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A naturally positional class-C player (c. Elo 1500), I have learned in recent years to push my f-pawn two squares early in the opening, to force myself to play tactical chess. The King's Gambit (which I had never tried until three years ago) surprises me in how often it unnerves my black opponent: I have won more games with it than I should have thought possible, mostly because of my opponents' blunders. Even against the Sicilian, 3. f4 has proved an interesting move though it lacks the sheer psychological impact of the King's Gambit. With the black men, I have been trying the Dutch Defense 1. d4 f5. I have been losing, but I have been trying it, and eventually I hope to figure the Dutch out.

My question therefore is this. If f4and f5 are such interesting moves in the opening, then why should Bird's Opening 1. f4 be so much less common than the Dutch Defense 1... f5? Is it only because the King's Gambit is better than Bird's, or is there some other reason?

To be clear, my question today is not whether pushing the f-pawn two spaces is wise or fundamentally sound. Believe me, having tried it over and over during recent years, I have learned a lot of ways to lose by pushing that pawn! My question regards rather, among aggressive players who will push the f-pawn, why black tends to push the pawn earlier than white does. Given the increased risk black runs by pushing the f-pawn at the disadvantage of a tempo, one would think that white, not black, would be the leading f-pusher -- whereas 365chess.com has 1. f4 in 0.6 percent of all games, compared against 1... f5 in 3.6 percent of games that have begun 1. d4.

In light of the relative popularity of the Dutch, why should Bird's Opening be relatively so uncommon?

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4 Answers

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Good question, and to understand the differences, we have to first discuss "reversed" openings.

The most common example of a reversed opening is the King's Indian Attack (1. Nf3 2. g3 3. Bg2 4. O-O 5. d3). Compare that to the King's Indian Defense (1... Nf6 2... g6 3... Bg7 4... O-O 5... d6). The only major difference between the following two positions is which "side" has the move:

White to move:
King's Indian Defense

White to move:
King's Indian Attack

In the second diagram, white has a full extra tempo over black in the first diagram. However, this extra tempo is not so useful. Depending on what white does, black will adopt various formations to nullify white's extra move. In the first diagram, black can wait to see how white develops before committing.

In fact, Bobby Fischer said (somewhat tongue in cheek) that in the following symmetrical position, black has the edge:

KIA vs KID

If white plays 6. e4, then black will respond with 6... c5, but if white plays 6. c4, then black will play 6... e5, in both cases leading to a fighting game.

So with that lengthy introduction, now we can look at the Bird. To begin, after 1. f4, black can immediately strike with From's Gambit: 1... e5! when black scores incredibly well (49.5% from the link in EdDean's answer). White's best might be to transpose to a King's Gambit with 2. e4.

Furthermore, black will again have an edge that white usually does not have in the Dutch - the ability to see how white develops and then react accordingly. White can certainly play a quiet system like 1. f4 2. Nf3 3. e3 4. d4 5. c3 and play with that color complex, but if white does that, he is squandering his first move advantage and can claim only equality.

If white tries an enterprising system like the Leningrad Dutch (1. f4 2. g3 3. Nf3 4. Bg2 5. O-O 6. d3 with the plan to play e4), then black will have the opportunity to strike back with h7-h5-h4 when white will have to defend against a fairly vicious attack. In the Dutch there are various ways to avoid this plan from white although they are beyond the scope of this question.

Hopefully this gives you a bit of an introduction to not only the differences between the Bird and the Dutch, but also how to evaluate reversed openings.

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Neat. This underlines the “second-to-move advantage”, very interestingly. –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 30 '12 at 1:07
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Looking at some results drawn from 2,000,000+ games, we have these winning percentages for the two openings:

        White Draw Black
        ----- ---- -----
Bird's  34    25   41
Dutch   42    30   28

So White scores 46.5% in Bird's Opening, while Black scores 43% in the Dutch Defense. Going purely from those numbers, it might at first seem that, yes, Bird's Opening shouldn't be so much less popular for White than the Dutch is for Black, since it scores a higher percentage than the Dutch does. But of course that ignores the fact that the Bird's players are getting to play with White, and that's important.

Looking at some overall numbers that reveal White's winning percentage in different eras of chess play, we see that it sits somewhere in the range of 52.16% to 55.47%. Seen in that light, the Dutch's winning percentage of 43% for Black shows it to be a respectable, if perhaps slightly inferior, opening choice (and that seems to match its general reputation). But Bird's Opening comes out looking terribly, as its 46.5% winning percentage is well below that typical White range. So that is rather weighty empirical evidence that Bird's Opening fails to live up to what White's expectations should be, while the Dutch offers about the chances that Black should reasonably expect, and that is why the latter is significantly more popular than the former.

One crude way to think about the issue is this. The move 1. ... f5 in response to 1. d4 doesn't seem to be objectively best, but Black already starts off with a disadvantage anyway, and one thing this move can accomplish is unbalancing and complicating the game in an attempt to wrest away the typical persistent advantage that the first move can give White. On the other hand, because of the advantage that White comes to the table with, he has more to lose, and 1. f4 accomplishes that unnecessarily.

