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.
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:
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
- 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.Nf3 and do the tally:
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
Thus, with these comparisons made purely at a very basic level, it stands to reason that
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.Nf3 become ever so viable, as they are less committal (and thus less critical) and can still transpose to a wide range of structures.