The King’s Pawn Opening, beginning with 1. e4, is one of white’s most popular and aggressive options to begin a chess game.
White immediately takes control of the center and opens lines of development for his pieces – it’s clear that 1. e4 is very much in line with opening principles. The King’s Pawn Opening has been the favorite move of many top-tier chess players, and World Champion Bobby Fischer even called it “Best by test.”
As discussed in the video above, Black has several responses to the King’s Pawn Opening. I’m going to break them down into three categories:
- Black seizes their own share of central space immediately (The symmetrical 1…e5 or the more double-edged Sicilian Defense: 1…c5)
- Black strikes at the white center with his d-pawn. (The immediate 1…d5 is the Scandinavian Defense, while playing 1…e6 or 1…c6 with the intention of following up with 2…d5 constitute the well-respected French Defense and Caro-Kann Defense, respectively)
- Other defenses where black does not seek to occupy the center with a pawn. White will often be allowed to build a large center, but all is not lost for black, as we’ll soon see!
Black Occupies the Center: 1…e5
For much of chess’s history, 1. e4 e5 was by far the most common way for a game to begin. We’ve talked about the advantages of white’s first move, so why should black not want to copy it?
Indeed, 1…e5 is good for all the same reasons that 1. E4 is good. This is the reply most often taught to beginners, and it’s popular all the way up to the World Championship level. Black ensures a stronghold for himself in the center and opens lines for his pieces to develop.
We’ll spend a lot of time on this option, as so many opening variations split off from here!
White usually continues with the extremely logical 2. Nf3. It’s hard to ask for more out of an opening move than this – white develops a knight, gets closer to castling kingside, and directly threatens black’s e5 pawn! 2…Nc6 is the most popular response – black defends the threat against e5 and develops a piece of his own.
We’ll consider alternatives to 2. Nf3 and 2…Nc6 at the end of this section – but first, let’s take a look at how the game can proceed from the following position:
- Bb5, the Ruy Lopez, perhaps the most well-known of the King’s Pawn Openings, is among the oldest of chess openings – it’s named after a 16th century Spanish priest, after all!
And it’s still popular for a reason. White develops a bishop, gets one step closer to castling, and gives black something to worry about: At the right moment, white might be threatening to later exchange this bishop for the black knight on c6, leaving black’s e5 pawn undefended!
- Bc4, the Italian Game, is another popular choice for white. White’s bishop menacingly eyes the f7 square – the weakest point in the black position – and white’s ready to castle next turn if desired.
- d4 constitutes the Scotch Game. White decides it’s time to open up the center and create some pawn tension before continuing with piece development.
- c3, the Ponziani Opening, is a tricky one to handle. White’s idea is very ambitious: White would like to play 4. d4 on the next turn, but unlike in the Scotch (see above), if black exchanges his e-pawn for the d-pawn, white would be able to recapture with a pawn and maintain a dominate grip in the center!
- Nc3 often leads to the Four Knights Game after black plays the natural 3…Nf6. The position remains symmetrical, and a bit dull for my liking compared to white’s more ambitious options listed above – but hey, it can’t be a bad thing to have the move in a symmetrical position!
Before moving on, let’s consider some second-move alternatives for both white and black after 1. e4 e5:
Instead of the hugely popular 2. Nf3, white has some alternatives:
- f4 is the aggressive King’s Gambit. White immediately seeks to dislodge black’s e5 pawn from its stronghold in the center – even at the cost of losing a pawn!
- Nc3 is the Vienna Game. This may transpose into a Four Knights Game (see above) if white plays Nf3 within the next couple moves, but there are some independent lines – including the idea to play a delayed King’s Gambit by playing f4 in the near future.
- d4 is the Center Game. After 2…exd4, white can either recapture with the queen, or play the aggressive 3. c3. This is the Danish Gambit – white sacrifices a pawn to try to get a lead in development.
- Bc4, developing a bishop, is certainly reasonable, but it’s hard for this King’s Pawn Opening to stay in original territory unless white follows up with some speculative moves. White is likely to play Nf3 or Nc3 soon, transposing to an Italian Opening or Vienna Game (see above).
Other options such as 2. Qh5 (The Wayward Queen Attack), exist as well, but are generally considered to be no threat to black with proper play.
After 2. Nf3, black has some options of their own, if they wish to forgo the logical 2…Nc6:
2…Nf6 is the Petrov Defense. Rather than defending the e-pawn, black counterattacks white’s e-pawn!
