The Italian Opening: A Hard-Hitting Classical Chess Opening

The Italian Opening is a chess opening for White that arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4.

the italian opening a comprehensive guide blogimage

This is a chess opening suitable for players of all strengths, from beginners to super grandmasters.

This is an opening you can play with confidence for your entire chess career. One that will grow in strength as you do.

There isn’t a lot of must-know theory which is a big part of the appeal. In the Italian Opening, your understanding of fundamental chess principles serves you well.

Along with its suitability for players of various strengths, the Italian Opening suits many different playing styles.

There is the slow poison of the aptly named Slow Italian Opening and the hurly-burly world of the Evan’s Gambit! 

For those who fall between these two extremes, there’s the Fried Liver Attack and the Max Lange Attacks.

No matter which approach you choose to adopt, there is every opportunity to play for a win

Estimated reading time: 18 minutes

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The Italian Opening: Slow Variation is Deceptively Strong

After the opening moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 we enter the wonderful world of the Giuoco Piano (Italian for “quiet game”).

slow variation move 4
Slow Italian Opening with 4.c3 to support the d4 advance and control the d4 square

In the Slow Italian Opening white adopts a restrained approach by supporting his center with c3 and d3. He can go for an all-out attack with the Evan’s Gambit.

White will castle short, play h3 to keep a bishop or knight from g4 and develop the rook to e1. Nbd2-f1-g3 and Be3 will complete white’s development.

Strategic Ideas for White in the Slow Italian Opening

The main ideas for White are bringing the knight to e3 or g3 and playing d4. Although things are not this simple.

Despite its tame appearance, the positions can become very tactical in the Slow Italian Open. Here are a few other strategic ideas to keep in mind:

  • placing a knight on f5 can make life extremely difficult for black
  • this knight is often sacrificed on g7, h6, or even captured on f5
  • if the knight is sacrificed on f5, the other knight can replace it
  • use g4 to open the black king’s position, but only if black can’t strike back in the center
  • don’t be afraid to let black capture a knight on g4 because you get to play on the light squares.

In the following video, IM Irina Bulmaga presents the basic ideas of the Italian Opening:

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The Important f5 Square in the Italian Opening

White can support a knight on f5 with another knight on h4. If black ever captures with …gxf5, White can recapture with Nxf5.

This gives white an excellent attacking piece and exposes the black king.

Miedema, David, 1-0, Enschede – Twente Open, 2009

As always, before beginning a flank attack, make sure black doesn’t have any central play. One of the basic tenets of chess is to meet a flank attack with a counter-strike in the center.

The move g4 is very committal, so make sure you have stopped your opponent’s counterplay. Never be in a rush to move any pawn in front of your king.

Allowing black to capture a knight on g4 will double your pawns after you recapture with hxg4. In return for doubled pawns, you get an open h-file and control of the light squares.

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Your play on the light squares is more than enough compensation for the doubled-pawns. 

Of course, it’s always a lot of fun to devote some of your chess training time to improve your attacking skills. After all one of the best means of defense is the counter-attack.

Three Main Responses By Black On Move 4

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 in the following position:

Italian Opening Slow Variation 4.c3
Italian Opening Slow Variation 4.c3

The 3 main choices by black are:

  • 4…Nf6
  • 4…Qe7
  • 4…d6

4…Nf6

In reply to 4…Nf6, 5.d3 is the defining move of the Slow Italian Opening. 

One of the many advantages of the Italian Opening is the moves are natural, developing moves. 

Play usually continues 5…d6 6.O-O O-O 7. Nbd2 a6 8. Bb3 (to preserve the bishop if black attacks it with …Na5) Ba7 9.h3.

White’s last two moves are important to remember. Bb3 allows the bishop to find safety on c2 after …Na5 and 9. h3 prepares Re1.

Playing 9. Re1 allows 9…Ng4 followed by a quick f7-f5.

9…h6 10.Re1 Re8 11.Nf1 Be6 12.Bc2 Qd7 13.Ng3 d5 brings us to a very important tabiya in the Slow Italian Opening.

A common position in the Italian Opening Slow Variation
A common position in the Italian Opening Slow Variation

This position is rich in possibilities for white. Remember to play on both sides of the board.

Here is a great game by Perez Ponsa showing the importance of playing across the board. White wins with a queenside pawn majority that can’t be stopped.

Perez Ponsa, F. (2583) – Lesiege, A. (2521)

4…Qe7

When he plays 4…Qe7, black signals his intent to play solidly and keep the center closed.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Qe7.

slow italian 4...qe7 starting position
Slow Italian Variation 4…Qe7

Play usually continues 5.O-O d6 6.d4 Bb6 7.a4 a6 8.h3 Nf6 9.Re1.

4...qe7 with 9.re1 slow italian opening
4…Qe7 with 9.Re1 Slow Italian Opening

Black might keep his king in the center and launch a kingside attack but the solidity of the white position and sound development leave him well-prepared to repulse such attacks.

