The King’s Pawn Opening, beginning with 1. e4, is one of white’s most popular and aggressive options to begin a chess game.
White seizes control of the center and establishes development lines for his pieces right away – it’s clear that 1. e4 is very much in line with opening principles. The King’s Pawn Opening has been the favorite move of many top-tier chess players, and World Champion Bobby Fischer even called it “Best by test.”
To the King’s Pawn Opening, Black has several options. I’m going to break them down into three categories:
• Black immediately seizes their share of central space (the symmetrical 1…e5 or the more double-edged Sicilian Defense: 1…c5).
• Black strikes at the white center with his d-pawn. (The Scandinavian Defense is played immediately after 1…d5, whereas the well-known French Defense and Caro-Kann Defense are played after 1…e6 or 1…c6 with the intention of following up with 2…d5.)
• Other defenses in which black does not use a pawn to occupy the center. White will frequently be allowed to construct a large center, but as we’ll see shortly, all is not lost for black!
The Black Occupation of the Center: 1…e5
For much of the history of chess, 1. The most common way for a game to start was e4 e5. We’ve discussed the benefits of white’s first move, so why shouldn’t black want to follow suit?
Indeed, 1…e5 is advantageous for the same reasons as 1. E4 is a good show. This is the most common response taught to beginners, and it’s still popular at the World Championship level. Black establishes a stronghold in the center and creates opportunities for his pieces to develop.
We’ll spend a lot of time to learn more about chess openings split off from here!
White usually continues with the logical number two. Nf3. It’s difficult to imagine a better opening move than this one: white develops a knight, moves closer to castling kingside, and immediately threatens black’s e5 pawn! The most common reaction is 2…Nc6 – black defends against e5 and builds a piece of his own.
Alternatives to 2 will be considered. At the end of this section, we’ll look at Nf3 and 2…Nc6 – but first, let’s look at how the game can progress from the following position:
3. Bb5, the Ruy Lopez, perhaps the most well-known of the King’s Pawn Openings, is among the oldest of chess openings – it’s named after a 16th century Spanish priest, after all!
And there’s a reason it’s still popular. White creates a bishop, moves closer to castling, and offers black something to be concerned about: White could threaten to exchange this bishop for the black knight on c6, leaving black’s e5 pawn undefended at the right time!
3. Bc4, the Italian Game, is another popular choice for white. White’s bishop menacingly eyes the f7 square – the weakest point in the black position – and white’s ready to castle next turn if desired.
3. d4 constitutes the Scotch Game. White decides it’s time to open up the center and create some pawn tension before continuing with piece development.
3. c3, the Ponziani Opening, is a tricky one to handle. White’s idea is very ambitious: White would like to play 4. d4 on the next turn, but unlike in the Scotch (see above), if black exchanges his e-pawn for the d-pawn, white would be able to recapture with a pawn and maintain a dominate grip in the center!
3. Nc3 often leads to the Four Knights Game after black plays the natural 3…Nf6. The position remains symmetrical, and a bit dull for my liking compared to white’s more ambitious options listed above – but hey, it can’t be a bad thing to have the move in a symmetrical position!
Before moving on, let’s consider some second-move alternatives for both white and black after 1. e4 e5:
Instead of the hugely popular 2. Nf3, white has some alternatives:
2. f4 is the aggressive King’s Gambit. White immediately seeks to dislodge black’s e5 pawn from its stronghold in the center – even at the cost of losing a pawn!
2. Nc3 is the Vienna Game. This may transpose into a Four Knights Game (see above) if white plays Nf3 within the next couple moves, but there are some independent lines – including the idea to play a delayed King’s Gambit by playing f4 in the near future.
2. d4 is the Center Game. After 2…exd4, white can either recapture with the queen, or play the aggressive 3. c3. This is the Danish Gambit – white sacrifices a pawn to try to get a lead in development.
2. Bc4, developing a bishop, is certainly reasonable, but it’s hard for this King’s Pawn Opening to stay in original territory unless white follows up with some speculative moves. White is likely to play Nf3 or Nc3 soon, transposing to an Italian Opening or Vienna Game (see above). However, some unique lines such as the Urusov Gambit are possible!
Other possibilities include 2. Qh5 (The Wayward Queen Attack) exists as well, but it is usually thought that with appropriate play, it poses no threat to black.
After that, 2. Nf3, black has numerous choices if they want to avoid the logical 2…Nc6:
2…Nf6 is The Petrov Defense.Rather than guarding the e-pawn, white’s e-pawn is attacked!