2…d6 is the Philidor Defense. Black calmly defends the e5 pawn and clears the path for his light bishop to develop.
2…f5?! and 2…d5?! are the Latvian Gambit and so-called Elephant Gambit, respectively. These pawn thrusts are considered rather dubious, but can be tricky against an unprepared opponent.
2…f6? Is the quite flawed Damiano Defense. This is not the way to defend the e-pawn! White can ignore the f6 pawn and take on e5 anyways. 3. Nxe5! Refutes this black set-up.
Black occupies the center: 1…c5 – The Sicilian Defense
The Sicilian Defense is an aggressive, ambitious defense to the King’s Pawn Opening that attracts players of all levels. Black seizes their share of central space, in accordance with opening principles – but creates a stark imbalance in the position from the very first move.
At first glance, this move appears inferior to playing 1…e5. Black gains space in the Sicilian, but the move 1…c5 doesn’t open as many paths for pieces to develop. Only the queen is uncovered by this pawn move, and we know that the queen usually doesn’t develop early!
But let’s consider white’s options:
It’s true that white is likely to obtain a lead in development in the Sicilian, but if white wants to open the center to try to make use of it before black catches up, white will likely need to play d4 at some point. Then black gets to exchange his c-pawn for white’s more-central d-pawn. Black obtains the long-term-advantage of having two central pawns compared to white’s one, and meanwhile the black position is compact and free of weaknesses.
Of course, white has other options if they don’t wish to play an early d4 pawn break. Sometimes white will play an early f4 and build up slowly on the kingside, where white is assured of a space advantage. Black often builds up on the queenside in such cases, and sometimes organizes a strike in the center himself with …d5, once his piece development justifies it.
No matter what white does, black is assured of an imbalanced, dynamic game – a Sicilian Defense player’s dream!
Black Strikes at the Center: 1…d5 – The Scandinavian Defense
Immediately striking at white’s King’s Pawn has a certain appeal. Black makes it immediately clear that white’s e-pawn will not be allowed to remain on e4 for long!
The downside to this move, from black’s perspective, is that after 2. exd5, black is not able to recapture with a pawn. After 2…Qxd5, white often just plays 3. Nc3, kicking the queen away while developing a piece. After the queen moves away, white often plays 4. d4 – and once again, a white pawn stands alone in the center!
In light of this, the Scandinavian Defense is a rare guest in top-tier chess these days, but it’s certainly playable. Black can have some tricks up his sleeve, and it’s not easy for white to make anything concrete out of his seemingly clear advantages.
Black Strikes at the Center: 1…e6 – The French Defense
Playing 1…e6 and only then playing 2…d5 constitutes the French Defense to the King’s Pawn Opening.
Of course, the obvious downside to spending a move preparing to strike before lashing out in the center is that white gets another move to bolster their center! After 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 is by far the most popular move. White temporarily occupies the entire center, and both white bishops have open lines to develop on.
After 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5:
In contrast with the Scandinavian Defense (see above), 3. exd5 is now harmless, though playable. Black gets to recapture with the e-pawn instead of with the queen, and their central foothold is maintained.
Instead, white often plays 3. e5 – securing a space advantage and locking up the center – or else 3. Nd2 or 3. Nc3, simply defending the threat to the e4 pawn.
One major disadvantage of the French Defense is that black’s light-square bishop on c8 is severely restricted by black’s pawns. This can be a long-term problem for black throughout the game if black doesn’t succeed in solving the “problem of the bishop.”
Nonetheless, the French Defense remains popular at nearly all levels of chess.
Black Strikes at the Center: 1…c6 – The Caro-Kann Defense
Without the context of understanding the French and Scandinavian defenses above, it would be difficult to understand the purpose of this move.
To understand black’s plan, let’s consider the position after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5, in analogy with the French Defense position in the above section:
Black avoids the downside of the Scandinavian Defense – if white captures on d5, black is able to recapture with a pawn and maintain a grip of the center.
Black also seeks to avoid the downside of the French Defense! Black leaves the line of development for his light-squared bishop open for the time being. Black desires to develop this bishop to f5 or g4, and only then play a later …e6 to open the path for the other bishop and complete development.
In many of the most common continuations, black succeeds in this aim. Rather than being a lame duck on c8 as in the French Defense, black’s light-squared-bishop in the Caro-Kann often finds a much happier fate.
