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In more than 90% of chess games I play in, the first move is either e4 or d4. When I am black, I try to counter e4 with Caro-Kann and sicilian, and against d4 I usually just play d5 and see where it goes from there. I'm however puzzled by one thing; what difference is there between d4 and e4? Are they equally good? Do they have their own merits/drawbacks? From what I've read, e4 is usually considered by far the best move in non-pro chess, but I don't really see how there could be a big difference between d4 and e4.

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I prefer d4 personally, i don't like to push pawns in front of the king, unless i have to –  Fischer Mar 19 '13 at 23:20
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I'm surprised nobody mentioned yet that the king can be attacked with a bishop if you play 1. d4. Not the next move already, but you'll have to keep in mind you have a hole in the defence of the king. –  11684 Mar 24 '13 at 11:44
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@Fischer How strange to see that comment attributed to that name... e4 best by test and all that –  wim Apr 24 '13 at 6:36
    
possible duplicate of Switching from 1.e4 to 1.d4? –  Tom Au Jan 6 at 14:57
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5 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

This question is a good first stop for students of the opening.

Comparing the two:

1.e4

rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/4P3/8/PPPP1PPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq e3 0 1
  • Less influence over the centre: 1.e4 doesn't stop the freeing pawn moves 1...c5 (Sicilian Defence), 1...d5 (except at top level, Scandinavian Defence), 1...e5 or 1...f5 (was Black going to weaken his king with this move anyway?). No control over the d4 or e4 squares.

  • Less coordination: White's e4 pawn is left floating unsupported in the middle of the board.

  • More active pieces: White's queen and bishop freed for operations on the wings.

  • Better king safety: 1.e4 facilitates rapid castling after 2.Nf3 ... 3.Bc4, for example.

1.d4

rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/3P4/8/PPP1PPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq e3 0 1
  • More influence over the centre: 1.d4 stops the freeing pawn moves 1...c5 and 1...e5, and controls the d4 square via the queen.

  • More coordination: White's d4 pawn is supported by the queen.

  • Less active pieces: White's queen and kingside (castling) bishop development hindered compared to 1.e4, but an eventual fianchetto of the kings bishop to the g2 square, although slower, may be more active and point more effectively toward the centre in the long run.

  • Less king safety: White's kingside pieces will take longer to develope hindering the preferred kingside castling. The King is opened to immediate bishop-checks along the e1-a5 diagonal (Nimzo-Indian Defence, for example)

So, in very broad general terms, with 1.e4 White is wanting to throw his king into a castle then charge forth into the fray; whereas with 1.d4 White takes a more controlled approach, on his opponent's forces, on his own forces via piece coordination, and is confident enough to handle his king dallying in the centre.

If you accept all of the above, we can then use this knowledge to make decisions about our opening repertoire and move decisions in the opening. For example, some questions might come to mind given all of the above, like:

  • As White with 1.d4, what is the line that allows the fastest castling so that I can blunt one of 1.d4 openings weaknesses while retaining its advantages?
  • As Black facing 1.d4, what is a reply that takes advantage of White's slow castling, perhaps something that involves a quick attack that will catch his king in the centre?
  • As Black facing 1.e4, what is a reply that results in all my pieces set up to attack White's kingside as that is where his king is likely to end up.

Etc. There are many questions that suggest themself after comparing the pros and cons of 1.e4 vs 1.d4. It is true that perhaps making any conclusions is premature based on just one move, but then your opponent might make follow-up moves that exacerbate one of the above stated disadvantages further...

And then there are other considerations unrelated to the disposition of the pieces on the board:

  • The sum total of the theory in existence on 1.e4 is likely more than there is for 1.d4 openings. The Sicilian Defence in particular is a vast body of theory, but also the centuries old Ruy Lopez, the French, etc. You may be inclined to avoid this theory.
  • Former World Champion, and one of the most dominant players in chess history, Bobby Fischer preferred 1.e4 and used it almost exclusively throughout his career, describing it as "Best by test."

There are differences. I encourage any chess player to really look closely at the two before deciding, and base their decision on their own critical analysis rather than just blindly accepting known maxims like "beginners should play 1.e4 because it results in open positions and tactical games."

