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.
Vasily Malinin(born 1956) is a Russian Grandmaster of both over-the-board and correspondence chess. He was also the 21st and last USSR Correspondence Chess Champion (the final of this multi-stage event, the Rozinov Memorial, was played from 1998-2002).
Here Malinin plays an absolutely wild game and finishes it beautifully. He certainly found his Mona Lisa.
There really isn’t much else to say, except … enjoy!
What did Malinin (White) play on his 17th move to continue an already crazy Benko battle against Konstantin Andreev?
Alexander Morozevich(born 1977) burst onto the world chess scene in the mid-1990s and quickly became a darling of fans worldwide with a unique brand of tricky, aggressive, unorthodox chess. The Muscovite was a protégé of super trainer Vladimir Yurkov (1936-2007) whose previous students included Yuri Balashov, Nana Ioseliani, and Andrei Sokolov.
Morozevich earned his Grandmaster title in 1994. In August of that same year he won the final edition of the Lloyds Bank Open in London with an amazing 9½ points out of 10.
Another particularly stunning performance helped in that ascent.
The 1st Chebanenko Memorial
In February 1998, a 10-player round robin honored the famous trainer of Moldova, Vyacheslav Chebanenko (1942-1997), in the nation’s capital Chisinau.
Alexander Morozevich was only the fourth-highest rated player in the well-balanced Category XII event.
The 20 year old won his first game … drew the second … and then won all the rest! Obviously, his tally of 8½ points out of 9 was enough for first place.
In Round 6, what did Morozevich (White) play on his 22nd move against Viorel Iordachescu?
An Interference Tactic that Makes an Impression
Though he sometimes plays blitz and rapid events, Alexander Morozevich has scarcely played classical chess since 2014 — he won the annual Karpov tournament at Poikovsky in May of that year. It appears he has effectively retired, with little fanfare … a loss for the chess world.
Isaac Boleslavsky(1919-1977) was born in present-day Ukraine. He was one of the best players in the world during the 1940s and 1950s.
Runner-up in back-to-back USSR Championships in 1945 and 1947, he narrowly missed a chance to face Mikhail Botvinnik in the 1951 World Championship match. He later assisted Tigran Petrosian in his title matches.
Despite this formidable résumé, Boleslavsky’s legacy can be most clearly seen in the Ruy Lopez, King’s Indian Defense, and Sicilian Defense. His ideas are everywhere in these systems. Unfortunately, I doubt most casual players have even heard of him!
The very first Interzonal was held in 1948 in Saltsjöbaden, Sweden. Up for grabs were places in the Budapest Candidates Tournament of 1950, the next step in the World Championship cycle. Boleslavsky qualified easily with a strong third place result in Saltsjöbaden behind David Bronstein and Laszlo Szabo. These three players were part of the first 27 awarded the new International Grandmaster title by FIDE.
In the first round of the interzonal, Boleslavsky won a miniature against Finnish master Eero Böök with an important new idea.
Some readers may groan upon seeing the title of this post, and that’s okay. I get it.
Who, when taking their first steps in chess, dreams of winning wars of attrition? Probably no one. On the contrary, I often fantasized about winning a brilliant game in a tournament hall or chess club with a crowd of people watching in awe. Okay, I admit it … I still do!
Alas, I rarely win beautiful games. Most of my wins border on the tedious side — regularly 50+ moves. When I get away from this — whether because of fatigue, laziness, or delusions of grandeur — the results are usually disastrous. I’m just a grinder, and I’ve finally accepted that.
Fortunately, grinding works.
Easier to Play with Black?
With the White pieces, I feel a burden to “prove something” with my advantage of the first move. This often leads to going for too much, and bad things happen.
Grinders subscribe to the “equalize first” philosophy of playing the Black pieces. There isn’t any pressure to “do” anything. Even draws with peers are acceptable, though we want to win just as much as anyone else!
In the right position types, there will often be chances as Black to turn the tables on your opponent, especially if you’re willing to face a mildly unpleasant initiative. For a great example of this, play through Anatoly Karpov’s win against Gata Kamsky from the 1996 FIDE World Championshp Match.
Now I want to share another classic in a similar vein, also one of my favorite examples:
Today is the 65th birthday of the man who taught me how to play chess — my dad.
One Saturday night when I was eight years old, my dad was cleaning out the hallway closet of our family’s apartment. I noticed a folded chess board, similar to this one. I knew it was a chess set — I don’t remember where I was first learned what chess was — and asked my dad to teach me how to play.
That night and the next day, he did. I understood the basic rules plus castling and pawn promotion — later I realized that he didn’t quite understand en passant! We began to play.
Well … I am no Morphy or Capablanca! My attempts to win our early games went nowhere.
My parents, sister and I soon went to the now-defunct Coliseum Books near Columbus Circle. I was looking through the chess books and other things, and my dad saw this cool-looking book that had lots of colored arrows and diagrams! This was apparently not a common thing back then. The book was also written by a Grandmaster! It was …
My parents bought me the book and I read it over and over and over.
I learned basic strategy and solved my first tactical puzzles.
I learned about a bit about four openings explored in the book: the Spanish Game, King’s Indian Defence (sic), Modern Benoni, and King’s Gambit.
And the cherry on top? Brief, fascinating bios of great players past and present: Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz, Jose Raul Capablanca, Mir Sultan Khan, Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and Judit Polgar. I loved this book so much!
In it, I also found my first master game played by the author which I tried to make some sense of with the help of the annotations.
Today, it’s time for me to annotate this memorable game.
