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Chess Openings: Trying to Learn the Ruy Lopez as Black? Try Using the Underappreciated Cozio Defense (3...Nge7)
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The Cozio Defense of the Ruy Lopez
Introducing the Cozio Defense
In the past, I wrote about the Martinez Variation (6.d3) of the Ruy Lopez for white. With that, I advocated taking a simple and practical approach to choosing your opening repertoire, and I plan to do the same with this variation in that same opening but for black. I also briefly mentioned the Cozio Defense in that previous post while working up through the possible early deviations, and I stated that I had used it in order to try and begin playing the more solid double king's pawn games (1.e4 e5) while avoiding a lot of the associated theory.
Though the Ruy Lopez is a mountain of information for either player but especially from the black side, oddly enough, this line is perhaps more practical than the line for white that I previously wrote about, as this variation starts on move three rather than move six. Therefore, as you might think, you will more likely be able to implement this opening and your associated efforts in studying it. Then again, the player with black is, by the nature of the game, starting on their back foot, and this means that it is often at least slightly more difficult to prepare with the black pieces. So perhaps the early occurrence of this variation, in regards to the number of moves into a game, will offset the innate difficulty in being the responding side, and will allow you to adopt this opening just as easily as the others I have discussed for white. That is to say, the lines of this variation for black are not as forced, as white often dictates such things generally, and so there is slightly more to learn in each progressing move than with my other previous recommendations for white.
Additionally, there are some strategic pitfalls that white can easily stumble into if they do not react actively to this opening variation, and these are the nuances that I suggest you search for in any opening you look into. In an opening, it is sometimes a slight move order trick or the rarer questions posed by an offbeat line, that give such non-main lines their disproportionately high win-ratio and which may give you that one key win. Here, white must challenge black early, as black has the idea of playing a quick g6, Bg7 and 0-0, which is something black often seeks though doesn't speedily achieve in the Ruy Lopez main lines. If black can do so without coming under pressure, black should be very well-off entering the middlegame.
Reasons for Playing the Cozio Defense
As previously stated just above and also in the other Ruy Lopez post, the Cozio Defense avoids a lot of theory associated with the main line Ruy Lopez, even more so than the 6.d3 line I recommended before for white. One clear example of this is that the Cozio Defense completely bypasses the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez (4.Bxc6), as now black can simply recapture with the e7-knight and freely acquire the bishop pair. Don't expect to be lucky enough to see your opponent cede the bishop pair in this way, as it doesn't make sense, even to the inexperienced white player, but be aware and comfortable knowing that you have avoided essentially all major variations of the Ruy Lopez by using 3...Nge7. Exchange Variation players are often adamant with their use of it, especially in blitz chess, and you will simply avoid the hours of study and practice needed to combat their experience.
Furthermore, the Cozio Defense is solid, sound, tricky and non-theoretical, but most of all it's underrated, being seen in only about 2% of Ruy Lopez games. Thus, it is safe to say, depending on your overall skill level, that your opponent will have spent a proportional amount of time looking into this opening and that you will therefore likely have the advantage of familiarity. I mention that this defense is solid and sound because it has seen a good amount of play at the highest level of chess, and rarely do players at that level regularly employ anything questionable. The super-grandmaster Levon Aronian, a champion and expert of the Marshall Attack in the Ruy Lopez, has used this opening variation on a number of occasions with great success, as has Nigel Short and Alexander Morozevich. So, even though this opening doesn't get a lot of press, you can adopt it, knowing that you can safely keep using it as you progress with your chess.
About the Cozio Defense
The Cozio Defense is reached after 1.e4 e5, 2.Nf3 Nc6, 3.Bb5 Nge7. Unlike the other "Chess Openings" blog posts I have written so far, I will not discuss the early deviations that may arise in approaching this variation, as this variation occurs very early on. That is, the move 3.Bb5 determines the opening (the Ruy Lopez), and the following move, 3...Nge7, reaches the Cozio Defense. I feel that nominally discussing what else white can play on move two and three after 1.e4 e5 will not significantly benefit you.