2…d6 is The Philidor Defense. Black carefully defends the e5 pawn and clears the way for the development of his light bishop.
2…f5?! and two…d5?! The Latvian Gambit and the so-called Elephant Gambit are, respectively, the Latvian and Elephant Gambits. These pawn thrusts are controversial, but they can be dangerous against an unprepared opponent.
2…f6? is the Damiano Defense, which has a lot of flaws. This is not how the e-pawn should be defended! White can neglect the f6 pawn and concentrate on e5. 3. Nxe5! This black set-up is debunked.
The Sicilian Defense is played with black in the center: 1…c5.
The Sicilian Defense is a bold, ambitious defense against the King’s Pawn Opening that appeals to players of all skill levels. According to opening principles, Black seizes their portion of central space, but immediately generates a severe imbalance in the position.
This move appears to be inferior to 1…e5 at first glance. In the Sicilian, Black wins space, but the move 1…c5 does not provide as many possibilities for pieces to develop. This pawn move only exposes the queen, and we know that the queen doesn’t normally grow early!
Let’s take a look at white’s options:
Although white is expected to gain a development advantage in the Sicilian, if white wants to expose the center and try to exploit it before black catches up, white will almost certainly have to play d4 at some time. The black c-pawn is then exchanged for white’s more central d-pawn. In the long run, black gains the advantage of possessing two center pawns to white’s one, and the black position is compact and free of flaws.
Of course, if white does not want to play an early d4 pawn break, they have alternative possibilities. White will occasionally play an early f4 and gradually build up on the kingside, where he is assured of a spatial advantage. In such instances, black frequently builds up on the queenside and occasionally plans a strike in the middle himself with…d5, if his piece development justifies it.
Whatever white does, black is guaranteed a dynamic, asymmetrical game – a Sicilian Defense player’s dream!
The Scandinavian Defense: 1…d5 – Black Strikes at the Center
It has a certain allure to strike at white’s King’s Pawn right away. Black makes it plain from away that white’s e-pawn would not be allowed to stay on e4 for very long!
From black’s perspective, the disadvantage of this move is that following 2. exd5, black cannot recapture with a pawn. White frequently plays 3. Nc3 after 2…Qxd5, kicking the queen away while developing a piece. White frequently plays 4. d4 after the queen has moved out, and a white pawn sits alone in the center once more!
As a result, the Scandinavian Defense is a rare visitor in top-tier chess these days, although it’s still playable. Black may have some tricks in his sleeve, and white may find it difficult to create anything concrete out of his apparent advantages.
The French Defense: 1…e6 – Black Strikes at the Center
The French Defense to the King’s Pawn Opening consists of playing 1…e6 and then 2…d5.
Of course, spending a move preparing to strike before lashing out in the center has the obvious disadvantage of giving white another move to fortify their center! After the first, 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 By far the most popular move is d4. The entire center is momentarily occupied by white, and both white bishops have open lines to develop.
After 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5:
As opposed to the Scandinavian Defense 3. Exd5 is now safe to use, albeit it is still playable. Black is able to recapture with the e-pawn rather than the queen, preserving their core foothold.
Instead, white often plays 3. e5 – securing a space advantage and locking up the center – or else 3. Nd2 or 3. Nc3, simply defending the threat to the e4 pawn.
Black’s light-square bishop on c8 is heavily constrained by black’s pawns, which is a fundamental disadvantage of the French Defense. If black does not solve the “problem of the bishop,” this can be a long-term difficulty for black throughout the game.
Despite this, the French Defense is still popular at almost all chess levels.
The Caro-Kann Defense: 1…c6 – Black Strikes at the Center
It would be difficult to comprehend the aim of this move without first comprehending the French and Scandinavian defenses.
Consider the position after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5, which is analogous to the French Defense position in the previous section, to better comprehend black’s strategy:
Black avoids the disadvantage of the Scandinavian Defense by being able to recapture with a pawn and keep control of the center if white captures on d5.
Black also wants to avoid the French Defense’s drawbacks! For the time being, Black lets the development line for his light-squared bishop open. Black wants to develop this bishop to f5 or g4, then play a later…e6 to clear the way for the other bishop’s growth.
Black achieves this goal in several of the most typical continuations. Rather of being a lame duck on c8 like in the French Defense, black’s light-squared-bishop in the Caro-Kann has a far better fate.
