Recently, I came across of the newly translated Manual by Harald Keilhack on 1.Nc3 titled “Knight on the Left,” which is well reviewed here. I’ve been inspired by Asa Hoffmann to look more deeply into this terribly neglected first move, and my readers will likely remember my recent post on this line against the caro-kann. It’s odd that it isn’t played more often, considering it is not only sound but also in line with classical opening principals. By developing a knight, white hits central squares, places a knight on a good square, and leaves options open as to the direction the game may take. And yet, if you look for top players who play this, there really aren’t any. Morozevich has tried it on for size, though this shouldn’t surprise anyone, and the Danish Correspondence GM Ove Ekebjaerg played 1.Nc3 exclusively, nearly becoming the Correspondence world champion with this move. And yet, there is a paucity of material on it.
Keilhack’s book is a collection of 99 games, heavily annotated with sidelines and suggestions. The games are grouped together logically according to possible transpositions, which it should come as no surprise this opening is full of. Often, 1.Nc3 will transpose to a King’s pawn game. The Scandinavian is possible after 1.Nc3 d5 2.e4 dxe4 3.Nxe4 Qd5 (when white’s best move is to simply play the knight back to c3 arriving at a standard scandivian, though in blitz I prefer to bring the knight to g3 just to be tricky.) Obviously, the Sicilian grand prix is possible after 1.Nc3 c5 2.e4 Nc6 3.f4, as well as the french, vienna, caro kann, and nearly any other king’s pawn game. However, 1.Nc3 is more than a simple stepping stone to other variations, it does have a heart and soul all its own and some unique positions that are native to 1.Nc3 alone. The most interesting of these is the Van Geet Attack, which is an aggressive attempt by white to play for knight activity in a closed position on the kingside of the board. Not surprisingly, it resembles a Nimzowitsch defense (1…Nc6) in reverse. The Van Geet Attack occurs after the moves 1.Nc3 d5 2.e4 d4 3.Nce2, giving us the following position:
In this position, white plans to move the knight again to g3, then play Nf3, Bc4 or b5, d3, and play a strategic closed game involving an interesting kingside attack with his knights and perhaps a timely f4 break.
In the following game, black plays logical looking moves but gets steamrolled by the straightforward ideas for white in this line. While it’s a miniature, it is nonetheless instructive.
In order to avoid a biased approach, i’m including the following game as well where black pushes back and plays for a kingside pawn storm, which is a common way for black to fight in this variation. White manages to break through on the queenside just in time to sac his queen and get a perpetual.
In general, I’m attracted to this opening because it is uncommon, and yet it is also theoretically rich. Often, players who chose to play uncommon sidelines do so in order to avoid opening theory, however that is not really possible in the 1.Nc3 universe, and without a question the better prepared player will outscore his opponent consistently in this line.