The Italian game is one of the oldest Chess openings. Analysis about the Italian game have been found from as early as the fifteenth century, by Italian players such as Damiano and Greco, hence its name !
So, as opposed to plans in the Ruy Lopez that are connected to positional ideas and strategic issues, the Italian game often leads to concrete and sharp variations. But we can also get quiet positional games in the Italian !
As a consequence, a lot of lines in the Italian games are made possible by this pressure on f7. And those are the sharp lines usually ! Black (and White) must always keep the possibility of a sacrifice on f7 in mind.
It is also clear that White is not creating any immediate threat with the move 3. Bc4. Which means that Black is not forced to play a given move yet: Black has several possible moves here and we are going to review them.
Black plays The Sidelines Of The Italian Game
We will start with a couple of moves that are definitely not the most popular ones but that are important enough to deserve a mention in this overview article.
After both these moves, many books and articles tell you that “White plays 4. d4 and is better.”. This is not untrue, but White will have a hard time getting any advantage knowing only this !
Black Plays 3… d6
This is the first option for Black. d6 is a very solid move that also creates some activity.
In short, the previous variation is a better version of the Two Knights defense for White. While the latter is a balanced and theoretical line, this variation above is just much better for White, so Black cannot play 4… Nf6.
I will make a dedicated article about the Italian game with 3… d6, the so-called semi-Italian game: what is obvious here is that Black has to be very careful very early. We have just seen that some standard ideas like Ng8-f6 can get punished very quickly !
Black Plays 3… Be7, The Hungarian Defense
Compared to 3… d6, the Hungarian defense is a quieter line, whose goal is primarily to avoid heavily analyzed lines and develop a piece quickly. The issue is that White gets some space advantage and Black must be prepared to defend a slightly cramped position. As with 3… d6, White’s best reply is considered to be 4. d4.
Black has probably not solved all his opening problems here and this is still slightly better for White, but there is no crushing victory in sight for White here ! This contrast with the same kind of line in the Scotch opening where 3… d6 is a mistake, plain and simple !
Black Plays The 3… Nf6 Italian Game, The Two Knights defense
But it is time to start looking at the main lines of the Italian game now. After White’s 3. Bc4, Black mainly has two moves, 3… Nf6 and 3… Bc5.
Since you have learnt some basic opening principles, you know that Black’s third move makes perfect sense against those concepts:
- Black develops a piece that has not yet played, and we know that generally, Knights should be developed before Bishops
- The Knight is on its best square (f6) and at the same time attacks the undefended e4-pawn
How could this move not be perfect ?…
White Defends The Pawn
Indeed White’s first possibility after 3… Nf6 is to defend the pawn.
The previous line is typical of the quiet positional play you can get in some flavors of the Giuoco Pianissimo. One idea that often appears and that you have to remember: as soon as Black protects the e5-pawn with d7-d6, he threatens to play Na5, attacking the Bishop. We will have the opportunity to see this pattern again.
So after 3… Nf6, everything is right for Black, right ?
White Attacks With 4. Ng5 !
So White is not forced to defend the pawn but can also start pressuring the f7-pawn in a very convincing way !
So the more we look at it, the more 3. Ng5 seems like a surprisingly good move by White. Side note: on g5, the Knight defends the e4-pawn, but this is certainly not the reason why White is playing it !
Black Defends With The Main Line
However, against 4. Ng5, Black has one (and only one) defense.
Now, after Black has found the correct move, it is White’s turn to navigate through those difficult and sharp lines: one inaccuracy and you’re (usually) lost !
Right now the c6-Knight is attacked, and again, Black has to find the right way to reply to this. This is only the start of a big theoretical discussion and the whole line is covered extensively in the Two Knights Defense.
Black Ignores The Attack: The Traxler
What if I told you that Black does not necessarily have to defend f7 ?…
The Traxler (also called Wilkes-Barre variation) is a very complex line. If White plays the best moves, it is probably losing for Black. However, Black has many dangerous ideas, illustrated by the following line.
