Sometimes, chess can be misleading. The Italian Game is a perfect example of such.

The Italian game is neither a game nor a gambit. The name represents a collection of chess openings that all begin with the same moves: first, the kings' pawns face off in the centre of the board, and then the knights, kingside for White and queenside for Black defend them. In algebraic notation, it looks like this:

1. e4 e5     2. Nf3 Nc6

Several of the top chess openings - The Ruy Lopez, King's Gambit and the Scotch Game among them, start with these same moves.

What distinguishes the Italian Game from the rest of these Open Games is the early development of the so-called Italian bishop - the kingside bishop, to square c4. Bc4 constitutes White's third move.

What happens next can be quiet, very quiet or involve two knights.

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Defining the Italian Game

As any chess enthusiast knows, their beloved game is millennia-old. It was played in Ancient India and Persia; even China has their version of the game that was played as early as the first century BC. By contrast, modern chess, the style we play today, dates back only a few centuries.

Considering the game's long history, it stands to reason that the same chess openings would feature in several games. Thus, grouping these like-games under a single header makes sense.

The Chinese also love to play chess but of their own style
The Chinese have played a version of chess for more than two millennia. Photo credit: cold_penguin1952 on VisualHunt

Starting in the 15th Century, avid chess players sought to organise the various openings and gambits. The oldest of such works, the Göttingen manuscript, is a 33-page work written in Latin that details a dozen games, including a version of the Italian Game.

This is where things get confusing.

Most chess players understand the Italian Game to be an opening whose notation is 1. e4 e5     2. Nf3 Nc6     3. Bc4

But, sometimes, that opening's name is used interchangeably with the historical manuscript's more fleshed out notation that includes Black's response, the Giuoco Piano.

Superprof sets the record straight, at least for this article, by distinguishing between the opening and the directions this opening might spur players to take.

Just to make it clear that other Open Games, such as the Scotch Game, are different from the those that play the Italian bishop...

Giuoco Piano

This is the opening recorded in the Göttingen manuscript alongside the King's Gambit and others. Despite being called 'the quiet game', it suggests that both sides of the board will develop their pieces quickly.

Incidentally, that common translation of the game being quiet is not exactly correct. It would be more accurate to call it 'the level game' or, even more accurately 'the game plan'. Its notation is as follows:

1. e4 e5     2. Nf3 Nc6     3. Bc4 Bc5

Considering the opening's long history, several important players have recorded their enthusiasm for it, Greco and Damiano included.

What's so remarkable about the Portuguese player Damiano and the Italian enthusiast Greco, familiarly known as Il Calabrese (not El Greco!) is the evidence they give for this opening's widespread enthusiasm. Though separated in time by nearly a century and over an (at the time) insurmountable distance, Giuoco Piano was nevertheless so renowned that both men wrote about it.

That popularity lasted through the 1800s.

By the 20th Century, chess players were paying more attention to chess theory. They discovered that the Ruy Lopez opening could achieve the same results without many of the risks inherent in this Game. As chess defences became more refined, fewer players opened with Giuoco Piano.

In fact, more often than not, grandmasters these days exhibit a distinct preference for the next opening on our list, as evidenced by how often it is invoked in tournaments and competitions.

The next move White would typically make is 4. c3 to get more control over the centre but there are variations, such as the Evans Gambit (4. b4) or by castling. Conversely, they might usher in the very quiet game.

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Giuoco Pianissimo

Now truly into the 'quiet game' realm, Giuoco Pianissimo strives for a slower buildup by moving the queen's pawn up only one square. This confrontation-delaying tactic sustains the centre tension while setting the stage for positional play. That slow-down's signal is 4. d3.

Delaying the queen's pawn move leads to deferred action
Some chess players prefer to slow the action down by deferring their queen's pawn move. Photo credit: Ed Yourdon on Visualhunt.com

There is a way to further defer the action by first positioning the queenside knights so that they, too, support the central pawn structure. Pianissimo's characteristic main line move to d3 then becomes White's fifth move:  4. Nc3 Nf6     5. d3. This is called Giuoco Pianissimo Deferred.

