The Not-So-Quiet Italian

Last time I talked about the venerable Two Knights Defense 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6, focusing  on the move still popular at all levels, the “duffer’s move” 4.Ng5. I also  suggested the alternative  “Quiet Italian,” 4.d3 followed by 5.c3, building a solid center as a base for future operations … as opposed to moving the same piece twice in the first four moves in a greedy attempt to win material. After all, wouldn’t it be inconsistent to teach new players to develop all of their pieces at the outset and then to advise them to play 4.Ng5? I suppose that the same could be said of the Rubinstein variation of the Four Knight’s Game, 4.Bb5 Nd4, which moves the same piece twice but gives Black a fully equal game. Apparent inconsistencies in chess “principles” abound, and it’s hardly satisfactory to tell a young student “but, of course, everything is subject to the precise analysis of concrete variations.” So, I teach that the attempt at Scholar’s mate is a bad thing (and why), the duffer’s move is not the best, the Quiet Italian is better (and also better than the Four Knights – therefore no Rubinstein questions) and so on. Yes, you must teach both sides of the Quiet Italian and, sure, at some point you must tell them the chess equivalent of “there is no Santa Claus” (just before they start reading it in books), but by then they are far enough along that you can explain why.

The system 4.d3 Bc5 (or solid 4…Be7) 5.c3 has been around for centuries, but under the historically recognizable name Giuoco Pianissimo, Italian for quietest game. As far as I can tell, the moniker “Quiet Italian” may have originated from GM Glenn Flear’s 2010 book “Starting Out: Open Games.” At least that’s where I saw it. I think it’s rather catchy and slightly easier to pronounce (for uncultured savages such as myself) than Giuoco Pianissimo. By the way, I try to teach capturing “in passing” rather than  “en passant,” I avoid most scholarly Latin phrases like ab initio, a priori, and, in general, avoid twenty-five cent words when five-cent words will do. However, in a moment of haste I might forget and blurt out to a group of six-year-olds something like “notice the unobstructed f-file.” Ka-ching! 25 cents.

Regarding our variation’s unassuming name, we should understand that “quietest game” is a relative term, and was meant in contrast to the King’s Gambit, Evans Gambit, Max Lange Attack and other truly bloodthirsty openings.  Play in the Quiet Italian starts as purposeful, placement of the pieces, simple maneuvering and thought before castling… but can later become highly tactical, as shown in the example games below. I should add that one of the virtues of the Quiet Italian is that it can be played against 3…Nf6 as well as 3…Bc5 (both 3…Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 and 3…Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3 reach the same position). As an aside, this same position can also be reached via the Bishop’s Opening 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nf6! 3.d3 Bc5 4,Nf3 Nc6 5.c3. Finally, the solid 4…Be7 is more like the Spanish Game and can actually transpose into a Spanish main line (with d3). So, I claim that the Quiet Italian is a stepping stone to the Spanish Game 😉

Next, Black’s most flexible move is 5…a6, to prepare a retreat for the c5-bishop from attacks like b4/a4/a5,  Nbd2/Nc4 and, eventually, d3-d4. White can then proceed 6.Nbd2 and maneuver this knight to g3/e3 via f1 as in the Spanish, or to c4 if the opportunity arises. Soon the c4-bishop retreats 7.Bb3 and then even Bc2 to avoid being exchanged for a black knight. With the center still closed (there are few prospects of the e-file opening soon) neither side need be in a hurry to castle. In fact, castling too soon can be a costly mistake! This is a blog unto itself, but it is important for the Quiet Italian player to know this right away. In fact, a friend of mine used to say “He who castles first in the Italian loses!!” Although this is not precisely true, many times it turns out to be so..

Finally on the Quiet Italian agenda is prevention of the pinning moves Bg5 and Bg4 with h6 and h3, respectively. These useful moves may seem slow but they are directed against the opponent’s development and, again, the center is not yet open. Pins and pawn storms in front of your castled King can be quite awkward, especially if the opponent has not yet castled and feels no restraint in running you off of the board.. Other comments are in the notes to the games.

Michael Koblentz