Chess Opening Basics: The Catalan Opening

Learning the Catalan Opening is made easier by the fact it is a system-based opening for White, and that the Catalan Opening only has two main variations – Closed Catalan and Open Catalan.  

  • The Catalan Opening is a dangerous, positional weapon for white that should not be underestimated. Becoming familiar with the main strategies in this opening will not only help you play it better but teach you a lot about controlling the center and power of the fianchettoed bishop.
  • The Open Catalan with 6…dxc4 is a popular choice for Black. 7.Qc2 is an excellent way to meet it with white.
  • White has two ways to meet the other main variation of the Catalan – the Closed Catalan. The two most dependable choices are 7.Qc2 and 7.Nc3.
  • Sometimes Black attempts to disrupt White’s development with 4…Bb4+ in the Closed Catalan. Although it does not pose many dangers for White it’s important to understand Black’s intentions.
  • We’ve answered several of the most Frequently Asked Questions in the Catalan Opening.

Introduction

The Catalan Opening is an opening system you can use with white against many of Black’s favored defenses to 1.d4. Although it is played at the highest levels of chess today, the opening is also suitable for club players.

When you play the Catalan Opening, you are playing a system opening that offers flexibility and transpositions. The transpositional nature of the opening allows you to wait and see which setup your opponent has chosen and decide how you want to play against it.

The Catalan Opening is particularly well-suited to players who enjoy playing positional chess. 

Black can make the game more tactical by choosing the Open Catalan over the Closed Catalan Opening. Still, the opening retains a strong positional nature regardless of what Black chooses.

Ideas and Strategies Behind the Catalan Opening

Vladimir Kramnik is a well-known champion of the Catalan Opening. In 2007 he used it to defeat both Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen.

A typical starting tabiya in the Catalan Opening is reached after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4

One of the two most popular variations of the Catalan Opening is the Open Catalan. The defining move in the Open Catalan is 6...dxc4
The starting position of the Open Catalan

The crucial piece in White’s opening setup is the bishop on g2, which pressures the black queenside. Black must be careful about how he wishes to achieve equality because it is easy to turn the fianchettoed bishop on g2 into a monster.

Along with putting pressure on Black’s queenside, the bishop on g2 also supports the e4 advance and puts pressure on d5.

However, placing the bishop on g2 White allows Black to capture the pawn with 4…dxc4 and hang onto the extra material. White often gets a broad center that provides enough dynamic compensation for the pawn.

Lots of Opportunities For Transpositions

One of the great benefits of the Catalan Opening is you can enter it through different move orders if you wish to avoid giving Black the chance to play 4…dxc4. Two alternative opening move orders to use to transpose to the Catalan are the English Opening and Reti Opening.

The capture …cxd4 brings us into the Open Catalan while supporting the d5-pawn with …c6 is known as the Closed Catalan. This approach is better suited for players who enjoy a more positional game and wish to avoid the tactics arising in the Open Catalan.

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A standard position in the Closed Catalan.

Although the Closed Catalan is often seen as a safety-first approach, it is easy for Black to get into trouble if he doesn’t know his opening theory. Club players who have not studied how to meet the Catalan will instinctively play the Closed Catalan.

Open Catalan With 6…dxc4

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2

By playing 7.Qc2 in the Open Catalan, White keeps an eye on e4 and threatens to regain the pawn with Qxc4.

In return for giving up the center, Black hopes to gain sufficient compensation in terms of time. When White captures on c4 with the queen, Black can gain time attacking it with …b5 or …Bd7-c6-d5.

The Bd7-c6 maneuver makes a lot of sense since it places the bishop on a square where it can oppose White’s fianchettoed bishop on g2. 

In addition to chasing the queen with the light-squared bishop, Black can often use his knight to gain a tempo by attacking the queen with …Na6-b4. Because Black has played …dxc4, the d5-square is now available to the knight on b4.

When White seeks to win back the pawn with 7.Qc2, Black often plays 7….a6, which prepares to gain time by attacking the queen after Qxc4 with …b5. Apart from gaining space and attacking the queen …b5 frees the b7 square for Black’s light-squared bishop.

That is why the primary response to 7…a6 is 8.a4 from White.

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However, this move creates a rather obvious weakness on b4 for Black to exploit with activities like …Na6 or …Nc6-b4. Now that White has prevented …b5, it makes sense for Black to develop their light-squared bishop with …Bd7-c6.

