Check is in the Mail; An Ode to Declining the Dame

Greetings chess friends! I beg your indulgence for this month’s column; I am just now finishing up the manuscript for a book that is to be released next year (details later!), and this month’s column is an idea I have had for some time, and for which I have many recent games (including several of my own) to work with. This allows me to make use of some recent post-game analyses. So, without further ado, I offer you my testimony on behalf of the Queen’s Gambit Declined!

I have been a fan of refusing her majesty’s offer for most of my chess life; I cut my chess teeth on the games of the Lasker – Capablanca and Capablanca – Alekhine world championship matches, which contain a master-level education in the QGD. The QGD was also the main field of battle for the endless Karpov – Kasparov world championship matches. It is not a sexy opening; rather it is a workhorse. It holds up against attacking onslaughts as well as positional maneuvers. It may not be the opening you want when you absolutely must win with the black pieces, but it is most assuredly the one I want when I must not lose.

Denying the dame is not universally respected. In his otherwise delightful book How Ulf Beats Black, author Cyrus Lakdawala gently derides this splendid opening:


“I interpret the Queen’s Gambit Declined set-up as a friend who always has a girlfriend, yet to your knowledge has never been in love. I know a lot of players who play QGD for its bulletproof solidity, yet I can’t imagine any of them thinking to themselves: ‘Oh, boy! We’ve reached a QGD formation, my favorite!’”


That stung. (Just kidding, Cyrus.) I will admit that I don’t win many games with the QGD, but I know and trust the basic structures, and new plans are being developed all the time (see Michael Prusikin’s Countering the Queen’s Gambit and Christof Sielecki’s Keep It Simple for Black). It doesn’t get boring, but more importantly, it doesn’t often get beat! Further, there are many variations that utilize the same (or similar) basic structures, so if you find you enjoy playing the Orthodox main line, you will also find that many of the ideas and plans you use in that line will also work in the Lasker variation.

Most players I discuss this opening with who complain about it have problems with the same line: the Carlsbad, or Exchange, variation. I understand that; the Exchange line has been promoted by virtually every GM- and IM-authored repertoire book for the white pieces since the 1980s, so every player has a favorite line and is fully prepared. I personally have no problem with the line; I enjoy playing the Carlsbad variation from either side of the board.

There are other lines I enjoy playing from the White side as well (as you will see later), but I mostly use the QGD from the Black side. Right now, in correspondence competition, the QGD is my main system against 1.d4, 1.c4 and 1.Nf3. And like I said, while I haven’t won many games, I haven’t lost a single one since updating my repertoire.

Our first game, Burrus – Bashur, is a good example of how Black finds counterplay in the Carlsbad variation when White fails to keep up the pressure. Both players make minor mistakes in the middlegame, but then things level off and the players start pursuing their own goals. When Burrus lets his foot off the gas for just a moment, Bashur grabs the wheel and takes control. A wonderful display of how the QGD puts Black in a good position to take advantage of White’s mistakes.



Our second game was a slow and painful lesson for me, and I share it just to save you from having to endure a similar thumping. Nett – Irons was an attempt at finding a different defense against the Carlsbad variation (we’ve all been there!), one based on my studies of the games of a model player – in this case former World Championship challenger Nigel Short. As you will see (to my everlasting horror) that particular line is not my cup of tea.



I finally settled on a classical plan against the Carlsbad, and it suits me much better than that mess in the prior game. Against James Bougher I tried a strategic plan that led to my having an isolated d-pawn, which, when I was younger, would have sent me into a tizzy. I have always preferred to avoid isolated pawns, but I am learning that they can be particularly useful strategically; I have played with more isolated pawns in the past few years than I did in the prior 30. One slip by Bougher lets me trade down to a dead even ending in which the d-pawn is easily defended.


The QGD is a solid and dependable system … if you understand and follow the requirements of the pawn structure. In Brink – McCaffery, instead of pursuing a standard plan of simplification and counterplay (Nd5xc3 and e6-e5), McCaffery chooses a continuation that weakens his queenside pawns. Brink finds an opportunity to get an outside passer, then gives up his queen for McCaffery’s two rooks to show him that the pawn will be brought forward by the remaining pieces. A delightful finish!



