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.
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.
The author divides his material into three parts: Queen’s Side, King’s Side, and Miscellaneous.
Looking through the chapters in each part, you realize that “Queen’s Side” refers to closed games: King’s Indian Defense, Grunfeld Defense, Modern and Old Benoni, Queen’s Indian Defense, Nimzo-Indian Defense, and English (1.P—QB4 and 2.N—QB3) and Reti Openings (1.N—KB3 and 2.P—QB4).
“Miscellaneous” contains the Budapest, Bird (including From Gambit), Catalan, Center Counter (Scandinavian), Dutch, King’s Indian Attack, Alekhine Defense, Orangutan, Spassky’s Defense (!? — this refers to 1.N—KB3 N—KB3 2.P—KN3 P—QN4), Grob, Three Knights, and Chigorin Defense.
The author incudes complete games or game fragments that illustrate the trap in question. Each trap has one or two diagrams.
Obviously, this 50-year-old book doesn’t contain the latest hot theory! But I think most players would have greater opportunities to apply the lines here than what might be found in contemporary games.
No matter which openings featured in this book appear in your games — I’m betting several do regularly! — there are important pitfalls that aren’t obvious at all. You might be surprised to see the names of some of the victims!
Almost any player would find this book helpful. It can be had for under ten bucks on Amazon. I’m sure there are at least a handful of points to be harvested using the ideas in Howson’s book … well worth it, I say.
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.
Boris Spassky (born 1937) was the tenth World Chess Champion (1969-1972). Before that, however, he was one of the greatest prodigies of early modern professional chess.
Boris Spassky. Photo: Britannica.com
Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Spassky defeated Mikhail Botvinnik in a simul as a ten-year-old in 1947, a year before Botvinnik became World Champion.
With a third-place finish in his very first USSR Championship, Spassky qualified for the 1955 Gothenburg Interzonal. At Antwerp he captured the World Junior Championship a point ahead of Edmar Mednis. He next qualified for the 1956 Amsterdam Candidates Tournament — earning an automatic Grandmaster title.
At 18 years old, Spassky became the youngest GM ever, eclipsing Tigran Petrosian‘s record by five years.
He established himself as a top player in the early 1960s. Highlights include the 29th USSR Championship (Fall 1961) and the 1964 Moscow zonal.
Spassky battled through the World Championship cycle to earn a title match with Petrosian in 1966. The match went the full 24 games, but Iron Tigran narrowly retained his title.
Undeterred, Spassky immediately won the Second Piatigorsky Cup. In the next Championship cycle he defeated Petrosian in June 1969 to become the new Champion.
Why he is underrated
Unfortunately, Spassky was outshone by two meteors: first Tal, then Fischer.
Mikhail Talwas born less than three months before Spassky. He won back-to-back USSR Championships, an Interzonal, a Candidates Tournament, and a World Championship match within four years! Just 23 years old, he shattered the record for youngest World Champion ever.
Bobby Fischer broke Spassky’s youngest-ever GM record by three years. Later, he won 20 consecutive games en-route to victory in the 1970 Interzonal and 1971 Candidates series with tallies of 6-0, 6-0, and 6½-2½. Then he took Spassky’s World Championship title in 1972.
This is a loss for chess! The casual fans who only know Spassky as “the guy who lost to Fischer” should play through some of his best games — they are as enjoyable and imaginative as those of any player in chess history, full stop.
After losing his title, Spassky won probably the strongest-ever USSR Championship, the 41st, in October 1973. The field included established stars like Lev Polugaevsky, Viktor Kortschnoj, Efim Geller, Paul Keres, and Mark Taimanov, youngsters Evgeny Sveshnikov and Alexander Beliavsky … and four other World Champions — Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, and Karpov.
To me, this implies he plays 1…e6 in response to at least 1.e4 and 1.d4, and possibly other first moves as well. If my assumption is correct, it means he plays the Classical Dutch (…f5, …Nf6, …d6, …e6) or Stonewall Dutch (…f5, …Nf6, …e6, …d5, …c6), but not the Leningrad Dutch (…f5, …Nf6, …g6, …Bg7, …d6).
What Does the French/Dutch Player Want?
Rich, counterattacking play!
The choice of the Dutch as d4-defense is revealing and makes me think this player favors lines like the Winawer, Classical, MacCutcheon, or Burn Variations in the French after 3.Nc3 — and not quiet passive lines such as the Rubinstein or Fort Knox.
In my years of playing the French, I never considered playing the Winawer or MacCutcheon in tournament play — it’s just not my style. The Classical and Fort Knox were my favorites. But how do you identify what to play?
I don’t believe that the Sicilian is necessarily the “best” opening, or that everyone should play it. I do believe, however, that any player who wants to answer 1.e4 with 1…c5 can find a system to their liking.
