The books/articles tell me that the center is d4, d5, e4, and e5.

1. e4 controls d5, but 1. e3 controls d4.

Both control one square in the center, no?

Yet 1. e4 is apparently a vast improvement over 1. e3.

How would occupying e4 make a difference? Surely a pawn doesn't control the square it's on but rather the squares on which it can capture?

I really wish these books/articles aimed at amateurs would be more precisely formulated. There's just way too much frustrating handwaving. Surely I'm not the only amateur who's had this confusion.

  • e4 controls e4 and d5 (2 center squares)
    – user2001
    Feb 27, 2014 at 21:02

7 Answers 7


There isn't that much difference in strength between having a pawn on e4 or one on e3 (usually accompanied by one on d4); there are pros and cons to both (and a pawn on e3 can still go to e4, but not the other way around). The difference is between putting them there on move 1.

Let's take a look at the effects of 1.e4 and 1.e3, concentrating on the actual position. For 1.e4:

  1. 1.e4 influences d5 and f5, squares on which black might want to place a pawn. 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 gives white chances for an advantage, and 1.e4 f5?? is basically impossible.

  2. If you want to play an opening with a pawn on e4, now is the time to play it there. It's a pawn move to an undefended square, black can easily prevent it otherwise. Observe that the most common replies to 1.d4 are 1...Nf6, 1...d5 and 1...f5, all of which prevent 2.e4.

  3. The bishop on f1 is opened up, and it might go to the nice square c4 (in case of 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4).

For 1.e3:

  1. 1.e3 influences d4 and f4, but so what? If white wants to put a pawn there he could already do so, and black can't even legally put anything on those squares next move. So that's not relevant right now.

  2. There is no way in the next ten moves or so that black will be available to prevent a move like e2-e3; it can be postponed until the perfect moment.

  3. White blocks the bishop on c1. Without knowing anything whatsoever about black's setup, white basically already rules out putting the bishop on e3, f4 or g5. If you're going to fianchetto it, why not just start 1.b3. You've just made a concession before black has even played a single move!

  4. The bishop on f1 is opened up, but it can't do much. 1.e3 e5 2.Bc4 just runs into 2...d5 (not enough control over that square).

It's fine to play an opening that involves e3 (as long as you put one or two other pawns near the center instead, otherwise you won't control anything on his half, white is supposed to be attacking), but doing so on move 1 has no advantages. That's a big difference with a pawn on e4, which can be played there on move 1 "for free" and usually only with difficulty after that.


A white pawn on e4 controls e4, d5 and f5. It also has a role for the diagonals b1-h7 and h1-a8. A pawn does control the square it is standing on, since otherwise the opponent can place e.g. a pawn there. For example, if white has the pawn on e3, then black can advance e7-e5-e4 and take control over e4, d3 and f3. Thus, the white e4-pawn has several purposes.

  1. Control e4, d5 and f5.
  2. Cover the diagonals b1-h7 and h1-a8.
  3. Provide the support squares d5 and f5 for the light and heavy pieces.

Therefore, it is clearly stronger than an e3-pawn.

  • Thanks for the reply, Rauan. I think something you wrote there is a bit of a sticking point for me. In both of your replies, you said that a pawn on e4 controls e4. This comment appears in a lot of books/articles as well. I get how a pawn on e4 controls d5 and f5 (because it attacks/threatens those squares), but I don't get how a pawn on e4 controls e4 merely by occupying it (if it's unprotected, it can just be captured -- if it's protected, something else controls e4, no?). Is this related to covering the diagonals -- i.e., it controls e4 in the sense of not letting anything THROUGH e4? Feb 27, 2014 at 21:59
  • 1
    Oh, my bad. I missed "A pawn does control the square it is standing on, since otherwise the opponent can place e.g. a pawn there." Thanks again :) Feb 27, 2014 at 22:01
  • It's weird the conceptual blindness I'm having with chess. I was thinking "huh, a piece can just move to e4 anyway if the pawn is unprotected -- how is occupation control?" but totally overlooked the fact that a pawn on e4 does in fact stop black's e-pawn from getting there. Grrr. :-/ Feb 27, 2014 at 22:06
  • @ChessHatesMe I should add that a white e4-pawn controls e4 because it stops black from controlling it. For example, it is harder for black to place a pawn on d5 or f5, since the e4-pawn can capture it!
    – user2001
    Feb 27, 2014 at 22:22
  • 2
    It's easier to see that 1.d2-d4 also helps control d4: the queen now "sees" d4, which it wouldn't after d3. The same is potentially true for 1.e2-e4, if a queen or rook is later placed behind it when needed. The square becomes part of the sphere of influence of your rooks and queen. Feb 28, 2014 at 8:45

