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The opening move 1. Nf3 is considered as a perfectly sound opening and it is popular, but not nearly as popular as 1.e4 and 1.d4. Here are my thoughts about this:

  1. In most openings, white will make the move Nf3 sooner or later. Since white needs this move (in most cases) anyway, why not make it the first move?

  2. White has much flexibility with 1. Nf3. Here are a few examples:

For 1. Nf3 Nf6, white may reply with either 2.c4, transferring to the English or 2.d4, transferring to Queen's Pawn Game.

For 1. Nf3 d5, white may continue with 2.d4, transferring to Queen's Pawn Game.

For 1. Nf3 c5, white may reply with either 2.c4, transferring to the English or 2.e4, transferring to Sicilian.

At the same time, white is not afraid of some weird replies such as 1. Nf3 e5 as replying this with 2. e4 is perfectly fine for white. Capturing the pawn may be fine for white as well.


Why then is 1.Nf3 not nearly as popular as 1.e4 and 1.d4?

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    @edwinaoliver Short of mate-in-x problems, virtually every question her calls for opinions. Look at even the previous question, "What is black’s compensation in the main line of the Caro Kann?" There is a lot of opinion in even such a question. – PhishMaster Jan 15 at 21:54
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    I am not an expert in these lines, so I will leave this as a comment, but I believe that early 1.Nf3 limits whites options in some lines. For example, 1.Nf3 d5 2. d4 Nf6 3.c4 e6 is not as good for white as 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6. – Akavall Jan 15 at 21:58
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    @edwinaoliver: relax. We're not overwhelmed with questions here, and this is an interesting subject. Let other stacks do their thing, we do ours. – RemcoGerlich Jan 16 at 8:14
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    @RemcoGerlich this stack has done the same thing. It is random depending which soup nazi got his knickers twisted that day. My point is they should not be doing it at all. – edwina oliver Jan 16 at 16:21
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    Related: chess.stackexchange.com/q/21570/3594 – Ellie Jan 16 at 17:16
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It is funny since 1.Nf3 scores better than any other opening move per Mega 2020 at 55.5% winning percentage for white, compared to only 52.8% for 1.e4, 54.3% for 1.d4, and 54.4% for 1.c4.

I think a lot of it is psychological regarding the types of positions that can arise. 1.Nf3 is the most fluid of all the moves I mentioned, and I think that players simply like more concrete play than not. It also reduces what you need to memorize, or understand, if you go straight into a specific pawn formation with d4, e4, or c4.

I also think that at the lower levels, that fluidity can lead to positions that players, both players, but since it is white's choice, that he/she specifically is not as comfortable with since he/she can end up on his/her own in a hurry. You need to know A LOT more about transpositions into other openings, which is a major undertaking. The play is also more complicated, which drives weaker players away more.

At the upper levels, meaning 2700s, I do not believe that they are afraid of getting lost in the opening as easily, but there still may be an underlying desire to play "their" openings, so they play more concretely.

One thing I do not believe is that after 1.Nf3 that 1...e5 is a valid response. White, having played 1.Nf3 probably likes d4/c4 openings, so is not likely to go into a double-king-pawn opening, but still has a great response:

 [FEN ""]

 1. Nf3 e5? 2. Nxe5!

Thanks for the gumball, Mickey! (from an old U.S. commercial for a Mickey Mouse gumball machine)

Based on my discussion with Phonon below, I am adding this chart that shows the flexibility of each main opening move that aims for the closed openings (d4/c4/Nf3). At the higher levels, this is a main reason, but at lower levels, I still believe that it is more about psychology, and believing that immediate occupation of the center is crucial. At lower levels this also can often put your opponent on unfamiliar grounds,

enter image description here

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  • Na3 scores better than Nf3. 50% win 68+ total score with draws. Nf3 34.2% win and 56% overall scoing. – edwina oliver Jan 15 at 21:54
  • I do not know what database you are using, but Mega 2020, the largest database, has 1.Na3 with only a 45.0% winning percentage, which I tend to believe. – PhishMaster Jan 15 at 21:56
  • I used chesstempo. Be surprised if other stats differed much. It depends whether you only count top GM results or all results in the DB. – edwina oliver Jan 15 at 21:56
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    "You need to know A LOT more about transpositions into other openings", I think this is a very good point. – Akavall Jan 15 at 22:01
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    @Akavall I based that on my experience of being close friends with IM Dave Vigorito for decades. His memory and opening knowledge is incredible. He plays a lot of different openings, and talking to him about transposition tricks is incredible. There is a reason he has written at least 8 well-received opening books. – PhishMaster Jan 15 at 22:04
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Questions of this nature seem to have become a reoccurring theme recently here on chess SE, but that's a good thing because understanding basic opening ideas is understanding fundamentals of chess strategy. So let's tackle the question from this angle, in an attempt to objectively relate the merit of first moves for white to their popularity.

