2 dumb/challenging conventional wisdom questions:

  1. Why would anyone play 1.e4?
  2. How is Fischer's saying that 1.e4 is best by test consistent with his saying that 'chess is dead'? (Quotes below)

On Question 1: It seems that 1.e4 allows Black to choose the opening because

  1. French, Sicilian, Scandinavian, Caro-Kann and Alekhine's Defense and Open Game are pretty different, so playing 1.e4 would mean having to be familiar with all of those defenses.
  2. Meanwhile Budapest, Queen's and Benko Gambit and Grünfeld, Benoni and X-Indian Defense seem pretty similar or at least the differences here are lower compared to the differences in 1.e4 games.

On 1.1

Example: Sicilian Defense

This has a lot of variations. You can't possibly be as familiar with all variations. As Black, White will likely (for some reason) play 1.e4 so it's helpful if one reads books on variations of Sicilian Defenses, say, Pelikan. If someone knew I would play Pelikan, then I guess it would be helpful to study anti-Sicilian books namely the sections on Pelikan. Then again, all that preparation would be a waste if I pick another variation. So, okay that someone would study the rest of the sections of the anti-Sicilian books. But then if one day I just don't play Sicilian, then all anti-Sicilian study would be useless for that particular game. However, you could avoid having to play against Sicilian by simply playing 1.d4 (or chess960).

Similar can hold true for the other defenses. I mean, if you were going to study all those anti-Sicilian books, you'd also have to study those anti-Scandinavian, anti-French, anti-Alekhine books as well too, I think.

It seems that time is better spent studying tactics and endgames and simply playing 1.d4 (or chess 960) instead of spending all that time memorising variations that are not very likely to be played in any 1 game.

On 1.2

Example: London System vs X-Indian Defense

It seems that regardless of whatever Indian Defense black plays I can almost always reach this position.

enter image description here

If Black wants to play Caro-Kann/Slav or Queen's Gambit Reversed, that's fine too. There wouldn't be (as?) much variation.

On Question 2:

If chess depends a lot on opening theory and memorization to the point that keeping chess alive may need chess960, I don't see how 1.e4 is best by test when it seems to allow Black to show off Black's opening theory and memorization in an opening of Black's choosing.

To reduce opening theory advantage, I think 1.d4 is better than 1.e4.

Perhaps Fischer's best by test became only vacuously true when chess died. Idk.

My background:

I'm a former chess enthusiast who once reached 1900 on chesscube some years ago. I really hated studying openings so when I was not playing chess960, I played London System for White and Pelikan/1.Nf6 as Black. When I entered a tournament one day, for the first time since I had learned Pelikan, I was surprised White (my opponent who played White) replicated the exact opening theory of Pelikan. I'm assuming White memorised it, in which case I really don't see the point. It's not very likely that Black (some random opponent who would play Black, in this case, myself) will play Pelikan if Black plays Sicilian, and it's not very likely Black will play Sicilian. It seemed that time would have been better spent studying tactics and endgames and simply playing 1.d4 (or chess 960) instead of spending all that time memorising a variation that's not very likely to be played.

In case of wrong assumptions:

Well these are dumb questions so likely some assumptions are wrong, in which case please point and explain why they are wrong.

For example: Okay sure it could be that there is much variation in 1.d4 games even if there isn't as much as compared to 1.e4 games, but -- wait really? How? Even if one keeps sticking to London system? Or is it that it's bad to keep sticking to this one opening so one should really learn 1.e4 or quit for chess960?

Finally Fischer quotes:

In chess so much depends on opening theory, so the champions before the last century did not know as much as I do and other players do about opening theory. So if you just brought them back from the dead they wouldn’t do well. They’d get bad openings. You cannot compare the playing strength, you can only talk about natural ability. Memorization is enormously powerful. Some kid of fourteen today, or even younger, could get an opening advantage against Capablanca, and especially against the players of the previous century, like Morphy and Steinitz. Maybe they would still be able to outplay the young kid of today. Or maybe not, because nowadays when you get the opening advantage not only do you get the opening advantage, you know how to play, they have so many examples of what to do from this position. It is really deadly, and that is why I don’t like chess any more.


