Nimzo Indian Defense – A Complete Guide

by | May 11, 2022 | Complete Guides, Nimzo Indian Defense, Recent | 0 comments

If you are ready to take your chess to the next level and work on a more challenging response to d4, then you should look into the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

The Nimzo-Indian Defense is defined by an early bishop move that indirectly attacks White’s king. Black hopes to disrupt White’s queenside pawn structure for an eventual queenside attack. White aims to keep control of the center while preventing Black’s attack.

Our guide will explore the principles of the opening and explore some of the many lines and variations.

What Is the Nimzo Indian Defense?

The Sicilian Defense is notated as 1. e4 c5 It’s considered the most popular and most successful opening response for black that creates an asymmetrical pawn structure. This imbalance positioning affords black with better odds of winning and control of the d4 square.

Principles and Theory

The Nimzo-Indian Defense is a hypermodern defense introduced by Aron Nimzowitsch. As with other Indian defenses, Black’s first moves are defensive, but unlike other Indian defenses, Black postpones a bishop fianchetto for an immediate opening gambit that keeps White from immediately taking control of the center.

The gambit has the eventual goal of forcing White into a weak pawn structure.

In terms of pawn structure, Black has several goals. One is to get White to create double pawn structures on a file, typically the c-file. A second goal is control of e4 and the light-colored squares. Finally, after the main line has been played, Black pawn structure is more robust.

Another of Black’s objectives is to develop an improvement in development and close the board for White. Black can also use the imbalance to create a queenside attack. White, however, wants to open up the board and bring out the bishops to open up long diagonals.

How to Reach the Nimzo Indian Defense

The Nimzo Indian is a response to White’s d4 opening. As with most Indian defenses, Black will move pawns to the 7th rank in the early development.

  1. d4 Nf6 
  2. c4 e6
  3. Nc3 Bb4

Because Black delays the pawn structure, the Nimzo-Indian is a flexible defense with multiple variations. However, White can also keep some flexibility with a pawn to e6 move, which is part of the Rubenstein variation.

Or White can attempt to avoid the Nimzo-Indian altogether with moves such as 3.g3 or 3Nf3.

Why Play the Nimzo-Indian Defense

You should play the Nimzo-Indian for several reasons, but maybe the best one is that most world champions have played it. If Capablanca, Fischer, Spassky, and Karpov, among others, play it, then it must have something going for it.

The defense is flexible, defensive without being passive, and uses positional play to overwhelm White, especially if the player has a weak pawn structure in the end game. As a result, white doesn’t like playing against it and will often try to avoid playing it.

The flexibility of the Nimzo-Indian is a double-edged sword, as it affects both players. Therefore, solid positional understanding is key to mastering it. That’s why it’s usually recommended for intermediate and advanced players, not beginners.

Main Line

The main line begins with these opening moves:

  1. d4 Nf6 
  2. c4 e6
  3. Nc3 Bb4

Black has accomplished several things here. First, the knight seeks to control the e4 square. In addition, the bishop pins White’s knight. Finally, Black can castle at any point.

Meanwhile, White has taken control of the d4 square and can attack the d5 and e5 squares, something Black anticipated.

It continues with the following:

  1. e3 O-O

White supports the d4 square with e3 while Black tucks his king to safety.

  1. Nf3 d5

The bishop further cements White’s attempt to control both d4 and e5. It becomes clear that White wishes to control the dark-colored squares and Black the light-colored ones.

  1. Bd3 c5

White now has two pieces aimed at the e5 square that Black covers. Black responds by setting up a pawn exchange.

  1. O-O Nc6

Here White ignores the exchange and castles. White’s knight is no longer pinned on c3 and will be able to respond to Black’s move. Also, if Black makes a mistake with the pawn exchange, White can capitalize on it. 

  1. a3 Bxc3

Since Black didn’t attack on the previous move, the pawn to a3 guarantees that Black will either attack or retreat. In the main line, Black sacrifices the bishop so that White will have double pawns on the c-file.

  1. bxc3 d5xc4

White takes the bishop, and Black’s move sets up another pawn exchange. An optional response, queen to c7, results in a similar win/draw/loss rate. In addition, it sets up a potentially deadly attack on the h2 pawn, or Black can use the move to begin the queenside attack. However, the move is usually made after White moves Bxc4.

At this point, both players have a solid pawn structure, their kings are protected, and most of the minor pieces have been developed.

Here White ignores the exchange and castles. White’s knight is no longer pinned on c3 and will be able to respond to Black’s move. Also, if Black makes a mistake with the pawn exchange, White can capitalize on it. 

