1.e4 or 1.d4 – which is the better move?

5/28/2014 – We all know that 1.e4 is an attacking move, producing explosive, decisive games. 1.d4 is muted, leading to closed positions that are more likely to end in draws. But is this impression rooted in fact? Ioannis Halkias, a physicist and mathematician from Spoa-Karpathos, Greece, – himself a 1.e4 player – has some very original arguments that may come as a big surprise. What do you think?

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1.e4 or 1.d4 – which is the better move?

By Ioannis G. Halkias

The arguments presented in this article are original and cannot be found in other chess books or papers. In fact, if you do come across any article relevant to what I am about to discuss, it would probably support the exact opposite opinion to the one I am expressing here. I am, however, convinced that it would be wrong in claiming so. I have attempted to examine the issue from an objective point of view and avoid any prejudice or preconception – especially regarding my personal preference of 1.e4.

1. Controlling the center

When it comes to controlling the center, moving to 1.d4 would clearly be the best option. The reason is quite simple: d4 can control two central squares when e4 can only control one. Playing 1.d4, we are able to control both d4 with the queen and e5 with the pawn, while playing 1.e4 will only help us control d5. Therefore, 1.d4 is clearly the best option in order to control the center.

2. Center and stability

When it comes to stabilizing the center – and therefore our strategic plans for the game – the best move to play would again be 1.d4. If the player chooses to play 1.e4, his completely unprotected pawn can offer the opponent the opportunity to counterattack, regardless of his preferred method of playing. He could, for example, take advantage of the situation and strategically develop his pieces using the French Defense, or push forward leading to a tactical game by playing the Alekhine or the Scandinavian. On the contrary, after playing 1.d4, the black player cannot directly threaten that pawn as it is being protected by the queen. As a result, when playing against this opening, the black player will develop his pieces and strategy slowly, waiting for his opponent to commit a mistake. The development of new opening theories has of course provided many possibilities to pursue an active and offensive game when facing 1.d4, but even taking this fact into consideration, the difference in dynamics between the positions arising after playing 1.d4 and 1.e4 is very obvious.

3. Center and pawn activity

Regarding which move activates the most pieces, the answer still lies with 1.d4. By playing 1.d4 we activate two pieces: our king bishop and the queen, our most powerful piece, which immediately gains access and control to the center. If we opt to play 1.e4, however, we only free our queen’s bishop on f1.

Every chess opening book claims that after playing 1.e4, the queen is also freed on the diagonal d1-h5. However, this is misleading since a player’s usual next move would be to block her with Nf3 followed by h3 in order to avoid being pinned by the black bishop moving to Bg4. The most usual and perhaps the only opportunity to move the queen on the aforementioned diagonal can arise when playing with an amateur and we checkmate from h5 or f3, or when using some dubious openings.

In conclusion, if we play 1.d4, the queen supports the center providing control and stability (see paragraph 2), whereas if we opt for 1.e4 instead, the queen’s role in the game is rendered insignificant until the game progresses further.

4. Space

The space we control is measured by the number of squares behind our pawns. 1.d4 is the best option once again. After playing 1.d4, one will usually follow by playing c2-c4, either in the next move or in the following couple of moves. The player will thus be able to increase the number of squares behind his pawns while at the same time he manages to control four squares in his opponent’s side (the side after the middle of the board). In fact, this is an excellent method to develop an ideal pawn formation (one pawn right next to the other) which provides maximum dynamic. On the contrary, even though such a formation can be developed after playing 1.e4 (the well-known King’s Gambit), this opening has been almost completely abandoned and is normally only played by more amateur players, since it ends up exposing the king – Ivanchuk had some good results with it lately though!

Therefore, one can safely conclude that, when it comes to space control, playing 1.d4 followed by c2-c4 will clearly prove more beneficial, as this formation will secure four squares of the opponent’s side and three in the center of the board which is of great importance (these three squares are d5 and e5 controlled by the two pawns and the d4 square which is controlled by the queen). Playing 1.e4, on the other hand, will only help the player control two squares of the opponent’s side (d5 and f5) and only one in the center (d5). Another advantage of 1.d4 is the dynamic of the pair of pawns that cannot occur after playing 1.e4.

5. Weak Squares

Every pawn move, regardless of how good it is for the game, will always result in several weakened squares behind and next to the pawn. The squares holding the greatest significance are usually the ones at the center or the extended center of the board. In this case, opening with 1.e4 or 1.d4 will have the same outcome. After playing 1.e4, the d4 central square is rendered weak, which will prompt the player to play c3 multiple times in order to support it and also allowing him a beneficial d4 push later, in order to eliminate this weakness. On the other hand, playing 1.d4 will weaken the e4 square, which may seem difficult to defend at first because, if we follow the same strategy as after 1.e4 (meaning that instead of playing c3 and d4 we play f3 and e4), we will immediately weaken the king’s position (we will have probably proceeded with a short castling by this time). However, this is not necessarily true; there are openings following this exact plan, such as the Carlsbad and Saemisch which are very respectable.

