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I'm a ~1750 Elo player and I've been thinking of switching my opening repertoire for White.

So my question is: between 1.d4 and 1.Nf3, what is the White first move that generally leads to the most solid, positional, slow, closed, strategic and quiet positions?

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I am only including 1. d4 and 1. Nf3 in the question, and not 1. e4 and 1. c4.

I think 1. e4 is clearly on average sharper and more tactical than 1. d4 or 1. Nf3 because of the Sicilian (although maybe there is the Rossolimo and the Moscow variations which look pretty slow and solid, I'm not sure...). Also, I hate having a Pawn on e4 not protected by any other of my Pawn during the entire game, I have to constantly watch out for it..

And 1. c4 can also get very sharp and tactical because of 1... e5, the Sicilian Reversed.

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Of course I know that any of those first moves can lead to any type of positions. But I want to know ON AVERAGE which leads to the least tactical ones. Just like there are a few quiet and positional lines in the Sicilian, but on average the Sicilian is considered to be a highly tactical opening, certainly not a quiet opening.

And I don't want to get into solid, strategic and quiet positions because I suck at tactics (it's not the case, I played the Sicilian for 3 years, and did more than 5000 tactical puzzles). It's just because I love slow manoeuvring, I want to be able to be perfectly relaxed while playing, and not get into insane positions and stress out knowing that one single inaccuracy can be fatal. Maybe you still think that playing wild games full of tactics everywhere will make me improve faster, but I don't care because I don't want to become a Grandmaster, I just want to enjoy the game, and I'll enjoy it more if I can get the positions which I personally like (solid, quiet and strategic positions).

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I'm a ~1750 Elo player and I've been thinking of switching my opening repertoire for White. ... And I don't want to get into solid, strategic and quiet positions because I suck at tactics (it's not the case, I played the Sicilian for 3 years, and did more than 5000 tactical puzzles). ... Maybe you still think that playing wild games full of tactics everywhere will make me improve faster ...

First of all, it is exactly the quiet positions that help improve a player, not the tactical ones. Everybody learn tactics, anyone can find mate in five when playing their own game so the only thing you should do is just keep solving puzzles and that's it. Your tactical skill will always be high, but never at the level of a GM. Why? Because some sacrifices are positional and are made with the intent of getting long-term compensation instead of mating in five or returning the sacrifices material. In order to master these, you need a strong understanding of middlegame positions that may arise from the openings you play.

Furthermore, with "quiet" play, you actually play chess instead of doing mindless checking for tactics, which will greatly help you improve. In quiet positions, you must still calculate and check for tactics, but you also must frequently decide which pieces are good to exchange and which are not ( this is very helpful when transitioning into endgame -> you would be surprised how often "tactical players" of high skill make banal mistakes in this area! ), you must take into account endgames that may arise and above all, you always have to evaluate pawn structure that may arise after every move played. To master "quiet" games you will need a lot of work on endgames, pawn structures and middlegame plans, but you will get so much in return -> you will be able to effortlessly grind down lesser players, outplay "tactical players" of equal rating, and offer very strong resistance against stronger players. So I understand exactly where you appeal for closed games comes from and will try to help you as best as I can. And for the record, playing "quiet" games will make you become GM faster than playing tactical games. GMs/IMs do not make mistakes in pure tactical positions, those are just well explored and every master knows them by heart. Tell me when was the last time you saw Sicilian Najdorf in World Championship match?? You will always see 1.d4 because of reasons that are too broad to be posted here...

So my question is: between 1.d4 and 1.Nf3, what is the White first move that generally leads to the most solid, positional, slow, closed, strategic and quiet positions?

These two overlap, technically you can find all the 1.Nf3 openings transpose into certain opening lines that start with 1.d4.

The only sharp opening that is dangerous for your style of play is King's Indian Defense, since it requires a lot of learning, is sharp and some lines are extremely theoretical. Other nonsense, like BenOni or Chigorin defense are just rubbish and should not phase you ( BenOni is nearly refuted with Taimanov attack and you can bypass the Chigorin defense by simply playing Nf3 before you hit with c4 ) since most of the time White has an advantage or can simply dodge them altogether.

The problem with 1.Nf3 approach is that you can not battle Queen's Gambit Declined with favorable version of the Exchange variation and there are other openings where early Nf3 reduces your chances for obtaining an advantage. Still, this move offers you big practical chances to outplay your opponent with transpositional tricks. I haven't played active chess for quite some time ( 10+ years to be precise ) but let me show you on a small example what I am talking about:

[Title "Black wants to play with full center, but is tricked into passive position"]
[fen ""]

1.Nf3 Nc6 2.d4! 

and Black has blocked his c-pawn thus condemning himself to passive play if he enters pawn structures with d5+e6, so he should aim for e5+d6 pawn structure with 2...d6 but White may play 3.Bf4, keeping e5 square in his control. The tactical shot 3...Nxd4 fails due to 4.Qxd4! e5 5.Nxe5 dxe5 6.Qxe5+ +-. He could try to go for e5 with 2..Bg4 but then simple e3 will force him to exchange the bishop for a knight in order to enforce ...e5. Although you allowed ...e5 you got bishop pair in return. This is known as trading one advantage for another and is important concept in positional play. With 1.Nf3 most of your games will be of this type, but you will have to cover a lot of theory so you can take the maximum transpositional tricks can offer you. Furthermore, you you have a chance to dodge the sharp lines:

[Title "White dodges King's Indian Defense"]
[fen ""]

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.O-O O-O 5.d3!? d6 

And now you could play c4, e4 or even c3 going for b4 and action on the queenside. The position is stable for both sides so the player with broader knowledge and higher creativity will prevail. The point of 1.Nf3 is that you must have a vast opening knowledge and strong grasp of typical middlegame positions like Isolated or Hanging pawns, various exchange lines ( like in QGD, Slav, French defense and so on...) and even main lines, so you can successfully decide in which direction to steer the game.