Other Popular Lines

Classical (Queen to c2)

The classical variation is a response by White in which the response to 3.Bb4 is not e3, but Qc2. White makes this move to keep Black from damaging its queenside structure. White also tries to avoid the double pawns that could hurt it later in the game.


From the Open Sicilian, you’re directly ready to make the key move in the Dragon variation. This essential move is for black to move its pawn to g6. This move is important for this variation because it gives the bishop the room it needs to move and attack in the center. As it makes these moves, it will put added pressure around white’s queen.

This variation gives black a chance to be aggressive and make important progress in the game. However, it doesn’t come without a weakness. The signature move, black pawn to g6, can actually be an opportunity for white if the player is prepared and knows this variation.

To see this variation played out, you can check out this Youtube video here:

  1. d4 Nf6 
  2. c4 e6 
  3. Nc3 Bb4 
  4. e3 0-0
  5. Bd3 c5

The first five moves are identical to the main line. Black’s move b….c5 is replaced by 5….d5. White continues to develop with the knight to f3 and castles.

  1.   Bd3 d5
  2. Nf3 c5
  3. 0-0 cxd4

Black has just begun a series of pawn exchanges that will leave White with a hanging pawn.

  1. e3xd4 dxc4
  2. Bxc4 b6
  3. Bg5 Bb7

White has now pinned Black’s queen while Black has fianchettoed his light-squared bishop. As the game continues, White will be able to develop the rooks and queen. The c- and e-files have the potential for future attacks by the rooks and queen.

Black now has the opportunity to move the pieces to the center, a hypermodern principle in which Black gives up control of the center in the opening but regains it in the midgame.


One reason beginners are often advised to wait to learn this opening is its complexity. As evidence, here are a few variations:

  • The Reshevsky Variation (5. Ne2)
  • Modern Variation (5. Bd3 d5 6. Ne2), a name coined by FM Carsten Hansen
  • Hubner Variation (6…Bxc3+ 7. Bxc3 d6)
  • Rubinstein Variation (5. Ne2)—a variation of the Rubinstein system
  • Variations after 4….b6 include the Fischer, Romanishin-Psakhis, American, Keres, Tal, and Dutch variations.

The Encyclopedia of Chess Openings lists 39 variations of the Nimzo-Indian Defense—E20-E59. That’s a lot to keep track of. Compare that to the Alekhine king’s pawn, which has four, or the Caro-Kann, which has nine.


A trap that commonly occurs to beginners is a variation of the Elephant Trap. After Black plays Bb4, White responds with Bg5 and then Ne4. Black then takes White’s Knight, and White captures the queen with his bishop.

The move White didn’t see was Black’s Bb4. This puts White’s king in check, and the only move for White is to use the queen for a block.

Not only does Black come out a move ahead, but White’s confidence took a significant hit.


The Nimzo has several weaknesses. Black usually gives up both bishops and can end up with poor pawn structure. If White keeps Black from creating a queenside attack or force Black to retreat and lose tempo, then Black is at a disadvantage.

One of Aron Nimzowitsch’s famous maxims is “First restrain, next blockade, lastly destroy.” If White chooses to directly challenge the B4b early, then the restrain is gone. Likewise, if Black makes mistakes with the early pawn play, the blockades won’t be there. And if those are gone, then White will be the destroyer.


These statistics suggest that the Nimzo-Indian leads to more draws than victories for White. This is another reason the Nimzo-Indian is frustrating. White plays to win, not draw. If you can play the Nimzo-Indian successfully, you might not win, but you have a good chance of keeping White from winning.

White Wins Draws Black Wins
Nimzo-Indian 35.1% 34.9% 29.9%
Classical Variation 31.3% 42.4% 26.3%
Rubinstein 31.5% 42% 26.6%
Kasparov Variation 34.4% 38.8% 26.8%
Reshevsky Variation 38.4% 38.8% 26.8%
Samisch Variation 35.1% 30.5% 34.4%

These are win rates for Black for select competing openings:

  • Betoni 25.9%
  • Closed Sicilian 37.7%
  • French Defense 28.6%
  • Caro-Kann 29%
  • Alekhine’s Defense 31.6%

A comparison of win rates for these openings that doesn’t include wins and draws can be misleading. For example, the Alekhine’s Defense also has a win rate of 40% for White. This indicates that it’s a risky defensive opening, and there are many opportunities for White to capitalize on Black’s blunders.

In other words, when looking at statistics, it doesn’t just depend on your chances of winning, but how often your opponent won’t be able to win.

