The Hypermodern Approach

how to handle newfangled openings

[There is a superb essay by Reti on the legacy of the hypermoderns which was published in Virginia Chess in 1993, archived at Palle Mathiasen's World Champions site at]
NIMZOVITCH founded the HYPERMODERN school, and wrote a very engaging text My System in which he expounded his views on the centre, centralisation, prophylaxis, and various pawn formations. The other Hypermoderns, of whom we may take RETI of Czechoslovakia as an example, proposed no really new theory of the middlegame but revolutionised the treatment of the opening.

You know that you should sieze the centre in the opening, and use it to dominate the game. Like this:

Boleslavsky - Scitov (Moscow, 1933). 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Nf6 5. d4 exd4 6. cxd4 Bb6?



This move gives White too much of a free hand. The "Plan A" pawn centre just rolls over the Black position.

7. e5 Ng4 8. h3 Nh6 9. d5 Ne7 10. d6 Ng6 11. Bg5 f6 12. exf6 gxf6 White can win a piece, but: 13. Qe2+ Kf8 14. Bxh6# 1-0

The hypermoderns said (and showed) that there was no need to try to grab the centre immediately - and in fact, you could safely let your opponent rush into the centre with pawns in the opening, using them as a target for attack. The idea is not to ignore the centre but to control it, perhaps from a distance. If the opponent occupies the centre, you can hit fiercely at it; if not, your own occupation of the centre later will be more secure for being delayed. In fact, Reti said, to occupy the centre directly as White merely allowed Black either to blockade or blow up what White has established, whereas keeping things unfixed was the most awkward thing White could do. They would develop the Bishops in fianchetto, and use side-swipes like c4 to undermine the centre. As White they played flank openings like the English and the Reti; for Black Alekhin's Defence and the Grunfeld Defence are good examples of the hypermodern legacy. Other examples include the Pirc and Modern Defences, and the more rarely seen English Defence.

Whiteley - Keene. [A40] 1. d4 e6 2. c4 b6 3. e4 Bb7 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Bd3 f5 6. d5


Barden recommended 6.d5 (without analysis) just before this game...

6... fxe4 7. Bxe4 Qh4 8. Qd3 exd5 9. cxd5 Nf6 10. Bf3 Ba6 11. Qe3+ Kf7 12. Qf4 Re8+ 13. Kd1 Qxf4 14. Bxf4 Bxc3 15. bxc3 d6 16. Nh3 h6 17. Kc2



17... Bc4 ( not ...g5 allowing counterplay ) 18. Rhd1 Nbd7 19. a4 ?

19... Nc5 20. Rd4 Be2 21. Bxe2 Rxe2+ 22. Kd1 Rae8 23. Ra3 Re1+ 24. Kc2 R8e2+ 25. Bd2 Rh1 26. c4 Rxh2 27. a5 Re7 28. axb6 axb6 29. g4 Re4 30. Rxe4 Ncxe4 31. Rf3 g5 32. Be3 Kg6 33. Kd3 Nc5+ 34. Bxc5 bxc5 35. Rg3 Nxg4 36. Ke2 Kh5 37. Ke1 Ne5 38. Kf1 Kh4 39. Ng1 g4 40. Rc3 Kg5 1-0

Cursoux-Letzelter, 1977 [B03] Alekhin's Defence

1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4. c4 Nb6 5. f4 dxe5 6. fxe5 c5 7. d5 e6



Alekhin's Defence takes a certain amount of courage to play. Black sacrifices tempi and space to get White to over-extend the centre.

8. Nc3 exd5 9. cxd5 c4 10. Nf3 Bg4 11. Bxc4 Nxc4


DIAGRAM White has an almost perfect centre to look at, but is about to lose his grip. The game enters a very messy phase.

12. Qa4+ Nd7 13. Qxc4 Bxf3 14. gxf3 Nxe5 15. Qe4 Qh4+ 16. Ke2 Qh5 17. Bf4 Kd7 18. Qa4+ Kd8 19. Rhf1 Rc8 20. Qa5+ b6 21. Qxa7 Bc5 22. Rac1 Re8 23. Ne4 Nxf3 24. Rxc5 Nd4+ 25. Kd3 Qe2+ 0-1

White still occupies the centre, and it is symbolic that the King dies there!


