Ultimate Guide to Winning with the Italian Game

The Italian Game is one of the first chess openings we play when we discover the wonderful world of chess.

At first glance it’s pretty straightforward and doesn’t seem to require much thought.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 and boom, you have your Italian Game setup right there. 

However, there’s much more to it than simply a beginner-friendly chess opening. 

In fact, the Italian Game -or Italian Opening- can turn into a highly tactical opening if you or your opponent make even the slightest mistake.

Learn below all the main lines and sidelines of the Italian Game, as well as useful tricks and tips.

Main Line in the Italian Game: Giuoco Piano

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

This is by far the most common start to an Italian Game. 

Both White and Black have developed their pieces naturally and are eyeing the f7 and f2 squares while fighting for the center.

The most common continuation is 4.c3.

White can also:

  • Castle.
  • Play d3.
  • Play b4.
  • Play Nc3.

Let’s explore all these options in full.

4.c3: Classical Variation in the Italian Game

With the move 4.c3, White is attempting to quickly consolidate the center by playing d4 soon if Black allows it.

It’s a super solid choice that guarantees strong play for White.

A typical Italian Game with 4.c3 usually continues with 4…Nf6 5.d3 d6.

This is called Giuoco Pianissimo – There’s a whole section dedicated to the Giuoco Pianissimo later in the article.

White is taking things slow and doesn’t want to play d4 just yet.

The natural moves keep coming. 

Both sides are ready to castle and almost all of their minor pieces are either developed or about to be developed.

6.O-O a6 7.a4 Ba7:

Both a6 and a4 allow the bishops to retreat while still putting pressure on the center.

In particular, the move Ba7 by Black is an extremely flexible move that:

  • Prepares the b5 expansion.
  • Discourages White to play d4.
  • Maintains a decent pressure on the a7-g1 diagonal.

After this, the most played moves are 8.Re1 O-O 9.h3 Ne7 10.d4 Ng6 11.Nbd2 c6:

4.0-0

In this variation, White decides to castle immediately, delaying the development on the queenside but securing its king right away and preparing Re1.

The game usually follows like this: 

4…Nf6 5.d3 d6 6.c3 a6 7.a4 Ba7 8.Re1 

4.d3: Giuoco Pianissimo

A very popular choice by White on the Italian Game.

Giuoco Pianissimo comes from the Italian language and it literally means “very quiet game”.

In this variation, White takes things real slow and doesn’t risk anything.

The main continuation for Black after the Giuoco Pianissimo has started is 4…Nf6:

Now White can basically play 4 moves: 

  • 5.0-0
  • 5.c3
  • 5.Nc3

The first two have better win rates than the third one, which is more drawish, so you could pick 5.Nc3 if you are playing against a stronger opponent and you don’t mind to split the point.

White can also play some lesser explored moves such as:

  • 5.Bg5
  • 5.a4
  • 5.Nbd2
  • 5.Bb3
  • 5.h3

4.b4: Evans Gambit

We will analyze the Evans Gambit more deeply later in the article, but for now let’s say that it’s one of the most exciting -and dangerous!- ways to play the Italian Game.

Its main line goes like this:

4…Bxb4 5.c3 Ba5 6.d4 d6 7.Qb3 Qd7:

White decides to sacrifice a pawn in exchange for more control on the center and open lines to attack the Black king.

Black has also the choice of declining the Evans Gambit by playing:

4…Bb6 5.a4 a6 6.Nc3 Nf6:

Greco’s Attack

In the Greco’s Attack, White chooses a more aggressive approach:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb4+:

After 6…Bb4+, White has three main options:

  • 7.Bd2
  • 7.Nbd2
  • 7.Nc3

7.Nc3 is probably the most sharp choice:

7.Nc3 Nxe4 8.O-O Bxc3 9.d5 Bf6 10.Re1 Ne7 11.Rxe4  

Bird’s Attack

This is an extremely interesting way to play the Italian Game for White.

Instead of sticking to the slow pace of the Giuoco Piano, White plays 5.b4 and surprises Black:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.b4 Bb6 6.d3 d6 7.a4 a5 8.b5 Ne7:

The main idea of the Bird’s Attack on the Italian Game is to gain space on the queenside while disrupting Black’s normal piece development, as well as claiming control of the center.

Rosentreter Gambit

In the Rosentreter Gambit, White plays d4 directly, instead of preparing the move with 4.c3 first:

The main line in this gambit is:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.d4 exd4 5.c3 Nf6 6.e5 d5 7.Bb5 Ne4 8.cxd4 Bb6 9.Nc3 O-O 10.Be3:

Black usually avoids taking the extra pawn on c3 in move 5 because that would give White too much of an advantage in development.

Deutz Gambit

The Deutz Gambit arises after the following moves:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.O-O Nf6 5.d4:

The Deutz is similar to the Rosentreter but with the difference that in the Deutz White first castles and only then plays d4.

Jerome Gambit

The Jerome Gambit is just wild

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Bxf7:

Only mad people or romantics can play this chess opening. 

It is especially effective in bullet or blitz time controls.

However, it’s not that good in classical because if Black plays correctly, then it can maintain a steady advantage throughout the game.

But… it’s not that simple to play against the Jerome Gambit. 

Let’s see the correct way to do it and the incorrect way of playing it.

This is the correct way: 

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Bxf7+ Kxf7 5.Nxe5+ Nxe5 6.d4 Qh4 7.O-O Qxe4 8.dxc5 Nf6

The game is not over, but White has managed to capture the opponent’s queen and now has a more favorable game ahead.