Given the relatively non-theoretical/unexplored nature of this opening, there are only two named subvariations and there is arguably no true "mainline." The named subvariations are the Paulsen Variation (3...Nge7, 4.Nc3 g6), which may be the main line if in fact there is one, and the Tartakower Gambit (3...Nge7 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 g6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Be3 0-0 8.Qd2 d5). I, however, will not be recommending that black play 4...g6 in response to 4.Nc3. As you will see, this happens to be the only subvariation where I suggest that black not follow the typical idea of playing g6, Bg7 and 0-0 for reasons that I will explain later.
There are roughly four fourth move options for white that you need to know. They are, in order of popularity, 4.0-0, 4.c3, 4.Nc3 and 4.d4. According to databases, the move 4.d3 is another option that is occasionally seen at a lower skill level, but, as with three of the four moves just mentioned, the move 4.d3 can be met with that same simple and relatively consistent develop scheme. Also, white can play almost anything on move four here, but the remaining options (such as 4.c4, 4.a4, 4.h3, 4.Bxc6 or 4.b3) aren't as forcing or critical and allow the same black development pattern. Not only that, but they allow for easier if not immediate equalization by black.
I will first discuss the three more similar fourth move options as it regards black's development, and then I will discuss the move 4.Nc3, which is the sharpest option that white has and which requires your attention the most. As I also mentioned, 4.Nc3 is arguably the main line if in fact there is one.
The Cozio Defense with 4.0-0, 4.c3 or 4.d4
Like I have said, the development scheme that I am recommending in response to these three move options for white is rather similar though not always exactly the same. The scheme I am speaking of is where black plays g6, Bg7 and 0-0 at some point early in the opening. The move 4.0-0 is the most flexible option for white here, as most non-pawn moves generally are, but this option almost always transposes into either of the other two remaining options (4.c3 or 4.d4) or even 4.d3.
Black almost always has the opportunity to develop their pieces in other ways with moves like a6, d6 or Ng6 early in this opening, but this complicates what you must commit to memory and also strays beyond what will be the scope of this blog post. I also believe that these variations, which I am recommending in response to these white fourth move options, are in fact the strongest and most principled, and it's always nice to be able to find openings or variations where the "easiest" approach is also the most advantageous. Interestingly, perhaps another example of this easiest-also-happens-to-be-the-best chess opening phenomenon is the Exchange Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined, though I've also recently heard that this variation is in slight decline for the opposite reasons; such is chess. Furthermore, moves like a6 and d6 might actually transpose into other lines of the Ruy Lopez for black, such as the Cozio Defense Deferred (3...a6, 4.Ba4 Nge7) or the Deferred (a.k.a. Modern) Steinitz Defense (3...a6, 4.Ba4 d6). Meanwhile, I am mainly writing this with ease of implementation in mind, so feel free to explore this opening more as you become familiar with it.
Black's Three Best Fourth Move Options Following 4.c3
4.c3 or 4.0-0 g6 5.c3:
This is the response you are most likely to see from white, and the setup here makes sense. White plans to play d4 soon but with the option of recapturing with the c-pawn. This subvariation also more closely resembles the moves played in other Ruy Lopez lines for white, so white may intuitively play in this way while knowing nothing about the Cozio Defense. I, however, do not believe that this is the most critical variation, as it permits black to continue their plan of g6 and Bg7 without any real downside.
There is also an interesting gambit option for black with the move 4...d5 following 4.c3, as now white cannot move their knight to c3 if they decided to capture on d5 (5.exd5), and I suggest you look into it. A line there might continue 4.c3 d5 5.Nxe5 dxe4 6.Qe2 Be6 7.Qxe4 Bd5 with intriguing complexities arising.
