Ponziani Opening – How to Play as White & Black

There is a chess opening for white that has unjustly been given a bad reputation. Turn this to your advantage by being one of the few to see its merits and start playing the Ponziani Opening today.

  • After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 the defining moves of the Ponziani Opening is 3.c3.
  • A chess opening for White played in the past by world chess champion contender Chigorin and much more recently by world chess champion Magnus Carlsen. If these top chess players were willing to use it against their opponents think how effective it will prove against your opponents.
  • Apart from being a perfectly sound opening that sets traps for your opponent, there is not a lot of must-know theory.
  • Black does have the option of playing a pawn gambit in one line and it is important for White to know how to react.
  • Of course, a solid understanding of chess opening principles is an essential foundation no matter which opening you play with white, but remembering opening principles is much easier than memorizing lines of theory.

A Solid, Attacking Chess Opening for White

These three games show the Ponziani Opening for White is an excellent opening if you enjoy attacking chess. Positional players will find lines suitable for them as well, but always remain on the lookout to launch a devastating attack!

Here are two great examples of the Ponziani Opening played by Mikhail Chigorin and Magnus Carlsen.

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Three Ponziani Opening Traps

Although you would expect a trap to work well in Blitz and Rapid games, these traps have caught many by surprise in longer games. The best traps are those where your opponent plays natural moves.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 Nf6 4.d4 Nxe4 5.d5 Ne7 6.Nxe5 d6?

In the Ponziani Opening White must always be on the lookout for a weakening of the a4-e8 diagonal with ...d6.

Black plays the natural 6…d to drive the knight away from e5 and open up the diagonal for the c8 bishop. Can you spot the move that wins material?

Yes, it is 7.Bb5+! when 7…c6 is met with 8.dxc6 bxc6 9.Nxc6.

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Now 9…Qb6 is met with 10.Nd4+ and even worse for Black is 9…Qc7 10.Ne5+. The chess engines evaluate the position after 9.Nxc6 as winning for White.

Spend a few minutes playing this position with black, and you will soon see why White has a decisive advantage. Although white is only a pawn up, do not underestimate White’s lead in development and challenges the weakened black king faces.

Here is the second trap.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 Nf6 4.d4 d6 5.d5 Ne7 6.Bg5 Nxe4?? 7.Qa4+

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Whenever black captures the e4 pawn, always look to see if there is a check on a4 with the queen. Another crucial move to watch out for is …d6, which opens the a4-e8 diagonal.

In the first trap, instead of 7.Bb5+, there is also the option of playing 7.Qa4+

By far, the most appealing sacrifice to play in any chess game is a queen sacrifice. In this Ponziani Opening trap, white is chasing the black king after a queen sacrifice.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 Nf6 4.d4 Nxe4 5.d5 Ne7 6.Nxe5 Ng6 7.Bd3

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Now it looks like black can win a pawn with 7…Nxf2 because after 8.Kxf2 there is 8…Nxe5 regaining the piece. However, there is a much stronger capture than 8.Kxf2 and White wins at least a piece with

8.Bxg6 Nxd1 9.Bxf7+ Ke7 10.Bg5+ Kd6 11.Nc4+ Kc5 12.Nba3

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White threatens a checkmate with b4, which forces black to play 12…Nxc3 when 13.Bxd8 regains the queen and leaves white a piece ahead.

The Ponziani Opening: 3…Nf6

This is the most natural move for Black because 3.c3 doesn’t place any immediate pressure on Black’s center. Keep the Ponziani trap mentioned above in mind whenever your opponent plays 3…Nf6

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 Nf6

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4.d4 Nxe4 5.d5 Ne7 6.Nxe5 Ng6

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7.Qd4 Qf6 8.Qxe4 Qxe5 9.Qxe5 Nxe5 10.Be3 b6

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Even an early transition to an endgame does not make Black’s game any easier. Thanks to the d5-pawn, White enjoys a comfortable space advantage and more active pieces.

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The Ponziani Opening: 3…d5

Another way for Black to counter in the center is with the …d5 advance.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 d5 4.Qa4 f6

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Defending the e-pawn with 4…f6 is Black’s safest option.

In this position, White can bring his queen out early with 4.Qa4 because it places immediate pressure on the black center. Black must choose to defend the e5-pawn with 4…f6, Steinitz’s chosen response, or play a gambit with 4…Bd7.

