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.
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.
I don’t consider the Smith-Morra (1.e4 c5 2.d4) completely unsound or without merit, but a Sicilian player should embrace the Morra, Alapin, or Bb5 lines. If you fear Anti-Sicilians, study more!
As a (sometimes) Najdorf player (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6), which worries me more: the Smith-Morra or 6.Bg5? It’s not even close!
The Grand Prix Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 and 3.f4) is another line that is supposed to intimidate Sicilian players. Um, no. Well, at least white doesn’t give away a center pawn in the GPA…
In my French Defense years, I loved nothing better than facing the Milner-Barry Gambit (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bd3)! Because of my study I knew what to do and scored better than I did against French main lines.
Players wanting to cut down their chess openings study time with white are better off playing the London System(1.d4 with an early Bf4) every game than borderline gambits against decent opposition.
One objection raised against my post is that I only used games from 1972 and before.
These were the games that helped me learn how to defend the Smith-Morra! Old games are unacceptable in a cutting-edge mainline, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. I’m sure white has some wrinkles I’m not aware of, but I would expect to come up with something decent in a tournament game.
This is also a great reason to play online chess: keep sharp and have a look at various attempts! Take it seriously; I don’t play anything online I wouldn’t consider using in a classical game.
Could a specialist “catch” me? Maybe! It’s a chance I’m willing to take in order to score more by accepting the gambit instead of giving white an easier time.
I don’t face Grandmasters often in tournaments. Against the 1900-2200 crowd I’m comfortable trying to emulate the play of Viktor Kortschnoj, Larry Evans, and Henrique Mecking!
When it comes to chess openings, especially with the white pieces, don’t give in. Play a line capable of setting a variety of challenges for your opponent. It doesn’t have to be highly theoretical, but don’t give them the chance to rely on one pet line or one main setup.
Why has the popularity of the Ruy Lopez endured for more than a century? The resources for each player are seemingly endless! Most openings cannot match this level of richness, but it is something to keep in mind.
In this final part, we move on to the French Defense Exchange Variation.
A view of the Musée d’Orsay across the Seine in Paris. Photo: Andre Harding
We looked at structures with an early e4-e5 by white in parts 2a, 2b, and 2c. In those cases, white’s central pawn chain restricts black’s light-squared bishop and prevents black’s king knight from going to f6, its best square.
With 3.exd5, white releases the pressure on the position and makes the game much simpler and almost equal. Still, both sides can play for a win! In my French days, I was never disappointed to see the Exchange Variation and scored well against it.
French Defense Exchange Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5
Both sides have chances here, and there is more than one way for each side to play. Don’t let anyone tell you the Exchange is the prelude to an early draw. Not always!
White cannot fall asleep and hope for a draw
Even 90 years later, many consider this a model of how to play against the Exchange Variation.
Don’t underestimate symmetry either
Most players are taught to emulate Nimzowitsch’s play above. I preferred to model my play after Akiba Rubinstein’s in the game below:
White’s positionally-aggressive potential
Black isn’t the only one who can have fun in the Exchange Variation!
Simple, direct play can also work in the French Exchange
Richard Rapport goes straight for the throat from the beginning, and hits his target:
This concludes my overview of the French Defense! It has provided you with food for thought and the seeds of further discovery.
Unlike in Parts 2a and 2b, White immediately plays e4-e5 before developing his knight from b1. Play is very straightforward.
Once again, black’s main source of counterplay is an attack on white’s d4-square. The second player starts with the pawn advance …c7-c5 and then involves both knights, and the queen — at least. White has to be careful to keep his center intact, but if he does there are good attacking chances to be had.
Advance Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5
Will white’s extended pawns become a strength or a weakness? Overall the chances are balanced, but of course anything can happen in an individual game.
White’s bind in the Advance proves too strong
This classic game is too striking to not show for those who haven’t seen it, even if Nimzo’s concept is not completely sound:
Black’s counterplay in the Advance is a force to be reckoned with
Ehlvest was ranked World #5 back in January 1991 but gets shredded here.
That concludes our coverage of the French Defense Advance Variation. Next time we continue with Part 3, the Exchange Variation. Stay tuned!
As you might expect, the MacCutcheon Variation is combative. It has traditionally been considered somewhat less sound than the Winawer or Classical Variations, but is more than playable. White has options here, but we’re concerned with one line in particular.
White plays 5.e5
Here’s a high-level game played in 2019 which gives a flavor of the MacCutcheon:
Players with white are used to facing other lines of the French more than the MacCutcheon. For that reason alone, it’s a line to consider if you want a reasonable position with counterattacking chances. Of course, white’s decisions on moves 3 and 4 determine whether you’ll get the Mac.
