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Why do masters open 1.d4 more often than they open with the English 1.c4?

STATISTICS

According to 365chess.com, 1.d4 is five times as common. Moreover, even if one admits Réti's 1.Nf3 as an English variant (or vice versa), counting Réti and the English together as a single opening family, 1.d4 remains twice as common.

According to the aforementioned source, in master play, White scores slightly better (though indeed almost exactly the same) with 1.c4 as with 1.d4. Réti's 1.Nf3 fares slightly worse.

MOTIVE

I ask because, in my own games, the English opening wins for White more than 1.d4 does. That is, I win more with 1.c4 as White and, as Black, probably lose more when 1.c4 is played against me. My strength being a little below FIDE 1300, my games would hardly interest you, so I will refrain from burdening the question with patzer's samples of my own play. However, if the statistics are credited, masters perceive comparative virtues in 1.d4 I do not yet see; whereas, from my limited perspective, 1.c4 just looks like the better move insofar as it leaves Black with three main options that all seem slightly weak:

  • Black can let White play a reversed Sicilian, granting an extra tempo to the reversed Sicilian queenside attack;
  • Black can transpose to a Queen's Gambit Declined or a Slav, only with fewer options for Black; or
  • Black can symmetrically play 1...c5, allowing White the advantages symmetrical openings generally bring.

A fourth option occurs:

  • Black can respond to 1.c4 by playing one of the Indian systems. This seems no weaker than playing Indian against 1.d4 but, as far as I can see, seems no stronger, either.

I can see that 1.d4 is not a bad move, but isn't 1.c4 just a better one?

A GRANDMASTER'S OPINION

Paul van der Sterren, a grandmaster, writes that 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 "betray a rather more moderate attitude [than does 1.d4]. While not as yet physically occupying any central squares, White does start taking control over them. White prepares for a fight in the center but does not want to be the one to take the first step."

Van der Sterren writes as though the factors he mentions might be disadvantages. Are they disadvantages, though? And how moderate is 1.c4, really? In my limited experience, 1.c4 seems fairly aggressive in actual play—more aggressive than the Ruy Lopez, for example, at least in games I play.

Of course, the grandmaster will be right and the patzer (me) must be wrong, but for what reason?

Indeed, why do masters open 1.d4 more often than 1.c4?

  • 4
    Statistics are tricky. In general, any difference <5% is too insignificant to draw conclusions from. There are many biases that can blur win rate statistics. It's safest to assume that none of 1.d4, 1.c4 or 1.e4 is inherently better and it's mostly a matter of taste. – Annatar May 14 '18 at 10:09
  • 1
    I read in an article about AlphaZero that it determined 1.c4 to be the most effective opening. I started playing that in my openings after reading that, and have good luck with it, although I'm even more of a patzer... – Elemental Pete May 14 '18 at 19:45
  • @ElementalPete: yes, isn't that odd? I do not remember why I first started trying 1.c4 like you, years ago, but I too have had good luck with it for whatever reason. I am not sure why. One answerer suggests "that players are unfamiliar with how to play against it." That answerer may be right. – thb May 18 '18 at 0:48
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This has nothing to do with 1.d4 being an objectively better move than 1.c4. The moves are just about as good as one another, and sometimes even transpose as you've noted.

But 1.d4 was historically considered to be one of the two best opening moves (together with 1.e4) for a very long time, and it is more in line with the basic opening principles that beginners are typically taught.

So I'd reckon that it comes down to more players being introduced to 1.d4 early on in their chess career than 1.c4, coupled with the fact that old habits die hard (even for chessplayers).

However, one point that speaks in favour for 1.d4 over 1.c4 is that 1.d4 hinders black from playing 1...e5. You've noted that 1.c4, e5 is a reverse Sicilian, but I think that it is important to remember that the Sicilian is an opening that Black chooses to enter. In the opening Black is fighting for equality, and this is the case for the Sicilian as well, so saying that 1.c4, e5 is an improved version of it for White is basically just another way of saying that White is fighting for an advantage when playing it. But this is just what you'd expect from any good opening for White.

I'd go so far as to say that this way of arguing for a move is a fallacy in some sense, since it could be used to try and justify almost any first move for White as the best one (for instance, 1.Nf3 must be very strong since 1.Nf3, d5 is a reverse Nimzo/King's/Queen's/Bogo/whatever Indian defence and thus comes with an extra tempo as compared with the normal Indian defences, which are considered to be good for black). I'm almost tempted to name this way of reasoning "The Reverse Sicilian Fallacy" for future use, since I've seen it more than once when commentators try to describe the virtues of 1.c4.

  • 1
    The Reverse Sicilian Fallacy! I like it. Now we only want to render that in Latin, like post hoc ergo propter hoc, and you shall have named a principle of logic. – thb May 14 '18 at 0:13
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    @thb A classic blunder, like the only slightly less well known Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. – Federico Poloni May 14 '18 at 11:57
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    @thb -- just for fun, I ran "Reverse Sicilian Fallacy" through Google translate, which gave me "Converte fallacia, Siculisne resideret". Unfortunately, Google translate renders that as "Turn the lure of Sicilian", so I suspect it's not the best translation. – Pete Becker May 14 '18 at 17:29
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    My Latin is rusty, but... Fallacia retroversae siculae – Federico Poloni May 14 '18 at 19:43
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    @FedericoPoloni -- that comes back much better than mine did. – Pete Becker May 14 '18 at 21:31
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One reason that the English openings (either starting with 1. c4 or 1. Nf3) work well at the lower levels is that players are unfamiliar with how to play against it. Most people are taught how to play against 1.e4 and 1.d4, but less attention is focused on teaching people to play against 1.c4.