Another point that I should make, which is also relevant in this 4.c3 line, is that black generally needs to be aware of the potential inclusion of the move a6 at times, as it may give black easier chances to equalize in some lines. Also, the inclusion of a6 on move four or five here differs from 3...a6, 4.Ba4 Nge7 (the Cozio Defense Deferred), as white hasn't committed the pawn to c3 and now has the option of playing a move like 5.d4 or 5.Nc3, where a6 may not be a useful insertion.
Here are some example games in these lines:
3...Nge7, 4.c3 a6, 5.Ba4 g6, 6.d4 exd4, 7.cxd4:
- 8.Bb3: Kosteniuk v. Aronian, World Blitz Championship (2009); Smeets v. Aronian, Amber Tournament (Blindfold) (2010); Leko v. Aronian, World Blitz Championship (2009).
- 8.Bc2: d5: Zhigalko v. Morozevich, European Club Cup (2014).
Those lines can transpose with 4.0-0 as follows: 3...Nge7 4.0-0 g6, 5.c3 a6, 6.Ba4 Bg7, 7.d4 exd4, 8.cxd4 b5.
The next two games involve the idea of not playing b5 immediately following the exd4, cxd4 pawn exchanges in the center, allowing white to play d5.
- Kupreichik vs Arkhipov, Munster (1991) and Kosintseva v. Stefanova, FIDE Women's Grand Prix Dilijan (2013). I would not necessarily recommend playing in this way with black, as it allows white to gain more space, but it's primarily a matter of taste.
Notice how the move a6 is only played after white has committed to c3. In the line where white plays 4.0-0, black can play g6, which acts as a kind of useful waiting move and which has a tendency to transpose into the 4.c3 line more so than the 4.d4 line. Again, this subtlety is based on the fact that white doesn't need to play with c3 if black plays a6 too early, which black should likely avoid if possible.
Black can also play this g6 variation without a6 like so: Grandelius v. Amin, Cappelle la Grande (2010), but playing in this way is somewhat hairier. Therefore, I recommend the lines with a6 after c3 has been played - usually immediately after. Also, I've learned that the c3-variation with both a6 and g6 being played is referred to as the modern variation, whereas the c3-variation with g6 alone is the classical variation. I'm not sure of the general acceptance of these titles, but GM Alexey Dreev has referred to them as such in his book on this defense.
Another point that I brought up before is that an immediate 4...d5 following 4.c3 is an interesting and principled way of playing. Games in that line can continue in these ways: Caruana v. Sokolov, Reykjavik Open (2012); Vachier-Lagrave v. Aronian, France-Armenia Match (2009); Haba v. Arkhipov, Kecskemet (1992); and Kosintseva v. Stefanova, SportAccord World Mind Games (Women, Basque) (2013).
One last thing I'll mention about the early c3 lines is that black can play with 4...d6 (or even 4...Ng6) after 4.c3 or 4.0-0, though it is arguably more favorable for black if white commits the c-pawn. I would not recommend this way of playing this opening for black, as the 4...d6 structures resemble those of the Steinitz Defense which has a tendency to be passive.
Black's Main Option (4...exd4) Following 4.d4
4.d4 or 4.0-0 g6, 5.d4:
The move 4.d4 is less common than 4.c3 and is likely less precise also, but it can be energetic, especially as white sometimes gambits a pawn by not recapturing on d4 but playing c3 instead. Interestingly, the average rating strength of practitioners of this line for white tends to be slightly lower than those of the three other fourth move options, the highest being 4.Nc3. To 4.d4, black almost always captures 4...exd4, though 4...Nxd4 is also playable but rare. White normally recaptures immediately with 5.Nxd4 following 4...exd4, though white may also castle to transpose directly into the 4.0-0 with 5.d4 line. White can afford to delay recapturing on d4, as black has no good way of defending their extra pawn.
