1.e4 is “best by test” – those were the words of Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time. And he was not alone in his assessment. Many of the greatest players in history have preferred to start their chess games by moving their king’s pawn two spaces forward: Mikhail Tal, Viswanathan Anand, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Wesley So, just to name a few.
So what’s so great about 1.e4? Why would it be preferable to, say, 1.d4? Is it a good opening for beginners?
In this ultimate intro to 1.e4 for the beginner player, we’ll discuss the answer to all these questions and give you an overview of every mainstream defense to 1.e4 Black can play. You’ll have an understanding of what playing 1.e4 is like, what is likely to pop up, and you’ll even have recommendations on quality Chessable courses to help with each opening: many of them free!
So grab some coffee, sit back, relax, and join us in the world of the King’s Pawn Opening.
Why Play 1.e4?
Each of the four main ways to start a chess game (1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3) each open up a door to an entirely different family of openings. Those families tend to have certain characteristics, too. 1.d4, for example, tends to lead to positions which are more closed (i.e., the pawns tend to be locked up and pieces have less freedom in movement). As such, the openings resulting from 1.d4 are often categorized as Closed Games. If you take some time to examine some of the 1.d4 openings, such as the Queen’s Gambit, Slav Defense, Dutch Defense, and Nimzo-Indian Defense, you will find that this basically holds true.
In contrast, games stemming from 1.e4 tend to be more open in nature. Sicilians, Scotch Games, Scandinavian Defenses are often wide open, and the pieces tend to enjoy much more freedom in movement. They are consequently referred to as the Open Games for this reason.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. You will definitely find some open positions after 1.d4, such as the Open Catalan (it’s even in the name!) And similarly, you will find some closed positions after 1.e4, for example, as in many variations of the French Defense. When it comes to the Sicilian, White can even choose to play a Closed Sicilian or an Open Sicilian, and has similar choices in many other openings.
Since the positions after 1.e4 allow plenty of movement for the pieces, they consequently result in sharper, more tactical play (and therefore more ‘attacking play’) than 1.d4 openings. After all, if your pieces have a lot of freedom to do what they want, more tactical possibilities will present themselves – meaning both you and your opponent have to be more careful, as the fireworks might go off at any moment!
Take the classic Opera Game for example, played by the great American chess player Paul Morphy in 1858. If you’ve never seen this game before or don’t remember it well, try following along by playing the moves out on a real chess board. It’s well worth learning!
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 d6 3.d4 Bg4 4.dxe5 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 dxe5 6.Bc4 (threatening a quick checkmate on f7 with Qxf7#) Nf6 7.Qb3
Due to the open nature of the position, White was able to swing his queen all the way from f3 to b3 at the drop of a hat, keeping his attack on f7 alive and generating a new threat against b7.
7…Qe7 (defending against checkmate) 8.Nc3 c6 (guarding b7 by moving the c-pawn so the queen can keep an eye on it) 9.Bg5 b5? 10.Nxb5!
Yep, Morphy sacrifices his knight for a pawn, but in an open game like this one, he can get away with it since his pieces are very well developed! With open games, development and piece activity are of paramount importance, even more so than material at times. Black’s king is going to be in a world of trouble very soon.
10…bxc5 11.Bxb5+ Nbd7 12.O-O-O (adding more pressure to d7) 13.Rxd7 (again, Morphy sacrifices a piece for the initiative! He knows d7 is weak and is running out of defenders. Notice how Morphy is capitalizing on the open position by bringing all of his pieces into the attack, while Black’s sad pieces tend to sit on the back rank. In open games, the importance of rapid development cannot be stressed enough!) Rxd7 14.Rd1 Qe6 (removing the pin on the f6 knight so Black can defend d7 without losing his queen) 15.Bxd7 Nxd7 16.Qb8+! Nxb8 17.Rd8#
Who wouldn’t want to win a game like that? And it was all possible due to the open nature of the position. Many other 1.e4 games have a similar tactical, attacking beauty. If you’re still convinced, check out the game by Bobby Fischer at the end of this post!
Should Beginners Play 1.e4?
Okay, sure, all these pros can play 1.e4 and make it look easy. But are sharp, tactical positions good for a beginner chess player?
Absolutely. Since rapid development and king safety are necessary in open games for purely practical (i.e., survival!) reasons, 1.e4 teaches players these skills very well – and these skills are two of the most fundamental skills in chess, regardless of the opening.
