Italian Game: Which Defense?

Italian Game
The starting position of the Italian Game.

The Italian Game begins with the sequence 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4, and is extremely popular at all chess levels.

It is named for “Il Calabrese,” Gioachino Greco (c.1600-1634) who analyzed the opening in the early 17th century. I definitely recommend playing through Greco’s many instructive games and analyses.

Now, how should Black meet the Italian Game?

Like a lot of things in life — and chess — that depends on many factors.

 

Three Main Choices

We can meet the Italian Game with 3…Nf6, 3…Bc5, or 3…Be7. In 20 years of coaching, I have recommended all three moves based on the needs of the student I was working with.

Coaching is an individual endeavor. Never forget that. No cookie-cutting!

Now, I’ll give a breakdown of each defense to the Italian from a coaching perspective.

Two Knights Defense: 3…Nf6

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6

We get the most combative choice against the Italian.

As is often the case, “most combative” also means “most complicated!”

To play the Two Knights, you must be okay with a (possible) early tactical melee and be willing to memorize some lines. Otherwise, stay away!

If my student doesn’t show an appetite for learning how to deal with 4.Ng5, or keeps forgetting one of the key lines, the defense is not for them. And that’s not even getting into the Max Lange Attack (4.d4 exd4 5.0-0 Bc5 6.e5), etc.

GIUOCO PIANO, 3…Bc5

With 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5

We get the big practical advantage of not allowing 4.Ng5. For many beginners, this is reason enough to recommend the move.

I believe most gambits are dubious, but after 3…Bc5 White has one of the very best in chess available to him: the Evans Gambit (4.b4).

In addition to having a plan against the Evans (there are a number of ways to deal with it, but you must study a little!); Black must also be ready to handle stuff like the Canal Variation (and Canal Trap), Møller Attack (4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb4+ 7.Nc3), etc.

Have you studied your lines?

HUNGARIAN DEFENSE, 3…Be7

Now we get to my controversial pick: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Be7:

I’m not a crusader for this line, but I think it has its place.

Not every student wants to study openings the way some need to be studied.

3…Be7 cuts out all the tricky lines White has against 3…Nf6 and 3…Bc5. The first player simply doesn’t have anything to aim at.

Higher-rated players understand that the Hungarian is dubious because of the space it cedes, but this isn’t a concern below 1400…and probably higher!

Once a player gains some experience, and confidence, you can consider switching them to other lines.

CONCLUSION

Players should not just choose the Giuoco Piano or Two Knights because “everyone else” does…or at least right away. Do those openings suit your needs?

I have students who do well with these lines; but they either have the temperament required to play them, or are willing to put in the work to get good at them.

Some kids just want to play chess a little, not study too much, and spend time on other activities. Don’t force them to be something they don’t want to be.

I’ve had many students do very well with the “passive” Hungarian Defense. Their opponents couldn’t use the aggressive schemes they were accustomed to against it, and got outplayed.

Know your student, and create an opening repertoire that suits them.

Author: Andre Harding

Since 2003 I've taught chess to thousands of students in public, private, and charter schools in the New York City area, and have given countless private lessons. I also direct USCF- and FIDE-rated chess tournaments.

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