The Charlotte Chess Center and Scholastic Academy is currently organizing two concurrent 10-player round robin tournaments: a Grandmaster norm event and an International Master norm contest. Unlike in a Swiss, each player in a round robin knows exactly how many points he will need to score in order to secure the GM or IM result.
IA/IO Grant Oen is the Chief Arbiter, and FA Peter Giannatos is Chief Deputy.
Norm events are exciting, especially if one or more players is closing in on the needed score!
FM Balaji Daggupati clinched an IM norm after only 6 rounds! He needs 1.5/2 for a GM norm.
IM Hans Niemann leads the GM norm event with 5.5/7. One win or two draws in the last two rounds will give him his final GM norm, and push his rating closer to the needed 2500 to earn the highest title in chess.
Three players still have chances to earn norms in the IM event.
I’ve annotated the following sharp battle from the very first round of the IM event.
Control possible line openings against the enemy king!
You can increase your chess rating quick, fast, and in a hurry. Almost immediately, in some cases. But if you’re a “chess romantic,” this method is not for you.
Everyone wants to win more games, but what price are you willing to pay? If you’re 1000+, I have long been convinced that the quickest, surest path to more wins and a higher rating runs through the opening.
Embrace this. Don’t allow yourself to be brainwashed by group-think that pervades chess instruction and insists you look for a pot of gold at the end of the tactics rainbow. Or worse, insists you focus on endgames.
Are you still reading? Good. Let me be very clear about what I mean, and explain my reasoning.
Use opening study to drive your rating gains
Knowledge is power in chess. When looking to increase your chess rating, laziness won’t do.
That said, there are different layers to opening study.
Wait! Why not tactics and endgames?
You are working on tactics! If you study openings properly, you will learn recurring tactical ideas in lines you actually play. This makes them easier to find in real life instead of hoping to apply something from solving thousands of random puzzles.
Your endgame results will also improve as a side-effect of serious opening study. Not only will you get more familiar positions and practice playing them, good study will provide you with better endgames than you had in the past!
Okay, let’s keep going!
Know what kinds of positions you play well, or can learn to play well.
A player can’t completely avoid tactics or strategy — we all know this. As for the lecture about “stunting your chess development,” that applies to aspiring 2700-rated grandmasters. Almost everyone else spends their chess career managing their weak spots.
If attacking play comes naturally to you, play openings that allow you the kinds of attacks you like to play. Not all attacks are the same!
Do you consider yourself a strategist? Fine (that’s a hint by the way, study his games). Do you like to maneuver in closed positions? Maybe you prefer queenless middlegames? Perhaps you have an affinity for certain types of endgames?
Research “candidate” openings that might suit you. Then test them out against good opposition online. I recommend playing games in the 5-minute pool. The results aren’t important; focus on whether or not you like the character of the play.
Don’t be delusional
I’m a poor attacker … and after 25 years of chess, this won’t change very much. While I’ve had some success with the Sicilian Najdorf (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3) , I have played the Dragon Variation (5…g6) exactly once in a tournament game — at the Manhattan Chess Club in 1996!
On the other hand, I like playing queenless positions, and for some reason I’ve always been able to play any kind of endgame with rooks well. Slow maneuvering is not my forte, which I guess explains why several attempts to play the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) as black have been a failure. My attempts to play the English Opening (1.c4) have been disastrous.
As WIM Iryna Zenyuk once told me: “Play YOUR chess.”
A word about system openings
I’m referring to the King’s Indian Attack, Colle System, London System, Torre Attack, etc.
I would mostly avoid them … and not because of nebulous ideas about “limiting your potential.”
As I’ve said before, avoiding main line openings forces you to work harder at the board when you have nerves, a ticking clock, and an opponent to deal with.
Instead, choose openings with defined main lines you can study in advance and learn well. If your opponent deviates, you will either know how to deal with their subpar moves, or can take comfort that you have a route to a clear advantage. In other words …
Raise your rating by shortening the game
The more of a game you can pre-plan, the better your results will be — if your prep is good.
Think about it: do you have more confidence in your own moves, or those you learned from Stockfish or Grandmaster XYZ? As long as you have an idea of your moves’ purpose and aren’t blindly memorizing, I think the answer is clear. Lofty ideas about being creative or original stop most players from increasing their chess rating. That, and not wanting it badly enough.
Yes, you’re going to have to memorize some lines … some of them 15+ moves. That’s a good thing: your hard work will leave your peers behind and raise you to a new level. Let them do 20 minutes of tactics a day and play openings “based on ideas.” They will be at the same level five years from now.
Action steps to improve your rating
Buy ChessBase if you haven’t already. I consider it indispensible if you’re serious about trying to increase your chess rating.
Search for openings/positions you might be interested in playing.
Test these lines in online play to see if they suit you and you like playing them.
Create a database in ChessBase with your opening lines. I call mine “Opening Lines.” In this database is one “game” (line) for each opening.
A peek at my current database.
Constantly play through GM games in your chosen lines, and keep testing online.
Add/edit lines in your database … this could take months to begin with, and never really ends. Be thorough.
Maintenance. Keep studying games, memorizing your lines, and practicing online.
Today I want to show one of my recent blitz games on the Internet Chess Club (ICC). I think it is somewhat instructive, especially in the context of IQP (Isolated Queen Pawn) positions.
I have enjoyed playing the white side of IQP positions ever since I read Alexander Baburin‘s phenomenal Winning Pawn Structures around 20 years ago. The book contains a couple of examples right out of the Panov-Botvinnik Attack as seen in this game. Even though I usually struggle with attacking, this one felt natural because Baburin’s examples are memorable.