Why 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.Nf3 etc, for such questions it helps to think at the most basic and fundamental level. Before comparing these first move candidates, we need a few notions:

(In the scope of this post, brevity and basics are of essence. Thus, the discussed concepts should be taken with a grain of salt when applied to high level chess, where decision making in the opening is an entirely different matter, partly due to the extremely high level of targeted preparation).


In chess, to establish an edge as the side that makes the first move of the game, you need to be dictating roughly the flow of the game, which means playing a greater role than your opponent in the type of positions that may emerge from the opening. On the one hand, this means the particular set of pawn skeletons that can arise, and on the other hand, what choices are you taking away from your opponent. In other words, you should try to impose your own agenda and prevent your opponent's as much as possible.

Territory and central squares:

Now, what is it that we want from an opening to begin with? Briefly, we want to have a fair share of the center, to have effectively posted minor pieces (both defensively and offensively), and a safe king (number one priority). Most relevant for your question, is the fight over central squares, so let's limit our discussions mostly to that. To clarify the used concepts and terminology, consider the following diagram:

enter image description here

The red rectangles show each side's territory. The green rectangle highlights the 16 central squares, and the 4 blue-highlighted squares inside it show the sweet center, i.e., the 4 most important squares on the board.

Let's now go a tad deeper into what is meant by fight over the central squares, and establish some sort of rough baseline:

  • We want to be controlling as much of the 16 central squares as possible, and most importantly the 4 sweet central squares e4,d4,e5 and d5.
  • Think of pawns as space creators: the pawn backbone is really what defines the mobility and effectiveness of your other pieces.
  • The ideal scenario of controlling the center is: to have our own pawns centrally established in the center (e4,d4) and have our opponent's respective central pawns traded for our own non-central pawns (like black typically does in the Sicilian, trading their c7 pawn for white's d2, which in itself is a favourable trade for black since the more central a pawn is, the higher its relative value).
  • Now of course this is the ideal, and as such we never fully get there, nonetheless it is what we're ultimately fighting towards.
  • Next comes: what makes pawns established in the sweet center so good? In short, pawns in the center provide space and support for our knights to be posted centrally (thus most effective) and while also making it more difficult for our opponent to achieve the same ideal minor piece posts.
  • Moreover, the 4 central squares maximise your options of rerouting pieces between the two flanks, from the centre an attack on either flank can be backed, and pieces have a higher relative value when centralised: because not only do they acquire their maximum mobility (max number of moves) but they also secure space both in both camps.

Basic comparison of first moves:

With these kinds of ideas in mind, let's now compare the 3 first moves 1.e4, 1.d4 and 1.Nf3 and do the tally:

1.e4

  • Occupies one square (e4) in the sweet center, provides control over two central squares (d5,f5) in our opponent's camp, while activating two of our pieces (a kingside bishop and our queen)

1.d4

  • Similarly, occupies one square (d4) in the sweet center, provides control over two central (dark) squares, while activating again two pieces (a queenside bishop and our queen). Compared to e4, the queen activity is less relevant (as d2,d3 squares are not really useful queen squares) and the bishop is not a kingside one, which matters a tad less than kingside bishop, since kingside development is to be priotorised in order to establish a safe king as fast as possible, and before committing to any attack. But all in all, it's still as good as e4 in terms of the central space it provides.

1.Nf3

  • Occupies zero squares in the sweet center (only eyes d4), provides control over only one of our opponent's central squares (e5), while activating no other piece with the spent tempo. So clearly, it's not as cost efficient as our two previous options in terms of how we're investing our extra tempo. Naturally then, as a first move, it gives plenty of choices to our opponent for the type of structures they could aim for, which means a portion of our edge as white being first to dictate the game has been given away.

In diagrams:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here


Thus, with these comparisons made purely at a very basic level, it stands to reason that 1.e4 or 1.d4 ought to be white's best investments of the extra tempo and explain their popularity. Anything else would be forfeiting some part of our advantage as white one way or the other. But bear in mind, we're talking at the core and most basic possible level, meaning, these ideas alone don't translate into whose winning or losing. In actuality of real games, things are never that simple, and our decisions will depend on many factors including our mood, preferences, opponent's preferences, and so on ....

