernst, however, allows the Dubov-Tarrasch and favours a rarer variation, which again puts a pawn in the bargain for sharp compensation. Black and White need good positional sense and high precision to deal with such positions. In this line, Black’s attempts to seize the initiative early on are sharply countered by White. Very interesting!

Volume 2 then deals with the variations after 1.d4 Nf6, a very large complex!

The King’s Indian is strongly countered with Makagonov’s 5.h3 and 6.Be3. After that I would have expected an analogue h3 against the modern Benoni as well, but against the Benoni, Ernst recommends the Hungarian Variation with 7.Nge2 and 8.Ng3 — certainly a good, absolutely practical and interesting choice!

The same applies both to his recommended 4.e3 against the marvellous Nimzo-Indian and to the critical line with 12.a4! in the Volga Gambit. At this point at the latest, it should be clear that the struggle for an opening advantage goes hand in hand with theoretical knowledge and that White is not ‘simply better’ with natural moves.

IM John Watson already recommended countering the theory-heavy Grünfeld-Indian with the exchange on d5 along with Qa4+ in his repertoire, and this rare system really has it all. If Black doesn’t know his way around this idea, he/she can hardly get to the active build-ups typical of the Grünfeld game. Not exactly what Grünfeld players are hoping for, and therefore definitely a good practical choice by GM Ernst!

Volume 3 then contains the somewhat more exotic systems, such as the English Defence, the Dutch, 1...g6, 1...c5 and 1...d6, the Black Knights Tango, and the very rare 1...a6, 1...Nc6 and the like.

A lot has happened in the English Defence in particular since the new publications by IM Semkov and GM Gonzales, both from 2023. This applies in particular to the line after 1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6 3.e4 Bb4+! 4.Bd2 Bxd2+ 5.Qxd2 d5, which recently posed major problems for the moving player in the fight for an opening advantage. Here GM Ernst recommends an extremely rare line which, according to my database, has only been tried five times so far and will therefore certainly surprise fans of the English Defence.

The accelerated Bogo-Indian after 1.d4 e6 2.c4 Bb4+, which goes back to the great Paul Keres, is of course also dealt with here.

Paul Keres

At this point Ernst remains true to his taste and after 3.Bd2 a5 4.Nc3 Nf6 mentions the possibility of going over to a good Bd2-Nimzo-Indian with 5.e3. His main recommendation, however, is the enterprising 5.e4!?, a move that is as rare as it is sharp and may catch many advocates of the accelerated Bogo-Indian on the wrong foot!

At this point, I would also like to mention that some of Ernst’s recommendations do not have the best statistics, but have the engines’ seal of approval and are therefore the best continuations — so please don’t let the statistics mislead you!

Over a total of 17 hours of playing time, Grandmaster Ernst provides you with a well-founded 1.d4 repertoire that will certainly make your opponents sweat!

A friendly suggestion: Why not combine the Positional 1.d4 repertoire by GM Ernst with the Attacking 1.d4 Repertoire by GM Pert?!

Nicholas Pert: “An Attacking Repertoire with 1.d4!” - On the ChessBase Shop...

Sipke Ernst: “A practical repertoire for the positional player” - On the ChessBase shop

Christian Hoethe was born in 1975, is father of two daughters and one son, lives in Brunswick, Germany, and learned chess relatively late, at the age of 13, from his father. At his peak he reached an Elo of 2247. He plays for the German club SC Wolfsburg where he also teaches once a month.
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