John Chirillo is a strong correspondence player whom I have played several times, and while he has beaten me, I have yet to return the favor. Our fifth game, Chirillo – Irons, is another in a line of draws, but John always makes it difficult for me to get anything over on him. At least in this game I am able to stick him with a horribly weak backward pawn on a half-open file!



I often make use of transpositions in the opening, and since the QGD is related to other openings, we see such transpositions frequently. Our sixth game, Hoffman – Rose, starts off as a Slav Defense, then it morphs into a Semi-Slav, and then within a few moves it transposes into the Orthodox line of the QGD. Although neither player plays the game mistake-free, Eric Rose makes the infamous next-to-last mistake. Once Hoffman plays the last one, Rose finishes him off in 10 more moves.



Our seventh game was a stark lesson for me: for the first twelve moves I followed Christof Sielecki’s Keep It Simple for Black, which leaves off at that point, calling the chances balanced, and stating there will be “an interesting fight ahead.” It got very interesting very quickly. Malmstrom built up a lot of kinetic energy behind his mobile pawn center, forcing me to act quickly before his long-range pieces zeroed in on my king, while at the same time mobilizing behind a passed pawn that was ready to advance. I was able to find a continuation that forced a repetition of position, just in time!



Daniel Taylor plays a similar continuation to that in the game Chirillo – Irons, but a move earlier. Edward Murphy decides to switch to the Carlsbad variation, which turns out to be the right choice. Instead of following the standard plan to force a trade of dark-squared bishops when White has played Nf3, Taylor retreats his knight rather than advancing it. This permits Murphy to keep his bishop instead of allowing it to be traded off, and leaves Taylor cramped for space. In an attempt to reorganize his pieces, Taylor makes an advance on the kingside intended to trade the other bishops, but instead permits White to sacrifice a bishop for all three of Black’s kingside pawns. It only takes another six moves before Murphy is able to show a forced checkmate.



As I mentioned before, there are other lines within the Queen’s Gambit Declined that I enjoy playing from the White side. I like playing against the Tarrasch Defense. The positions tend to be strategically clear, and I enjoy playing against an isolated d-pawn, or against the weakened dark queenside squares when playing against an isolated pawn couple (c6 & d5). Game nine, Irons – Armani, is my first draw against an IM, and it helped that he transposed into the Tarrasch Defense. While Giuseppe was never in any trouble, neither was I.



Our 10th and final game, Civan – Irons, is another example of how the QGD is solid enough for Black to be able to take advantage of White’s mistakes with little risk. Another Carlsbad variation, but this time Black focuses on developing his kingside pieces first. This not only promotes the Nf6-e4 plan to exchange dark-squared bishops, it also allows Black to develop his light-squared bishop before developing his Nb8. The plan is smooth and efficient, and it is promoted by Michael Prusikin in his recent book Countering the Queen’s Gambit. This game is one of the few I have won playing the QGD, but it holds a special place in my heart.



While it is not my only system against 1.d4, the Queen’s Gambit Declined is one of my favorites, because I can count on it. Against stronger players whom I have not played before, it makes sense to go for a solid setup until I know the player’s game better. Against lower-rated players I should be preparing something sharper. Any suggestions?

Good skill in your games!




News From the Front Office

Michael D. Buss, US Chess Correspondence Coordinator


In Passing

We have been notified that Robert E. Hux has recently passed away. Robert shared first place in the 1982 Absolute Championship and won it all in the 1983 event. A biographical sketch can be found here.

Elliot Lilien passed away on June 13, 2023. He was a prolific correspondence chess player playing in numerous Golden Knights preliminary and semi-final sections and two-player matches going back to 2004.


Reminder: Correspondence Chess Changes January 1, 2024

  • The entry fee for the Golden Knights and Electronic Knights tournaments will be increased to $35 per section.
  • The Electronic Knights will transition from email to the ICCF webserver, commencing with the 2024 preliminary sections.


2021 Golden Knights Championship

Invitations have been extended to the 33 players who have qualified for the semi-finals from the 23 preliminary round sections. It is anticipated play will begin by December 15, 2023.


Recent Event Winners

Walter Muir E-Quad

23W18, Matthew Brodhead, 5–1

23W21, Akshay Kotamraju, 6–0


Victor Palciauskas

23VP08, Jacob Raines, 6–0


John W. Collins Memorial

22C03, David Hollingsworth, 5½–½

22C09, Cory Lanker, 6–0