Here are a few reasons 1.e4 is better than 1.e3. I'm sure other respondents will come up with others.

  1. All things being equal, it's nicer to have more space than less space. It gives you more room to maneuver your pieces behind your pawns.
  2. Black would love to play both ...d5 and ...e5, controlling the whole center on your side of the board. If you played e4 you would be fighting his ...d5 idea. If you play e3 you don't.
  3. e4 doesn't block either of your bishops from going to good squares, but e3 gets in the way of your dark-squared bishop.

1.e3 is not a horrible move like a move that gives away a piece is. At worst it probably gives away your first-move advantage and creates an equal position. In fact, Black often moves a central pawn only one square on his first move, so how awful can it be for you to do it first? But 1.e4 accomplishes much more and is a much more ambitious way to play.

  • Thanks, dfan. I was aware of (3) as a development issue, but I was just trying to understand 1. e4 in terms of central control. I think the space idea may be the missing piss of my mental puzzle. Would it also be correct to say that controlling d5 and e5 has a bit more value for white during the opening than controlling d4 and e4, or does that vary widely by opening/plan? Feb 27, 2014 at 21:52
  • 3
    The way I feel about it is that White should feel that controlling d4 and e4 is already his god-given right, and the first thing he should do is start looking for more than that. If your ambitions only extend to half the board, how are you going to win?
    – dfan
    Feb 27, 2014 at 22:45

I don't understand the central-control difference between 1. e4 and 1. e3

Let us go one thing at a time OK?

The books/articles tell me that the center is d4, d5, e4, and e5.

That is correct.

  1. e4 controls d5, but 1. e3 controls d4.

Again, you are right.

Both control one square in the center, no?

Yes they do.

Yet 1. e4 is apparently a vast improvement over 1. e3.

Yes it is-I will explain in detail bellow why is so.

How would occupying e4 make a difference?

Again, I will explain in great detail the difference below.

Surely a pawn doesn't control the square it's on but rather the squares on which it can capture?

Correct again, but there is a difference others pointed out in their answers-see below for more detailed explanation.

e4 Versus e3

Analysis of e4 :

When playing 1.e4 you achieve maximum efficiency that pawn can exert in a move.

You open best diagonals for both the queen and the f1 bishop, and do not obstruct the c1-h6 diagonal for the c1 bishop. Furthermore, you claim control of the d5 and f5 squares.

Why is this important?

Well, by taking away squares d5 and f5 you have taken away the best squares for some of the Black's pieces.

Black would like to place a pawn at d5 to achieve maximum efficiency with that pawn, but can not play 1...d5 without losing a tempo after 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 or entering complications after 2.exd5 Nf6, which gives White position easier to play ( according to the current theory of the Scandinavian defense and my experience ). Furthermore, Black hold for now but there is always a real chance of a novelty being discovered that will crush the entire opening/line.

Black's c8 bishop is always best posted on f5 but that square is also taken away from him with e4, so it is not so easy to actively develop the c8 bishop, especially if White plays h3 too. This means that Black must settle with Be6/Bd7, which is solid but passive or lose time to develop it to b7 which is again a small concession.

Thus, in order to put his own pieces to the best squares, after 1.e4, Black has to make small concessions Which give White a small pressure.