There are other ways to postpone confrontation at the centre. For instance, White may want to claim some more space queenside by playing their rook and knight pawns but, if they bring their (b4) bishop into retreat, that elaborate pawn structure may come to resemble aspects of the Ruy Lopez.

What does this very quiet play look like? Here's the notation: 4. c3 Nf6     5. d3

You might wonder why White doesn't advance their queen's pawn to d4. Why stop at d3.

That is one possible variation; it's called the Italian Gambit. It doesn't merely tiptoe away from the quietness of the Piano and Pianissimo openings, it runs full-tilt into the centre, casting it wide open.

It's one of the more frequently embraced variations to the 'quiet' lines of play.

Two Knights Defence

So far, much of the talk has been about what White should or could play. Now, let's talk about the Black side of the board.

To invoke the Two Knights Defence, instead of Black mirroring a bishop move (3. Bc4 Bc5), they position their kingside knight to f3.

This is a rather aggressive move for Black to make; it's an open invitation for White to attack their opponent's f2 pawn. Indeed, Black should reconcile themselves to losing a pawn if they want to bring about this more tactical game.

Deploying this strategy suggests a strong, confident player, albeit those in lower levels of competition. It has been played by grandmasters such as Boris Spassky and Mikhail Tal but, these days, players of that calibre shy away from 3. Bc4 anyway. That takes the pressure off Black's f7 pawn, which is the main driver for this defence.

In fact, many chess grandmasters and theoreticians aver that Two Knights is less of a defense than a counterattack.

The bottom line is: if you're playing Black and feeling brave, give Two Knights a try. At the very least, you may discover whether or not you can make it work.

And, as you're curious to learn how to play chess better, you should learn about the Queen's Gambit... but not from the popular series.

The Hungarian Defence

As a way for Black to signal they want a mellow game, they could hardly do better than the Hungarian Defence. Black answers their opponent's insistently challenging 3. Bc4 with a mild 3. ... Be7.

With their bishop hunkered in front of the king - signalling that that piece is ready for action but would rather lay low for now, White is free to command the centre and develop its pieces.

The only trouble is that Black will have less space and leverage to operate in.

That's one reason that this defense is seldom seen at the tournament level, although some grandmasters with a strong preference for positional play have invoked it.

Fun chess fact: this defense got its name via a correspondence chess game between a player in Paris and another in Pest, Hungary, in the mid-19th Century. Although their names have been lost to time, records indicate that the defense predates them by almost 100 years.

Join the discussion: how is the French Defence different from the Hungarian Defence? Which do you prefer?

Black also can control the Italian Game
Much of the Italian Game action focuses on White but Black has ways of controlling the game, too. Photo credit: PMillera4 on Visualhunt

Other Atypical Moves Black Might Make

Many chess players feel that playing Black puts them at a disadvantage; some grandmasters even see their drawing Black as a bad omen; one that portends their imminent loss.

We contend that any opportunity to play chess is a chance for things to turn out well and playing Black doesn't mean the inevitable loss of a game. The trick is to know all of the options open to you. Once you know all of the possible moves... oh, wait: we have to give you a few more possible moves.

  • 3. ... d6 - called the Semi-Italian Opening: not often seen today, at one time it was a very popular response because it provided solid positioning
  • 3. ... f5 - the Rousseau Gambit: a potential trap for inexperienced opponents (White would better respond with 4. d3)
  • 3. ... h6: generally counterproductive but it can be effectively used because there is no immediate response or refutation for it. Beware that it will cost you in piece development, though
  • 3. ... Nd4 - the Blackburne Shilling Gambit: this play is not a true gambit and, furthermore, it is weak. However, if you're playing against a novice, you may snare them into a quick checkmate.

The Italian Game is meant to play on White's strengths but Black has just as many possible variations to choose from. You only need to figure out which ones to use at which point in the game to win the match. Or, at least, hold your own...

Now, discover how to use the Sicilian Defence to your advantage...

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