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.
Norway Chess: a supertournament fixture since 2013.
Altibox Norway Chess will be held from October 5-16, 2020; the latest edition of the Norwegian supertournament held in Stavanger since 2013. It will also be the first major over-the-board tournament since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Magnus Carlsen has only won two of the seven editions of his home tournament (2016, 2019), the same amount as Sergey Karjakin (2013, 2014). Many players find it tough to perform their best with the hometown glare squarely on them.
Veselin Topalov (2015), Levon Aronian (2017), and Fabiano Caruana (2018) are the other winners. Carlsen has won the companion blitz event three times, however — Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has two victories, while Karjakin and Wesley So have one each.
Altibox Norway Chess 2020
This year Carlsen (Norway), Aronian (Armenia), and Caruana (USA) are joined by young stars Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) and Alireza Firouzja (FIDE). Aryan Tari (Norway) completes the six-player double round robin. Firouzja defected from Iran last year and has yet to declare which country he will represent in the future.
In a sign of the times, the official player photos were taken with each man wearing an Altibox Norway Chess mask!
During my time as Assistant Manager of the Marshall Chess Club (2003-2005) I loved watching “regulars” play. Examples: Marc Arnold, Julio Becerra, Salvijus Bercys, Jay Bonin, Fabiano Caruana, Asa Hoffmann, Giorgi Kacheishvili, Dmytro Kedyk, Kassa Korley, Irina Krush, Yury Lapshun, Alex Lenderman, Adam Maltese, Leif Pressman, Boris Privman, Raven Sturt and Leonid Yudasin. It was my favorite part of the job!
I always take the opportunity to watch high-rated players play as a player. spectator, or director. It isn’t about chess osmosis, though I do believe that exists. These experiences connect me with chess in a way solitary study and online play cannot.
The answer to chess improvement is desire…and maybe, just maybe, getting mad. You will manage a way. Watching strong players play in person, and sometimes getting your clock cleaned, can be a real help.
The games are broadcast on chess.com and elsewhere.
The Format of the FIDE Online Nations Cup
FIDE and chess.com collaborated on the FIDE Nations Cup.
The games are played with a time control of 25+10 (25 minutes for the entire game plus an additional 10 seconds per move starting from move 1).
There are six teams in the event with six players each; four male and two female players.
Each match is contested on four boards. On Boards 1,2, and 3 a team chooses three of its four male players to play. On Board 4, a team chooses one of its two female players to play.
2½ points out of 4 are needed to win a match, and all boards count equally.
The team that wins each match gets 2 points and the loser 0. In case of a 2-2 tie, each team receives 1 match point.
It’s a double round-robin team tournament, so each team faces the other five teams twice for a total of 10 rounds. After 10 rounds, the two highest-scoring teams play a final match on May 10. The team with the highest score going into the final gets draw odds; in other words, if the final match is tied 2-2, the team with the highest score in the round-robin phase wins the event.
Every team gets $24,000 for participating. After 10 rounds, the two top scoring teams face off in a final match for the FIDE Nations Cup. The team runner-up gets an additional $12,000 ($36,000 total for the team), and the winner of the Cup gets an additional $24,000 ($48,000 for the team).
Four top nations are invited, and then two other “compilations” of teams were added.
The countries invited were China, India, Russia, and the United States.
The two additional teams were Team Europe and Team Rest of World.
Every team brought most of their top male and female players! The captains were notable too.
The Players and Captains of the FIDE Online Nations Cup
The male players included 2020 CandidatesDing Liren and Wang Hao, plus Wei Yi and Yu Yangyi. Even scarier for the rest of the field were their female players: the return of 3-time Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan, and current Women’s World Champion Ju Wenjun.
Having won two of the last three Olympiads and the last two Women’s Olympiads, China was undoubtedly the favorite. Longtime captain Ye Jiangchuan lead the team here, too.
All the top players from this chess powerhouse came to play as well, including legendary former World Champion Vishy Anand, up-and-coming star Vidit Gujrathi, elite fixture Pentala Harikrishna, plus Adhiban Baskaran.
Their top female players are present as well, including Cairns Cup winner Humpy Koneru and Harika Dronavali. Anand is playing and serving as captain, while former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik is an adviser to the team.
This team is formidable as well, led by Candidates’ co-leader Ian Nepomniachtchi, the rising Vladislav Artemiev, former Challenger Sergey Karjakin, and former Candidate Dmitry Andreikin.
Their female players include recent Women’s World Championship Challenger Aleksandra Goryachkina and current Russian Women’s Champion Olga Girya. Their captain is the experienced Alexander Motylev.
Their “Top 3” are here: 5-time US Champion and former World #2 Hikaru Nakamura, current World #2 and recent Challenger Fabiano Caruana, and perennial Top 10 Wesley So. Also playing for the team is recent arrival Leinier Dominguez.
Two stalwarts of US Women’s Chess, 7-time US Women’s Champion Irina Krush and 4-time US Women’s Champion Anna Zatonskih make their appearance as well. The team is lead by John Donaldson, who has captained US Olympiad teams since the 1980s.