Famous Games and Popular Players

  • This match from 1943 between Mikhail Botvinnik and Viacheslav Ragozin demonstrates the power of the Fischer Variation in preventing Black from using the Nimzo-Indian effectively. Black’s loss of tempo gives White time to protect the king. This game is another example of how an opening is not always named after the first person to play it.
  • Spassky and Fischer met in 1972, and Fischer defeated Spassky with the Huebner variation of the Nimzo-Indian. It’s worth looking at the ending to determine why Spassky resigned even though he was down only one pawn and had both bishops. The game shows the importance of pawn structure.
  • This game between Ivan Sokolov and Lev Polugaevsky is an example of the Classical Variation. By fianchettoed his other bishop quickly, Polugaeysky was able to check White’s momentum. It’s also an excellent example of what a queenside attack looks like.
  • Garry Kasparov played the Classical Variation of the Nimzo-Indian, using the Keres Defense, against Fritz in the third Man versus Machine match. The computer resigned, even though it was up two pawns. Each of the three pawns was isolated, and Kasparov could have easily taken them while marching his pawn down the board and promoted it.
  • This game between Roland Knechtel and Rainer Tauber shows what can happen when Black attacks too early. By having to retreat with both the bishop and then the Queen, Black gives his opponent time to castle his king to safety. 


Starting Out: The Nimzo-Indian

Starting Out: The Nimzo-Indian on by Grandmaster Chris Ward is another excellent easy-to-read guide from Everyman Chess. Along with teaching you the main lines and variations, the book is full of useful hints and tips. This book is recommended for players who are improving enough that they’re ready to learn the Nimzo-Indian.

Play the Nimzo Indian

If you want a book that drills down into the opening in more detail, Edward Dearing’s Play the Nimzo-Indian on helps Black develop a solid repertoire that can help the player even if they haven’t encountered the variation White uses.

Offbeat Nimzo-Indian

Players who are ready to study unusual responses from White, then Offbeat Nimzo-Indian on by Chris Ward is the book for you. Unlike his other book, this is a book for advanced players who are interested in studying variations such as the Leningrad and both the Open and Stand-alone Samisch.


Should a Beginner Use This Opening?

Most chess coaches feel that a beginner should not use this opening. It’s theoretical and depends on themes such as doubled pawns, light-square control, bishop pair use, and the importance of the e4 square.

In addition, black needs to be prepared for the many variations that White could use. A defensive opening that lets Black set up a less risky defense would be preferred over the Nimzo-Indian.

A beginning player would benefit more from instruction in pawn structure, the difference between knight and bishop sacrifices, and how to successfully attack from the queenside, among other things.

The following is a comment from The forum on the Nimzo-Indian:

“Because the point of the Nimzo-Indian is NOT to trade the Bishop for a Knight and double the pawns. There are certain lines where that occurs, and the c4-pawn can be weak, but that is not the reason for 3…Bb4.”

Once a player can explain what the writer means, they’re truly ready to learn this opening.

Why Is It Called the Nimzo-Indian?

This opening is called the Nimzo-Indian is named after Aron Nimzowitsch, who used ideas of the Indian series of openings. These openings became the basis of the school of hypermodern developed by Nimzowitsch and Richard Reti.  

Most Indian openings are based on a feature of the chess rules in India. During most of the 19th century, Indian players could only move pawns one step. Since they couldn’t immediately take control of the center, one strategy was to move forward the b and g file pawns and fianchetto their bishops.

When the hypermodern players rebelled against the traditional chess theories that a player needed to control the center of the board, the bishop fianchetto became an essential feature of most Indian openings.

Although it’s called the Nimzo-Indian, Nimzowitsch was not the first player to use the opening. That honor belongs to Alexander Alekhine. He also played the Grunfeld Defense before it was recognized and later went on to develop the Alekhine Defense. However, Nimzowitsch’s theories led to a fuller understanding of the defense.

Why Is an Isolated Pawn Important?

An isolated pawn can make a difference because they help define the pawn structure. Both sides plan their moves around the isolated pawn.

A pawn that’s isolated can still be protected, but that protection comes from other pieces, such as knights or bishops. Isolated pawns become weaker as players lose pieces.

That’s not necessarily all bad, especially in the endgame, where players have to choose between protecting their pawns or preventing the other player’s pawn from being promoted. The Botvinnik vs. Ragozin match shows how the isolated pawn forced Black to resign.

Aron Nimzowitsch is quoted as saying that “The isolated Pawn casts gloom over the entire chessboard.” Whether he is accurate or not depends on whether the isolated pawn is hurting or helping you.

Bottom Line

The Nimzo-Indian Defense has a well-deserved reputation as a defense that frustrates White. Many variations have been developed to help White gain the upper hand. In addition, the opening requires strong positional understanding so that a player can respond to unexpected variations.

For those reasons, most coaches recommend that beginners save the Nimzo-Indian until they have a stronger foundation in pawn structure, positional understanding, and the theory behind some of the moves.