In this post, I’d like to take a look at White’s options when starting the game and describe the practical aspects of each.
I will look at White’s four main moves: 1.c4, 1.d4, 1.e4 and 1.Nf3. Let’s take it from first to last.
After 1.c4 Black has a huge variety of options. Literally, every single move of the following leads to a respectable variation or opening: 1…b6, 1…c6, 1…c5, 1…d6, 1…e6, 1…e5, 1…f5, 1…Nf6 and 1…g6. This is a lot! It is not surprising therefore that the English Opening is primarily popular at the higher levels; it requires a lot of preparation in openings and variations that are distinctly different from each other. Strong players often like to keep things flexible, and the English is excellent for that, but the amount of work required to have the luxury of flexibility is not to everybody’s liking.
After 1.d4 Black’s choices are more limited. Theoretically speaking Black’s best moves are 1…d5 and 1…Nf6. Going from first to last, 1…b6 and 1…b5 are dubious, as is 1…c5, as after 2.d5 White has a favourable Benoni with the pawn still on c2, so he can use the c4 square for the Ng1. 1…d6 is acceptable, even though after 2.c4 or 2.Nf3 (keeping things in the territory of the closed openings; 2.e4 would lead to either a Philidor or Pirc) Black is less solid than in the lines after the main moves. 1…e6 wil probably transpose to something else (a French or to some e6-system) and 1…f5 is playable, although here I always remember the famous words of Tigran Petrosian who once said something like, If your opponent wants to play the Dutch, the best thing to do is not to prevent him! 1…g6 is also very likely to transpose, to a Modern, Pirc or a KID.
After 1 d4 d5 2 c4, all Black’s main options, the Slav, the QGA and the QGD are perfectly fine. In fact, White has big difficulties proving an iota of an advantage in all of them.
After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Black is at a crossroads. He can choose either e6- systems after 2…e6 or g6-systems after 2…g6. The Benko/Benoni complex after 2…c5 is by far less solid, and theoretically White should be better there. The e6-systems (Nimzo, QID and Bogo-Indian) fall into the same category as the openings mentioned above (Slav, QGD, QGA) – Black is in excellent shape there and White is struggling to create problems. Of the g6-systems only the Grunfeld is doing spectacularly well, while the KID is under a cloud, though there are always brave souls who are happy to try it out (this is obviously true only for the elite, at lower levels the KID is more than fine).
To sum up, after 1. d4 White has major difficulties in the Slav, QGD, QGA, the Nimzo/QID/Bogo-Indian complex, and the Grunfeld.
After 1.e4 Black again has a lot of options which are very good. From first to last, 1…b6 is dubious, but 1…c6, 1…c5, 1…e6 and 1…e5 are all excellent. 1…d6 and 1…d5 are playable, but theoretically speaking they stand on a lower scale than the other 4 first moves.
The Alekhine Defence is not as good as it used to be (the Nb6 is somewhat dim after all and Tarrasch is probably smiling somewhere now) and 1…g6 is similar to 1…d6 and 1…d5 – playable but riskier than the main alternatives.
White’s main problem after 1.e4 is that apart from Black having 4 excellent first-move choices, he also has a variety of good options within these openings.
Take the Sicilian as an example. If White goes for the Open Sicilian, he is faced with all the Sicilians at the same time – almost all of them are excellent for Black and White can easily become worse if he is outprepared or surprised in the opening! Looking to be practical, White (under Carlsen’s influence) started to employ the Rossolimo not less frequently and it became as mainstream as the Open Sicilian. The character of play is different here, play is less forced and there is considerably less danger to lose with White in the opening or early middlegame, but as in the Open Sicilians Black has equal game there as well.
White has a choice of what to do against the French, as all three main moves, 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2 and 3.e5 are equally popular, but this only means that Black is doing well against all three. The most practical is 3.e5 as after it Black’s choice is the most limited compared to the other third moves, but that’s the only advantage 3.e5 has over the other two moves.
The Ruy Lopez (or the Spanish) is possibly the toughest nut to crack (and while we’re at it, don’t forget the Petroff, or the Russian Defence). It’s not only the Berlin that is problematic, it’s all the other lines too: the Arkhangelsk (5…b5 6.Bb3 Bb7), the Yurtaev/Tkachiev (5…b5 6.Bb3 Bc5), the Open Variation, the Marshall, the Chigorin, Breyer, Zaitsev, Smyslov… Again, White players wanted to be practical and this saw the surge of the Giuoco Piano, but things have grown quite complex there as well, with Black having a wide choice of plans.
Things are not easy for the 1.e4 player nowadays.
The last move of the four, 1.Nf3, is very similar to the English Opening (and can often transpose) in regards to the flexibility it offers, though here Black’s most solid options are limited to 1…c5, 1…d5 and 1…Nf6, although moves like 1…b5, 1…b6, 1…f5 and 1…g6 can be played, with the latter two a tad better than the first two, mostly because of the transpositional possibilities. But even though Black’s most solid moves are “only” three, the options Black keeps after each are many. In practice, the choice between 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 is made depending on whether White wants to prevent the d5-systems (like the QGD and Slav), in which case he plays 1 c4, or the 1…e5 system against the English, in which case he plays 1 Nf3.
To conclude, it is not easy to play White in modern chess! A lot of work is required and even when done properly it is often in vain because Black is indeed OK in most of the openings. It is not surprising then that White’s opening strategy nowadays is to be unpredictable by varying his openings often and to prepare surprises for the game at hand. No illusions of refutations or long-term opening ideas. Hit and run is the way to be practical with White, but the problem is that not always you get to hit, but at least you can almost always run (to a draw).