Now chess is completely dead. It is all just memorization and prearrangement. It’s a terrible game now. Very uncreative.

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    The assumption that Black's defenses on 1.d4 are "pretty similar" is clearly wrong. – gented Feb 19 '18 at 8:57
  • What is the X-Indian? Black's setup in the image you posted is a standard, Queen's Gambit Declined. It's not like any of the Indian defenses. – Herb Feb 19 '18 at 17:47
  • @HerbWolfe any Indian: king's queen's Peter pan's etc. And then image is London system and um, reverse queen's gambit declined? – BCLC Feb 19 '18 at 23:19
  • @gented fine but how about relative to 1e4? – BCLC Feb 19 '18 at 23:59
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    @BCLC I don't understand why people have this misconception that for some reasons 1.e4 is "more thorough" or "more complicated" or "more whatever" than, say, 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3 or the like. Take for instance the King's Indian defence, or the semi-Slav, or the Grünfeld: study them thoroughly and then come back here saying that they are easier than the French or the Sicilian or any other thing (I double dare you :p). – gented Feb 20 '18 at 9:54

What you are describing is basically the difference between an opening and a system.

A system is an opening plan that works similarly against most of your opponent's replies. Famous systems are the London system, the Colle system and the King Indian Attack. As you say, systems give the advantage that you don't need to memorize tons of variations, you just follow your plan, and you can develop your pieces in a way that is always familiar to you.

Anyway, systems are always closed openings, where you don't make early contact with your opponent's pieces. That's why the system is less sensitive to your opponent's moves.

If you want to open up the position and make early contact with your opponent's pieces, instead, you really need to adapt more to what your opponent is doing, so you need to use a conventional opening. No system can give you an open position. At low-intermediate level, this is the main reason for avoiding a system, if you like open positions better.

For Grandmasters, instead, the reason for not using systems is different, for them systems are too drawish, and they prefer to use openings.

There actually are systems starting with 1.e4, but if you want to reach a good position you need to combine at least two of them, one if your opponent answers with 1...e5, and another one if your opponent answers in another way. I don't know any system that is good in both cases. For example, you start with 1.e4, and then after 1...e5 you play the Four Knights Opening, and after anything else you play the King's Indian Attack.

The Four Knights Opening can be considered a system, because after 2.Nf3, it doesn't matter what your opponent does (2...Nc6, 2...Nf6, 2...d6), you always answer with 3.Nc3, and you go on with your plan, reaching always similar positions.

Another system after 1.e4 e5 can be given by the Bishop Opening, you play 2.Bc4, 3.d3, and then you develop your pieces as you like, regardless of your opponent's replies. This is symmetrical to the London system.

But you need a different system when your opponent does not answer with 1...e5, the King Indian Attack is a good one, it works against the Sicilian, the French, the Caro, and so on.