At the grandmaster level, all GMs knows how to play against the English. Thus, it loses almost all the surprise value that it had at the amateur level.

Also, even though 1.c4 may score slightly better in master games, remember that you noted there are 5 times as many games in 1.d4. Thus, the statistics of 1.c4 are less reliable. If 1.c4 had as many games as 1.d4, I would guess 1.d4 scores slightly better.

The English is not at all a bad opening, and for some players it suits their style much more. On principle though, 1.c4 doesn't control the center as much, while 1.d4 and 1.e4 do. This allows Black to play 1...e5! and theory says Black is fine. While this is a reversed sicilian, remember that the player playing the sicilian must fight for equality! A tempo up is great, but does it turn "fighting for equality" into an advantage? The answer to this depends on the type of player you are.

Stick to playing the English if it works better for you. The average global statistics of a move don't matter much... what matters is what are you most comfortable playing?

  • 3
    I don't think the stats on c4 are less reliable to any significant degree; it may be six times less common, but that's still over a hundred thousand games, which is plenty for the stats to be reliable. – D M May 14 '18 at 15:52
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    I'll add that the opening at the lower levels of you and I are more about getting into the type of game where you are better than your average opponent. I've had good luck with 1.Nf3, 2.b3 because I was far better with inventing openings on the fly than memorizing long sequences of moves, and my opponents usually were the opposite. – Guy Schalnat May 14 '18 at 18:40
  • @GuySchalnat: you might elaborate your interesting comment, making it an answer. – thb May 14 '18 at 19:15
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    @D M The stats on 1.c4 are extremely reliable due to all the games, but compared to 1.d4 they're less reliable to a really small degree. This is why I believe 1.c4 scores something like 0.5-1% better than 1.d4, when it should be reversed. – Inertial Ignorance May 14 '18 at 20:59
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Not an answer, but I thought I could share my experience.

I am no expert but do play 1.d4 almost exclusively. The reason I avoid 1.c4 is 1.... e5.

Ok, it is reverse Sicilian with White a tempo up. But, that tempo up will be decisive factor only if Black, naively, enters sharp variations of the (reverse) Sicilian. For example, imagine game proceeding to a reverse dragon, then White being a tempo will mate first!!

However, remember that there are positional variations of the Sicilian that the 1.e4 side can opt for. Thus, Black aiming for such a set-up is just fine.

Another reason I won't play 1.c4 is that after 1.... c5 I will have to give up my (beloved) d4 pawn if I am going to push it two moves, to a flank pawn of Black's.

  • 2
    Actually that is a good answer, and I recall reading in an old opening book that many masters didn't play the English/c4, because they didn't care to play the Sicilian, even reversed, with an extra tempo. – Herb Wolfe May 17 '18 at 17:33
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At face value, D4 just looks like the better move.

Compare all the move options after 1) c4 vs 1) d4.

1) d4 allows the Queen extra movement (2 spaces) and the c4 pawn is protected (the queen can attack back on c4 if black takes it) for an additional space. The bishop also gains 5 additional move possibilities.

1) c4, in contrast, adds many fewer move possibilities. The bishop has no additional range and the queen has equal additional range.

Furthermore, the added quality is greater for the d4 move. Squares closer to the center are more important than squares to the sides and d4 attacks squares closer to the center than c4 does (d5/c5 vs d4/b4).

1) c4 looks, on paper, like you are giving up win percentage for no compensation, really (assuming that more move possibilities and better center control result in an increased win %).

Traditionally, 1) e4 and 1) d4 are the most common moves because they are on paper the best possible options. They are close to the same in power level as each other, with the advantage of e4 being more movement and the advantage of d4 being a more protected position.

The other moves on the board typically are played less often because they are just strictly worse in terms of move possibilities added and safety.

One of the few advantages to be had from playing something other than d4 and e4 is that you might somehow surprise the opponent by maneuvering them into some opening you know better than they do.

I would assume that everyone who plays 1) c4 probably does it for one of these reasons:

1) They believe they are a better enough player that they can win even while doing strictly worse moves

OR

2) They believe they can trick the opponent into playing something they aren't prepared to play

OR

3) They believe that they are a worse enough player that they have no chance to win while doing the best possible moves and they are just trying to increase general randomness, a thing that generally helps the underdog.

  • 1
    I don't think this is true. At least, AlphaZero seems to think the English opening is no worse than the more central ones, and AlphaZero sure knows its stuff... – leftaroundabout May 14 '18 at 20:43
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    Yes but you have other considerations. The move 1.c4 opens three good squares to the white queen. The same move also threatens to swap off Black's d-pawn, leaving White permanently stronger in the center. That the move fails to release a bishop is a weakness, but how great a weakness, really? When I play 1.c4, I usually have little trouble pushing pawns soon into the center but am unlikely to overextend into the center. I have heard advice like yours several times; the advice sounds plausible until it is tried. My point is that such advice does not accord with my experience over the board. – thb May 14 '18 at 22:13
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