Four Knights Game: Opening Guide for White & Black

The Four Knights Game dates back to the middle of the 19th Century and was a favored chess opening of Capablanca, Tarrasch, and other top players between the 1850s and 1930s.

  • The Four Knights Opening comprises natural developing moves, making it an excellent chess opening for beginners.
  • This is a sound chess opening because it is based on classical chess opening principles – develop your pieces towards the center, knights before bishops, etc.
  • You do not need to know a lot of theory to play this chess opening.
  • GM John Nunn is credited with the opening’s revival in modern chess and wrote a book on it that got published in 1993.

Ideas and Strategies in the Four Knights Defense

The Four Knights Game begins with the moves

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6

As mentioned, in the past, Capablanca enjoyed playing the Four Knights Game, and today a number of top chess grandmasters include the Four Knights in their opening repertoires. Among them are Shirov, Ivanchuk, and Glek (who has a variant named after him).

The Four Knights often take players out of their theoretical preparation and lull them into underestimating the dangers in this chess opening. When playing a symmetrical position having the advantage of a tempo can make life difficult for your opponent.

For example, you can play a similar position to the Ruy Lopez chess opening in the Four Knights Game, but it is not the same. All the time your opponent spent learning the theory of the Breyer variation does not help him in the Four Knights.

Because of the opening’s popularity in the early 20th century, Capablanca was instrumental in finding a way to defend against the opening. Black does well to enter the Four Knights Spanish, Symmetrical variation and play the second-most-popular choice 10…Bg4.

Four Knights Game: Symmetrical Variation

A good way for Black to play against the Four Knights Game is to enter the Symmetrical Variation. In the Symmetrical Variation, Black needs to meet h3 with Bh5 … unless he can inflict a structural weakness on White’s position.

Once again, here is how we reach the starting position of the Four Knights Game.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6

Play continues with natural developing moves that are easy to understand and remember.

4.Bb5 Bb4 5.0-0 0-0 6.d3 d6 7.Bg5 Bxc3 8.bxc3 Qe7 9.Re1 Nd8 10.d4 Bg4

There is enough play in the position for both players to play for the win. Black will bring the knight on d8 to e6 to attack the bishop on g5. When this happens, White must remember to undevelop the bishop with Bc1, where it is safe from harm.

In fact, it isn’t unusual for white to return both bishops to their starting squares!

A bishop still controls the diagonal from its starting square, which is why we get taught to develop knights before bishops. Knights lack the reach of the bishops.

Enjoy this game where Svetozar Gligoric skillfully repaired his pawn structure after being saddled with isolated triple pawns! In fact, it was White’s weakened pawn structure that cost him the game.