So, is the Caro-Kann the best of both worlds? Not so fast. The obvious downside is that this clever operation takes time, and there’s no getting around the fact that 1…c6 just isn’t a very useful move for immediate piece development.
That said, the Caro remains a reputable opening employed by several Grandmasters – and has been a staple of my opening repertoire throughout my chess career, so I’m a bit partial!
Other Defenses: 1…Nf6 – The Alekhine Defense
Named for World Champion Alexander Alekhine, this provocative move attacks white’s e-pawn from move 1 – before black assures himself of any central space!
The obvious downside to this opening is that white can play 2. e5, gaining more space and kicking this knight away. After 1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4, White has a clear space advantage, and can even play c4 soon, gaining more space and kicking the black knight again!
Sometimes white plays c4 and f4 in the very near future – the “Four Pawns Attack.” White seeks to gain an overwhelming space advantage and deprive the black pieces of any good squares, in an attempt to punish black for the provocative opening choice!
Because of this, the Alekhine Defense has never been considered a top-tier defense to the King’s Pawn Opening, but it’s not as bad as it looks! White can overextend if they’re not careful, and black has some setups worked out that offer his pieces a chance to breathe freely despite white’s space advantage. Black tries to tear down the white center – a process began by the nearly universal 3…d6.
Other Defenses: 1…d6 – The Pirc Defense
The Pirc Defense is another option at black’s disposal where black doesn’t seek to occupy the center. Black would like to play 2…Nf6, attacking the white e-pawn, but first plays 1…d6 to avoid getting hit with an early e5 from white (as in the Alekhine Defense above)
Black often plays …g6, …Bg7, and …0-0 early on. While black doesn’t occupy the center directly, his knight and dark-square bishop exert pressure on white’s center from afar, and the black king will be safely tucked away. Later on, black may try to organize a strike at the white center with …e5, …c5, or even …d5.
The flexibility of the Pirc has appealed to many chess players of all strengths. But the downside is clear – white faces no challenge whatsoever to their central control early on, and is free to play 2. d4 and develop in nearly whatever way they please.
Other Defenses: 1…g6 – The Modern Defense
This is a close cousin of the Pirc Defense (see above), and often transposes to the Pirc if black plays …d6 and …Nf6 in the near future. Black forgoes the fight for central dominance, in favor of flexibility and pressuring white’s center from afar by placing the dark bishop on g7.
Other Defenses: 1…b6 – The Owen Defense
Black seeks to put their light bishop on b7 and attack the white e-pawn from afar. Black will often play …Nf6 soon to increase the pressure.
If white defends the e-pawn with Nc3 at some point, black sometimes plays …Bb4 (after first playing …e6 to free the path for the dark bishop), threatening to exchange off white’s defender of the e-pawn. Sometimes black plays a later …d5 as well. Everything to target e4!
The downside, as with the Modern defense and Pirc defense, is clear – White often ends up with a space advantage because black isn’t contesting the center early on. The Owen Defense is one of black’s rarest defenses to the King’s Pawn Opening.
Note that we can arrive at the Owen Defense via different move orders as well, such as 1. e4 e6 2. d4 b6. Despite starting with 1…e6, this can hardly be called a “French Defense” when black’s idea wasn’t to prepare the …d5 thrust. Black transposes to the Owen Defense by playing the characteristic early …b6.
Other Defenses: 1…Nc6 – The Nimzowitsch Defense
Nimzowitsch was no doubt a giant of chess, but he’s better known for some of his other contributions to opening theory than this one. 1…Nc6 does nothing to prevent white from playing 2. d4, as white’s d-pawn is defended by the queen.
White can also play 2. Nf3, allowing black to transpose to a standard 1. e4 e5 Opening after 2…e5. Black’s attempts to avoid transposing to a dual King’s Pawn Opening are mostly either passive (2…d6) or somewhat dubious (2…f5). And if black IS okay with playing 2…e5 and transposing…one might wonder why they’re not just playing 1…e5 on move one to begin with!
The Nimzowitsch Defense has never had any mainstream appeal, but developing a piece on move one can’t be all bad.
Other Defenses: Miscellaneous
Other first moves by black, besides all those mentioned above, are generally not taken seriously. Moves such as 1…a6?!, 1…h6?!, or 1…f6 don’t accomplish anything at all. White can proceed with 2. d4 and gain more space.
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