As for 1.d4, things are different. This move reduces the amount of work you must invest in learning the pawn structures/middlegame plans and variations, but offers Black great chances to sharpen the game. Various gambits, King's Indian defense and so on are now a real option. You would have to accept that sometimes you will have to play mind-blowing, wild tactical games, you initially wished to dodge. Your biggest problem will be Nimzo-Indian defense since it scores very well against 1.d4, but you can dodge it by playing Nf3 instead of Nc3. Although the subtle move order can take away best response for Black, you too must pay the price. Black may play Queen's Indian defense, which gives White a small advantage but is considered drawish, or he can trick you and choose to play Queen's Gambit since the most dangerous reply -> the Exchange variation after cxd5, is harmless for him since you have Nf3 instead of Ne2.

In my opinion, 1.Nf3 will offer you solid and strategic positions you seek, but you will have to work harder and be ready to make more draws than wins since most of the time the best options for White can be bypassed by Black.

Comparing 1.d4 vs 1.Nf3 further would be too broad, so I will ask you to leave a comment if you need further help. In the end, here are some books I would recommend:

For 1.d4:

  1. B.Avrukh-Grandmaster repertoire 1;
  2. B.Avrukh-Grandmaster repertoire 2;
  3. B.Avrukh-Grandmaster repertoire 8;
  4. B.Avrukh-Grandmaster repertoire 9;
  5. B.Avrukh-Grandmaster repertoire 10;
  6. B.Avruhk-Grandmaster repertoire 11;
  7. L.Shandorff-Playing the Queens Gambit ( second edition! );

For 1.Nf3:

  1. A.Khalifman-Opening for White according to Kramnik ( all of the books in the series! );

Good luck and best regards.

  • Good answer! Against the QGD I do in fact play the Exchange Variation. But not with Ne2, I don't like moving my f pawn and then trying to get a big center and attack my opponent's King like that, it's just not my style. I play Nf3 and go for a minority attack. Anyways, it's impossible to get into a good Exchange Variation if you begin with 1. Nf3 right? Because you'll have lost one tempo, and so Black will be able to develop his ligth squared Bishop to f5 before you can get your own ligth squared Bishop to d3. So if I play 1. Nf3 I will have to give up playing the Exchange Variation.. – Fate Jun 14 '14 at 21:26
  • And, just like your second board shows, it seems that the big idea behind 1. Nf3 is to then have the possibility of playing g3, Bg2, 0-0. But the thing is, I never fianchetto any of my Bishops, ever. I view the fianchetto as too risky, too fragile... the fianchettoed Bishop can then be exchanged pretty easily (except if ...Bh3 is answered by Bh1 but that seems a little weird to me), the ennemy's Queen can land on h3, the opponent can throw his h Pawn down at my King... and the position becomes sharp and tactical. Or am I viewing this wrong? – Fate Jun 14 '14 at 21:26
  • Oh and about all your books, I do have a book written by Schandorff too, on the Caro-Kann, it was good but I would have prefered a less aggressive repertoire. It seems that there are a thousand times more books about 1.d4 or 1.e4 than about 1.Nf3, it's pretty weird.. I have heard about the Opening for White According to Kramnik series of books. But currently I really don't have enough time to study like ~10 books each of probably 300-400 pages... way too much. – Fate Jun 14 '14 at 21:27
  • And I've read that it isn't really a book about 1.Nf3 : newinchess.com/… " About the concept of these series Khalifman writes: "It is not exactly a book about openings, at least not in the generally accepted fashion. It is not about the move 1.Nf3 and not about the Reti opening at all." " – Fate Jun 14 '14 at 21:27
  • Do you know of any other good books about 1. Nf3 ? – Fate Jun 14 '14 at 21:28
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A very comprehensive answer to this has already been given, but I'll add that in my experience over a number of years (my rating is the same as yours) the White first move 1.d4 has generally lead to the most solid, positional, slow, closed, strategic and quiet positions as opposed to 1.Nf3. The normal lines in the former closed, positional opening have been well explored for some time and are difficult to subvert into an open game save with some type of counter-gambit gambit such as the Albin, Englund or Budapest, while the latter opening move is less definitive and can lead to many different opening structures, not all of which can be kept under strict positional control and can have tactical elements. I know this is somewhat ambiguous without concrete examples, but in general hypermodern openings such as 1.Nf3 give up the center and have not proven as strong as classical beginnings like 1.d4. The 1.Nf3 move can lead to Reti, KIA or Catalan structures as well as transposing back into QP openings and will require a broader opening knowledge than just of the responses to 1.d4. But if you want to experiment and broaden your understanding of chess, it would be a viable option while still not opening up the game like 1.e4.

  • I open with 1.Nf3, and have yet to be prevented from playing d4 when it was a good idea. But I grant you Black can make you work for it. The good news is that d4 isn't always a good idea. – jaxter Sep 24 '16 at 2:55
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If you are concerned about avoiding a lot of theory, and since 1.Nf3 transposes into more openings than 1.d4 does, I'd pick 1.d4 on that basis alone.

If you really want to play an opening with less theory, the London System is so non-confrontational initially that it has no sharp lines to speak of. Plenty of club players I know use it because they're not interested in learning a lot theory, and like the quiet positions it produces.

The initial lines are presented as a teaser at the Chess Publishing website. You can purchase a subscription to the entire set of "d-pawn Specials" Opening Analysis articles for more details, if you want, or any book on the London.

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