Evans Gambit

We have already seen that the Evans Gambit takes place in the Italian Game after the following moves:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4:

Now Black has two options: either Black captures the pawn and we enter in the Evans Gambit Accepted, or moves the Bishop and we would be playing a declined version of the Evans Gambit.

Evans Gambit Accepted

The main line of the Evans Gambit Accepted happens after:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Ba5 6.d4 d6 7.Qb3 Qd7 8.dxe5 Bb6

Black accepted the gambit at first, and now is giving a pawn back, trying to catch up in development.

Evans Gambit Declined

The Evans Gambit Declined is usually played like this:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bb6 5.a4 a6 6.Nc3 Nf6:

The evaluation for this position is equal, although it seems that White is a little more comfortable here.

Below we will explore some of the other lines that arise after Black declines the Evans Gambit in the Italian Game.

In the following video, FM Viktor Neustroev provides an introduction to the Evans Gambit:

Get Neustroev’s full course on the Evans Gambit with 50% OFF.

Mayet Defense

This one you won’t see very often, but you might face it one or twice in your lifetime.

In the Mayet Defense, Black accepts the Evans Gambit but then retreats the bishop to its original position:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Bf8:

Black decides to reset the position and ignore White’s attempt to engage in a queenside fight.

Morphy Attack

The Morphy Attack in the Evans Gambit is a pretty sharp line that goes like this:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Ba5 6.d4 exd4:

Different to what happens on a regular Evans Gambit Declined, in the Morphy Attack Black decides to take on d4.

Black is a pawn up but White has consolidated a strong center and open lines to move freely through the board.

Symmetrical Italian Game

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.d3 d6:

The name of this line in the Italian Game speaks for itself.

White and Black end up with a symmetrical position after move 5.

The symmetry is usually broken in move 6, when White plays Bg5 and Black responds with h6:

Italian With 3…Nf6: Two Knights Defense

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6:

The Two Knights Defense is considered to be a pretty aggressive chess opening choice by Black because it leads to open games with lots of tactical ideas.

There are 3 main responses for White:

  • 4.d3.
  • 4.Ng5.
  • 4.d4.

The most active one is without a doubt Ng5, which threatens Nxf7 and puts White in a difficult situation.

If both sides play correctly, the game should go like this:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 Na5 6.Bb5 c6 7.dxc6 bxc6 8.Bd3 Nd5 9.Nf3 Bd6: 

It looks like Black’s pieces and pawns are all over the place, but it’s actually an equal position.

White is a pawn up but Black is far ahead in development, with open lines to attack and occupy important squares.

But things can go very wrong for Black if they don’t play with precision.

Want to see a crazy line?

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 Bc5 5.Nxf7 Bxf2+ 6.Kf1 Qe7 7.Nxh8 d5:

Fried Liver Attack

The Fried Liver Attack (also known as the Fegatello Attack) is probably the most exciting line in the Italian Game.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 Nxd5 6.Nxf7 Kxf7 7.Qf3 Ke6 8.Nc3:

Did you see THAT?

White has sacrificed its knight on f7 but now the safety of the Black king is seriously compromised.

Italian Game With 4.Nc3: Four Knights Game

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Nc3:

This is a very drawish line, which might be helpful if you are playing against a higher-rated player.

The main continuation is:

4…Nxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.Bd3 dxe4 7.Bxe4 Bd6 8.O-O:

Scotch Gambit

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.O-O  

If you are a fan of the Scotch Game, this variation is for you.

White strikes on the center with an early d4 and aims to quickly consolidate its position by playing Re1 and Nc3.

The main line goes like this:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.O-O Nxe4 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3 Qa5 9.Nxe4:

Italian With 3…Be7: Hungarian Defense

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Be7:  

It might seem that very few people would play this line in the Italian Game, but it’s actually the third main option after 3…Bc5 and 3…Nf6.

It’s a conservative way of playing the Italian, but valid if you enjoy quieter positions.

Italian With 3…d6: Paris Defense

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 d6:

Another passive approach to the Italian Game, but still playable.

In fact, it has been played many times at masters level.

This is a game played earlier this year:

Italian With 3…g6

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 g6:  

This one is kind of weird and not played a lot at master level.

But you might see it on the board some time, so you have to be prepared to face it effectively.

Italian Game With 3…f5: Rousseau Gambit

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 f5:

Now this is something…

Not the most solid way to respond with Black to the Italian, but the Rousseau Gambit will come as a surprise to your opponents.

Tricks and Traps in the Italian Game

Trick in the Four Knights Variation

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.d3 d6 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.Nd5 Qd8 9.c3 Be6 10.d4 exd4 11.cxd4 Bb6 12.Nxb6 axb6 13.d5:

Smothered Mate

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nd4 4.Nxe5 Qg5 5.Nxf7 Qxg2 6.Rf1 Qxe4+ 7.Be2 Nf3#

Belloni Trap

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 d6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb4+ 7.Kf1 Nf6 8.d5 Ne5 9.Qa4+ c6 10.Qxb4

Model Games in the Italian Game

Useful Resources

If you are determined to master the Italian Game, here are some useful resources for you:

Chess course: Win with Evans Gambit with FM Viktor Neustroev

Opening Explorer: See all the lines in the Italian Game

Openings Trainer: Practice the Italian vs the computer

Magnus Carlsen Italian games: Replay all of Magnus Carlsen chess games with the Italian Game

Author: Federico Vinas