I’m talking about how to answer the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3):
As you probably know, there is a huge array of options. Traditionally, they are grouped by black’s reply from the diagram: does s/he play 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6?
Instead I’ll consider popular variations based on my opinions about they rank on two scales:
Aggressive — Neutral — Solid
Tactical — Neutral — Positional.
Of course, white has a hand in which line is played also, so these won’t be 100% accurate, but I’ll characterize some popular lines.
If you want an excellent overview of the Sicilian mainlines and Anti-Sicilian setups, get Mastering the Sicilian Defense by the late Danny Kopec (1954-2016). Kopec always shined as an author when discussing structural play in the opening and middlegame.
Okay, here we go:
Aggressive and Tactical
High risk, high reward! Probably the most aggressive line in the entire Sicilian universe is the Dragon Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6):
The “Dragon bishop” plans to breathe fire on the long a1-h8 diagonal. White’s most critical try, the Yugoslav Attack (6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0):
When the first player will castle into an attack on the queenside, while starting one of their own on the kingside.
Despite this, I have never considered the Dragon super-tactical, because many of the sacrifices are standard and repeat themselves over and over again. Still, compared to other options, I will place it in this bucket.
This may surprise some people, but I consider the Najdorf a blend of Tactical and Positional. Black doesn’t necessarily aim to attack the king, and often uses a “whole board” strategy. It is not as aggressive as the Dragon in a “kill the king” sense, but a positionally aggressive opening where black willingly takes on some risk. I learned how to play this opening from the first edition of The Sharpest Sicilian, one of the finest opening books I have ever read.
Black seeks aggressive counterplay in this line, but the risks are more structural than anything else, with the potential outpost on d5. A knight ensconced here can be paralyzing. Still, neither side is too likely to get mated during a Sveshnikov battle, and the tactical play is relatively tame.
This is a dynamic, combative system with a large array of possible setups for both sides. Not only do both players need to be well-prepared and alert, some of the tactical motifs are strange. There are more solid lines a player can choose than the Taimanov, but more aggressive ones as well.
When I play 1.e4, it is my least favorite Sicilian to face because of its chameleon-like qualities. I should probably take a look at Emms’ book!
I’ve given a traditional move order, but this exact position is now infrequent because of the strong Keres Attack (6.g4). Nowadays the Scheveningen is more often reached through the Najdorf: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e6.
These positions are among the most balanced in the Sicilian, with something for everyone.
For more than a crash course on the Scheveningen, get Dynamics of Chess Strategy by Czech Grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa (trainer of David Navara). His comments on the Scheveningen, Ruy Lopez, and other lines is as good as you’ll find anywhere. Garry Kasparov, devoted Scheveningen player during his career, might also agree with Jansa’s recommendation against the Pirc as a “turkey shoot!”
Neutral and Positional
Kan Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6):
This branch of the Sicilian is much tamer than, for example, the Sveshnikov or Taimanov. There are more solid or positional alternatives, however. Black’s play is restrained, but not plodding. White has very different ways of answering this opening, from the space-eating Maroczy Bind (5.c4) to the solid 5.Nc3 to the more aggressive 5.Bd3 followed by Qg4.
Honestly, this is a Sicilian I don’t like for either side! Of course, your mileage may vary.
I’ll say it plainly: I don’t think the Accelerated Dragon is very good if white plays the Maroczy Bind (5.c4!) and doesn’t allow black to make a bunch of exchanges. I’ve never understood why this line is so popular in books/DVDs and with chess coaches. Can someone please explain it to me? Everytime I face it I feel like I’m shooting fish in a barrel.
Black has some tricks in non-Maroczy lines, but if white is prepared this defense will be a most welcome sight.
The polar opposite of the Dragon? I think so. Black hangs back and develops solidly, reacting to white’s ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re the kind of player who likes to bait the opponent into overextending themselves.
The Classical has some distinct advantages. Like the Dragon, there is only one really challenging line against it, the Richter-Rauzer (6.Bg5). Unlike the Najdorf or Taimanov, in the Classical you pretty much know what’s coming if your opponent doesn’t play an Anti-Sicilian.
An aggressive player might opt for the Sozin Attack (6.Bc4) and a very aggressive opponent will head for the VelimirovicAttack (6.Bc4 e6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qe2), but the prepared Classical player has nothing to fear in these lines.
Another benefit of the Classical is its flexible move order: black can play 2…d6 and 5…Nc6, or 2…Nc6 and 5…d6. That’s helpful when trying to get your preferred setup against Anti-Sicilians.
I hope this overview helps players considering playing the Sicilian for the first time or, maybe, a player considering a system change! Which Sicilian is best for you?
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.