I recently came across a game purportedly played by Napoleon (white) where he opened with
1. Nc3, and went on to win. I've never seen another game that did not open with a pawn. Does a knight opening have any inherent weaknesses? Was it ever popular?
1. Nc3, the Reti Opening (
1. Nf3) is still today one of the most popular openings for white. It has frequent play at amateur and master levels and scores well for both.
The opening starting with
1. Nb1-c3 (long algebraic notation) or
1. Nc3 (short algebraic notation) is called "Van Geet Opening". It is in fact very rare to see this opening being played by either professional players or by amateurs who study the game seriously. White's c pawn gets blocked by the knight with this move, and this might be the reason why pros don't use it very often.
On the other hand, Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908), a strong Russian player from the 1800's played a similar move with the black pieces:
1. d4 d5 2. c4 Nc6 and the opening got his name (Chigorin's Defense).
Some opening manuals feature a few paragraphs on these openings (Van Geet Opening and Chigorin Defense) like, for example, FCO (Fundamental Chess Openings by Paul Van der Sterren), Chess Opening Essentials Vol. 2 and Vol. 4, among many others.
1. Nc3 is not often seen because it blocks the c pawn. In many openings, white wants to push the c pawn to either c3 or c4 in order to help control the center. With the knight already on c3, this will take an extra two tempi.
1. Nf3, the Reti, is more common because pushing the f pawn weakens the king's position. Therefore,
f4 are fairly rare, and it is a safe bet that the f pawn won't be moved until later in the game when the knight may well have moved from f3. Furthermore, with
1. Nf3 white keeps his or her options open - white may play either
c4 at the appropriate moment.
At the highest level of play, grandmasters such as Kramnik essay
1. Nf3 on a frequent basis, and there are complete systems built around it. It also takes care of nuances such as allowing them to sidestep undesirable or unfavourable lines/openings that arise out of normal d4 systems, like the Nimzo-Indian or specific lines in the QGD/KID, or even the English opening.
Note that although it is technically known as the Reti Opening, it is seldom played for the purpose of getting into one, but for the transposition possibilities as mentioned above.
Just to add to what James and Soufiane have already added, and to specifically hit on your question about knight openings having weaknesses: this particular knight opening has the weakness of allowing Black control of the center. Nf3 does not have that same weakness.
1. Nc3 is not a bad move. It is not a "favorite" move because it doesn't open up lines for a queen and bishop like
1. d4 or
1. e4. But you haven't ruled out these possibilities or otherwise wasted a moved.
1. Nf3 is preferred to
1. Nc3. One, because you've moved your knight for early king side castling, and 2) because it deters Black
...d5 would be protected by the queen). But
1. Nc3 does support a later e4.
The advantage of
1. Nc3 is that it is a "quiet" move that allows you to "transpose" into other openings, such as the King's Indian Attack or the Vienna Game. But you retain the option, for a move or two, of WHICH of these other openings. It looks "harmless" but isn't. If Black disregards it, he could be in for a nasty surprise.
The King's Indian Attack can also be played starting with
1. Nf3 and is widely played among amateurs and pros.
Knight openings are common for my opponents. I've found that knight openings can result in quite strong formations later in the game. So among more casual games, knight openings are semi-common and have some advantages.
As some have already said, the move 1. Nc3 has the drawback ot blocking the c-pawn, which is often pushed in closed games. Also, Black has the very concrete move 1... d5 that threatens 2... d4 and asks a serious question to White:
- should I prevent ...d4 by playing 2. d4 myself ? This is possible, but in this case why not playing 1. d4 2. Nc3 that is probably more flexible
- Or do I accept or even provoke 2... d4, trying to counter-attack on Black's big pawn center later on ? The game can typically continue with 1. Nc3 d5 2. e4 d4 3. Nce2 etc
In this opening Black has the upper hand in the center:
And usually White tries to attack on the Kingside with plans like Nh4 followed by f4.
I discuss this opening and other ones as well in the following video, if you are interested to know more: https://youtu.be/A-0EiR8b0Gk