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On the Lichess analysis board for atomic chess, it suggests for white to play 1. nh3, an unorthodox move that seems to leave the knight in a terrible spot on the side. But even more bizarrely, the best move for black after 1. nh3 is h6, which seems to only prevent ng5 and not much else. Then, after these strange moves, the engine finally suggests a more sensible move, 2. d4, taking control of the center. This is a bit of a shock to see as intuition would suggest that centralizing your pieces as quickly as possible in the opening would be the best plan of action.

Based on my experience with atomic chess, the lines I see the most following 1. nh3 h6 are usually 2. e3 e6 3. nc6 bb4 or 2. e4 e6 3. d4 d5 or 2. nc3 c6 3. e3 e6, and I have also seen people unfamiliar with the computer line or don't want to play the computer line to respond 1. nh3 with 1... f6, which can sometimes lead to a very common losing line (at least for me, I have seen many beginners and even advanced players fall for the "trap") 1. nh3 f6 2. nc3 c6 3. e3 e6 4. nb5 cxb5 5. qh5+ g6 6. qb5 nc6 7. qb6 axb6 8. bb5 kf7 9. nf4 and usually black resigns in this position due to the unavoidable mate in 1.


My main question is: What are the main ideas/rationale behind the unorthodox moves 1. nh3 h6? How should both white and black play in these lines, and what are their goals as the game approaches the middlegame?

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My answer is that 1. Nh3 is in fact inferior and that the computer doesn’t know what it’s doing. Playing 1. Nf3 forces black to play the worst possible move on move one which is f6, weakening the kingside. If you ask stockfish it will say 2. e3 is a mistake compared to 2. Nc3 which is ridiculous, e3 opens up the queen and bishop on the light square diagonals immediately after the f7 square is opened.

But that is not your question, you want to know what the ideas of the opening are. After all, 1. Nh3 is the second best opening in the game.

The idea behind 1. Nh3 is it allows white to play e4 and d4 moves without blowing up the knight. 1. Nf3 makes this pretty much impossible so tossing the Knight onto the edge of the board allows you to do this.

The reason for 1… h6 is it’s a better move than f6 and simply put there’s no stopping Nf4 on black’s first move.

White should be looking for Knight sacrifices to open up holes for stronger pieces, controlling the center, and in general forcing black to remain behind the line.

Black should be concerned with responding accurately to avoid traps, making proper pawn blocks, and pretty much just surviving the first 10 moves to achieve counterplay later in the game. Many players choose to play this because it’s a diverse opening that’s difficult to defend as black.

Just look at the number of possible moves white has after h6. White can reasonably play d4, e4, c3, Nc3, Na3, e3, and even g3. If you’re a novice you will not know how to defend most of these moves.

That’s another reason 1. Nh3 sets itself apart from 1. Nf3. Nf3 is about forcing black to play your game and grinding your opponent into losing several pieces while they’re powerless to stop it. Nh3 allows your creativity and genius to flow, if you know what you’re doing your opponent won’t know up from down and you can dance all over them. Most atomic games are fast anyway so it makes this move that much more confusing for the opponent.

In general the computer plays a confusing game because it is smarter than you and as long as you’re removed from the theory you’ve learned you will lose to stockfish. The only way to beat it is to use its own moves against it.

Look at the first 7 moves offered by the cloud opening. 1. Nh3 h6 2. d4 c6 3. Na3 d5 4. Nb5 cxb5 5. e4 a6 6. c3 Bd7 7. Bg5 f6

White has sacked a knight and is completely winning but it’s incredibly difficult to see why or how. No human outside the top 10 could ever reasonably expect to play like this.

To answer one final part of your question: why not 1.d4? Why Nh3 first? It’s because it forces black to make a non move, so it’s sort of like a move 1 between move, but also bringing out the knight first is standard because the knight is only dangerous in the opening when it’s jumpy explosiveness can cause massive holes and disrupt black’s game pretty severely. The more pieces are removed and the further into the middlegame you get, the less powerful the knights are so making use of them early is important to avoid having an impotent piece later on.