8…Bd7 9.Qxc4 Bc6 10.Bg5 Bd5 11.Qc2 Be4 12.Qc1

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White plays 10.Bg5 with the intention of exchanging the bishop for the knight on f6. The knight on f6 is a vital piece in Black’s attempts to prevent e4. 

Before expanding on the kingside, White must gain control of the center, or else Black could counter-attack in the center. As we know, the best way to meet a flank attack is with a central counter strike.

The two main options for Black in this position are 12…Nc6 and 12…h6

The Open Catalan With 12…Nc6

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.a4 Bd7 9.Qxc4 Bc6 10.Bg5 Bd5 11.Qc2 Be4 12.Qc1 Nc6

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Black threatens to win a pawn by capturing on f3 and playing …Nxd4. White cannot capture the b7 pawn because Black has …Nxe2+ winning the queen.

A sound approach for White is to defend the pawn and place his rook opposite the black queen with 13.Rd1. Now play might continue with 13…h6 14.Bxf6 Bxf6 15.Nbd2 Bg6

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Take note of how the knight on c6 prevents Black from opposing the d2 bishop on the a8-h1 diagonal.

The game between David Howell and Das Debashis showed how powerful White’s light-squared bishop could become. This game would have ended with a beautiful checkmate if Debashis had not resigned.

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The Open Catalan With 12…h6

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.a4 Bd7 9.Qxc4 Bc6 10.Bg5 Bd5 11.Qc2 Be4 12.Qc1 h6

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In this variation, Nbd2 will often ensure Black plays Bxf3 and block theh1-a8 diagonal with c6, but first, there is the hanging bishop on g5.

13.Bxf6 Bxf6 14.Rd1 a5 15.Nbd2 Bxf3 16.Bxf3 c6 17.e3

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White solidifies the center before expanding on the kingside with h4-h5. 

Anish Giri scored a tremendous victory over Vidit Gujrathi in this variation of the Catalan Opening.

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White Meets 7…a6 With 8.Qxc4

The more options you have to attack your opponent in an opening position, the harder it is for them to prepare for you. As mentioned, 8.a4 is the most popular way of meeting 7…a6, but capturing on c4 is a good alternative for White.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.Qxc4

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A logical way for play to continue is with 8…b5 9.Qc2 Bb7 10.Bd2 Be4 11.Qc1 Nc6

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Here is Anish Giri again showing us how to play the Catalan Opening. This time he is playing another 2700 rated player – Levon Aronian.

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Closed Catalan: Black Plays 6…c6

The starting position of the Closed Catalan Opening is reached after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O c6

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White has two main options in this position:

  • 7.Qc2 followed by 8.Nbd2 aiming for a quick e4, and
  • 7.Nc3 when White sacrifices a pawn for a broad center and the possibility of long-term positional compensation.

The question to ask yourself is, are you comfortable giving up a pawn for a broad center, or would you rather play for the e4 advance and open up the position?

Opening the center to free your bishop on g2 is always an excellent option for White.

Play both moves against a training partner or the engine and see which of the resulting middlegame positions you prefer. 

Sometimes it is nice to defend the position and see how the engine plays with white. You can learn which move made it hardest to defend and use the strategies employed by your engine.

The Closed Catalan Opening – 7.Qc2

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O c6 7.Qc2

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Developing the queen to c2 is a multi-purpose move that defends c4, supports the e4 advance, and challenges for control of the c-file if White chooses to play cxd5.

7…b6 8.Nbd2 Bb7 9.e4 Na6 10.e5 Nd7 11.a3

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White seizes control of the center and then plays a3 to keep the knight from reaching b4 and attacking the queen. The positional nature of the Catalan Opening is easily seen in the Closed Catalan Opening.

In this opening variation, White combines the positional elements of prophylaxis, space, and control of the open file to keep an advantage.

This position is undoubtedly easier to play for White. That being said, Black’s position is solid, and he has no weaknesses.

Gledura skillfully converted these advantages into other advantages in his game against Lenderman. Although the game lasted to the endgame, White played with the initiative throughout most of the game.

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The Closed Catalan – 7.Nc3

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O c6 7.Nc3

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Developing the knight to c3 is a natural move and will suit positional players who enjoy lots of tactics.

The Nc3 variation shows that even the quieter, more positional Closed Catalan Opening can lead to tactical positions. Pins by Black are met with counter pins by White, and loose pieces are attacked in this fascinating variation.