Sometimes, we just want to get a normal position, and don't really care about that small plus white has early on, then moves such as 1.Nf3 become perfectly valid options. Particularly, when one is trying to avoid heavy theory or simply not walk into the opponent's preparation, then openings such as the English 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 become ever so viable, as they are less committal (and thus less critical) and can still transpose to a wide range of structures.

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    This is your first answer I do not agree with. The whole one square or no squares comparison is bogus because is assumes that white will not be occupying them in just a few moves, which is likely. And Nf3 does fight for central squares, even if it does not occupy one immediately. Typically, players playing 1.Nf3 are not 1.e4-players, so they do not mind if they have to play d4 or c4 later. It is just more fluid in the meantime. – PhishMaster Jan 16 at 0:05
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    @PhishMaster The discussion is specifically about the differences in terms of that one tempo. In particular regarding the immediate occupation of central squares by pawns, the connection has to be made with the preceding discussions of pawns first creating space and then providing support for minor pieces. Thus, e.g. playing 1.Nf3 already allows 1…c5 preventing an immediate d4 without being exchanged for a c pawn. So white is not ensured to have d4 established at once if they so desired, whereas knight to f3 can always be achieved. So the pawn-move in that sense takes precedence. – Ellie Jan 16 at 0:53
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    That was not what the main question asked: "Why is 1. Nf3 not nearly as popular as 1.e4 and 1.d4?" Again it comes down to flexibility. I am going to add a chart given to me by an IM opening expert that demonstrates that. – PhishMaster Jan 16 at 1:15
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    @PhishMaster The OP’s main question is addressed in my answer and not comments. Comments under answers are for addressing specific follow-up questions that readers might have, such as your first comment about “...comparison is bogus...” which was addressed in a comment. I tackle the question from the pov of chess fundamentals to argue why e4,d4 compared to Nf3, are more effective conversions of the extra tempo into control over the centre and the game, while you tackled it from the transpositional angle and flexibility in branch-outs, which pertain mostly to high level competitive chess. – Ellie Jan 16 at 9:26
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The first moves 1. Nf3, 1. d4, 1. e4 and 1. c4 are all good. It is a matter of taste which one you prefer, as they usually lead to different types of position. All these moves have their advantages and disadvantages.

After 1. Nf3, you have to consider the black replies 1. ... d5, c5, Nf6 at least. 2. c4 is a fine continuation in all these cases. Of course, you could play c4 first, but then you'd need to be prepared for 1. c4 e5. If you don't like that, that is an advantage of 1. Nf3. On the other hand, you must be willing to play either the Reti (1. Nf3 d5 2. c4), or a different second move in case of 1. ... d5.

You also suggest 2. d4 against 1. ... d5 or Nf6. Of course that move is fine, but after 1. d4 d5, most players don't play 2. Nf3, but 2. c4. If the plan is to enter the London system, Colle, or Torre attack, you could as well play d4 first - there is little black can do to prevent 2. Nf3. Possibly c5 - then you must decide whether you prefer 1. Nf3 c5 or 1. d4 c5.

But of course you don't have to play 2. c4 or 2. d4. Actually the second most popular second move for white after 1. Nf3 is 2. g3, followed by 3. Bg2 and an early 0-0 - the Kings Indian Attack. Often, white plays d3, e4 and Nbd2 later. This is also a solid setup. But it is surely not to everyones taste, and some players prefer to reach it after 1. e4 only after certain black responses (especially against the french).

So much for the value of 1. Nf3, you can hopefully see that it takes some options from both you and your opponent, while allowing others, and you must decide which ones you want to allow or prevent.

Regarding the option to enter an open sicilian: don't overestimate that. There is a lot of theory to learn in that opening, only to meet the third most common option black has on his second move. I'd consider this an option against certain opponents only. In general, this kind of flexibility isn't worth much. Instead of having the possibility to transpose into multiple openings, it is better to concentrate on fewer openings which you really know - at least as an amateur. (If you want to surprise your opponent, "really know" can include side lines you can enter on a later move)

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  • After 2 g3 you missed the option of heading for the Catalan with a later d4 and c4, but that's a small nit. By and large you're correct. The transpositional opportunities of Nf3 are both it's biggest strength and greatest weakness. Lots of fertile ground, but a lot of work required to prepare it. – Arlen Jan 16 at 14:30

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