Should I Open with 1.e4, 1.d4, or something else as White?
Not surprisingly, the short answer is “it depends.”
Let’s dig deeper.
First, there is one thing you certainly should not do. Don’t play offbeat moves (1.b3, 1.b4, 1.f4, 1.Nc3, etc.) just to avoid theory. I’ve touched on this before. Only use moves like this if you enjoy playing the resulting positions.
Having gotten that out of the way, we really have only four or five serious moves left. There’s no question which one we should discuss first.
1.e4 — Best by Test?
The famous game Fischer-Tal from the 1960 Leipzig Olympiad was a sharp draw in the French Defense. You can actually purchase a print of this photo here.
To a certain extent, I think Bobby Fischer was right. But not everyone should follow his advice.
Opening with the King Pawn requires the most well-rounded skills. Generally, you must attack the Sicilian Defense or give Black at least equality. Aggressive play is also the best recipe against the French Defense, Caro-Kann, and Pirc Defense, among others.
At the same time, patience and maneuvering skills are needed to play the Ruy Lopez or Italian Game well.
The higher up the rating ladder a player advances, the less opponents are afraid of gimmicky attacks — aside from feeling confident against gambits, they might willingly enter slightly worse positions with a chance to grind you down. Michael William Brown was in my group at the 2008 Western Invitational Chess Camp (organized by Robby Adamson). His main defense was the Closed Ruy Lopez, and he really knew how to play it. Sure enough, Michael became a Grandmaster in 2019.
Maybe the biggest question is: can you break down the Berlin Wall or Petroff Defense?
My point is, I think 1.e4 requires the most diverse range of skill to play well consistently — in other words, to legitimately play for a win against strong opposition. Contemporary role models include Carlsen, Caruana, and Karjakin.
It’s no coincidence these players have contested the last two World Championship Matches!
Not everyone prefers the King Pawn, or possesses the ability to play it well — or at least as well as the ability to play other first moves.
Next time, we’ll discuss some alternatives, starting with 1.d4.
Richard Teichmann (1868-1925) was one of the best players of the early 20th century.
The German master was nicknamed “Richard V,” as that was often his tournament placing.
Karlsbad 1911 proved to be a different story: he rose to the occasion and achieved the greatest result of his chess career.
Teichmann won the 26-player round-robin by a full point over a string of current and future top players — Akiba Rubinstein, Carl Schlechter, Frank Marshall, Aron Nimzowitsch, Savielly Tartakower, Alexander Alekhine, and Rudolf Spielmann among them.
Here is a brevity against Theodor von Scheve, played at the Berlin Jubilee Tournament of 1907.
Black to play. How did Teichmann conclude the game in short order?
And had no idea what I was doing. I simply chose the opening because I saw it in MCO-13 and it had a lot less pages to “study” than most other defenses to 1.e4. By study, I meant “memorize,” because that’s what I thought opening learning was about in those days.
When I was around 1000, I switched to the French (1.e4 e6):
My play was passive and one-dimensional. I didn’t learn how to attack, instead sitting back and waiting to spring a counterattack. I played other dodgy openings like the St. George Defense (1.e4 a6) sometimes, scoring over 50% with it.
You can get away with this against the Under 1800 crowd, but I wouldn’t recommend it!
I dabbled with other openings over the years, too: the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6):
The Scandinavian (1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6):
Even, for one or two tournaments,Alekhine’s Defense (1.e4 Nf6):
I deliberately avoided 1…e5 and the Sicilian (1.e4 c5)
Because they were “too complicated.”
Yes, there are many choices available to white after 1.e4 e5, but not a lot of different ideas. That is the key.
You want your pieces to become active and to not allow white to get (or maintain) a pawn duo on d4 and e4.
After the common sequence 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6:
Black’s control of d4 does not allow white to push the d2-pawn there without it being exchanged. If that exchange happens black will have decent control over the center.
The Canal Trap arises from the Italian Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4):
This has been extremely popular at high level for many years now. The consensus among top players seems to be that black’s strongest reply is 3…Bc5, entering the Giuoco Piano:
From there, White typically plays the modest pawn pushes c2-c3 and d2-d3 and develops quietly. This, the Giuoco Pianissimo, has become perhaps the mainline of the open games:
Instead, White can develop a knight to c3 and go for piece play. The Canal Variation comes about after 4.d3 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bg5:
Black has some different choices, and that can be a problem. After the sequence 6…h6 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.Nd5 Qd8 9.c3 (other moves will be analyzed in the notes below):
Black should play 9…a6 which preserves the dark-squared bishop from exchange from white’s d2-d4 or b2-b4 pawn advances. Instead, he loses after the normal-looking 9…Be6?
Can you see why? This is the Canal Trap.
Use the Canal Variation (and maybe the Canal Trap) to win games!
Sound, Solid, Infrequently (Well-)Played…
Three characteristics of an opening line to consider! By my count I am 3-0 in tournament play with the Canal (all against lower-rated players, so take that for what it’s worth). More important, my students score quite well with it, and always get good positions out of the opening. Since it’s a forgotten line, their scholastic opponents don’t know the subtleties of defending it.