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In an event I played in this past weekend, I was surprised when (playing Black) I encountered: 1. e4 e5 2. c3.

I'd never seen this opening before - later web searching told me that it is the Lopez Opening a/k/a MacLeod Attack (ECO code C20, which seems to cover several miscellaneous double king pawn openings). When I saw White's second move, I couldn't imagine what the purpose of it was, and was worried that I was missing some sort of obvious trap. But I didn't see one. The only thing I could think at the time was that my opponent was trying to get me "out of book", but at my level that's sort of pointless - I don't have much of a book to begin with... So I just fell back to general opening principles and played 2. ... Nf6. My opponent's continuation was the (possibly even more dubious) 3. d3. This all led to a fairly easy game for me, that I won in less than 20 moves.

Thinking about it afterwards, the most confusing thing was that this was played by a player with about 4 years of tournament experience rated about 150 points higher than me. So this wasn't someone who's just learning the game. So I'm just mystified as to why someone would play this opening. I tried to do some research to see if there are any lines that are good for White, but found that MCO and FCO don't even cover this opening. The opening explorer on 365Chess (which I admittedly don't know how big its database is, or where it gets its games) seems to indicate that the best continuations for Black are 2. ... Nf6 or 2. ... d5, with around a 75% winning percentage, or 2. ... Nc6, with more than an 80% winning percentage (but with a much smaller sample size than the other two).

Are there any reasonably rational plans for White with this opening that I haven't been able to find, other than just playing it for the "surprise factor"? Am I missing something obvious here?

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    Re your opponent's motives for playing 2.c3, I'd invoke Hanlon's razor: "never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence." It's much more likely that they played 2.c3 because they don't understand why it's dubious, not because they were planning to take you out of book. – David Richerby Nov 18 '16 at 13:23
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The reason to play 1.e4 e5 2.c3 is probably to go for a slow manoeuvring/strategic game without much theory.

After the natural 2...d5, white can go for 3.d3 and in case of 3... dxe4 4.dxe4 Qxd1 5.Kxd1. This transposes into a familiar position with one tempo up and reversed colors compared with 1.e4 d6 2.d4 d5 3.dxe5 dxe5 4.Qxd8 Kxd8.

Note that in the line 1.e4 e5 2.c3 d5 3.d3 dxe4 4.dxe4 Qxd1 5.Kxd1 the move c3 is useful because it gives the King the square c2 to hide and a good control on d4.

  • Agreed that if black exchanges the queens it can be useful. However if black just develops naturally, without taking on e4, I don't see what white gained. For instance 1.e4 e5 2.c3 d5 3.d3 Nf6 4.Nd2 black can develop very naturally. White will not want to take on d5 soon as d3 could become weak (because of playing c3). – user1583209 Nov 18 '16 at 11:46
  • Some players fight for the advantage and the initiative right at the start of the game. Others, like Carlsen maybe, prefer a slower development. In this case you can get a type of Philidor with white and a tempo up. The Philidor is a bit passive opening but very solid, difficult to crack and strategic. – Kortchnoi Nov 18 '16 at 12:06
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  1. c3 is probably not a good move as it blocks the square c3 for the white knight. Black can take advantage of this fact with either:

    • 2....d5, when after 3. exd5 Qxd5, the black queen is difficult to attack

or

  • 2.....Nf6, when white is forced to defend the e4 pawn passively with 3. d3/Qc2 or similar or go for sharp play with 3. d4 (likely sacrificing a pawn doing so)

Why did he play this? Ask him! One reason I could think of is that some beginners might automatically play 2....Nc6 as they are used to the Italian/Spanish game. In that case 2...Nc6 3. d4 going for a strong pawn center, could be a point, though it is not the end of the world for black either.

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