The Dark Knight System – 1… Nc6 against (nearly) everything)

“The importance of concrete opening knowledge is vastly overestimated by most chessplayers, from laymen and modest club players to grandmasters. The decisive factor in chess is skill and general understand, not opending knowledge.”

(Dr. Robert Hübner, Caissa 2/2016 p. 32)

One could probably hardly imagine a more inappropriate quote to precede one’s own comments on an opening system. But Hübner (one of the most successful German chess grandmasters ever) is right: very few chess games (especially in amateur chess) are decided in the opening, and yet the vast majority of chess literature, training DVDs and videos deal with nothing else but openings.

There are of course reasons for this. For one thing, the opening phase is much easier to classify and categorise than the middle or endgame. The starting position is simply always the same. Even the systematisation of the endgame phase (apart from the trivial endgame constellations) is more complex or at least less manageable despite the reduced number of pieces on the board. On the other hand, an intensive study of the opening allows you to learn good moves by heart; you don’t even have to find them on the board yourself and still achieve an advantageous position at the end of the opening phase – if your own memory performance was better than that of your opponent.

This is exactly how many players understand the learning of openings: Learning by heart the main and secondary variants of an opening, including the traps it contains, and recalling this knowledge during the game. This is not necessarily (actually not at all) creative, but – if you do the memory performance – practical and definitely promising. On the other hand, how satisfying is a victory, because your opponent has run into a prepared opening trap? Did the better player win here?

Of course, opening theory is an exciting and thrilling terrain, if you don’t think of it as a memory game. Good theory books and especially opening DVDs and videos focus on the motives and ideas of an opening. A good opening DVD helps a player to progress in chess even if he does not use the opening in his active game.

The committed amateur player is therefore confronted with the question of how he wants to approach the subject of opening for himself and what concrete opening repertoire he will have to develop. For even among grandmasters there are only a few who use the entire variety of chess openings in their practice. One specialises in order to save time and resources.

The question about the repertoire arises twice for the amateur player, following the nature of the game:

  1. What do I play with White?
  2. What do I play with Black?

The first question will not be dealt with further here for the time being (you cannot tackle everything at once). This is about the question of which opening system to play with the black pieces. The answer: The Dark Knight System (TDKS).

Most players will already admit that there are several questions behind this: What do I play with black against 1. e4? What against 1. d4? Against 1. c4, 1. Nf3?

Which already shows the first advantage of the TDKS: There is only one answer. In the TDKS black plays in the first move against (almost) all white initial moves 1. … Nc6 (just the dark knight mentioned). The opening theory, which classifies according to fixed move sequences (taking into account move changes), can of course not do much with this and has given different names for 1. e4 Nc6 (Nimzowitsch Defence) or 1. d4 Nc6 (Mikenas Defence). The TDKS player is not interested in this, he regards everything as a system with many different forms.

Which brings us to the second advantage of the TDKS: Black takes the opening reins in his hand. Usually, white determines where the journey is headed by his first move. With 1. e4 he opens the world of open and semi-open openings, the Indian and closed systems are already excluded with the first move. With 1. d4 the opposite results. Black has groundbreaking alternatives for his answer, but (in the classical answer moves) from a limited number. With 1. … Nc6 as the answer to everything, the choice is even more limited (because it is not available), but for White the question (the problem) immediately arises, where the journey should go. Should he try to get into positions he had aimed for with his first move by changing moves? Or should he venture into unknown territory in order to refute the crazy black jumper move on the board, so to speak? The latter question is particularly important for an opponent whose rating is significantly higher than that of the one following.

Which brings us to the third advantage of the TDKS: In the vast majority of cases the white player will be surprised, at least unprepared. The Dark Knight System is a rarely played system that is considered inferior to exotic in opening theory. It was considered inferior to the theory in the time before the advent of the engines. For example the move sequence 1. e4 Nc6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 was considered nothing less than the refutation of the whole black structure. The TDKS player is happy when he meets an opponent who still believes this. Today the theoretical evaluation (if it is treated in opening theory at all) is more cautious; GM Leonid Kritz, for example, recommends after 1. e4 Nc6 not even to think about refutation attempts with 2. d4, but to draw 2. Nf3 instead, in order to be able to change into “normal” open openings after expected 2. … e5 (an expectation which the experienced TDKS player of course shatters, but we will come to that later).

After 1 … Nc6 (which brings us to the fourth advantage of the TDKS) there are also numerous possibilities for Black to vary his game. These variations are not move changes, but lead to very different constellations, types of positions and thus plans – and in all of them one can assume that the opponent has not yet or rarely had them on the board. If, on the other hand, you play the TDKS regularly as a black player, you will gain an experience advantage in these different positions – and experience is something completely different from memorized variant knowledge.

TDKS is therefore the right system for players who want to start their game off the beaten opening paths and force themselves and their opponents to think for themselves and for their opponents as early as possible in the game. TDKS does not change the fact that the white player has an advantage in chess because he has the first move (similar to the serving player in tennis); but it does force the attracting player to think in his second move about what this attraction advantage actually consists of and how he can at least maintain it in unknown terrain.

The Dark Knight System is certainly a weapon of surprise, but it does not stop there. It is a fully-fledged opening system that the black player can use without worrying if he knows that his white-playing opponent has taken a week’s holiday to prepare for the game against 1 … Nc6.