Lilienthal - Korchnoi [D86] Modern Grunfeld, 1954

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. bxc3 Bg7 7. Bc4 O-O 8. Ne2 Nc6 9. O-O Qd7 10. Ba3 [10. Be3] 10... Na5 11. Bd3 b6


Korchnoi has been an occasional devotee of the Grunfeld throughout his career, and I'm sure it suits his counter-punching style.

12. Nf4 ?

This lets Black get a move ahead, as well as loosening the dark squares in the centre.

12... Bb7 13. Qe2 Rfd8 14. Rad1 e6 15. e5 c5


A typical flank blow in a hypermodern opening: it always reminds me of judo.

16. dxc5 Qc7 17. cxb6 Qxe5 18. Qxe5 Bxe5 19. Ne2 axb6 20. Bc1 Bd5 -+


Black's pieces dominate the game, and Korchnoi went on to win. 21. Bg5 f6 22. f4 fxg5 23. fxe5 Nc4 24. Bxc4 Bxc4 25. Rxd8+ Rxd8 26. Re1 Rd2 27. Ng3 Rxa2 28. Ne4 Bd5 29. Nf6+ Kf7 30. Nxd5 exd5 31. Rb1 Ra6 32. Rb5 Ke6 33. Kf2 Kxe5 34. Kf3 Ra3 35. Kg4 Rxc3 36. Rxb6 Rc2 37. Kg3 d4 38. Rb7 d3 39. Rxh7 d2 40. Rd7 Ke4 41. Kg4 Rc4 42. Rxd2 Ke3+ 43. Kxg5 Kxd2 44. Kxg6 Ke3 45. h3 Kf4 46. g4 Rc5 47. Kh6 Rg5 0-1
This is the good side of the hypermodern approach: Black getting good winning chances in an unbalanced game, but it does have a shady side.

Firstly, if you hesitate for a moment in the attack on a big centre, it really will crush you. Norwood, in his book Winning with the Modern, offers this game as a reason for Black to avoid the Austrian Attack (f4) at all costs.

Bareev - Norwood, Marseilles, 1990[B09] 1. d4 d6 2. e4 Nf6 3. Nc3 g6 4. f4 Bg7 5. Nf3 c5 6. e5 [Book is 6. dxc5 or 6. Bb5+] 6...Ng4 [6... Nfd7! was essential] 7. dxc5 dxc5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 9. h3 Nh6 10. Be3 b6 11. O-O-O+ Bd7 12. g4 Kc8 13. Ng5 f6 Yeuch 14. Rxd7 Kxd7 15. Bb5+ Kc8 16. Ne6 Bf8 17. Nd5 Nf7 18. Ndc7 Nd8 19. Rd1 Nxe6 20. Nxe6 fxe5 21. Rd8+ Kb7 22. Bd3 DIAGRAM 1-0


A famous world-class encounter:
Larsen, B-Spassky, B, Belgrade USSR-World 1970

1.b3 e5 2.Bb2 Nc6 3.c4 Nf6 4.Nf3 e4 5.Nd4 Bc5 6.Nxc6 dxc6 7.e3 Bf5 8.Qc2 Qe7 9.Be2 O-O-O 10.f4 Ng4 11.g3 h5 White may already be lost.

  12.h3 h4 DIAGRAM


13.hxg4 hxg3 14.Rg1 Rh1 15.Rxh1 g2 16.Rf1 Qh4+ 17.Kd1 gxf1=Q+ 0-1

  So, if GMs like Norwood and Larsen can get it wrong, club players can too. I have often seen straightforward, even simple-minded, attacking play bring down hypermodern systems tried by players a class or two above the attacker. It may be that at club level the attack is easier than the defence.

Secondly, it may be easier for White to gain an advantage against hypermodern defences through more conservative play - rather than grabbing the whole centre, just taking on a better slice of it. Karpov has repeatedly shown the efficacy of this approach:
Karpov-Nunn 1983 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 The sharp Pirc defence, which Karpov meets modestly. 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 O-O 6.O-O Bg4 7.Be3 Nbd7 8.h3 Bxf3 9.Bxf3 e5 10.g3 c6 11.Bg2 Qa5 12.Qd2 Rfe8 13.Rad1 b5 14.a3 Nb6 15.b3 Nfd7 16.Ra1 Nf8 17.d5 {!} Black's pieces are slightly wrong-footed.