It’s also very important to know your tactics. Tactics arise everywhere in chess, even in the most closed of positions. So by building a tactical sense with the most tactical of openings, you will be equipped to handle a wide range of positions. The wide range of piece moves will teach you how to analyze a large number of possibilities and narrow your focus down to the most relevant ones.
While they sound complicated, in actual practice, 1.e4 openings tend to be much simpler in a lot of regards compared to other openings. First moves like 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 tend to lead to very tricky openings where White voluntarily “gives up” the center to Black’s pawns and then attacks them later (called a hypermodern approach). But these types of openings require extreme precision and a deep knowledge of transpositions, i.e., reaching openings through different move orders – and as a result they’re not very kind to beginners.
What Openings Should I Study to Become a Good 1.e4 Player?
So let’s say you’re interested in becoming an 1.e4 player (and rightfully so!). How do you get started?
Remember, 1.e4 is a family of openings, not an opening by itself. After you play 1.e4, Black has a multitude of ways to respond, and the game will take on a different nature in each of them. You should be prepared to face all of the mainstream defenses, of which, I would say there are eight critical ones to know:
1…e5, which can lead to several different openings (explained in more detail later)
1…c5, the Sicilian Defense
1…e6, the French Defense
1…c6, the Caro-Kann Defense
1…d5, the Scandinavian Defense
1…Nf6, Alekhine’s Defense
1…d6, the Pirc Defense (and its cousin, the Modern Defense with 1…g6)
1…Nc6 Nimzowitsch’s Defense
There are more defenses than these, but even in the “Ultimate Guide” it isn’t possible or practical to cover every possible Black response! But if you prepare for these eight responses which make up the mainstream defenses, you will be off to a great start in the vast majority of your games. Let’s take a look at each one by one.
Black plays 1…e5
One of the most common responses to 1.e4 is 1…e5. This move has a lot of sense behind it. It stops White’s e-pawn from advancing any further and controls d4 and f5, key central squares. It also opens up the king’s bishop so it can develop and help Black castle faster – just as it did for White.
2.Nf3 is the main continuation, attacking White’s pawn and developing a piece. Black will typically respond 2…Nf6, developing his own knight and protecting the e5 pawn, which is now under attack by White’s knight.
From this position, there are three very strong ways to play, including 3.Bb5, the Ruy Lopez (a.k.a. the Spanish Game); 3.d4, the Scotch Game; and 3.Bc4, the Italian Game.
All of these are good, but I would recommend the Italian Game for beginner players. It’s a solid opening which allows you to develop quickly, get your king safe fast, and enjoy a game with a nice mix of tactical and strategic possibilities.
For an introduction to the Italian Game, check out this free course on Chessable: Short & Sweet: The Italian Game.
Before continuing on to the Sicilian Defense, I would like to point out that 2…Nc6 is not Black’s only mainstream continuation, even if it is the most prevalent and challenging. He could reply with 1…d6, the solid Philidor Defense, or something more dubious, such as the 1…d5, the Elephant Gambit. These openings can be tricky, but are not too challenging, so I will let you explore them for yourself. Just be aware of them in your games.
The Sicilian Defense (1…c5)
When Black decides to play 1…c5 in response to 1.e4, you’ve entered the Sicilian family of openings. This move might not seem so logical at first – Black only controls one central square, and the c-pawn frees only his queen for development. What gives?
But by playing …c5, Black is creating an imbalance in the game. If White ever plays d4 (quite frequently the case), Black will swap it for his c-pawn, and now he’s traded White’s central pawn for his wing pawn. This imbalance will lead to dynamic games, often with loads of sharp, tactical possibilities. For that reason, it is the most popular way for grandmasters to handle 1.e4 – and Beth Harmon played in The Queen’s Gambit, so it must be good 😉.
White can handle the Sicilian in two general ways. One is to play 2.Nf3, in similar fashion to handling 1…e5. This is called an Open Sicilian, and will definitely lead to the dynamic play I mentioned. However, this will require you to know a lot of variations, such as the Najdorf, Dragon, Taimanov, Sveshnikov, and a whole slew of others.
However, White can also elect to play an Anti-Sicilian, such as the Closed Sicilian, Alapin Sicilian, or Grand Prix Attack. By doing so, White takes control of the game, and Black cannot play his desired system. That said, play will be much more closed and quiet than your typical Sicilian – which is not to everybody’s taste, and is a much less ambitious approach, objectively speaking.
