I started chess some time ago. I was studying opening theory and it seems most opening moves characterize the style of play. I want to ask how can a couple of moves determine the whole game play? For example, the french defense is known to be solid and offers counter-attacking chances. How can two moves i.e. e4 e6 d4 d5 say so much about the game?

With my limited experience, I can only think of the following reason:- 1) Pawn structure: Since pawns cannot be moved backwards, so depending on your first moves, the best moves that you can play usually depend on your opening.

Any more reasons? If possible, please explain in general and also the particular case of french defense. Thanks.

2 Answers 2


Your intuition is right; it's all about the pawns.

  1. As you note, they can't move backwards.

  2. They can't capture straight ahead, so two opposing pawns facing each other (say on e4 and e5) can't move.

  3. They are the least valuable piece, so no one (generally) will capture one with a piece if their piece can be recaptured in turn. So (generally) the only thing that gets exchanged for a pawn is another pawn, which can be hard to make happen because of the way they move.

As a result of all of this, your pawn structure is (generally) the least dynamic part of your position, and all your other piece movement is in relation to it. These pawn structures are often set pretty early in the opening, so they recur a lot and people have studied them very deeply.

  • It still seems a bit far-fetched to me. Can you explain using a particular opening like french defense? What all can we say based on the moves e4 e6 d4 d5? How can we make some conclusions about the game based on these two moves? Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 14:59
  • After White plays e5, the d- and e-pawns are locked in place, and White has a nice space advantage. Black's plans will largely involve breaking up this pawn chain with ...c5 (attacking d4) and ...f6 (attacking e5). If White does not play e5 (say, he plays exd5 or Black plays dxe4), the game will have a very different character.
    – dfan
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 15:38
  • I understand the initial concepts that black will attack wthi c5 and f7-f6 at some point. Also his light square bishop is trapped. All these concepts are clear. But I don't understand the conclusion that "French has a reputation for solidity and resilience, though it can result in a somewhat cramped game for Black in the early stages. Black often gains counterattacking possibilities on the queenside while White tends to concentrate on the kingside" (as quoted by wikipedia). Can you explain these broad conclusions? Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 16:00
  • It is solid because White has no easy way to refute it. It is resilient because Black often bounces back and seizes the initiative after attacking White's pawn chain with ...c5 and ...f6. It is somewhat cramped because White has more space. Black has counterattacking possibilities on the queenside because that's where he has more space. White tends to concentrate on the kingisde because that's where he has more space.
    – dfan
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 20:02
  • I would stress that these descriptions are very general. It is possible to play the french in a very aggressive and less than solid manner, just generally most of the possible variations are solid/counter attacking. Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 7:19

Although the responses above seem to address the original question well, there is another angle to the question that I feel should be addressed. Built in to the original question is the question:

"How in the world can anyone look at the first two moves of the game and say so much about how the rest of the game will proceed? Can't anyone play any move they want?"

My response goes like this:

In the broadest sense, NO - nobody can say anything about how the rest of the game will proceed. For all we know, white will respond to the French with 3. a3 ... 4. a4 ... 5. a5 ... followed by 6. Ra2 .. 7. Ra3 and so forth. After which I'm sure black could really open up the position.

Discussions about opening theory don't consider absurdity like this - they assume that if you are even interested in the topic you are already beyond making pointless moves.

When opening theorists state things like "the French defense leads to imbalanced positions, strong pawn structures for black, etc. what they really should be saying is "assuming competent play by both sides, the French leads to (insert whatever here). Similar to dfan above, authors grow tired of writing "assuming competent moves on both sides" in front of every sentence they write.

In the case of the French defense, white really only has two or three viable options, after which black only has two or three competent responses, and so on (check any opening table or discussion of the French defense to see what they are). Besides, many of these responses ultimately lead to the same position anyway. The fact that for the first ten or so moves, most opening moves only have two or three legitimate responses, two or three counter-responses, and so forth leads us to make statements like "the French leads to closed positions and strong pawn structures."

Just thought I'd clear this up for the original question and any future readers of this post.


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