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I dislike the “crunching numbers proved it wrong” answer, I'm afraid. –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 30 '12 at 1:05
    
@NikanaReklawyks, it's cool that you dislike it, but for what it's worth, I don't understand your comment. The numbers I gave don't "prove" anything, but I also never claim that they do. The OP asked what might be a reason that the Dutch Defense is more popular than Bird's Opening. So I pointed out that, historically, Black players have fared better with the Dutch (compared to how Black normally scores) than White players have with Bird's Opening (compared to how White normally scores). Since people like winning, openings that score lower percentages will be played less often. C'est tout. –  ETD Nov 30 '12 at 1:14
    
Ok, I see what you mean, now. The thing is, as I'm very far from thinking that way (3% in GM stats ? Why should I care ?), it wasn't that clear in your answer, and my understanding of the question is more like: Since f5 is often a good move, and f4 so lovely, what turns almost everyone against it ? But then of course, I don't even “agree” with the question, for I play 1. f4 “often” myself (relatively to the average). More about my “play what you like” position. Andrew's explanation opposes f4 and f5, more interestingly imho. –  Nikana Reklawyks Dec 1 '12 at 15:51
    
@NikanaReklawyks, I agree, my answer largely addresses just one superficial aspect of the question, and at the very end touches only lightly on the more interesting matter of why the Dutch outperforms Bird's, whereas Andrew's answer speaks nicely to that matter in depth. –  ETD Dec 1 '12 at 17:44
    
I don't think it's impopular because of the bad statistics. It's correlation, not causation. It was already impopular before we had databases and easily available numbers. There must be a reason why 1.f4 is objectively not as good as other opening moves, and that will explain both the impopularity at master level and the bad statistics. –  RemcoGerlich Dec 7 '13 at 22:20
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I personally play 1. f4 quite a lot, and as with EVERY opening, White gains and loses something with his first move. The pros are that White can clamp down even tighter on the e5-square from the get-go and possibly save tempos with not having to navigate Nf3. The downsides are that this move is committal (not a terrible thing, just that White has immediately committed himself to a stake on the kingside) and he has less piece development available to him with move 1 than other moves, such as 1. e4 or 1. d4. In addition, he has slightly weakened his king's position, so these are factors to note.

A GM I used to study under called Bird's Opening a "defensive" opening. It is not necessarily a bad opening, just that it does not claim as much opening advantage as a more central pawn push would do. However, for what it lacks, it is a fully playable opening with PLENTY of room for exploration.

One big advantage to this opening is being in your own territory, as Taylor claims. A Bird player has an advantage of playing on his own turf, and a Black player who coasts along with "auto-pilot" moves can find themselves in hot water. White has TONS of room for exploring ideas, and with a lack of Game Explorer, the Black player is left to his own devices.

All in all, 1. f4 in the hands of a knowledgeable White player leads to a fun game.

With that being said, I also play the Dutch, and yes, the theory handles easier on the Black side than it does on the White side. A Birdie should not handle these positions identically to their Black counterparts, as the tempo does make a difference.

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You're all missing a rather obvious point. An f5 setup by black is strongest when white plays d4, weakening his e4 square (which f5 of course attacks). In the Dutch, black already KNOWS white has played d4, so there is already strategic logic in the reply. However in Bird's, white is committing to f4 quite speculatively and black can if he wishes avoid d5, often making the f4 advance rather less useful (while still having the inherent risks). This is the main (positional) reason the Dutch is preferred to Bird's, and indeed is slightly stronger than it: it is reacting to an already-created weakness rather than attacking one that isn't even there yet...

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Is the English 1.c4 a mistake because Black hasn't yet weakened d5 via ...e5? (1.f4 involves some more risk to the white king; I'm just not clear about your point about the central squares.) –  ETD Jan 7 at 14:42
    
No of course 1.c4 isn't a mistake- but I didn't say 1.f4 is a "mistake" either, merely that it's a bit more positionally attractive if you know for a fact black is going to weaken his e4-which of course you don't. However in the Dutch black doesn't have to wait to see if white will weaken –  don connigale Jan 7 at 15:22
    
Let me rephrase then. Should the Sicilian be preferred over the English in the same way that the Dutch is preferred over Bird's (as regards the central squares)? I am not trying to be argumentative; I'm using my question to better understand the point you're trying to make. –  ETD Jan 7 at 15:28
    
Sorry Ed, my phone's not coping with the weird tiny text windows on this site and my answer (complete with smiley!) was truncated then. It's a fair question. The Sicilian and Bird's are not necessarily "better", objectively, but having a weakened central square to counterattack from move 1 appeals to a lot of people, especially as that often shapes the middle game too. A lot of it comes down to taste but I think that plays a substantial part in relative popularity. What do you reckon? –  don connigale Jan 7 at 17:24
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