A mix of players from different nations is led by Candidates co-leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, former World #2 Levon Aronian of Armenia, and former World #3 Anish Giri of the Netherlands, who is playing as a reserve. Board 3 is Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
Their female team members are Ukraine’s Anna Muzychuk and Georgia’s Nana Dzagnidze. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: their captain is the greatest player ever, Garry Kasparov!
Team Rest of World
Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) has returned to the top with a bang, and he is joined by young star Alireza Firouzja who has not chosen a country to represent after leaving Iran. Bassem Amin (Egypt) and Jorge Cori (Peru) represent Africa and South America, respectively.
Former Women’s World Champion Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine) and Dinara Saduakassova (Kazakhstan) round out their lineup. They are captained by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a tournament in 2019.
Round Robin Phase
China dominated the first part of the FIDE Online Nations Cup with 17 match points (+8=1-1). They drew Russia in Round 3, and only lost to USA in Round 10 when they had already clinched the top spot in the final.
The race for the other final spot came down to USA(+6=1-3) and Europe (+5=3-2). Each squad finished with 13 match points, but USA got the spot in the final by scoring 22 game points to Europe’s 21.5!
The other teams — Russia, India, and Team World — fell out of contention early on.
China earned draw odds in the Mother’s Day final match, which I have to agree with. There should be a reward for winning the first, 10-round phase of an event like this. In one match, anything can happen.
Still, it was too much for the USA to overcome. On paper, China had an advantage anyway, especially on Board 4, with the strongest active female on the planet Hou Yifan facing my friend Irina Krush. I had no doubt America’s only female Grandmaster would bring her best, and she held a draw rather comfortably despite being massively out-rated.
To win the match, USA needed two points out of the three remaining games, and it was just not to be. Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren drew a very double-edged game on Board 1, while Fabiano Caruana pressed Wei Yi on Board 2 and Yu Yangyi pressed Wesley So on Board 3.
Caruana and Yu both won, which was fitting because they were the two best performers in the entire event. The match was drawn 2-2, and China won the first FIDE Online Nations Cup.
Will this event become a fixture in the future after we (hopefully) defeat COVID-19? I hope so!
The big news in the chess world is the decision to pause the FIDE Candidates Tournament held in Yekaterinburg, Russia after the first half. The winner of the Candidates Tournament will challenge World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the next title match.
Logo for the 2020 FIDE Candidates Tournament
Starting the event was questionable in the first place. While I would have postponed the tournament, I can see the reasoning for going through with it. In my view, it wasn’t just about throwing off the timing of the World Championship Match.
FIDE didn’t want to disrupt the zonals and continental championships for the 2022 cycle. Understandable, but short-sighted.
Around the beginning of March, FIDE apparently issued Teimour Radjabov an ultimatum about playing in the Candidates Tournament or not. When he declined, they inserted first alternate Maxime Vachier-Lagrave into the tournament.
Once Radjabov was out and MVL was in, FIDE was already stuck. They had to start the tournament even though things looked increasingly grim as the March 15 start date approached.
What were they going to do by, say, March 13? Postpone the event, try to send everyone home, and replace MVL with Radjabov again? I’m sure, privately, FIDE already knew before the tournament started that they had messed up. Hindsight really is 20/20.
FIDE took a decision that they would only allow outside forces to stop the event. It was a very risky course and I didn’t agree with it, but now the question is: what to do with half the tournament completed and Radjabov looking for answers?
What should be done about the Candidates Tournament now?
Radjabov can’t be added to the event now. He should be an automatic entry for the 2022 Candidates Tournament, along with the loser of the 2020/2021 World Championship Match, removing one of rating qualification slots. This isn’t fair to Radjabov, but I’m not sure what else to suggest besides additional financial compensation, which would also be appropriate.
The rest of the field should stay as is. Ian Nepomniachtchi and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave can be happy with developments, but just about everyone else will feel that their tournament would have started much better in a more normal environment.
A small rant…
There was so much criticism of Kirill Alekseenko being chosen for the wildcard ahead of Vachier-Lagrave. Well, one of the reasons organizers bid for such events is the ability to name a wildcard. FIDE did the right thing by restricting the criteria so only a small number of players could be named the wildcard, but the organizers chose from that pool of players!
Of course the Russian organizers wanted a Russian player in the tournament! This is not outrageous, corrupt, or anything else. Organizers from any other country with the chance to pick one of their countrymen would also have done the same. MVL had many chances to qualify directly and failed.
It seems there is not enough interest ($$$) from patrons or governments in Western countries to host top-level chess events. The big exception of course is Rex Sinquefield in Saint Louis.
We should be happy there are entities with resources to hold these events and support the players. One wildcard out of eight players seems like a necessary trade to me, in this day and age, for a 500,000 euro prize fund. A lot of fans just don’t like it when higher-rated players aren’t chosen.