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  • Thanks! Well I guess system vs opening is part of it. But I was wondering why 1.e4 is played when it allows Black to choose the opening. I suppose London is a way to avoid variations but my wondering is based on the assumption that 1.d4 games vary far less than 1.e4 games. Perhaps the former variation is still high on its own, but I think it's far lower than in the latter. If the assumptions are wrong, why? If the assumptions are right, why 1.e4 then? About drawishness of systems, I didn't know that, but you don't have to play a system if you play 1.d4 right? – BCLC Feb 18 '18 at 15:10
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    @BCLC: As to why 1.e4 is played, I tried to tell you my motivation for playing it: because I want to open up the position. After 1.e4, it is easy to play d4 soon for White, then I have more chances of attacking quickly. After 1.d4, playing e4 is harder, and it takes many moves. If you like closed positions, then you can play 1.d4, no problem, maybe even better. But in this case the game will be slower. – Knight of the Square Table Feb 18 '18 at 15:38
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    @BCLC: You made the opinion that 1.d4 games vary less because you use a system. If you want to play an opening, like the Queen's Gambit, you see that you need that your opponent plays 1...d5, otherwise there is no gambit. For players who play the Queen's Gambit it makes a lot of difference if their opponent plays 1...d5 or 1...Nf6, and even later, they have to think about QGA, QGD, Slav, Semi-Slav, Tarrasch etc, and it makes a lot of difference for them, because they need to play differently in each case. – Knight of the Square Table Feb 18 '18 at 15:38
  • but by to play e4, you must have read up on all possible responses from black: Sicilian, Scandinavian, Alekhine etc? Also is it wrong to say d4 games vary a lot as well but vary less than e4 games? I mean from the second move already is enough to distinguish openings. E4 c5 is different opening from e4 E5. Also e4 d5. Not sure you can easily transition. or can you? Unlike say d4 d5 or d4 nf6. After d4 I think black can play ...d5 then ...nf6 and also ...nf6 then ...d5. this is why to me ...nf6 is not (that!) Different from ...d5 – BCLC Feb 19 '18 at 23:31

I think you need to distinguish between professional grand masters and us mere mortals. Indeed at the highest level, a lot of memorization is involved and more often than not players just play 20 moves of theory from memory before the real fight starts. Even some of the top players seem to get bored with this, and are looking for alternative, less analyzed openings like the London system, which you can basically play without knowing much theory (though theory seems being developed there as well). However the motivation for these players is not to avoid learning theory, but rather avoiding well known opening theory that results in drawish positions. If they played a weaker opponent, they might in fact go for a main line popular opening, counting on their deeper, better knowledge of openings.

For professional players all openings are different, and nobody would attempt to play say the Grünfeld, if he knew only the King's Indian. The difference might be subtle to us, but at top level enough to lose a game.

Even at amateur level I would argue that Queen's gambit/Slav that end up in rather symmetric positions are very much different to Grünfeld, King's Indian, etc Generally a player (of any level) should pick an opening based on how happy they are to play the resulting middlegame positions. If you like the positions you get out of 1. e4 more, you should play that, if you prefer what you get out of 1. d4 go with it. Neither is better than the other. I am sure Fischer was aware of that as well.

I disagree that after 1.e4 it is only black who decides what it is going to be like. Take for instance the Sicilian, where white has a choice of going for an open Sicilian where you better know some opening theory or a closed Sicilian (or similarly positional Bb5 Sicilians).

I realize that there is lots of theory to learn if you go with any main line theory. Particularly for beginners, there is not much point in learning openings, because they will rarely end up using them with players of their level, and games are often decided by simple tactics and not by misplaying an opening.

However there is a certain learning aspect if you play more critical main line theory instead of the same old (London) system. You will be exposed to many different types of positions and learn how to deal with them.

From a personal point of view, I was too lazy to learn much opening theory and played the KID against d4, the Aljekhine (sometimes the Modern/Pirc) against e4 and with white the King's Indian attack (which can be played basically against whatever black does, and which I was already familiar with from the blakc side) or even the stonewall with white (another system opening where you don't need to know much theory. Even with such crappy openings I got to Elo around 2200.

Two things made me change my mind and study some openings. In the Aljekhine most of the time I just got a bad position, or at most an equal position, with basically no option for active play. So I was looking for more thrilling options against e4 which lead me to the Sicilian.

Secondly, I just got bored playing the same positions each and every game. That's why I adopted 1. e4 as my first move. Now I get to play all kinds of positions and interesting games, which is what I care about. I still resort to the King's Indian Attack at times, if I don't know theory, but generally I am happy with my decision to spice it up.

