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(Originally I hoped a lengthy prologue would not be needed here, but some of the answers and comments have led me to write one so that the purpose of the question is clear, thus this is now much longer.)

When my child was around six or seven years old, I taught them the rules of the game and basic principles of opening play. At the time, chess didn't seem to hold a lot of interest. However, move forward a few years, and playing with school mates after classes were over led to an interest in the game. Quickly the kid rose above the novices at school and could even beat the teacher. Games between the two of us became competitive, even though I usually - but not always - win. The kid played a few tournaments: in the first 8 the kid had positive records in all but one, which was an open where all opponents were adults with ratings 300 to 500 points better with one exception - an unrated player. There are three trophies on a shelf from these tournaments, including first place from the beginners section of our state scholastic championship. Along the way, we signed up for a year of chess instruction from professional instructors. Also, the kid watches videos online about all aspects of the game and has worked through at least one well respected chess book. It is clear that the kid has a decent understanding of opening principles for someone at this level.

At tournament nine the kid had a bad day. One game in particular stands out: The opposing player opened with 1) a4 ... 2) h4 (or something similar, I don't have the scoresheet). Ultimately, the other kid won the game because my kid didn't know how to respond and got rattled. In some ways this isn't surprising, as any time any person encounters an unusual situation they can get confused and make poor choices.

Don't get me wrong, I certainly want my youngster to learn good chess principles. I don't want to play first moves like a4, h4, a5 or h5, in serious games, nor do I want the kid to do so (at all). However, I've seen other games opened this way by players just learning the game (or using strange openings to confuse their opponents). In order to boost my kid's confidence and provide experience against games like this, I want to (occasionally) play openings at home that may be seen in games at this level. I don't expect to win these games, but that isn't the point: The point is to provide an experience that will benefit the psychological aspects of my kid's game if another player tries a similar opening in the future. Thus, I'm seeking some guidance on strange openings like 1) a4 or 1) h4, that I could at home play against my kid to help prepare for future tournaments.

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    I still remember a game I played in middle school where my opponent opened with 1.a4 e5 2.Ra3 Bxa3 and then proceeded to do exactly the same thing with his king's rook... – David Richerby May 19 at 12:57
  • I don't have enough teaching experience to make this an answer, but it might be interesting to play test games where black chooses white's first move (which may be as absurd as a4, if they like), and then the game is played like normal from then on. Force both players to break out of their mold a bit. – Cort Ammon May 19 at 21:51
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    @CortAmmon: To make it both interesting and fair, we can do the following: After the first white move and first black move, white chooses whether to swap. So white can make a stupid first move and black would have to respond with a roughly as stupid first move to even the game out. =D – user21820 May 20 at 3:30
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Learning good chess principles and playing against clearly dubious openings like 1. a4 or 1. h4 are not mutually exclusive. In fact, following solid opening principles is the best way to counter weak openings like this.

The moves 1. a4 and 1. h4 are both poor because they do not follow any of the opening principles. Namely, they do not help control the center, they do not develop or prepare to develop any pieces and they actually reduce the king's options as to which side to castle on by weakening the pawn cover on one side of the board.

To counter such a move, you should simply play normal opening moves. 1... e5 or d5 is a good start. If white allows it, you can take over the center by advancing the other central pawn two squares as well. Then simply continue by developing the minor pieces and castling the king to safety. At this point you will have a large lead in development if white has continued making many foolish pawn moves (which is likely against the type of players who open with 1. a4 or 1. h4) and should be able to make life miserable for the opponent.

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    While I appreciate you taking the time & making the effort to reply, it seems you've not really said anything that wasn't already implicit in what I said when I said "... I certainly want my youngster to learn good chess principles...." Also, in the game I mentioned the other player didn't stick to pawn moves, started playing better chess after those questionable opening moves. – GreenMatt May 19 at 3:35
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    @GreenMatt If white starts playing well after 1. a4, it's just going to be a game. 1. a4 is a bad move and probably throws away white's advantage, but it's not so bad that black is winning or even clearly better. If you intended to say that the other player didn't continue to just make pawn moves you should edit your post, because I don't see that in your post at all. – Qudit May 19 at 3:39
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    It's true I didn't say he started playing well after 1. a4, although I did say the other guy played 2. h4. However, since you're being pedantic, I'll also point out that I didn't say that the player "continued making many foolish pawn moves"; that's your assumption. – GreenMatt May 19 at 13:26
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    @GreenMatt It's an assumption that is often true of such players in my experience and 2. h4 (which the opponent played) is the perfect example of "another foolish pawn move." Without knowing the rest of the game, we can't comment on what went wrong in this game specifically. – Qudit May 19 at 19:44
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    This doesn't even attempt to answer the question. – JiK May 19 at 20:33
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Are there any openings with rook pawns that are more effective than others?

There are few recognized openings which start with a rook pawn move on move one, except in circumstances where the opponent starts with a double knight pawn move, because those are generally inferior moves on move one.