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  • After 1. Nh3 h6 2. Nf4, what do you suggest black to respond with?
    – Aiden Chow
    Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 23:52
  • A good response for a human is 2… e6 which prevents 3. Nd5 and if 3. Nh5 then black has mate in 3 starting with 3… Qh4. This allows black to defend without having to memorize crazy computer lines. The grandmaster way is to play 2… d4 instead.
    – Matthew
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 5:43
  • Disagree. ...h6 is a worse move than ...f6. I would even argue that the point of Nh3 is to force h6 instead of f6.
    – Remellion
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 8:57
  • @Matthew Sorry, I disagree with You. 1. Nh3 h6 2. d4 c6 3. Na3 Qa5+ 4. b4 Qf5 5. Bf4 Na6 6. Ng5 QxN: material disadvantage for the Black. I suggest 2. ... e6.
    – Puck
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 11:21
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The point of 1.Nh3 is to force black to play the more damaging move ...h6 instead of ...f6. This is a strong point in favour of white, especially with the positional 2.d4 followup, instead of the older 2.e3.

1.Nh3 h6 is a perfectly normal opening in atomic; tactics play a larger role in dictating opening moves in atomic than in orthodox chess. 1.d4 looks "normal" but is not as forcing as 1.Nh3.

General opening ideas

In atomic there are two main kinds of openings: those with piece centres, characterised by minor pieces in the centre and generally lots of tactics (e.g. 1.Nf3 f6 2.Nd4 Nh6 3.e3 Ng4); and those with pawn centres, with fewer tactics but greater tension and positional play (e.g. anything with white e4/d4 vs black d5/e6). 1.Nh3 h6 2.d4 falls into the latter category.

Typically in this kind of game, pawns occupy the centre rather than pieces. There will usually be pawns on e4/d4 vs e6/d5 (sometimes e5/d5). In these positions, the knights are naturally developed on the edges, further from the tension in the centre. (Tactics may sometimes allow them to be developed centrally.)

If white plays skillfully, black will always be on the back foot in this kind of opening, cramped and under severe pressure. In the absolute worst case, white has Na3/Nh3 while black has a6/h6, and three of black's minors are still on b8/c8/g8 with no prospects. (Side note: black's c8-bishop can be a thematic problem piece with the d4/e4 vs e6/d5 centres.)

Why is ...h6 bad?

There are two reasons why ...h6 is more often worse than ...f6.

First, in light of the general ideas above, the goal of 1.Nh3 h6 is to prevent black's knight from going to h6. 1...h6 is a necessary evil since 1...f6 2.Nc3 is too good for white. (Side note: I have played 1.Nh3 f6 2.Nc3 Nh6 with some success against 2000 rated players, but it's objectively bad, and more of a mixup to see if my opponents know how to exploit it.)

With h6 blocked, it becomes difficult for black to develop the g8 knight. Ne7 is generally bad and needs another move, while Nf6 is hard to make work. Black will therefore suffer more in the middlegame trying to solve piece activity issues.

The other reason why ...f6 is better is that it creates luft around the king. With f7 empty, moves like Ng5, Ne5, Bc4 and Qb3 do not come with tempo against a king on e8 or f8. This seems like a small point, but can affect many tactical sequences in the middlegame.

In fact, white will often play f3 unprovoked in this kind of Nh3-d4-e4 game, because it's simply a useful move. This kind of move is commonly part of a buildup to a decisive white break in pawn-centre openings.

Blocking the d1-h4 diagonal (white; d8-h5 for black) is not an issue; the queen may go out via a4, b3, or even stay happily on d1.

Likewise, one idea black can try in 1.Nh3 h6 games is to play ...f5 and ...Nf6. Black may have to accept a N for P trade, or even material loss (N+P for P), but can generate some dynamic play in return. (N or B for P is not really material loss in atomic.)

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