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  • Thanks! 1. spicing up is precisely the point of 960 right? 2. 'I disagree that after 1.e4 it is only black who decides what it is going to be like.' --> I didn't say that. I said 'allows Black to choose the opening'. For example, 1. e4 c5 is a different opening from 1. e4 d5. Am I wrong? Besides, the technicality of Sicilian vs Scandinavian, I think the positions are very different. If they are very different, then yeah, I really don't see why anyone would play 1. e4 unless they were already familiar enough with the openings for all possible responses. If they aren't: ...like how? – BCLC Feb 18 '18 at 14:58
  • 3. 'Particularly for beginners, there is not much point in learning openings, because they will rarely end up using them with players of their level, and games are often decided by simple tactics and not by misplaying an opening.' --> Okay so yeah I guess. So at what point does it become a necessity to do so? Like if an amateur like myself were to decide to get into professional play (ASSUMING 960 doesn't replace or get on the same level as chess), why would I want to learn different openings? I mean, Fischer didn't, which is why he invented 960 right? – BCLC Feb 18 '18 at 15:05
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    @BCLC By "spicing up" I meant getting more varied, perhaps unclear positions instead of playing some "boring" system where you make 100 moves before anything interesting happens. Yes, Sicilian is different from Scandinavian, but the open Sicilian is equally different from a closed Sicilian. – user1583209 Feb 18 '18 at 15:16
  • @BCLC Why do you think that Fischer did not know openings? *at what point does it become a necessity to do so? * Looking at players like Jobava or Rapport you can get pretty high without playing official theory. Even the world champion often goes for non-critical slow play and system openings, aiming to just get a normal position with enough pieces on the board to make something happen later in the game. Still I am sure that these players do know quite some regular theory and it might very well helped them in the development as chess players. – user1583209 Feb 18 '18 at 15:24
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    @BCLC: As a lower limit, I don't see much point learning theory below a rating of 1800 or so. – user1583209 Feb 18 '18 at 15:26

Chess is a two player game.

You argue that playing 1.e4 "allows Black to choose the opening", implying that White is more burdened with theory (he has to deal with at least six major answers) than Black (who apparently can pick only one of the six).

But the same thing applies the other way around: Black can't just prepare only one variation either. Not only does he have to know his favorite kind of, for example, Sicilian, but also some way to deal with the non-Open Sicilians by White and also a way to deal with 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3 and so on. Since White gets to make the first cut, he will actually throw away the biggest portion of the theory pie.

Additionally, while there probably is a bit more difference between the main variations in the 1.e4 half compared to the 1.d4 one (which does have sizeable differences too!), it's not like there is no overlap at all. Caro-Kann and Scandinavian often lead to the same structures, there are some transpositions between (e6-)Sicilian and French (by way of the Alapin most notably), and so on.

At the end of the day, both sides have a roughly equal vote about the opening that will arise (and the corresponding theory payload). And whenever there is a new trend that allows one side to go too lazy, theory will evolve and restore the balance, sooner or later. The history of opening theory (at least since last century) is a constant back and forth between 1.e4 and 1.d4.

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  • Wait there's more variation in e4 than in d4? – BCLC Feb 19 '18 at 23:52
  • @BCLC No. The d4-variations just feel a bit closer to each other compared to the e4 ones (on average) because there are more "systems" (black or white) for d4 (relatively speaking). – Annatar Feb 20 '18 at 6:53
  • so typo? Bit less rather than bit more? – BCLC Feb 22 '18 at 6:54
  • @BCLC Bit less rather than bit more what? I can't really follow you. – Annatar Feb 22 '18 at 6:58
  • did you mean to say 'bit less' rather than 'bit more'? Sorry for the confusion. Thank you for your inquiry. – BCLC Feb 23 '18 at 15:47

1 it is a good move. and it fit Fischers style better.

2 chess is not dead, yet. people still play it and make mistakes. nobody will be able to memorize every line that wins like in checkers.

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