Both ways to play are fine, but since you came to 1.e4 looking for a fight, I recommend sticking with the Open Sicilian. You’ll have to learn more variations, but that’s a good thing – you’ll learn more about chess, and you’ll learn ideas that can be useful across other variations. Plus, your opponents won’t know all the variations either, so it’s not as hard as it sounds!
That said, if you’re limited on your study time but still want to get a good game against the Sicilian, I would recommend the Closed Sicilian (2.Nc3), which offers an easy set-up and good game without too much to memorize. You can get a great education on it in The Patient Closed Sicilian on Chessable.
The French Defense (1…e6)
This move also might look a little odd at first, but it too has an interesting point. In the French Defense, Black is looking to create a strong pawn chain on f7, e6, and d5, taking firm control of the center.
He will also undermine White’s center with …c5 soon, trying to trade off a wing pawn for a central pawn, in a similar nature to the Sicilian.
Note that taking on c5 is usually not recommended, because Black would get strong control of the center. In most cases, it’s better to “keep the tension” by just continuing with development.
White has a few ways to handle the French, such as the Advance Variation (3.e5), Exchange Variation (3.exd5), and Tarrasch Variation (3.Nd2). I recommend 2.d4 and after the standard 2…d5, I recommend 3.Nc3, the Normal Variation, as it defends e4 and develops a piece. Black in turn has two main responses to that, the Winawer (3.Bb4) and Classical variations (3.Nf6), both of which you should know how to play against.
In either case, the Normal Variation is arguably the most challenging way to play against the French. To get a feel for the French, try playing it a bit from the Black perspective, e.g., with this free course: Short & Sweet: The French Defense. Once you feel comfortable with that and want a full guide to taking down the French as White, check out French Toast: How Harikrishna fries 1…e6 on Chessable.
The Caro-Kann Defense (1…c6)
Similar to the Sicilian Defense, the Caro-Kann aims to swap off the c-pawn for a central pawn, but it does it in a different way. Specifically, it wants to swap off White’s e-pawn, not d-pawn. The idea is that after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5), Black expects a trade on d5 or e4, realizing his goal. But even if he doesn’t swap it, he’ll at least have a strong pawn structure, namely with pawns on c6 and e6, clamping down on the center.
But White has many options here, too, much like the French Defense. He can swap it off as Black intended (The Exchange Variation), leave it alone and defend the e4 pawn with, for example, 3.Nc3 (The Classical Variation), or he can advance the e-pawn to e5 with the Advance Variation. Other moves can be played, but these are probably the most appropriate for beginner level.
Of these systems, I recommend the Advance Variation. It captures a lot of space for White, and if White plays the common 3…Bf5 to get his light-square bishop out before the position closes, you can play the very challenging Short Variation with 4.Nf3.
The Scandinavian Defense (1…d5)
Wait a second…how does this make sense? After 2.exd5, doesn’t Black have to recapture with the queen to avoid losing a pawn? Isn’t it bad to take the queen out too early in chess?
Yes, typically that’s true. The Scandinavian is a seemingly odd way to combat 1.e4, but it’s not without its logic. The logic is somewhat advanced, but essentially the idea is to reach a pawn structure that looks like this, after say 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qa5 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Be2 c6 6.O-O e6:
This pawn structure, known as the Caro structure, is known as one of the most solid in chess. So by playing the Scandinavian, Black was able to achieve this structure while keeping a very open position. Contrast this to other openings with Caro structures such as the Caro-Kann. While the Caro-Kann opening often leads to the Caro structure, Black runs the risk of a closed position if White decides to play the Advance Variation, for example.
Another benefit of the Scandinavian is that White’s d-pawn is a little awkward. If he puts it on d4, it can come under serious pressure from a rook on d8 later in the game, and he often can’t move it due to Black’s pawn on c6 and/or e6 (and possibly his queen stuck on d1!)
Therefore, the Scandinavian might look a little funny at first, but it is actually quite a respectable opening. To learn the basics, try learning it from the Black side with this free course: IM John Bartholomew’s Scandinavian. Then learn to beat it from White’s perspective with Smash the Scandinavian Defense.
Alekhine’s Defense (1….Nf6)
The namesake defense of former World Champion Alexander Alekhine may look odd at first, but it is rather pesky in practical play.
Your first impression might be “well, let’s just play 2.e5, kicking the knight away.” So you play 2.e5, and Black goes 2.Nd5. “Okay, let’s kick it away again and put another pawn in the center…Black’s just playing into my hands!” So you play 3.c4, and Black moves it the knight again with 3…Nb6. Now comes 4.d4, and White has a massive center while Black has kept moving one lousy knight repeatedly…what sense is there in that?