Finally, in both cases, if the white player decides so, he can easily remove any control the black player may have gained on these squares by pushing his own pawns and exchanging them for those of his opponent. For example, after playing 1.e4 and e5 (or c5 in order to control the d4 square), the white player can then continue by playing 2.Nf3 and 3.d2-d4 in order to exchange his opponent’s pawn immediately. Playing 1.d4 can result in the exact same outcome. A great example of this is the Dutch Defense which focuses the black player’s game exactly around the e4 weakness. The white player can play 1.d4 f5, 2.Nc3, e6, 3.e4 (if 2. …Nf6, 3.Bg5 and the e4 comes back again). In conclusion, when examining these weaknesses, both 1.e4 and 1.d4 can have the same result.

6. The World Championship test

Another method to compare these two moves, using actual facts and information instead of general ideas, is to observe the world championships. In a world championship, the players prefer the move they consider more beneficial; the move they believe will offer them more opportunities to achieve victory (especially when playing white). The contenders have, of course, practiced time and again and every defeat signifies a major weakness. What is more, world championships constitute a great study sample simply because there is no other tournament where players demonstrate such seriousness and concentration. Let us examine the results of the modern chess era, meaning the most recent world championships, starting from the year 2000 when Kramnik became world champion.

  • In 89 games 1.e4 was used 25 times resulting in: only one win, three losses and 21 draws.
  • In 89 games 1.d4 was used 62 times resulting in: 18 wins, 6 losses and 38 draws.
1.e4 wins: 4% losses: 12% draws: 84%
1.d4 wins: 29% losses: 9% draws: 61%

Comments:

  • The move 1.d4 is the preferred opening move almost three times more often than 1.e4 in world championships. It reduces the chances of defeat and offers over seven times more possibilities of victory. The number of draws resulting from this move is also significantly smaller, proving that it is actually more offensive that the 1.e4 opening, contrary to common belief.

  • The last and only victory achieved by playing 1.e4 occurred ten years ago (!) by Peter Leko, a chess player famous for only opening with 1.e4 (he thus knew the resulting positions very well). However, even he abandoned it (before the end of the match) and continued with 1.d4. His case also brings Fischer to mind, who almost exclusively opened with 1.e4 as well. But during his match against Spassky for the world championship two out of his three victories, while playing white, were not achieved by 1.e4.

  • The last known defeat after playing 1.d4 occurred in the last world championship between Anand and Carlsen. Anand could end the match in a draw, but he needed to win the game and was thus forced to play in a more risky and reckless manner, which resulted in his defeat. Therefore, the real percentage of defeats after using the 1.d4 opening, not counting the one mentioned above, becomes 8%.

  • Vassily Ivanchuck said that Anand shouldn't waste his white games against Carlsen with 1.e4 but play 1.d4 right away, as in his (Ivanchuck's) opinion this would give Vishy more chances for a win. We think this might well be true, since every time Anand was close to wining a game it had started with 1.d4!

Psychological factors

Despite all that was said above, I personally still prefer opening with 1.e4. In fact, in most cases I feel (and see) that it provides me with a more offensive and dynamic position and game. What could the reason behind this be? In my opinion, it is due to the fact that most chess players started our “career” by playing 1.e4 and, by experience alone, we are more familiar with the positions following this move and are thus able to plan ahead more accurately and hold the advantage of the first move longer. After all, the positions arising from 1.e4 are strategically simpler and the goals of the game are easier to pinpoint – usually the opponent’s king!

About the author

Ioannis Halkias is a physicist with a wide range of academic interests, from physics and mathematics to politics and philosophy. As a kid he had shown talent and love for natural sciences and thus entered the physics department at the University of Crete where he is now working on physics and on the mathematics of finance. His hobbies mainly revolve around sports, music – and chess.

Regarding chess Ioannis tells us that he learnt to play the game at age seven, by watching kids playing at school. He became so excited by the game that he went home, drew a chessboard and the pieces on paper and started playing by himself. His father bought him a board, but young Ioannis soon stopped playing when he discovered that he was able to beat his father and there were not any clubs on his island for stronger opposition. He didn't really start again until he was nineteen and had moved to a big city for studies. There he met strong players for the first time. He played in a small tournament, where he tied for first place, but stopped playing when a coach told him that he had no future in the game because he had started competitive chess too late in his life. Three years later he participated in a tournament again ("just for fun!") and drew against FM Ioannis Maris – while beating some considerably stronger players. The two Ioannises have been training together ever since. John Halkias is the original chess thinker, John Maris the player with the creative-attacking style. The latter is climbing the rating scales, the former says he has "gained experience which would take me a lot of years to reach otherwise!"

Message from the author: "Only now that I have worked with Frederic Friedel I know what a great job he is doing for ChessBase. Many thanks for the help on publishing this article. Without his guidance and advice not even I would have liked it!" – This message is inserted at Ioannis' insistance. It was he who did all the research and provided all of the content. Fred sharpens pencils. And he got an invitation to Greece for doing so.


Your opinion: we are genuinely interested to hear what you think of Ioannis Halkias' ideas on the first opening move. Please use the discussion section at the bottom of the page to express your opinions, not our feedback and mail form, which for technical reasons is often not read.