17...Rac8 18.Rfd1 c5 19.Bf1 c4 20.a4 {!} DIAGRAM


20...cxb3 21.Nxb5 Qxd2 22.Rxd2 Rxc2 23.Rxc2 bxc2 24.a5 Nc8 25.Rc1 Nd7 26.Rxc2 Nc5 27.Nxd6 Nxd6 28.Rxc5 Nxe4 29.Rc7 Bf8 30.a6 Rd8 31.Rxa7 1-0
Thirdly, it may be harder for White to gain an advantage with a hypermodern opening if Black is not tempted to take on more than can be easily chewed. Larry Evans in The Chess Opening for You complains about an opponent who replied to his King's Indian Attack (1.Nf3 2.g3 3.Bg2 4.d3 5.O-O 6.Nbd2) with 1...Nf6 2...g6 3...Bg7 4...d6 5...O-O 6...Nbd7, and Evans had nothing to shoot at.


Here's two examples of the style from Reti - a hit and a miss.
[Event "Hypermodern Openings"][Site "?"][Date "??.??.??"][Round "?"]

[White "Reti"][Black "Rubinstein"][Result "1-0"]

1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 g6 4.c4 d4 5.d3 Bg7 6.b4 O-O 7.Nbd2 c5 8.Nb3 cxb4 9.Bb2 Nc6 10.Nbxd4 Nxd4 11.Bxd4 b6 12.a3 Bb7 13.Bb2 bxa3 14.Rxa3 Qc7 15.Qa1


The characteristic Reti touch

15...Ne8 16.Bxg7 Nxg7 17.O-O Ne6 18.Rb1 Bc6 19.d4 Be4 20.Rd1 a5 21.d5 Nc5 22.Nd4 Bxg2 23.Kxg2 Rfd8 24.Nc6 Rd6 25.Re3 Re8 26.Qe5 f6 27.Qb2 e5 28.Qb5 Kf7 29.Rb1 Nd7 30.f3 Rc8 31.Rd3 (!)

{now if ...Nb8, c5!}


White's grip on the centre and Q-side is decisive

31...e4 32.fxe4 Ne5 33.Qxb6 Nxc6 34.c5 Rd7 35.dxc6 Rxd3 36.Qxc7+ Rxc7 37.exd3 Rxc6 38.Rb7+ Ke8 39.d4 Ra6 40.Rb6 {!} 40...Ra8 41.Rxf6 a4 42.Rf2 a3 43.Ra2 Kd7 44.d5 g5 45.Kf3 Ra5 46.h4 gxh4 47.gxh4 Ke7 48.Kf4 Kd7 49.Kf5 {1-0}

[Event "hypermodern opening"][Site "NY"][Date "1924.??.??"][Round "?"]

[White "Reti"][Black "Lasker"][Result "0-1"]

1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 c6 3.b3 Bf5 4.g3 Nf6 5.Bg2 Nbd7 6.Bb2 e6 7.O-O Bd6 8.d3 O-O 9.Nbd2 e5 10.cxd5 cxd5 11.Rc1 Qe7 12.Rc2 a5 13.a4 h6 14.Qa1 Rfe8 15.Rfc1 {two opposing chess strategies perfectly placed!}


15...Bh7 16.Nf1 Nc5 17.Rxc5 Bxc5 18.Nxe5 Rac8 19.Ne3 Qe6 20.h3 Bd6 21.Rxc8 Rxc8 22.Nf3 Be7 23.Nd4 Qd7 24.Kh2 h5 25.Qh1 h4 26.Nxd5 hxg3+ 27.fxg3 Nxd5 28.Bxd5 Bf6 29.Bxb7 Rc5 30.Ba6 Bg6 31.Qb7 Qd8 32.b4 Rc7 33.Qb6 Rd7 34.Qxd8+ Rxd8 35.e3 axb4 36.Kg2 Bxd4 37.exd4 Bf5 38.Bb7 Be6 39.Kf3 Bb3 40.Bc6 Rd6 41.Bb5 Rf6+ 42.Ke3 Re6+ 43.Kf4 Re2 44.Bc1 Rc2 45.Be3 Bd5 0-1

Chess Quotes

"At that time two opposing concepts of the Game called forth commentary and discussion. The foremost players distinguished two principal types of Game, the formal and the psychological."
— Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game