Here is IM Irina Bulmaga explaining why she chose the Italian Opening over the Spanish Opening (Ruy Lopez):

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White’s Ideas Against 4…Qe7

Against 4…Qe7, white will centralize his pieces and enjoy a space advantage. This makes the white position easier to play.

Despite black’s attempts to keep the position closed, white has numerous pawn breaks to open up the position. 

White has well-developed pieces and plenty of scope to expand on the queenside. Best of all, the most logical moves in this position prove to be the best choices.

This truly is a position you can play using sound middlegame technique rather than cutting-edge theory.

In this game, Zoran Jovanovic shows how to employ centralization and crush your opponent. 

Jovanovic, Zoran – Zupe, Miran, 1-0, Bizovac Open 16th, 2009

4…d6

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 d6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb6 7.Bb5 threatening d5 is a key move for white in this variation.

slow italian 4...d6 key move
7.Bb5 threatening d5 is an important move for white in this variation

After 7…Bd7 8.Nc3 Nge7 9.O-O O-O 10.h3 a6 11.Ba4 h6 12.Be3 we reach the following position

slow italian 4...d6
Slow Italian Opening 4…d6 variation

Once again white has a good center and natural development. The space advantage allows white greater mobility for his pieces.

A simple, effective strategy is to centralize the rooks and meet …d5 with e5. The rest of white’s strategy will depend on how black arranges his pieces.

Here is a very nice game by Rau Mamedov showing how to play the position. Note how white drives the black king all the way up the board to h3!

Mamedov, Rau – Lodhi, M., 1-0, 10th Agzamov Memorial 2016

Final Thoughts on the Slow Italian Opening

The classic principles of chess can guide you through this opening with minimal theory.

These principles will help you reach a position where your middlegame skills can be used with devastating effect!

If you choose to play the Slow Italian Opening you will learn the importance of timing in chess. Your build-up might be slow but you must be vigilant to seize your attacking opportunities.

Despite how it appears on the surface the small advantages white gains add up to a lot of attacking potential. These attacks can be both positional and tactical!

Be certain to hone your middlegame and attacking skills.

Italian Opening: Evan’s Gambit

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 brings us to the well-known Evan’s Gambit.

evans gambit
Evan’s Gambit

Whether black accepts or declines the gambit, the play remains sharp and exciting!

White’s aim is lightning fast development by all means necessary. This often entails the sacrifice of one or even two pawns.

If you choose to play the Evan’s Gambit you must be willing to play actively and put as much pressure on black as you can. This opening is ideal for those players who like to go all in with their attack.

Be sure to read this extremely informative article on Evan’s Gambit before entering its shark-infested waters!

The Italian Opening: Two Knights Defense

In the Italian Opening black doesn’t have to play 3…Bc5 but can opt for the solid developing move 3…Nf6 instead.

italian opening two knights defense
Italian Opening Two Knights Defense – 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc5 Nf6

After the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 white can launch:

  • the Fried Liver Attack with 4.Ng5 or play
  • 4.d4 and enter the Max Lange Attack after 4…exd4 5.e5

Both variations lead to positions where piece activity is extremely important!

In the Fried Liver Attack, black often sacrifices a pawn to help defend against all white’s threats. This makes it ideal for players who like to go up a pawn and defend their gain.

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Strategic Ideas For White In The Two Knights Defense

Against both 3…Bc5 and 3…Nf6 white has the option of playing a dangerous, attacking variation.

In the Fried Liver Attack, white takes aim at the weakest point of black’s position – the f7 square. Black is advised to sacrifice a pawn to repulse the attack and gain the initiative.

This leads to a dynamic position where both sides are holding their own. Which side you prefer to be on comes down to your personal playing style.

In the Max Lange Attack, white adopts an active plan that includes:

  • gaining space with the e5 advance
  • supporting this advance with f4 and Qe2
  • rapid development
  • inflicting structural damage to black’s queenside pawns with Bxc6 

The Max Lange Attack

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.e5 black has three main choices:

max lange 5.e5
Max Lange 5.e5
  • 5…d5
  • 5…Ne4
  • 5…Ng4

5…d5

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bc5 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.e5 d5.

two knights with 5...d5
Two Knights 5…d5

Black takes advantage of the bishop being on c4 to strike back right away in the center.

Taking on f6 is not a good option for white because black will have the bishop pair and more control of the center. Instead, white should play 6.Bb5.

Now the threat to capture on f6 must be dealt with so we get 6….Ne4 7.Nxd4, bringing us to a position where black must choose between the sound 7…Bd7 or the more active 7…Bc5.

two knights 7.nxd4
Two Knights 7.Nxd4

If black chooses 7…Bd7 a good continuation for white is to play 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.O-O Bc5 10.f3 Ng5 11.Be3 Ne6 12.f4.

two knights 12.f4
Two Knights 12.f4

White plans to push the f-pawn and e-pawn up the board to either create weaknesses in the black position or a passed e-pawn.

In return for giving up the bishop, pair white has inflicted structural damage on the black position and gained space on the kingside.