Is the Caro-Kann, therefore, the best of both worlds? Not so fast, my friend. The obvious disadvantage is that this ingenious operation takes time, and there’s no denying that 1…c6 isn’t a particularly effective move for immediate piece growth.
However, the Caro remains a legitimate opening used by multiple Grandmasters — and it’s been a mainstay of my opening repertoire for the majority of my chess career, so I’m biased!
Other defenses include the Alekhine Defense (1…Nf6).
This aggressive move, named after World Champion Alexander Alekhine, attacks white’s e-pawn from move 1 — before black has secured any central space!
This opening’s clear disadvantage is that white can play 2. e5, gaining more room and kicking this knight away. White has a clear space advantage after 1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4, and can even play c4 shortly, gaining more room and kicking the black knight again!
The “Four Pawns Attack” occurs when white plays c4 and f4 in the near future. In an attempt to penalize black for the daring opening move, white aims to achieve an overwhelming space advantage and deprive the black pieces of any advantageous squares.
The Alekhine Defense has never been considered a top-tier defense to the King’s Pawn Opening as a result of this, yet it isn’t as dreadful as it appears! If white isn’t careful, they can overextend, and black has various setups figured out that let his pieces to breathe freely despite white’s space advantage. The practically common 3…d6 starts the process of tearing down the white center.
Other Counter-Defenses: 1…d6 – The Pirc Counter-Defense
When black does not aim to occupy the center, the Pirc Defense is another option available to him. Black prefers to play 2…Nf6 to target the white e-pawn, but instead chooses to play 1…d6 to prevent being hit with an early e5 from white (as in the Alekhine Defense above)
Early on, Black frequently plays…g6,…Bg7, and…0-0. While black’s knight and dark-square bishop do not directly occupy the center, they apply pressure on white’s center from afar, and the black king will be safely tucked away. With…e5,…c5, or even…d5, black may later try to organize a strike against the white center.
Many chess players of all levels have flocked to the Pirc because of its versatility. However, the disadvantage is clear: white has no early challenges to their core dominance and is able to play 2. d4 and grow in practically any way they like.
Other Counter-Defenses: 1…g6 – The Modern Counter-Defense
The Modern Defense is a close relative of the Pirc Defense (see above), and it frequently transposes to the Pirc when black plays…d6 and…Nf6 in the near future. By placing the dark bishop on g7, black foregoes the fight for central domination in favor of flexibility and putting pressure on white’s center from afar.
Other Counter-Defenses: 1…b6 – The Owen Counter-Defense
Black aims to place his light bishop on b7 and assault the white e-pawn from afar. To heighten the strain, Black will frequently play…Nf6.
When white protects the e-pawn with Nc3, black may play…Bb4 (after initially playing…e6 to clear the way for the dark bishop), threatening to exchange white’s e-pawn defender. Black may also play a later…d5 move. Everything is aimed at e4!
The disadvantage, like with the Modern and Pirc defenses, is obvious: White generally gains a space advantage early on because black isn’t defending the center. One of black’s rarest defenses to the King’s Pawn Opening is the Owen Defense.
It’s worth noting that we can get to the Owen Defense in a variety of ways, including 1. e4 e6 2. d4 b6 Despite commencing with 1…e6, this is scarcely a “French Defense” because black’s intention was not to prepare for the…d5 attack. By playing the signature early…b6, Black switches to the Owen Defense.
Other Defenses: 1…Nc6 – The Nimzowitsch Defense
Nimzowitsch was no doubt a giant of chess, but he’s better known for some of his other contributions to opening theory than this one. 1…Nc6 does nothing to prevent white from playing 2. d4, as white’s d-pawn is defended by the queen.
White can also play 2. Nf3, allowing black to transpose to a standard 1. e4 e5 Opening after 2…e5. Black’s attempts to avoid transposing to a dual King’s Pawn Opening are mostly either passive (2…d6) or somewhat dubious (2…f5). And if black IS okay with playing 2…e5 and transposing…one might wonder why they’re not just playing 1…e5 on move one to begin with!
The Nimzowitsch Defense has never had any mainstream appeal, but developing a piece on move one can’t be all bad.
Other Defenses: Miscellaneous
Other first moves by black, besides all those mentioned above, are generally not taken seriously. Moves such as 1…a6?!, 1…h6?!, or 1…f6 don’t accomplish anything at all. White can proceed with 2. d4 and gain more space.