The Modern with …c6 and …d5

March 20, 2024 Matthew Sadler 7 comments

When I started playing again after a break of some 8-9 years, my opening choices were driven by a fervent desire to do something different to what I had done before, and by some strange feelings of nostalgia. My frequent choice of 1.e4 a6 2.d4 h6  

and various 1…b6 systems

were driven by fond memories of my English junior days and the games of Basman and Speelman! Another favorite choice was the Modern with …c6 and …d5

Position after 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c6!?

…which I plucked from my memories of the games of two English grandmasters with huge personalities: David Norwood and Julian Hodgson. Actually, as we shall see later my memory played a little trick on me and I didn’t get it quite right!

What is the point of  3…c6!? Well, there are many!

Firstly, you should note that …c6 (after 3…d6) is a major option in many lines of the Modern or Pirc (to which the Modern can often transpose once Black plays …Nf6) So playing …c6 on move 3 doesn’t yet commit Black to a single course of action. For example, after 4.Be3, as well as pursuing his plan with 4…d5, Black could also play 4…d6

Position after 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c6!? 4.Be3 d6

Via a small side-shuffle (3…c6) we are brought back into fairly main line Modern territory. So the 3…c6 move order contains a little smidgeon of move-order trickery to confuse the opponent into wasting some precious time in the opening!

Secondly, 3…c6 is particularly aimed at combatting the most aggressive White systems with f4.

Position after 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c6!? 4.f4

Black idea is to strike back with …d5 and punch holes in the White central light squares (which have been weakened by 4.f4) Black can either do this immediately (4…d5) or use a very sneaky detour with 4…Qb6!?

This was one of my favourites and aims to meet 5.Nf3 with 5…d5!?

The pawn sacrifice 6.ed Bg4 is actually very pleasant for Black while 6.e5 Bg4!

is about perfect for Black, getting the light-squared bishop outside the pawn chain and ready to follow up with …Nh6-f5 attacking d4. The following game against Elisabeth Paehtz at Wijk Aan Zee 2012 (described in harrowing 😊 detail in “Study Chess with Matthew Sadler” did not end in the major key but the first part of it was pretty cool!

7.Be2 Nh6 8.0–0 Nf5

9.Na4 Qc7 10.h3 Bxf3 11.Rxf3 h5 12.g4 Nh4 13.Rf1 Nd7 14.Be3 hxg4 15.hxg4 g5

16.Bd3 e6 17.Qd2 f6

…and White’s kingside was falling apart!

The one thing you may notice about this is that the Black dark-squared bishop on g7 ends up looking rather forlornly at a rather solid pawn chain on d4 and e5. Actually, in many positions Black undevelops with …Bf8 and …e6 to activate the bishop!  I’d completely forgotten but David Norwood and Julian Hodgson had a “thing” for that! They played the move order 1.e4 g6 2.d4 d6 3.Nc3 c6!?

After 4.f4 d5! 5.e5

Black has played …d6-d5 and thus is a tempo down in development. However, since the dark-squared bishop is more active on f8 (after …e6) than on g7, Black has gained a tempo! 😊 A fine example of this is the game Stockfish-Leela from the TCEC Season 20 SuperFinal ( which is analysed in depth in “The Silicon Road to Chess Improvement” ( I’ll just give you some diagrams to show how the early part of the game went!

1.e4 g6 2.d4 d6 3.Nc3 c6 4.f4 d5 5.e5 h5 6.Be3 Bf5 7.Nf3 Nd7 8.Qd2 e6 9.h3 Be7

10.Be2 Rc8 11.0–0 Nh6 12.a4 a6 13.a5

A sharp sacrifice from Stockfish aimed at distracting Black from breaking out with …c5.

13…Bb4 14.Ra4 Bxa5 15.b4 Bc7 16.Bf2 Qe7 17.Ra3 a5 18.Bh4 f6

With a complex fight in progress! But tough for both sides!