As others have pointed out, your pawn physically occupies e4 thus indirectly restricting the opposing forces. It blocks the e4 square for the Black's e5 pawn/f6 knight or even b7 bishop. In order to put a piece on this square Black must physically destroy this pawn which requires regrouping of his forces which is again a concession in view of investing time to maneuver pieces to execute this plan.

Analysis of e3 :

After e3 you open the best diagonals for queen and f1 bishop, but you close in your c1 bishop. This means that you will lose time to post the bishop to its best and most aggressive square which means that now it is you who will make concessions or lose precious time. You control d4 and f4, but being first to move you could have claimed those squares anyway so we can see at e3 as being slow and as some form of overprotection or prophylaxis. Still, it is not necessary to overprotect anything this early, especially not as White! You also allow Black to play 1.e5! so now he gets the same benefits you could have got with e4.

You also have no control of the opponents central squares which will force you to play "on your side of the board" while your opponent will be free to do whatever he wants* since he will control more space than you do with 1...e5!. This is dangerous, and you usually end up in a passive/cramped position so again it will be you who will make concessions in order to get in the freeing break in order to reach a position with counterplay. And again, Black can use his space advantage to reorganize his pieces and enter a favorable endgame after you conduct your freeing break.

This is very dangerous plan that White performs in many semi-open games after playing 1.e4 and I know from my experience just how dangerous and unpleasant it is to meet.

Also, you do not physically control e4 like above, so your opponent can put e pawn or a knight there, and the scope for his pieces increases-diagonal a8-h1 is now wide open. This makes them more efficient, hence more dangerous. If you ever wish to put a piece or a pawn on e4 you will need to fight for that square, and there is a strong possibility that you will lose that fight.


1.e4 fights for the control of Black's part of the board thus giving you chances for an advantage by hindering his best piece placement. This puts pressure on Black to equalize, while after 1.e3 you will get the solid but passive position and the pressure to equalize would be "on you", since Black will seize the opportunity to grab control of your part of the board either with e5 or d5.

That is all for now, if you have further questions leave a comment and I will edit my post or reply with a follow up comment.

Best regards.


Maybe it will help you if you think that as White, the squares d4 and e4 are your part of the center and the squares d5 and e5 are Black's part of the center.

Sure, by playing e3, you control d4; and with e4 you control d5. Both moves control only one central square, but e4 controls your opponent's central square, so it is more valuable than e3.

Besides, the other advantages of e4 vs e3 are obvious.

  1. You would want to play d4 and some point and your bishop on c1 doesn't get blocked by the pawn on e3.
  2. You are in a position to challenge your opponent's central pawns if they come to e5 or d5 (something which you cannot do with e3).
  3. It's more important to control squares where your opponent's pieces could potentially be developed. e4 and d4 prevent natural squares for Black's bishops on f5 or c5. The moves e3 or d3 do not achieve that.
  4. Your pawns in the center are closer to attacking the Black knights, which are often optimally placed on f6 or c6, with moves like e5 or d5.

At the beginning of the game, out of the 64 squares of the board 32 are occupied. So, space is a valuable commodity at the beginning of the game. 1) e4 allows white access to the e2 and e3 squares. while at the same time denying black access to those squares. e3 on the other hand allows white access only to e2 but blocks the critical e3 square. so e4 accomplishes more than e3. Each square of the board is like an intersection between 4 highways(horizontal, vertical and diagonal) and it is important that these valuable intersection points are not blocked especially if there is some traffic which can flow through them.


The idea you're missing is the idea that a move by you restricts your opponent's choices. You aren't just playing to make good moves but also to restrict your opponent from making good moves.

I would compare it to a game of musical chairs. Whoever controls more chairs wins the game. Same thing in chess. It is as much of an advantage to prevent your opponent from controlling a square as it is to control it yourself.

e4 prevents black from obtaining an equal share of the center. e3 doesn't. Black can respond to e3 with e5, d5 and possibly many other moves and control at least as much of the center.

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