Nimzo Indian: What Makes This Opening So Special and Impressive?

What Makes Nimzo Indian Opening So Special and Impressive

If you search for popular openings, names like Italian Game, Petroff Defense, and Ruy Lopez are often mentioned. Indian openings, such as the King’s Indian, Queen’s Indian, and Nimzo-Indian, are also mentioned.

Out of the bunch, what makes the Nimzo-Indian so special and impressive?

The Nimzo-Indian opening is so special and impressive because it is a strong and challenging opening full of positional ideas. Its win rates for Black are very high, making it a favorite of top players. In addition, it has many variations which often lead to immediate, exciting counter-play.

If you wonder what all the fuss is about, keep reading as I will explain each of these. Even if you don’t feel ready to tackle it, you’ll know why some players love the defense. And if you want to try it, this article will give you some insights to help get you started.

The Nimzo-Indian is a Strong Opening

The Nimzo is considered a strong opening because the win rates for black are highest compared to any other opening against 1 d4. There are three options in a game—win, draw, or loss. Since White plays first, it has a built-in advantage. So the closer White can get to 50% wins, the better it is.

Black has the disadvantage, so even though everyone plays to win, if Black can keep the opponent from winning, that’s a victory of sorts.

The strongest openings for White are the Queen’s Gambit and Ruy Lopez. For Black, the Sicilian and Nimzo-Indian occupy the top spots.

  White Wins Draw Black Wins
Queen’s Gambit 40 36 24
Ruy Lopez 40 33 27
Sicilian 34 39 27
Nimzo-Indian 30 37 33

Players who recognize that Black wants to play the Nimzo-Indian often attempt to stop them because of these rates. And Black will try to bring it back to a Nimzo if possible.  

It Leads to Immediate Counterplay

The most common response to 1.d4 is 1….d5. 

The Nimzo and other Indian openings can put minor pieces into play after the first three or four moves.

After 4….d6, Black can develop the queenside bishop, and if White isn’t paying attention, create a queen pin.

Black can also force an early pawn exchange that leads to a queen exchange. Black has the advantage of having opened up the center and better-developed pieces.

Many Top Players Use the Nimzo Opening

Many top players use this opening because it’s a strong choice that gives Black good odds at either winning or getting a draw.

Any mention of players who use this opening must start with Aron Nimzowitsch, one of the developers of the hypermodern system of play and this opening.

Although he wasn’t the first to play this opening, he added hypermodern ideas. In recognition of his importance in hypermodern theory, this opening is named after him.

Since the 1920s, almost all world champions have played it, starting with Jose Capablanca.   Bobby Fischer used it to defeat Boris Spassky. In their 1985 World Championship Match, Garry Kasparov used it against Anatoly Karpov six times, with three wins and three draws.  

Recently Magnus Carlsen has used it successfully in several matches.

The Opening Is Full of Positional Ideas

In chess, positional play refers to how well a player can improve their position. Some players are great at tactical play, while others excel at creating advantages that give them better positions. The ideas they study include the following:

  • Material. Considerations about the material can be more complex than a player with 14 pieces has an advantage over the player with 10 pieces. But in an endgame, a player with a pawn and rook might have an advantage over the opponent who has a knight and bishop.
  • Space. Space refers to how many squares a player controls, either by having a piece on it or attacking it. Control of space is stronger if multiple pieces control it, and control of the spaces on your opponent’s side is worth more than control of the spaces on your side. Although white appears to have an early advantage in space, it’s something of an illusion as its pawns are not well-protected.
  • Piece activity. The player who has well-placed pieces will have an advantage. Bishops should be in secure spaces where they have command over diagonal lines, knights should be in the center of the board, and rooks should be on open files. Black has an early advantage and works hard to maintain it.
  • Central control. Central control of the board is an essential component of positional advantage, and here White has a clear advantage. However, a Nimzo defense won’t let White maintain that advantage without a struggle.
  • Pawn structure. Pawn structure is partially judged by isolated, backward, and doubled pawns. Both sides can have an equal number of pawns, but if one player has an isolated pawn and three backward pawns and the other has only two backward pawns, the second player has a superior pawn structure.
  • King safety. When king movement is essential until the endgame, the player whose king is safe has a positional advantage. An unsafe king becomes a target. This can be seen in the Nimzo if White allows for an early pawn exchange before its king is castled.

In a Nimzo game, each player evaluates their position using these ideas to achieve an advantage.

The Nimzo-Indian is Challenging

Learning the opening moves and basic theory of the Nimzo is easy. However, mastering the opening isn’t. One reason for this is the variety both sides have in playing this opening.

For example, White can try to avoid Nimzo by playing 3.Nf3 or 3.g3. This prevents Black from pinning the knight on 3….b4.

Black might decide to play a Bogo-Indian defense with 3…Bb4+ or switch to the Queen’s Indian Defense with 3….b6. If you plan to play the Nimzo, you need some familiarity with those defenses also.

White can also play 4.f3, and Black can play 4…c5, but many players advise that a switch to the Queen’s Gambit game (4…d5) is a better option.

The variations continue. If Black can continue to play the Nimzo, there are 6 variations on move 7.

Aron Nimzowitsch was once quoted as saying:

“The beauty of a move lies not in its appearance but in the thought behind it.”

That’s certainly true of the Nimzo-Indian—lots of thought behind each move.

It Leads to Exciting Play

For a sports fan, an exciting play happens quickly. In chess, exciting play occurs when a player makes a move that you recognize is a blunder, and you watch to see how the opponent will recover.

Watching one player take control of a game and their opponent on the defensive is also dramatic, especially when the match is between two grandmasters.

Chess engines make it easy quickly to see how a game was played. These are only two examples of the Nimzo in action:

  • This Boris Spassky vs. Robert Fischer 1972 match is an example of the power of the Nimzo. Spassky resigned after move 27. Rather than face a humiliating loss, Spassky resigned.
  • In this 2007 game between Dmitry Jakovenko and Magnus Carlsen, Jakovenko resigned. Even though he has two rooks, Jakovenko sees that only two moves stand between him and a checkmate.

Bottom Line

The Nimzo-Indian is an opening that a player could spend a lifetime studying. But a better approach is to learn one or two variations and then learn those openings that it can transpose into if White decides it cannot handle the Nimzo.


All our articles are reviewed and edited by GM Marian Petrov, a top level GM coach, theorist, mentor and and former Bulgarian champion, as well as winner of many open tournaments around the world.

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