5.Bb5 Ne7 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.0-0 e4 8.c4 Qd6 9.c5 Qxc5 10.d4 Qd6 11.d5

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The gambit with 4…Bd7 is a more fighting response, but White is once again doing well.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 d5 4.Qa4 Bd7

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This move is credited to Horatio Caro, better known for his contribution to the Caro-Kann Defense.

5.exd5 Nd4 6.Qd1 Nxf3+ 7.Qxf3 Nf6 8.Bc4 e4 9.Qe2 Bd6 10.d4 0-0

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In this position, it is not at all clear that Black has sufficient compensation for the sacrificed pawn.

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The Ponziani Opening: 3…d6

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 d6 4.d4 Be7

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Black can easily transpose moves and play 3…Be7, and 4…d6. When your opponents find themselves facing an unusual opening, they are likely to adopt a safety-first approach with moves like …d6 and …Be7.

Solid moves like these might not be bad, but they do not pose any threat, and white can continue with his plans without any interference. White will develop with Bd3, h3, 0-0, Nbd2-f1-g3, and Be3 and connect the rooks with Qd2 or Qe2.

The Ponziani With 4…Nxe4

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 Nf6 4.d4 Nxe4 5.d5 Ne7 6.Nxe5 Ng6

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Although 7.Bd3 sets a trap, it is not necessarily the best move for white in this position. Positional players will find 7.Qd4 is a suitable move, while tactical-minded players will enjoy 7.Qf3.

Remember that 7.Qd4 will soon lead to a bishop endgame where white has a space advantage on the queenside. This advantage gives white a very slight edge in the position, but if your endgame play is not strong, then take a closer look at 7.Qf3

7.Qd4 Qf6 8.Qxe4 Qxe5 9.Qxe5 Nxe5 10.Nd2 d6 11.Nc4 Nxc4 12. Bxc4

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When playing this endgame with white, avoid moving your kingside pawns for as long as possible. Advancing them provides targets for black to attack.

Instead of a pawn move, Kf1 is often preferable since the e-file is the only open file, and controlling it is a vital part of a successful endgame.

7.Qf3 Nf6 8.Nxg6 hxg6 9.Be3 Be7 10.Nd2 d6 11.h3 Bg4 12.Qf4

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9.Be3 deprives the black bishop of the c5-square and blocks the e-file. White’s other bishop will develop to c4, and if harassed by …b5, it can drop back to e2.

The b5 pawn advance might force the bishop back, but it gives white targets on the queenside.

In this line, it is essential to remember white’s h-pawn is pinned, so do not blunder the rook on h1 with 12.hxg4??

In 2007 Nigel Short played this variation of the Ponziani against Gata Kamsky but retreated the bishop to a2 instead of e2.

In Conclusion

The Ponziani Opening is a sound alternative to the Spanish or Italian Game and has a lot less theory to boot. Adding the surprise value means there is much to recommend, including this opening in your repertoire.

The lighter theoretical load and easy-to-understand strategies make the Ponziani especially suitable for beginners. Keep in mind this is not solely a beginner’s opening but one you can continue to play throughout your entire chess career if you wish.

If you decide to test the Ponziani in blitz or rapid, be sure to keep the traps in mind, so you don’t miss out on winning a pawn or more.

The Ponziani Opening Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Ponziani Opening sound?

Yes, the Ponziani Opening is sound, and white does no worse than reach an equal position. Although this might not sound like much of an achievement, there are a few traps for the unprepared that can provide white with a winning advantage.

Is the Ponziani Opening good for beginners?

The Ponziani is an excellent opening for beginners since it focuses on control of the center, has minimal theory to remember, and contains some very effective opening traps.

What are the most common traps in the Ponziani opening?

The most common traps in the Ponziani focus on a check along the a4-e8 diagonal. Black will often capture the e4-pawn when Qa4+ is a double-attack on the king and the knight. These traps come into play when black plays …d6.

Who plays the Ponziani opening?

In the past, Mikhail Chigorin and GM Dragoljub Velimirovic played the Ponziani Opening, and more recently, the current world champion Magnus Carlsen has played the opening.

What is the theory behind the Ponziani opening?

White plays c3 to support the d4 advance and gain control of the center. Obtaining the d4, e4 center gives white an excellent space advantage. However, the Ponziani Opening is about more than central control and offers white open lines and active piece play as well.

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