It’s not as crazy as it looks! Alekhine’s Defense is a hypermodern opening, which I touched upon briefly in an earlier section. Yes, White will get a “super center” by occupying it with a bunch of pawns and grabbing a lot of space in the process. He may even play f4 at some point, a variation known as The Four Pawns Attack.
However, taking too much space without backing it up with pieces can create weaknesses, which Black can exploit. This is a common principle in modern chess, and it’s the principle behind Alekhine’s Defense. Black will eventually play moves like …g6 and put a bishop on g7 which will cut through White’s center after undermining it with pawn moves like …e6. You can learn more about Black’s approach with Short & Sweet: The Alekhine Defense.
The Pirc Defense (…d6) and Modern Defense (…g6)
Another tricky hypermodern response to 1.e4 is the Pirc Defense, which starts with …d6. This move stops White from playing e5, meaning that Black can safely develop his knight to f6 without it being attacked. The plan from there is …g6 and …Bg7, to get a nice hypermodern setup keeping an eye on the center, like after 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Be3 Bg7:
Black can also achieve a similar setup through a different opening, the Modern Defense (1…g6). The Pirc and the Modern are very similar and can be handled with similar ideas. One idea is the Austrian Attack (5.f4) which will attempt to break open Black’s solid fianchetto structure guarding his king.
You can learn about how to deal with these openings using the Austrian Attack with this course.
Nimzowitsch’s Defense (1…Nc6)
That brings us to our last mainstream defense against 1.e4, Nimzowitsch’s Defense. Truth be told, Nimzowitsch’s Defense is not considered to be too mainstream anymore, though it does show up from time to time.
Nimzowitsch’s Defense is yet another example of a hypermodern opening which invites White to take early control with the center using his pawns, only to be undermined later by Black. In fact, Aron Nimzowitsch, for whom the opening was named, is considered to be the father of the hypermodern chess school, so perhaps it comes as no surprise it’s a hypermodern opening!
Let’s see a few moves played out. 1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4
The point is that after 4.d5, Black will play 4…Ne5, putting terrible pressure on the pinned knight sitting on f3. In this way, Black dares White by saying “go ahead and take your space – I will seize upon the weaknesses created from it.”
There is not much to fear with Nimzowitsch’s Defense though, and especially with the 2…d6 version (known as the Williams Variation), play will look a lot like a Pirc Defense, and many ideas from that opening will be applicable to the Nimzowitsch Defense.
And that’s it! You’ve now been introduced to all the mainstream openings that appear after 1.e4. Piece of cake, right? Well, it’s not as hard as it sounds – even by taking the free Short & Sweet courses on Chessable, your opening knowledge will expand by leaps and bounds, giving you an edge over the majority of chess players.
So, give 1.e4 a try and enjoy the rich tactical play that comes with it. My strong advice though is not to get discouraged if you have a few rough games – you could easily have a few rough games with 1.d4, 1.c4, or 1.Nf3! What’s important to decide is if you are having fun playing the open, attacking chess that comes along with the King’s Pawn Opening.
If you do decide 1.e4 is right for you, there are comprehensive repertoires dedicated to it on Chessable, put together by the best chess players and authors around. They will prepare you for all the openings listed above and more. Among these repertoires, I highly recommend three:
Veteran Chessable author Christof Sielecki gives a simple, systematic repertoire that handles every reasonable defense Black can throw at White. His 1.e4 e5 weapon is the Scotch Game, particularly the Four Knights Variation, which is an easy-to-play yet solid variation great for beginner players.
American Grandmaster Wesley So is one of the top 10 players in the world, and his 1.e4 skills have never been called into question! In this comprehensive repertoire, you’ll get a complete guide to 1.e4 from the top pro himself which centers around the Italian Game as a response to 1…e5. (free Short & Sweet version here)
Indian Grandmaster S.P. Sethuraman is a well-known opening theoretician who loves aggressive, tactical play. Instead of Wesley So’s recommended Italian Game as a response to 1…e5, Sethuraman recommends the dynamic and interesting Scotch Game. (free Short & Sweet version here).
With any of these quality courses, you’ll get a complete 1.e4 repertoire that will last you a lifetime – solid openings that will let you compete against amateur club players and pro tournament players alike.
I hope you enjoyed the ultimate introduction to 1.e4, and hope you deploy it with success in your games. Before you go, I leave you with a little more inspiration to play 1.e4, from the man that declared it was “best by test” himself, Bobby Fischer: