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Chess Openings - Unusual First Moves
The good, the bad, and the really ugly.

The category is Chess and the answer is '20 moves'. What's the question? One of the most obvious is 'How many ways are there to open a chess game?'

Our page on repertoire recommendations lists only six moves for the initial position : 1.d4, 1.e4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3, 1.f4, and 1.b3. What happened to the other 14? The initial position shares a feature with all chess positions -- the legal moves do not all have equal value.

The following table lists the 20 possibilities for White's first move, together with their names. The names are from Chess Archaeology (see the linkbox at the bottom of this article), where you'll find more names for other opening variations.

  Name W%-B%-D% ECO
1.d4 Queen's Pawn   A40-A99
1.e4 King's Pawn   B00-B99

1.c4 English   A10-A39
1.Nf3 Réti   A04-A09
1.f4 Bird 35%-40%-23% A02-A03
1.b3 Nimzovich 37%-32%-29% A01
  Irregular Openings A00 (No.)
1.b4 Sokolsky 38%-39%-21% >50
1.d3 Mieses 38%-35%-26% >50
1.g3 Benko 37%-27%-34% >50
1.h3 Clemenz 39%-38%-22% >50
1.Nc3 Dunst 37%-36%-25% >50

1.a3 Anderssen 28%-44%-27% >50
1.c3 Saragossa 30%-45%-24% >50
1.e3 van't Kruijs 27%-46%-25% >50
1.g4 Grob 35%-48%-16% >50

1.a4 Ware 12%-37%-50% 8
1.f3 Barnes 38%-52%- 9% 21
1.h4 Desprès 29%-38%-32% 31
1.Na3 Durkin 20%-60%-20% 10
1.Nh3 Amar 27%-54%-18% 33

The Chess Archaeology names are not necessarily definitive. 1.b3 is often called the Nimzo-Larsen, after the Danish GM who showed that it could be an effective weapon against the best players in the world. 1.b4 is also known as the Orangutang, one of the most colorful opening names, and as the Polish.

The third column ('W%-B%-D%') gives percentages for the results of games played using the opening. These are calculated by ChessLab, 'two million interactive chess games online' (see the linkbox again).

For example, 35% of the games starting with Bird's Opening (1.f4), have been won by White, 40% by Black, and 23% have resulted in draws. The first few openings are missing these statistics. Its database has so many games with these openings that ChessLab runs out of time to examine them all.

The fourth column shows the ECO classification codes assigned to the opening. Of the 500 codes from A00 to E99, 260 have been assigned to 1.d4 openings, 200 to 1.e4, and 30 to 1.c4. This leaves only 10 codes for the other openings.

Of these 10 codes, 9 have been assigned to 1.Nf3, 1.f4, and 1.b3. White's other 14 moves have been lumped together into a single code A00.

ECO codes are generally sequenced from the least popular openings to the most popular. This means that code A covers openings which are less popular than code E, code A0 is for openings less popular than code A9, and code A00 is less popular than A09. This is only a rule of thumb. The coding classification was devised in the 1970s and opening tastes, like fashion, have changed since then.

One thing hasn't changed, and probably never will change. The openings classified under A00 are the least popular of all openings. Why is that? First and foremost, it's because chess is a game of logic.

Chess players don't play to pass the time, although chess is an excellent source of amusement. Chess players play to win. The most popular first moves are those that offer White the best winning chances.

The logic behind chess dictates that, other things being equal, control of the center and superior piece activity are advantages. These are such big advantages that they are often sufficient to win the game.

The initial moves classified under A00 either neglect the center or neglect piece development. The worst of them neglect both.

It may seem as though White and Black start with equal forces, but this is not true. White, who moves first, has the advantage of being able to control the center and develop a piece one move before Black. In the hands of a skillful player, the advantage of the first move will endure well beyond the opening.

A good first move puts immediate pressure on Black. The biggest drawback of the A00 moves is their failure to apply any pressure. Playing a move like 1.a3 says, 'Pass! I'd rather you move first.'

A move like 1.d4 says, 'I'm playing to win by occupying the center and by developing my pieces quickly.' In fact, if White could play again without allowing an intervening move by Black, 2.e4 would produce the following position.

1.d4 -- 2.e4 or
1.e4 -- 2.d4

Here White has such a powerful initiative, that Black might already be theoretically lost. That's why the best responses to 1.d4 prevent 2.e4.

The position after 1.e4 is similar, but different. The best responses to 1.e4 can't prevent 2.d4, which White can play after any first move by Black. They can, however, neutralize it.

In sharp contrast to 1.d4 and 1.e4, the A00 openings threaten nothing. Even if White could play without an intervening move by Black (1.a4 -- 2.h4 is one horrible example), the position would not offer an overwhelming advantage. The worst of the A00 openings weaken White's position without any compensation. Which moves are the worst?

Let's return to the table of first moves. For the A00 openings, the last column shows a number instead of an ECO code. This number is a count of the games on the ChessLab database (the same source as the 'W%-B%-D%' column). A count of '>50' means that there are more games than can be captured by a single download. This lets us classify further the A00 openings.

The openings headed '1.b4 Sokolsky' are relatively popular openings where White and Black have approximately equal chances of winning the game. 1.g3 even preserves White's initial advantage.

The openings headed '1.a3 Anderssen' are also relatively popular, but White has ceded a substantial advantage to Black. It's a mystery why 1.h3 appears superior to 1.a3, or why 1.d3 is significantly better than 1.e3, but that's what the stats say.

The openings headed '1.a4 Ware' are unpopular openings, where the results confirm the unpopularity. What's the worst of the worst? It might be 1.f3, the Barnes Opening. This move neglects development, weakens further White's weakest square (f2), and blocks the best move for the Knight on g1. Can a single move do more positional harm?

 Related Resources
• Part 1 - Avoid losing in the opening
• Part 2 - Select one move per position
• Part 3 - Practical considerations
• Part 4 - Unusual First Moves
• Part 5 - Introduction to 1.e4
• Part 6 - Introduction to 1.d4
• Traps! - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
 Elsewhere on the Web
• Chess Archaeology
• ChessLab