One example where it is good is if white plays the Sokolski Opening (1. b4). Then 1 ... a5 is a good response.

However they are more common later on in any opening where your opponent fianchettos a bishop because challenging the fianchetto with a rook pawn rush is worth considering if it does not weaken your own position too much.

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    Hey! I play that opening. Nobody else can be bothered to look up the response. – Joshua May 20 at 3:44
  • @Joshua Well, not "nobody". I played 1.b4 in a handful of tournament games, and had success against low-rated players. But then I tried it against a master, and I resigned facing checkmate on move 17. In the post-mortem he indicated that he did in fact have preparations for that opening. – D M Jun 28 at 23:30
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Your kid did not lose the game because he did not know how to respond to that opening. He lost the game because he played worse! (by the way you're telling the story, probably because of a tactical blunder) I don't really think there is any human being on the planet who hjas prepared a line against 1.a4

I wouldn't really have a clear preference for any "rook pawn" opening. 1.a3 is sometimes played at "high" levels, as it could transpose to other openings where the a3-push is useful. h4 is a common attacking move, but only after Black has castled or, at least, moved the "g" pawn

  • Yes, the loss was due to playing worse overall than the other kid. But why did that happen? As I stated, the kid was rattled by seeing a weird opening. – GreenMatt May 19 at 23:23
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    @GreenMatt Come on, you are still asking the same question over and over again "why did that happen" and we are all saying the same thing here: It happened because your kid did not know the principle of chess openings. Once he/she get that, it won't happen again, he/she will have a better position by the end of the opening. Chess is mostly not a game of "best move against something" especially when it comes the opening - but it is the game of PRINCIPLES and IDEAS. – Roni Tovi May 20 at 14:07
  • No, I understood why it happened. You don't seem to understand what I'm asking and why. – GreenMatt May 20 at 14:13
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    No. You don't understand why it happened. Your "reason" is just an excuse – David May 20 at 18:34
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How can 1.a4 be bad, when some guy named Magnus played it against a grandmaster and won? :-) See Carlsen-Radjabov (2012), from the World Blitz Championship.

Now, I don't think it counts as much preparation, but my rule of thumb against kids who open with 1.a4 is ...e5 and against h4, ...d5. I think ...e5 and ...d5 are both legitimately good moves, but the reason I pick the one opposite to the rook pawn is that I've seen those kids love their rooks, and their plan is often an early rook lift to a3 or h3, and they often to forget to look out for ...Bxa3 or ...Bxh3. Admittedly, this "trap" only works at the extreme beginner level, but that's the level where I've seen this opening (I haven't played against Magnus Carlsen), and if they don't blunder I didn't lose anything. Anyway, two things you could try if you want to simulate this kind of game against your kid are the rook lifts already mentioned, and early pawn storms.

Back to the original question, what's an "effective" rook opening? It seems to me that non-beginners who play such an opening basically treat it as a waiting move and then play a normal opening (the Carlsen example is basically a Four Knights Game after the 1.a4), perhaps trying to transpose to something where the move is useful. With 1.a4, you are roughly giving up a tempo, which means losing the first-move advantage, but at low levels of play this is not very important. Moving the h pawn may be worse because it has a bigger effect on king safety.

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    While I agree that e5 or d5 are fine responses, I disagree with the reasoning given. If White is bad enough to open with a rook pawn and then throw away the exchange, a halfway decent Black ought to be able to beat him easily without resorting to such "traps". Just play your regular game, don't play moves hoping that your opponent is bad enough to fall into them. – Galendo May 19 at 17:34
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    People often call a move a trap when it's not a good move unless your opponent falls for it. I put the word in scare quotes in my answer because I don't think 1...d5 or 1...e5 are traps in this sense. I think they are both perfectly good moves, and I'm not counting on my opponent to fall for them; I'm just giving them the opportunity. Maybe I can edit to clarify what I meant. – itub May 19 at 17:42
  • So just because Carlsen played it in a BLITZ match, does it make it "not bad" or even "good" ? It actually can be played in a blitz match especially you have the skills like he does. But I assure you he will NEVER EVER play it in a standart tournament. Can you imagine he plays it in world championship ? Hell no, you can't. But still, playing it in a blitz match to surprise his opponent could be considerable :) – Roni Tovi May 20 at 14:14
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    I was kidding, hence the smiley. :-) – itub May 20 at 14:15
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I made a terribly long book study of well-known and lesser-known unusual openings to contend with my grandpa's massive advantage in opening theory. He could match me in general openings, but I specialized. I would get the upper hand in the opening because he had no idea how to play against what I would produce. Of course he was still better than me and the game would turn around in the mid game ...