Take a look at how white managed to increase this space advantage in the game Jones versus Mamedyarov.

Jones, G. – Mamedyarov, S., 1-0, World Blitz 2015

White plays similarly against 7…Bc5 with the moves 8.Be3 Bd7 9.Bxc6 bxc6 10.Nd2 Qh4 11.O-O Bb6 12.N2b3 Qe7 13.Re1 O-O 14.f3 Nc5.

two knights 7...bc5
Two Knights 7…bc5

Although this position is dynamic with chances for both sides it’s very telling a great attacking player like Hikaru Nakamura chose to play it with white.

Nakamura, Hikaru – Hebden, Mark, 1-0, Gibraltar Masters 6th, 2008

5…Ne4

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.e5 Ne4.

max lange 5...ne4
Max Lange 5…Ne4

This move is a good, solid move by black and white must adopt a more patient approach. 

We’d all love to play an opening where every line ended with a great attack, but that’s not possible today.

Chess players have access to more and more information, and many are well-prepared. Today you need to be a complete player capable of winning in the middlegame and endgame.

White has two choices for move 6:

  • 6.Qe2 or
  • 6.O-O

The statistics for both are very similar, which means it’s only a question of which move you feel more comfortable playing. If you prioritize king safety, then 6.O-O is the move for you.

It is always reassuring to know you have a choice between two reliable options.

Here are two games showing each of these approaches.

Once again, white’s main advantage is a space advantage which makes the position easier to play.

Here are examples of how the game might unfold with each of these moves.

Jones, G. – Yu Yangyi, 1-0, IMSA World Masters Blitz, 2019

5…Ng4

This move is a lot riskier than either 5…d5, and 5…Ne4. This move is certainly playable for black in the Italian Opening, if he knows the tactics that go with it.

Magnus Carlsen has played 5…Ng4, which makes it likely you will meet it at some point. Fortunately, it’s most likely you won’t be playing somebody as strong as him.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.e5 Ng4.

two knights 5...ng4
Two Knights 5…Ng4

Once again, in this variation of the Italian Opening, the two main choices for white are 6.Qe2, and 6.O-O. However, 5…Ng4 is a lot more provocative than 5…Ne4, so simple development is best.

5…Ng4 6.O-O d6 (Note 6…Nxe5 loses a piece to 7.Nxe5 Nxe5 8.Re1 d6 9.f4 because the knight on e5 is pinned) 7.exd6 Bxd6 8.Re1+ Kf8 when black will need to work at bringing the h8 rook into the game.

two knights 5...ng4 and 8...kf8
Two Knights 5…Ng4 and 8…Kf8

7…Qxd6 might be a better try for black when 8. Re1+ can be met with 8…Be7. Once again, we reach an equal position where the white position is easier to play.

two knights 5...ng4 and 7...qxd6
Two Knights 5…Ng4 and 7…Qxd6

As you can see in this game getting an equal position in the Italian Opening doesn’t guarantee black will get a draw.

Sikorsky, Horst – Siewert, Wolfgang, 1-0, SLO-15/sf01 (SLO), 2010

The Fried Liver Attack

In the Italian Opening Fried Liver Attack, the idea is to target the weak f7 square as soon as possible. Black must know his opening theory to avoid ending up in a bad position.

fried liver attack
Fried Liver Attack

Even if black knows how to navigate these turbulent waters safely, the resulting position is very dynamic with chances for both sides.

Many white players employ the Fried Liver Attack of the Italian Opening because of the potential of a black misstep.

Then white will often get a ferocious attack against an exposed black king in the center of the board.

If you are an attacking player, then reading the following Ultimate Guide To The Fried Liver Attack is a must!

Final Thoughts On The Italian Opening Two Knights Defense

The Two Knights Defense of the Italian Opening invites the Fried Liver Attack. Black can hold his own but at the cost of a pawn.

Still, a pawn is a pawn, so if you don’t mind giving up the initiative for material gain, then it’s the opening choice for you.

White can also play the Max Lange Attack with 4.d4 and 5.e5. Here it is white who plays with the initiative in this dynamic opening.

Both sides have their chances, and you will have many enjoyable chess games in this variation of the Italian Opening.

In Conclusion

The Italian Opening is a classical opening suitable for players of all playing strengths and all playing styles.

You can start by playing the adventurous attacking variations, including the Evans Gambit and the Fried Liver Attack

Later you can retreat to the quieter waters of the Max Lange Attack or the Slow Italian Opening.

Like the Ruy Lopez, the Italian Opening will help you improve your all-around chess skills without nearly as much must-know theory.

The biggest test of an opening, as with much in life, is time. The Italian Opening has passed this test and will undoubtedly be played for many more years. 

Whichever way you choose to play it, you are sure to have lots of fun playing the Italian Opening. 

Act Now! Get 50% Off! Along with the Italian Opening, you will learn how to play the openings that made IM Irina Bulmaga an International Master. Over 15 hours of opening training is available in The Bulmaga Method for Only $39.95!

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