19.exf6 Nxf6 20.Bxf6 Qxf6 21.bxa5 Qe7 22.Ra2 Ra8 23.a6 bxa6 24.Ne5 0–0 25.Nxc6 Qh4 26.Qe3 Rf7 27.Ne5 Rg7 28.Rf2 g5 29.fxg5 Qxg5 30.Qxg5 Rxg5 31.h4 Rg7 32.Bxh5 Bxe5 33.dxe5 Bg4 34.Bxg4 Nxg4 35.Re2 Rb8 36.Ra4 Rb6 37.Rf4 Rb2 38.g3 Nh6 39.Kf2 Rc7 40.Nd1 Rbxc2 41.Ne3 Rxe2+ 42.Kxe2 Nf7 43.Rf6 Nd8 44.h5 a5 45.Ng4 a4 46.Rg6+ Rg7 47.Rxg7+ Kxg7 48.Kd3 Nb7 49.Kc3 Nc5 50.Kb4 d4 51.Ka3 d3 52.Nf2 d2 53.g4 Kh6 54.Nd1 Kg5 55.Ka2 Nd7 56.Nc3 Kf4 57.h6 Nxe5 58.h7 Ng6 59.Ka3 Ke3 60.Kxa4 Kd3 61.Kb3 e5 62.Nd1 e4 63.Nb2+ Ke2 64.Kc3 e3 65.Kd4 Kf3 66.Kd3 Ne5+ 67.Kc2 Nf7 68.g5 Nh8 69.Kd3 Ng6 70.h8Q Nxh8 71.Nd1 e2 72.Kxd2 ½–½

I should also point out the other clever part to the Norwood / Hodgson move order. If White tries to transpose to a King’s Indian-type opening with 1.e4 g6 2.d4 d6 3.c4, then Black has the very interesting line 3…e5!?

Position after 1.e4 g6 2.d4 d6 3.c4 e5!?

This was played against me many years ago by the very strong and knowledgeable French grandmaster Iossif Dorfman. The point is that de 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 is nothing for White.The Black dark-squared bishop is not passive on g7 as it is in the more interesting (for White!) line 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4 d6 4.Nc3 e5 5.dxe5 dxe5 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8

I analysed this in huge detail in 1997 and used this work to defeat the very strong Jaan Ehlvest in the first round of the 1997 World Championship knockouts in Groningen. There is definitely something for White, though the engines hold it of course 😉

I’ll just show you a few diagrams from the Sadler-Dorfman Cannes 1996 game as it was one of my more exciting and interesting ones! Fun post-mortem with Iossif afterwards 😊

1.d4 d6 2.e4 g6 3.c4 e5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 Nc6 6.d5 Nce7 7.Nc3 f5 8.c5

8…Nf6 9.cxd6 cxd6 10.Bb5+ Bd7 11.Bxd7+ Qxd7 12.Ng5 0–0 13.Ne6

13…Rfc8 14.f3 b5 15.Bg5 b4 16.Ne2 fxe4 17.Bxf6 exf3

18.Bxg7 fxe2 19.Qd3 Qb7 20.Bh6 Qxd5 21.Qxd5 Nxd5 22.Kd2 Rc4 23.Rac1 Rh4 24.Be3 Re4 25.Nc7 Nxe3 26.Nxa8 Nxg2

27.Nc7 e1Q+ 28.Rhxe1 Nxe1 29.Rxe1 Rh4 30.Re2 Rc4 31.Ne8 Kf8 32.Nf6 Kg7 33.Ne8+ Kf8 34.Nf6 Kg7 35.Ne8+ Kf8 ½–½

So how does White typically deal with the idea of 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c6? Well the engines are very keen on 4.h3

Position after 4.h3

when 4…d5 is met by 5.e5

Position after 5.e5

Since White has not played f4, Black has a harder time making use of the light squares around the d4 and e5 pawns. Indeed the h3-pawn supports g4, taking away f5 from the black pieces… which brings us nicely into the final game I can share with you!