Again, I am recommending the same development scheme that I previously mentioned above. There are some other interesting approaches to this subvariation for black which I will mention below, but for the sake of simplicity, I believe that 5...g6 after 5.Nxd4 or 5.0-0 is best. Furthermore, because 4.0-0 is a flexible option for white, black needs to have a consistent way of responding to both 5.c3 and 5.d4. Thus, because we have decided on 4...g6 following 4.0-0 if 5.c3 is played, we must play 4...g6 uniformly after 4.0-0. There is no downside to this g6 option, as it is, in fact, the most common continuation, but if you would like to explore other options in response to lines with an early d4, feel free.
Finally, if white plays 4.d4 followed by 5.0-0, this move order allows for black to play knowing that white is committed to an early d4. Therefore, black doesn't need to play into the g6 lines in this case, and black may decide to play moves like 5...Ng6 instead. For this reason, 5.0-0 is probably not the most precise option for white.
Here are some example games of the various continuations:
4.d4 exd4, 5.Nxd4 g6, 6.Nc3 Bg7, 7.Be3 0-0, 8.Qd2
- 8...d6: Muminova v. Harika, 16th Asian Games (Women Rapid) (2010). I believe this to be the more modern way of approaching 4.d4, though there are many other relevant lines. The Tartakower Gambit in the bullet point below seems dated however, as you will see.
- 8...d5 (The Tartakower Gambit): 9.0-0-0: Dutreeuw v. Ben-Menachem, European Team Chess Championship (1989); 9.exd5: Moutousis v. Dreev, World Junior Chess Championship (1989). Notice the years in which these two games were played. I had difficulty finding many games with an early d4 generally, but these games specifically lead me to believe that the Tartakower Gambit is very much out of fashion. However, I'm sure it's still a viable option, at least at the club level.
Here is a sharp and imbalanced line that is occasionally seen: 4.d4 exd4, 5.Nxd4 g6, 6.Nxc6 Nxc6, 7.Bxc6 bxc6, 8.Qd4: Z. Polgar vs Lazic, Dortmund (Germany) (1990).
Here is an interesting game and variation in the Scotch Opening that can also arise from the Cozio Defense: 4.d4 exd4, 5.Nxd4 Nxd4, 6.Qxd4 Nc6, 7.Bxc6: Vittorino v. Campora, 1st American Continental Chess Championship (2001).
Here is an interesting trap in a game involving the idea 4.d4 exd4, 5.Nxd4 Ng6: Thorhallsson v. Thorfinnsson, Reykjavik Open (2009). I would suggest exploring the idea of an early Ng6 in this and other lines.
Finally, here is a game involving the energetic gambit that I spoke about in introducing the 4.d4 variation above. This gambit is not very commonly implemented, and so it was difficult to find a truly instructive game in the line, but it is aggressive and viable: 4.0-0 g6, 5.d4 exd4, 6.c3: Bartholomew v. Acor, 34th World Open (2006).
Though it appears that I may have left gaps in discussing white's possible development options in this d4 line, according to databases the lines I mentioned cover a good amount of the content, as the two lines in the bullet points above tend to be white's most natural development scheme.
Black's Four Reasonable Fourth Move Options Following 4.Nc3
The Cozio Defense with 4.Nc3
Above, I mentioned how 4.Nc3 is the sharpest and most aggressive option that white has in response to the Cozio Defense. To some of you who are familiar with other lines in the Ruy Lopez, this may seem contrary to what you would think, as the move Nc3 in the Ruy Lopez often signifies a slower game with less pawn mobility. The reason the move 4.Nc3 is different in the Cozio Defense is that white intends to play 5.d4 next move and temporarily gambit a pawn if black plays 4...g6 (the Paulsen Variation). The main line of this variation continues: 4.Nc3 g6, 5.d4 exd4, 6.Nd5 Bg7, 7.Bg5 h6, 8.Bf6 Bxf6, 9.Nxf6+ Kf8, 10.O-O. To me, the positions in the Paulsen Variation look precarious, and so I will not be recommending or discussing it in this post.