So, capturing with the Knight leads to a very complex situation in which White has the advantage only if he plays the King to f1. The other possibility is to capture with the Bishop and simply be one safe pawn up.
So the Traxler features many crazy lines involving piece sacrifices, but White can perfectly decide not to go into it and take the small advantage. This makes the Traxler a choice that is hard to defend unfortunately.
White Plays 4. d4
Instead of defending e4, instead of going after the f7-pawn with Ng5, White has a third possibility.
This last move d7-d5 is a pattern to remember when White has pushed e4-e5 with a Bishop on c4: this is often the only move that keeps the balance for Black in tense situations like this !
This concludes our introduction on the Two Knights defense, a line leading to sharp and double edged variations for the most part. Now, let’s look at another big part of the Italian game: the Giuoco Piano.
Black Plays the 3… Bc5 Italian Game, The Giuoco Piano
About as popular as 3… Nf6 is another move: 3… Bc5.
We can wonder what it means about the attack on f7.
Can White still play Ng5 at some point to make a dangerous attack on f7 ?
The previous point is very important to remember: a Bishop and a Knight are worth a little more than six points, and especially in the opening and the middlegame, they are worth more than a Rook and a pawn, no matter what you have learnt in the value of the Chess pieces.
Never go for this exchange with White: the minor pieces are stronger and must be kept.
Now that we have clarified that moving the Knight to g5 does not really work for White in this line, the question is: what do you want to achieve with White ?
This pawn center is a common goal for White in the Ruy Lopez opening as well and is sometimes called the Ruy Lopez tense center.
But of course, you can only play one move with White, and the dream pawn center must wait a little bit. The three following section describe three different ways for White to try to achieve this, and we will see how Black usually reacts.
White Plays The Main Line With d2-d4
We will start with the most direct way to get to this pawn center: in this line, White plays very quickly c3, then d4. This is a common line of the Italian game.
What is important in the above line is that it is very forcing: when Black knows the right moves, White does not have so many deviations to try to fight on his terms. It also depends on your strength, and your opponent’s strength: at a beginner or intermediate level, Black can play one inaccurate move and you get your beautiful pawn center with White.
But at a higher level (club level player maybe), you must assume that Black is probably knowing what he is doing, and you will only reach the previous position, in which Black has already solved some issues. Then it means that you are either comfortable to squeeze Black in this position, or that you want to try one of the few gambits along the way, but remember, there are not so many ones !
The Giuoco Pianissimo
We have just seen the issue with the main line with d2-d4: this is a forcing line, and if Black knows it, we reach a position that is simpler, and where there is less to hope for.
Thus , White’s common choice recently has been to opt for the Giuoco Pianissimo, which starts with the following moves.
White plays d2-d3, but that does not mean he will never play d3-d4, White is just waiting for the right moment to do so. Let’s share some typical plans and ideas in this position.
Besides those obvious ideas, the game becomes positional, with each side trying to make the best of piece positioning, weak squares, and intelligent Knight moves. We will find some plans we already saw in the Ruy Lopez opening.
There is a reason why the Giuoco Pianissimo is the most popular variation of the Italian game at top level: there are more possibilities, no forcing line, still a lot of tension, and the side who understands the position better usually wins.
So you know which line to choose if you want to outplay your opponent positionally !
The Evans Gambit
The last possibility for White is to force the c3-d4 Bishop at the cost of a pawn. The Evans gambit was slightly forgotten until it was revived by a certain Garry Kasparov, who used it with great success (but is it the opening or is it Kasparov ?…).
Nowadays it is considered that the Evans gambit is a rather sound gambit and that the compensations for the sacrificed pawn are real. Let’s check that together.
The Evans gambit gives a dangerous position to White and it is not easy to face it. This is one of the sound gambits in an ocean of interesting ones.
Studying all the lines of the Evans gambit would take more time and I will write a specific article on it. Yet you have already seen some typical plans and ideas for Black and White.
Conclusion on the Italian game
Th Italian game is without any doubt one of the richest openings of Chess. It is rather tactical, but can also become a subtle positional battle depending of the mood of each player. Now, try to practice it to find your own preferred line !