I can say categorically as follows from my book search:

  • There are no known remotely good openings starting with a2-a4.
  • The best response to a2-a4 is to advance the c, d, or e pawn two squares. I favor the c pawn because I favor the Sicilian defense, not because it's actually any better.
  • The best way to play if you start with a2-a4 is to play a center-pawn opening with a wasted move. That is, you're now playing the matched center-pawn opening as black. It's possible that pushed pawn will be useful later, but probably not.
  • If a rook is brought out early, it is likely to be chased around by minor pieces and can't meaningfully participate in the center battle.
  • Don't deploy anything to b6.
  • If a4-a5 is played, play a7-a6 in response.

If you really want to give your youngster some practice on this, play it and bring the rook out until he learns to chase it around. This play is unsound, but that's the point. Defending unsound gambits is something that needs to be practiced later on, so why not this now given your youngster is already facing it.

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Actually, it doesn't matter how your opponent play the opening. You should teach your students to main aspects of the chess. In the opening, the goals are very clear. There are (mainly) 2 important things:

  1. Importance of the center: Try to take control and dominate the center
  2. Development: Try to develop your pieces as fast and as effective as possible - generally in order to their values. (pawns first, knights and bishops after, rooks and queen followed)

If you or your student basically apply the opening rules especially to an opponent who don't, then it can be an easy win with hight possibility. You would enter the mid-game with a big advantage and turning it into a clear win is up to you.

  • While I thank you for taking the time to answer the question, I don't see how this actually answers what I was asking, or says anything that hasn't already been said in other answers. – GreenMatt May 20 at 12:56
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    This precisely answers your question. Playing (or teaching to play) the opening against the opening rules will definetely not help in long-term learning. On the contrary, it will reduce the playing skills. Once your kid has learned the principle of the opening and "WHY's" along with them will get you/your kid win the game when the opp. plays against the principles. All I'm trying to say is, it won't make any difference if you play 1.a4 or 1.h4 against your kid IF he/she knows those principles and apply them, you will always lose the game unless he/she blunders later in the game :) – Roni Tovi May 20 at 13:29
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    For example, if we play against each other and if you play such moves like a4,a5,h4,h5 in the opening, there is a high possibility (unless you are a true master) that the match would be a "miniature" (means games finished before the 20th move) just because I do know the opening principles therefore how to respond properly and take the initiative before the mid-game. I am simply suggesting that instead of playing against your kid (to train him/her) with moves like a4,h4 etc... just help him to learn the opening principles - you will see he'll be succeed. – Roni Tovi May 20 at 13:37
  • Sorry, but I specifically asked for examples of openings using one of the rook pawns. You haven't provided one; ergo you haven't answered the question. Also, as stated above, other answers have already said "Learn to play openings well", so your answer is adding nothing to what has already been said; in addition, I said in the original post that I want my kid to learn best principles. My aim is to play unusual openings against my child, in order to prepare them for seeing them in games and keep from becoming nervous, confused, etc. – GreenMatt May 20 at 13:58
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    "openings using one of the rook pawns" : they do not exist, at least there is no good-one! You persist to ask for a "bad answer" here. Doh, I'm out. – Roni Tovi May 20 at 14:09
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I'm seeing a lot of great answers being met with, "This doesn't answer my question" - so I'm going to go ahead and answer your literal question (even though the answer won't help you out at all.)

a4 is the strongest opening rook-pawn move. In tournament games, it still leaves white with a slight edge to winning (28.9% to 25.8%) which is much smaller than good moves and nearly concedes the entire advantage of going first.

a3 is the next strongest of the four, and leaves black with a slight edge.

h3 and h4 both leave black with a considerable lead.

Now, that that's over with, will you finally listen to why this doesn't matter? If you're concerned with training purposes, you don't want to train against a4 specifically. What you want to do is occasionally pick some purposely strange opening decisions that your kid has never played against. Did he reply to your e4 with the sicilian? Then try playing 2. b4 against him and see if he keeps his head.

That's why everyone is saying "Teach him opening fundamentals." Because you're not going to be able to train him on how to react to every strange/atypical opening move. There's simply too many of them. What you can train him on is how to react when your opponent starts doing stuff you don't expect.

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I'd like to give a more complex answer. I will give an opening that was played frequently [at least by the standards of off beat openings] at the highest level by people of Grandmaster Strength. That is the "Julian Hodgson" Trompowsky. 1. d4 Nf6 2. Bg5 Ne4 3. h4

At GM level against GM opponents that is the only opening that I can think of where a rook pawn move is for practical purposes playable. From an absolute theoretical point of view it will get the 3. h4?! symbol for dubious. But it is not clear over the board how to meet it as black and get any advantage. Hodgson, a strong GM, was also a specialist in the Trompowsky and he used 3.h4 a lot here in the 1990's. I haven't got the statistics offhand of his record with 3.h4. Apologies for not giving a diagram; not my strong point but could use one.

Obviously at the elite professional level of chess players are not usually going to open on the first move with a rook pawn. But a few moves later as here is possible. Of course if someone wants to be a smart alec and say well there's the fourth move of the main line Spanish then you can go ahead lol. Sorry that is a chess joke.

protected by Phonon May 20 at 10:21

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