GM Joel on the Marshall Defense
By GM Joel Benjamin   
February 22, 2008
Dear Joel,

Playing White, I've been seeing a certain variation many times in online blitz games that I don't understand: 1 d4 d5 2 c4 Nf6

Position after 2...Nf6

  Apparently this is called the Marshall Variation of the QGD. Since it  has a name I'm sure there are legitimate ways to play it. The "problem" is that those play it don't have a clue. To be fair this line seems to be most popular among weaker players.

A typical game continues 3 cxd5 Nxd5 4 e4 Nf6 5 Nc3 e6. Apparently 5 ... e5 is much stronger.  After e6 Black has problems, as  illustrated by my most recent game: 6 Nf3 Bb4 7 Bd3 Nc6 8 0-0 0-0 9  e5 Bxc3 10 bxc3 Nd5 11 Bxh7 and wins. While things don't always go  this well, I typically get a substantial advantage in the opening.

My questions are:
(1) How would Black legitimately play the Marshall Variation?
(2) Has someone been popularizing this line, and if so why aren't they 
showing how to play it properly?

Richard Mercer


We have the Marshall Attack, an enterprising gambit loved by grandmasters.  The Marshall Gambit in the Slav in an enterprising, dangerous opening.  The Marshall Defense…well it wasn’t one of Frank’s better ideas.

It’s a classic example of an opening rejected by the chess establishment that’s very popular at lower levels.  I think nine times out of ten the Marshall Defense is played out of ignorance.  Some players haven’t studied queen pawn openings at all, or don’t understand the virtue of fortifying your center pawn with a pawn.  Some players are sloppy with their move order.  Even on the database, the Marshall is played very poorly and the percentages are overwhelmingly in White’s favor.
After 3.cxd5 Nxd5 4.e4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5!

Position after 5...e5

Black has actually solved his problems.  6.dxe5 Qxd1+ 7.Kxd1 (7.Nxd1 Nxe4) Ng4 recoups the pawn comfortably.  White should play 6.Nf3 exd4 and recapture with the queen or knight, perhaps retaining a slight pull there.  If your opponents don’t play 5…e5, they are clearly making it up as they go along.

By the way, 5.Bd3 (instead of 5.Nc3) is an interesting move.  Here Black must also try 5..e5!  6dxe5 Ng4 7.Nf3 (7.Bb5+!? c6 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 looks somewhat promising, if untested) Nc6 8.Bg5 (8.Bf4? Nb4 is very good for Black) Be7 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Nc3 Ncxe5 11.Nxe5 Qxe5 12.h3 Nf6 13. Qd2 Bd7 14.Qe3 (Alekhine-Marshall, Baden-Baden 1925) and now Alekhine gave 14…Qa5! 15.0-0-0 0-0-0 as equal.

But since 5…e5 offers good counterplay for White, 4.e4 is a tad premature.  White should keep the threat in hand with 4.Nf3.

Position after 4.Nf3

  Now the only antidote to 5.e4, 4…Bf5, leaves Black uncoordinated.  5.Qb3 (5.Nbd2 Nf6 6.Qb3 Qc8 7.g3 offers White a pleasant advantage, but Qb3 is probably even stronger) e6 (5…Nc6 6.Nbd2! Nb6 7.e4 Bg6 8.d5 is brutal) 6.Nc3 (6.Qxb7 Nd7 probably allows unnecessary complications, but 6.Nbd2 is good here as well) 6…Nc6 7.e4 Nxc3 8.exf5 Nd5 9.a3 (9.Qxb7 Bb4+ is trickier) Qd6 10.Qxb7 Rb8 11.Qa6 Be7 12.Bb5 Rb6 13.Bxc6 Rxc6 14.Qd3 exf5 15.0-0 0-0 16.Qxf5 with a clear edge for White, Lipnicky-Bondarevsky, USSR ch 1951.

Position after 16.Qxf5 in Lipnicky-Bondarevsky, 1951

Most of this could be found in ECO D in the 1980s, and little has changed since then.  There is not much incentive to look for improvements for Black because White has so many good alternatives along the way.

The bottom line is that the Marshall Variation of the Queen’s Gambit may have a respectable name, but it isn’t a respectable opening.