7…Nbd7 8.Qd3 b6 9.e4 Ba6 10.b3 dxc4 11.bxc4 e5 12.dxe5 Ng4 13.Bf4 g5

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Now instead of moving, the bishop White plays 14.Rad1! Attacking the knight on d7. Hardly the sort of position you would expect to find in the quiet Closed Catalan Opening, but certainly a lot of fun. 

And the mayhem continues with White often playing an exchange sacrifice on move 20. 

Banusz certainly believes the exchange sacrifice is sound as he has played it against two opponents rated over 2400 Elo. In this game, he is playing against Gordievsky, who was rated 2570 Elo at the time.

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4…Bb4+ in the Closed Catalan Opening

Another variation of the Closed Catalan that is anything but quiet is the Closed Catalan Opening, where Black plays 4…Bb4+. 

Black tries to induce White to meet the check with 5.Bd2 when the bishop is slightly misplaced. Fortunately, White has an excellent alternative in 5.Nbd2.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Bb4+ 5.bd2

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5…0-0 6.Nf3 dxc4 7.Qc2 a5 8.a3 Bxd2+ 9.Bxd2 b5 10.a4 c6 11.e4 h6 12.g4

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White plays g4 as early as move twelve despite developing his bishop to g2. Even more surprising is that the natural 12…Nbd7 is a bad move because it allows White to begin an immediate attack with 13.g5.

At the Gibraltar Masters in 2018, Svane only needed twenty-three moves to defeat Gavrilescu.

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In fact, it is challenging to find a good move for Black after 12.g4. Black has tried 12…Nh7 and 12…e5 without much success.

Striking back in the center is usually a reliable strategy, and 12…c5 ended in a draw in the game between Nicolic and Storme.

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Final Thoughts on the Catalan Opening

As you have seen, the positional nature of the Catalan Opening does not mean you cannot play attacking chess. Both sides have the option to make use of tactical blows, and learning as many of these tactics will undoubtedly give you an edge.

The fact that Garry Kasparov played the Catalan Opening is a testament to its attacking potential and effectiveness. You can hardly go wrong following in the footsteps of such a chess legend.

The Catalan Opening is an excellent choice for the improving player because it is an opening you can play for many years. The Catalan is an opening you can use with success against club players and titled players as your playing strength increases.

The longer you play it, the more you will gain a feel for the resulting middlegame and endgame positions arising in the Catalan Opening.

To help you master this powerful opening, GM Srinath Narayanan has created a lifetime repertoires course on the Catalan Opening.

Catalan Opening Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Catalan a good chess opening?

Yes, the Catalan is a good chess opening. Many World Chess Champions, including Capablanca, Alekhine, Botvinnik, Karpov, and Kasparov, have included it in their opening repertoires.
You can also use the kingside fianchetto against other defenses to 1.d4 like the Grunfeld, Benko Gambit, and King’s Indian. The more you play this set-up with white, the better your feel for the positions and tactics will become.

Is the Catalan Opening sharp?

The Catalan Opening is not sharp because it is a positional chess opening. However, both sides still have tactical opportunities within the Catalan Opening.

Is the Catalan opening a Gambit?

Yes, it is in the sense that White can gambit a pawn in the Catalan Opening if he chooses – the Open Catalan variation. The pawn gambit occurs in the Open Catalan variation where Black captures the c4-pawn. This capture forces White to decide if he will aim to regain the pawn or play for greater central control.

How do you play Catalan chess opening?

The Catalan Opening is a system opening for white. White will play d4, c4, Nf3, g3, Bg2, 0-0 and then develop his other knight (usually to c3). Although it is essential always to be aware of what your opponent is doing, this system of development for white is highly effective against many of Black’s set-ups.

Can Black avoid the Catalan?

Black can avoid the Catalan Opening by choosing to meet 1.d4 with an Indian Defense. For example, the King’s Indian Defense or Grunfeld Defense. Black can also adopt a Benoni/Benko Gambit approach with 1…Nf6 and 2…c5.

Who invented Catalan Opening?

Savielly Tartakower played the Catalan Opening in a 1929 tournament held in Barcelona, Spain. The name of the opening comes from the Catalonia region of Spain, which includes Barcelona.

How do you counter the Catalan opening?

You can avoid the Catalan Opening altogether by choosing to meet 1.d4 with 1…Nf6 instead of 1…d5 and play the Benoni Defense or Benko Gambit. 
However, if you play the Queen’s Gambit Declined, then you must choose between the Open Catalan with …dxc4 or the Closed Catalan with …c6. The Open Catalan is the more tactical approach, but the Closed Catalan also offers Black the chance to play for a win.   

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