Tarrasch Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2
Unlike the MacCutcheon Variation, the Tarrasch is extremely solid. Blocking the queen and Bc1 with the knight may look funny, but the point is the pawn advance c2-c3 which supports the main target in white’s position: the d4-pawn. Considering black relentlessly attacks d4 with moves like …c5, …Nc6, and …Qb6, this is sound logic!
Black replies 3…Nf6
This is one of the classic responses to the Tarrasch, although other moves have become more popular in recent years. When white advances e4-e5, familiar French Defense plans appear: black wants to attack white’s d4-pawn with the pawn advance …c7-c5, and attack white’s e5-pawn with the pawn advance …f7-f6!
(a) “Without f4”: 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6
White hopes to convert a strong central grip and space advantage into a kingside attack or a long-term, suffocating bind. Sometimes this goes well:
and sometimes black finds strong counterplay:
That was the solid, “positional” line…
(b) “With f4”: 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ndf3
This variety of Tarrasch can get even more wild. A recent example:
Next time, we’ll take a look at the Advance Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5).
In Part 1, we looked at French Defense lines where black exchanges pawns on e4.
Now we’ll start looking at the most common center type in the French: white plays e4-e5. In this post we’ll look at the Winawer and Classical Variations.
The next post will feature the MacCutcheon and the Tarrasch.
White locks the center with e4-e5; Winawer and Classical
There are several important lines where this can happen. In all of them, the main idea is the same: Black wants to attack white’s d4-pawn, starting with the pawn advance …c7-c5!
(a) Winawer Variation 3.Nc3 Bb4
The Winawer is the most dynamic system in the French Defense. It starts as follows:
Now black tries to break down the white center, while white accepts weak queenside pawns in order to get black’s strong bishop. Typically, white attacks on the kingside, and black goes for counterplay in the center and on the queenside. An important example:
This is the Winawer Poisoned Pawn Variation. Both sides face danger! In other versions of the Winawer, black castles kingside while he still can and creates counterplay on the queenside and in the center, while white goes for mate.
A classic example of Winawer chaos comes from the first game of the 1960 World Championship match:
Or the famous duel between Fischer and Tal later that year:
I have never played the Winawer as black in a tournament game…too crazy for me! The next possibilities occurred in plenty of my games, however.
(b) Classical Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7
This is another double-edged variation, but play is not as “fast” as in the Winawer. Still, attacks can appear suddenly:
Games in this line often become positional struggles where black’s “problem” bishop on the light squares is a long-term factor:
The French Defense will always have a special place in my heart
In 1834, a chess match was played between the cities of London and Paris. When the Parisians answered London’s 1.e4 with 1…e6, the French Defense was born.
As a struggling 1000-rated player in 1997, chess was hard. I was weak at tactics and calculation, and simply not talented. I didn’t have any coaching, so it was on me to find a way to improve my game. 1…e5 and the Sicilian, which I tried to play because they were popular, did not fit me at all.
What I did have was oodles of determination to grind my opponents down slowly, especially in rook endings. For this, the French fit me very well! It was my main defense to 1.e4 until 2008.
If you like more excitement in your games, take heart: the French Defense can provide that, too.
We reach the starting position after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5:
Black threatens the e4-pawn and counterattacks in the center.
White has four good replies. From most to least complex: 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2, 3.e5, and 3.exd5.
However, I suggest we look at things based on the center type we get. There are three main options: (1) Black can exchange pawns on e4; (2) White can lock the center with e4-e5; and (3) White can exchange pawns on d5.
Today we’ll look at the first of these. In later posts we’ll examine the other options.
Black exchanges pawns on e4
After both 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2, black can exchange on e4. After 3…dxe4 4.Nxe4 we get this:
Now black has two main options. In the Rubinstein Variation with 4…Nd7
Even more solid (but passive) is the Fort Knox Variation with 4…Bd7, which I played for many years:
Play might continue something like this:
Black wants to play an ultra-solid game, but this is really passive and it’s hard to create counterplay. Still, if you’ve been struggling mightily with other openings, this can keep you in the game for awhile.
Another popular line
There is also the Burn Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4:
A typical line is:
Black has more potential counterplay with the kings castled on opposite sides, but runs a greater risk of facing a strong attack. Note that black can’t force the Burn Variation because white can choose 4.e5 instead of 4.Bg5. That line will be discussed in the next part where we examine lines with an early e4-e5 by white.
In all lines with an Exchange on e4, black wants to develop solidly and tries to avoid dangerous attacks or sacrifices. However, this allows white to dictate the pace of the game, which is fine if you’re a defensive or counter-attacking player.
In Part 2a, we start our survey of lines where white advances e4-e5.