Benoni Defense is a queen’s pawn opening that starts with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5. Black immediately challenges white’s d4 pawn and almost forces it to advance and lock the pawn center.
Now, if white takes on c5 with 3.dxc5, then after 3…e6 it is not possible to keep the extra pawn for much longer. For example after 4.b4 a5 5.Bd2 axb4 6.Bxb4 Na6 and black wins back the pawn. Also 4…b6 is equally good.
So white doesn’t capture on c5. White’s main move here is 3.d5.
Black has two main alternatives here. 3…b5 is a pawn is called the Benko gambit. The idea is to sacrifice a pawn to gain dangerous piece activity for long term. For example, 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 Bxa6
White is a pawn up but black will use open a & b files combined with Bg7 to put pressure on white’s queenside pawns. We will cover Benko gambit separately in another post.
3…e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 is the main position of the Benoni gambit.
White has two main alternatives. 6.Nf3 is most popular move. 6.e4 with the idea of f4 is a more aggressive line that white can choose.
White plays 6.Nf3
After the main line 6.Nf3 g6 7.e4 Bg7 8.h3 0-0 9.Bd3, we reach the position below.
Here black can play 9…a6 with the idea of expanding on the queenside. But there is also an interesting possibility of direct 9…b5, which is based on a tactical idea.
Exercise: What happens if white captures 10.Bxb5 or 10.Nxb5?
10.Bxb5 Nxe4! Nxe4 Qa5+ wins back the piece. And 10.Nxb5 Re8 11.Nc3 Nxe4! Again, black wins back the pawn because after 12.Nxe4 or 12.Bxe4 black has 12…f5!
White plays 6.e4
This is a more aggressive way to play for white. 6.e4 g6 7.f4 Bg7 8.Bb5 and here black can easily go wrong.
If black plays natural 8…Nbd7, then after 9.e5 dxe5 10.fxe5 Nh5 11.e6 black has an uncomfortable position. Black’s knight had to move to h5 and the pawn has reached all the way to e6 giving a sign of strong attack.
So black plays 8…Nfd7, and after 9.a4 0-0 10.Nf3 Na6 11.0-0 Nc7 12.Bd3 a6 13.Re1 Re8 14.Be3 Rb8 15.Bf2 b5 with a playable game for both sides.
White plays 3.Nf3
White can also choose to play 3.Nf3, avoiding the Benoni set-up.
Here black can simply play 3…e6 and keep his options open or he can commit with 3…cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.Nc3 g6 6.e4, transposing to the Macrozy bind variation of sicillian dragon. If white avoids 6.e4, then it is the set-up from English opening.
Other move orders
Benoni can also be reached with other move orders for example 1.d4 c5 2.d5
Here 2…Nf6 transposes to main line. But black also has an additional option of playing 2…f5 which is called the Czech variation.
And finally, after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 and only now black plays 3…c5 (3…Bb4 leads to Nimzo Indian), committing to the Benoni defense.
Game Played with Benoni Defense
Here is classic game played between Ponomariov, Ruslan (2709) vs Nakamura, Hikaru (2789)
Benoni defense is a very playable opening at all levels from black side. Black’s main aim is to lock the center so as to restrict wild and tactical possibilities and slowly develop pieces. Black’s main idea is to develop the dark squared bishop on g7 and advance queenside pawns with a6-b5…etc. White tries to maintain his early space advantage which he was given with the move d5. But this is a very minimal advantage and doesn’t count much in a long term game where inaccuracies are expected from both players