It’s a hot-off-the-press game that was recently played at the TCEC Season 26 Swiss between Leela and new-kid-on-the-block Obsidian (even though it didn’t go well for Black!) You can see Leela implementing White’s best flexible plan of h3, delaying f4 until Black has played f6 and using g4 to hem in Black’s king’s knight. The payable version of the game is available here:

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 g6

Position after 3…g6

This concept is so flexible, you can even – as here – punt it via the Caro-Kann move order which is known as the Gurgenidze System!

4.e5 Bg7 5.h3

Position after 5.h3

5…f6 6.f4 Nh6 7.g4

Position after 7.g4

7…0–0 8.Nf3 Nf7 9.Qe2 fxe5 10.dxe5 Qb6 11.Bd2 Qxb2 12.Rb1 Qa3 13.Qg2 Nh6 14.Bd3 Na6 15.Rb3 Qa5 16.Qf2 Nf7 17.0–0 Qc7 18.Ne2 b6 19.e6 Nd6 20.f5

Position after 20.f5

A huge buildup and now the attack begins!

20…Nc5 21.Bf4 Nxd3 22.Rxd3 Bf6 23.Re3 Qd8 24.g5 Nxf5 25.gxf6 Rxf6 26.Ra3 Rxe6 27.Ng3 Rf6 28.Nxf5 Bxf5 29.Be5 Bxh3 30.Bxf6 exf6 31.Re1 Bf5 32.Nd4 Be4 33.Nxc6 Qd6 34.Rc3 f5 35.Qh4 Re8 36.Nd4 Qe5 37.Ne2 b5 38.Rh3 Qg7 39.Nc3 Rc8 40.Nxe4 dxe4 41.Rd1 h5 42.Rg3 Kh7 43.Rg2 Rc6 44.Qg5 b4 45.Rd8 Rf6 46.Re8 a6 47.Rd2 Qa7+ 48.Kf1 Qg7 49.Rd5 Rf7 50.Rde5 Qf6 51.R5e7 Qa1+ 52.Ke2 Qg7 53.Rxf7 Qxf7 54.Re7 Kg8 55.Ke3 f4+ 56.Kd4 Qxe7 57.Qxe7 e3 58.Ke5 b3 59.Kf6 bxa2 60.Qg7# 1–0

So there we are! I hope that’s given you some good insight into the power (and some of the drawbacks!) of …c6 and …d5 ideas in the Modern!

7 Comments on “The Modern with …c6 and …d5

  1. Really nice blog this morning. I never saw one of your game with 1.e4 a6 2.d4 h6, however some weeks ago in a really good book by Zenon Franco, i came across the game Zagorskis – Sadler where you played 1.c4 b6 which was a impressive game.
    I’m also gonna investigate on the Gurgenidze System. Presently i’m working on my Caro-Kann, some weeks ago you talked about the Arkell/Khenkin system which i worked on this week, however since two days i also use a variation with 3 … Qc7 againts the advance variation and i had the opportunity to played it 4 times in an online blitz winning all the games … i was still working on it this morning using engines for some ideas.
    Thanks Matthew.

      1. The St-George Defense … somewhere in the book there must a variation name the wait and see attack.

  2. As you know, Nakamura has had great success with these lines in bullet and blitz, although lately he seems to prefer systems with …a6 to those with …c6. Perfect for his murky style.

  3. GM Sune Berg Hansen covered the modern defense Gurgendize line in a video on his youtube channel, GM Talks. I posted the link below. He makes the point that black is just worse after giving up the light square bishop and transitioning the pawn structure to one similar to the French defense. In other words, g6,c6, d6, d5. Bg4, Bxf3,e6 etc….

    I’d be curious to know what your thoughts are on his take.


    1. Hi Alex, yes I guess he’s right! However, these positions can be quite difficult for White players, particularly when they’ve started with something aggressive like f4. There can be this sense of landing in a swamp where everything goes much slower than you wanted when you played an aggressive opening. Just interested to see how much Black was suffering at the engine level in the Gurgenidze: these games were played quite recently: , and Best Wishes, Matthew

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