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They are indeed equally good. 1.e4 tends to lead to more open positions (the board is not cluttered up with pawns and pieces can move around freely) than 1.d4, which it is why it is recommended for less experienced players, since you have to learn how to use your pieces first to be good at playing more closed positions, where you constantly have to decide whether it's a good idea to open the position up by playing freeing pawn moves.

The big fundamental difference between the two moves comes down to (theoretically) how White is going to complete his big pawn center by playing the other central pawn move that he didn't play on move 1. If he started with 1.e4, it's not so hard to play d4 later, because the queen is already supporting it, and in openings like the Open Sicilian and Scotch he plays d4 very early indeed. If he started with 1.d4, a later e4 is a little harder to accomplish in comparison because no pieces are already supporting it. In broad strokes, this is why 1.e4 openings tend to lead to more open positions. (Of course, there are plenty of exceptions.)

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Good point in your second paragraph, just watch out for the hyper-modern openings, folks, which have been designed to knock down the big pawn centre, or force it to advance prematurely. –  b1_ Mar 30 '13 at 7:02
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d4 is protected, e4 is not. That's the main difference. White's center is definitely stronger with d4 and c4 than in a typical open game, and play tends to be more strategic and a little slower. But don't think d4 can't be just as exciting or dangerous. White routinely gets good attacking positions with d4. The Pillsbury Attack is a position to shoot for, often leading to a quick, direct attack against the black king.

Here's the classic example: Pillsbury vs Marco, 1900

Nf3-e5 before black has played Nc6 or Nd7, followed by f4, is characteristic of the Pillsbury Attack. The N on e5 is a monster, and if black ever takes it, white recaptures with the f pawn, kicking the black N off f6 and opening the f file for his rook.

This is a fun position to play, recommended for club players. Be on the lookout for a chance to make the Greek Gift sacrifice too.

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There is not much difference between the two as they are two of the strongest opening moves to make. If unopposed, often 1.e4 is followed by 2.d4 or vice versa (1.d4 2.e4).

The real difference comes when the mirror move is made.

In these scenarios e4 is definitely more of an aggressive posture. When 1. e4 e5 is encountered White has many aggressive options such as bringing the knight out to attack e5, bringing the queen out to Qh5 to attack the king side (not really recommended), pushing d4 to attack e5, or setting up a bishop aimed at f7 with Bc4 (out of order though if made on move 2), or the hyper aggressive f4 (kings gambit - kind of risky if black plays Fischer's line).

However, d4 is more of a structural approach. When 1. d4 d5 is encountered White may consider many different avenues of moving forward, but there are not very many immediately aggressive approaches (perhaps 2. c4, the Queens Gambit). In this scenario, 2.e4 should not really be considered as viable. Even with an attack on d5, it is still defended by Black's queen. So White's only choice here is to build. Begin moving the knights out, perhaps set up a London system, or maybe fiancetto king side and prepare for the mid game.

e4 plays on the idea of immediate attack or traps in the opening, whereas d4 tends to aim for attacks and traps in the mid game. Of course, these are just generalities and the game seems to always get away from generic approaches rather quickly.

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The Queen's Gambit isn't "risky", it's not only a very solid opening, but suitable for beginners as well. Further all black attempts to keep the pawn are bad (in fact, the gambit is much more often declined than accepted). –  Landei Mar 20 '13 at 12:32
    
@Landei - I suppose I put risky in there because of the nature of gambits in general. I will reword it. –  Travis J Mar 20 '13 at 18:58
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The obvious difference is about what possibilities of developing your figures will be got. In the case of 1.e4 your queen will be granted an opportunity to develop herself without any interference on the development of other figures (Qg4,Qh5). In the case of 1.d4 your queen will make an interference for bishops at c1 and f1. So, the 1.e4 is really better. But, you can receive an 1 .. c5 that i don't like to play due to huge amount of theoretical background required.

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It is whatsoever not a good idea to develop your queen before you developed most (if not all) of your other pieces. So if your queen is preventing other pieces from developing you did something wrong. Furthermore, Qh5 is no good: 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5 Nf6 - now you'll have to retreat your queen while you gave your opponent an excellent opportunity to develop a Knight. (Same for Qg4). –  11684 Mar 24 '13 at 11:42
    
@11684 This "hole in the defence of the king" lasts for about 6/7 moves, often less before you castle. d4 is an extremely strong opening that in no way puts your king in danger. –  SpmSL Jan 6 at 2:28
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