As the title above, why aren't early opening moves generally given exclamation marks? I see question marks for obvious opening mistakes from time to time, e.g. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f6? or 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Bg4?! But I almost never see exclamation marks for early strong opening moves. For example, after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 should be given an exclamation mark, being obviously a strong move, already challenging Black's center at move 2, or, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5! the Ruy Lopez being considered the best way to challenge Black's center already at move 3, and so on...

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    How about this: 1. e4! e5! 2. Nf3! Nc6! 3. Bb5! a6! 4. Ba4! Nf6! 5. O-O! Be7! 6. Re1! b5! 7. Bb3! d6! 8. c3! O-O! 9. h3! Na5! 10. Bc2! c5! 11. d4! Qc7! 12. Nbd2! cxd4! 13. cxd4! Nc6! 14. Nb3! a5! 15. Be3! a4! 16. Nbd2! Bd7! 17. Rc1! Qb7! – Zuriel Sep 18 at 14:47
  • So what? If all of these opening moves are actually very strong moves, I don't see why exclamation marks should be omitted. By the way, in beginners books most of these moves actually do get exclamation marks, with explanations regarding why these are strong. On another note, is this - in your view - a perfect sequence of opening moves? – A. N. Other Sep 18 at 17:13
  • PS Did you notice how many exclamation marks were given to early opening moves by Nimzowitsch, in "My System"? – A. N. Other Sep 18 at 17:18
  • @A.N.Other if half the moves in a game are gonna get the "!", then why not get rid of it altogether? – David Oct 17 at 7:05

Wikipedia says the following:

Exclamation points ("!") indicate good moves—especially ones which are surprising or involve particular skill. Hence annotators are usually somewhat conservative with the use of this symbol.

(emphasis mine). 2. c4 is the most played move after 1. d4 d5, therefore it doesn't receive an exclamation mark.

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  • Exactly. Book moves are the opposite of surprising. – Mast Sep 18 at 16:57
  • It's just the opposite, because it's so good that it became a "book move" and everyone takes it for granted. – A. N. Other Sep 18 at 17:25
  • Since when is Wikipedia dictating standards in chess? Anyway, can't opening moves be surprising or involve skill? – A. N. Other Sep 18 at 18:18
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    Indeed, and the first time it was played, 2. c4 probably warranted a !. It no longer does. – Adam Barnes Sep 18 at 22:23
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    @ANOther Wikipedia is not dictating standards. It is recording standards that are already in use. – Patrick Stevens Sep 20 at 10:19

To try to give a concrete example consider Sax-Seirawan, Brussels 1988

[Event "World Cup"]
[Site "Brussels"]
[Date "1988.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Sax, Gyula"]
[Black "Seirawan, Yasser"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[WhiteElo "2610"]
[BlackElo "2595"]
[ECO "B09"]
[FEN ""]

1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 g6 4. f4 Bg7 5. Nf3 c5 6. Bb5+ Bd7 7. e5 Ng4 8. e6  fxe6! 9. Ng5 Bxb5 10. Nxe6 Bxd4!! 11. Nxd8 Bf2+ 12. Kd2 Be3+ 1/2-1/2

(Annotation is mine to make the point)

In 1988 before this game 8 ... fxe6 was considered a blunder and the whole 5 ... c5 line was considered somewhat dubious. However Seirawan's find of 10 ... Bxd4!! effectively gave birth to a major new line in the Pirc, and Chess Informant voted this the most theoretically important game for the first half of 1988. Later white found ways to avoid the draw, and line is considered fairly equal nowadays, but even back then such strong novelties as early as move 10 were rare, and now, especially with engines coming into use, have all but disappeared.

So back in 1988 Bxd4 was a very surprising, strong move in a position where Black previously had been thought all but dead. Thus back in 1988 it deserved at least one if not more exclams. However nowadays it is routine - as a ~1850 patzer I have had this very game a number of times. It has lost its surprise value, and so no longer deserves the annotation.

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Exclamation (!) is a highlight in analysis. Either it indicates strong move, or it is also possible to indicate unexpected move. Something to which opponent is totally unprepared. Something which will be followed by inaccuracy (?). This could be different depending on what exact game it is. What will follow after provoking move? Exclamated move could be not optimal at all, making a weakness in your defense. Nonetheless, even making you weaker, it could lure your opponent into blundering entire game.

If that is the game from XIX century where opponents could be not prepared and preferred to accept gambits, then it was "!" move.

Today we have openings up to 12 moves, and the theory behind every variant shows equality, so even if it is Queen Gambit Accepted variant - opponents are already expecting you playing it, you would not catch any initiative.

It all depends what century is the game from.

Today everybody knows QGA and most likely will choose 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 and there will be no surprise in that.

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  • You say that "everybody knows QGA", and this might be true, but let's assume that we are two complete beginners, and we haven't read any chess book, and this is our first game ever. Would you find and play 2.c4 as White, after 1.d4 d5? – A. N. Other Sep 17 at 16:32
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    @A.N.Other - if you were annotating a game between complete novices in which 2. c4 was played, and they showed (by explanation or next moves) that it was a reasoned decision and not a random choice, you would be very justified in labelling it !. Such games are very rarely annotated -- the vast majority of annotated games are between experienced players who are playing well-known openings -- so !s in openings are equally rare. – FLHerne Sep 17 at 17:36

Not many moves in the opening deserve exclams. A classic example was Morphy-Allies, Paris 1858: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 Bg4 4. dxe5! and Black will lose a pawn, or lose bishop for knight while enabling White to gain time by developing with the recapture.