The move I will be recommending in response to 4.Nc3 is the move 4...Ng6, which is a move that has been mentioned in other variations in this post. This move seems to slow down the pace of the game quite a bit, and the nature of the positions seems more practical and tenable - at least to me. Though black here may not be equalizing as quickly and efficiently in relation to the sharpest lines, I tend to argue for playability of a position over its objective merit. In fact, 4...Ng6 is a quality reply to 4.Nc3, and statistically black tends to score better with this response over 4...g6. I leave it to you to choose ultimately.
The move 4...Ng6 is rarer than 4...g6, and the move 4.Nc3 is uncommon to begin with, as is the Cozio Defense generally, so it was difficult finding instructive games. Here are some examples that I was able to find, which cover white's most common reactions to 4...Ng6:
- 6.h5: Kunal v. Shyam, World Junior Championships (2011)
- and 6.Bc4: Armbrust v. Stefanova, Gibtelecom (2009)
5.d4 exd4, 6.Nxd4 Bc5:
- 7.Be3 Bxd4: Bartel v. Megaranto, Biel (Masters) (2013)
- and 7.Nf5: Farid v. Chan, Olympiad (2008)
Sidelines in the Cozio Defense
4.d3 or 4.0-0 g6, 5.d3:
For lack of a better place to put these last instructive games, I decided to attach it to the very end here. I came across this game by chance, and it involves an early d3 move by white, which is something that I previously brought up and which is something you may see in employing this defense. Notice that it involves the development ideas of g6, Bg7 and 0-0, which is something you should likely try to accomplish with this defense in reaction to an unfamiliar white fourth move. Here it is: Nasanjargal vs Chan, 14th World Youth Chess Championship (2008).
Another possible though bad fourth move option for white that I want to mention is 4.b3. This may seem like a logical move, but now the b5-bishop has a hard time retreating, and so 4...a6 is more powerful. The move 4.b3 is nothing to worry about, as black is probably immediately to be preferred.
The move 4.c4 is a more reasonable yet uncommon attempt, and the positions take on a kind of King's Indian Defense structure. With 4.c4, black seems to be equalizing comfortably, so the distinctions between this and the King's Indian Defense are significant. Here's a game in that line: Berg v. Short, 21st Sigeman & Co (2013).
These fourth move options for white are just something to keep in mind, as I could easily see these moves being played in your games. You should also know why these and other fourth move options, apart from the main ones that I discussed, are rare.
Playing the Ruy Lopez as Black
Do you play the Ruy Lopez as black, and would you consider playing this variation now?
A few final points that I would like to make are, I chose this opening for its simple and underrated nature, but I also chose it because I noticed that there isn't much information about this opening. I will continue trying to find and write about less popular and less explored openings that could use a little press.
Another thing I noticed in writing this blog post is that a good portion of the database games for this defense are over 100 years old. I was aware that this opening is old, but because it is also unpopular, the old games are a good portion of the games in databases. Interestingly, the older games tend to involve the early d4 break with 4.d4 or 5.d4, which happens to be a less popular option today. I think this illustrates the evolution of modern chess theory and thinking, as often the moment comes where a new concept trumps an older one, and sometimes this means that the chess community may throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I hope that you benefited from reading this, not only in the sense of learning the Cozio Defense but learning more about the game of chess generally. I sincerely believe that, given the relatively simple nature of this defense along with the information that I have provided, even someone new to this opening can begin playing it with early success.
The openings that I choose to write about tend to be more straightforward, forcing, calm and intuitive than other options available. I would suggest taking these factors into account when choosing to employ any opening you come across.
Let me know in the comment section if you have any suggestions about this entry or other ideas for new entries. Keep an eye out for new additions to this "Chess Openings" series, and have fun with your chess.