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As noted by the existing answers, opening moves are usually standard and as such expected to at least some degree.

Arguably, Fischer’s 1. c4 in the sixth game of the 1972 World Championship match could deserve an exclamation mark, since it was a remarkably good strategical move, albeit somewhat “meta-strategic”.

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  • 1,e4 is certainly a stronger move than 1.a4 according to modern opening theory (But maybe in two hundred years from now 1.a4 will be considered stronger?). Anyway, aren't 1.e4 or 1.d4 clearly stronger than 1.a4 or 1.a3, for example? – A. N. Other Sep 18 at 18:25
  • @A.N.Other I don’t see how this applies to my answer concretely. I just wanted to list an example of where an opening move, the first one at that, should arguably be given an exclamation mark. If you have a viable opening move, say 1. a4 and it proves to be “meta-strategically” sound (for the lack of a better expression) it might as well deserve an exclamation mark in my opinion. – gst Sep 18 at 18:52
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    Well, Fischer's 1.c4 deserves an exclamation mark because he won, this we know well... Had he lost, it would have been labeled as a bad decision. But I am talking about the objective value of opening moves. According to accepted modern opening strategy, the center is most important in the opening, so any move that directly or else fights for the center is a strong move, hence it deserves, at least virtually, an exclamation mark, this not being the case for 1.a4 and similar. I hope that my point is clearer now. – A. N. Other Sep 18 at 19:21
  • i thought i read somewhere that Fischer himself might have (perhaps tongue in cheek) annotated a game as 1. e4! – Michael Sep 19 at 5:22

The !, ?, !?, and other such symbols are meant to highlight moves that are unusual in some way: Unusually good, unusually bad, unusually dubious depending on the opponent's response, etc.

If they were used on opening moves, then they'd appear with practically every single game of chess.

At that point they'd become just noise and people would ignore them. To have any impact, they have to be used rarely.

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Lots of good answers here, but I'll add one perspective that's kind of been missed.

Every chess game starts out in a position that has been played before by others. The game continues in this state until, at some point, in some games, play evolves into a position that has never been played before. It is certain that you will not find an ! on moves that simply replicate a game that has already been played before because there is nothing surprising about copying a line from another player into a position that both players know, understand, and have seen before.

Only once a game moves into a novel position are the players truly challenged to demonstrate their skill and you will typically not see ! used until it produces such a novel position, and only rarely even then.

When Einstein published the theory of relativity, he was hailed as a genius. !

When an undergraduate physics student turns in the same equations as homework a hundred years later, they simply get to come back the next day instead of being sent home with an F.

! is relative. If you're the first person to make that move, sure - you deserve it. If, 20 years later, that move is standard play into a line 3 moves deeper yet and you're just dancing through an opening with your opponent...well, sorry, no ! for you.

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  • I understand, but then, for example, smothered mate with Queen and Knight is always given at least an exclamation mark, and we have seen it thousand of times. Following your reasoning, it should not be given the !, being well know by now. – A. N. Other Sep 20 at 18:20
  • And that would be the same for all well-known combinations, e.g. Bxh7+ followed by Ng5... And not just for combinations, but also for well-known well-known positional play, etc. – A. N. Other Sep 20 at 18:41
  • @A.N.Other Yes, but smothered mate with queen and knight can evolve out of countless positions. I don't think the same endgame position would ever have been played more than once (and ! awarded both times). I think if you can conjure a smothered mate with a queen and knight out of a position where nobody else has yet done it (ie: a novel game) that's certainly worth a !, and I would guess that almost all cases of high level play where this has happened it's been a unique game. Same with combinations - it's not the move itself, it's the position that you play it in that counts. – J... Sep 20 at 18:45

Why not

  1. d4?!

or even

  1. ?

(Arguably, Go is a deeper game and in any event, don't you have something better to do with your time than play games?)

Symbols like ? and ! are not meant to communicate opinions, which is what they would be if you sprinkled them on standard opening moves.

To forestall an objection, an informed opinion is still an opinion.

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    So opening moves are just a question of opinion? Is that your point? Can't they be objectively good, interesting, dubious, or bad, as the other moves? Then when is opinion ending, and objective evaluation beginning? At move 8, 9 or maybe at move 15? – A. N. Other Sep 17 at 19:55
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    @A.N.Other The boundary between opinion and something more objective is fuzzy. Giving the Ruy Lopez an explanation mark (presumably at the expense of the 3-knights game and the Giuco Piano) would mostly function as a way for the commentator to express their opening preferences. I would find that annoying rather than informative. The commentator can express their (educated) opinions in the surrounding prose, but it shouldn't clutter the moves. On the other hand, I wouldn't object to seeing something like ?! or even ? in e.g. the Latvian Gambit, which is why I specified standard opening moves. – John Coleman Sep 17 at 21:13
  • Don't you think that exclamation or question marks in the middlegame, too, could be a matter of opinion and personal style? I can give an exclamation mark to a move that simplifies into a good endgame for me, while someone else, in the same position, could give an exclamation mark to a sacrifice that leads to big complications, trying to capitalize on his tactical ability, to win the game... just an example of course – A. N. Other Sep 17 at 21:46
  • By the way, Nimzowitsch used to give a lot of exclamation marks to early opening moves, i.e. in "My System", as did Hans Berliner in "The System". Were they totally wrong in this approach? It seems to me that both of them knew a lot about chess, with the former being universally considered one of the greatest chess thinkers in history. – A. N. Other Sep 18 at 17:21

I've seen the first move annotated with (!) when the move was preparation for a specific game that was a surprise and it worked out. 1. e4!

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