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Openings - Introduction to 1.e4
White attacks with the first move - how do you react?

In the mid-19th century, often called the romantic era of chess, the game was still played without clocks and defense was a dirty word. Howard Staunton, the great English player and unofficial world champion, wrote

When the men are first arranged in battle order, it is seen that the only Pieces which have the power of moving are the Knights, and that to liberate the others it is indispensably necessary to move a Pawn. Now as the King's Pawn, on being moved, gives freedom both to the Queen and to the King's Bishop, it is more frequently played at the beginning of the game than any other. - The Chess-Player's Handbook
When, 120 years later, U.S. Champion Robert J. (Bobby) Fischer wrote

Best by test. - My 60 Memorable Games

he was referring to the same move : 1.e4. No chessplayer can ignore it. Half of your opponents are going to open with this move as White.

In this article we'll look at the most popular responses to 1.e4, known as the King's Pawn Opening. Many of the moves we'll discuss link directly to our repertoire recommendations. By following the link, you can see the board as it looks after the move has been played, discover some good continuations, and learn the names that have been given to the various openings.

The most notable attribute of 1.e4 is that it commences an immediate fight for the center. If allowed to do so, White will play 2.d4, occupying the central squares d4 & e4 and controlling four squares on Black's side of the board : c5, d5, e5, & f5.

Black must react to the threat of 2.d4, or risk getting an inferior position after the first few moves. The adequate responses to 1.e4 can be divided into two types -- moves which delay an immediate 2.d4 (1..e5 and 1...c5) and moves which allow it (all other moves). We'll look at each type of move separately.

Responses to 1.e4 which delay 2.d4

In fact, none of Black's responses to 1.e4 prevent White from playing 2.d4. The d-Pawn, protected from behind by the White Queen, can safely advance to d4 after any first move by White. The moves which delay 2.d4 are played to take the sting out of it. If White insists on responding with 2.d4, Black gets good compensation.

Open game

The most obvious response to 1.e4 is 1...e5, where, as explained by Staunton, Black also liberates the Queen and King's Bishop. If White plays 2.d4, Black captures with 2...exd4. Now the game can take two paths. White can either recapture immediately with the Queen or can play a gambit.

After the recapture with 3.Qxd4, Black plays 3...Nc6, winning a tempo by chasing the exposed White Queen. The gambit 3.c3 sacrifices a Pawn. Here is a typical position arising from the gambit.

1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Bc4 cxb2 5.Bxb2

At first glance White has a great game. White is several moves ahead in development and the White Bishops are attacking the Black Kingside. A count of the Pawns, however, shows that Black has two Pawns more than White. Black can play to return at least one of the extra Pawns, neutralizing White's pressure, and keeping the last extra Pawn.

In practice, White rarely plays 2.d4. The most common move is 2.Nf3. Here White prepares 3.d4, so that if Black captures 3...exd4, White recaptures with 4.Nxd4. At the same time, 2.Nf3 threatens to win Black's e-Pawn by 3.Nxe5. Black must address this threat or lose a Pawn.

The most common response to 2.Nf3 is 2...Nc6. This move guards the Pawn on e5 and, at the same time, attacks the d4-square.

Now if White insists on playing 3.d4, the game will probably continue 3...exd4 4.Nxd4, reaching the following position.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4

Here Black gets a playable game with either 4...Bc5 or 4...Nf6, attacking one of White's central outposts. There is nothing wrong with White's position and this opening has its adherents, including some of the world's best players. Other good players judge that White has squandered part of the first-move advantage and seek more.

The most popular alternative to 3.d4 is 3.Bb5. This Bishop move, by attacking the Black Knight, defender of d4 and e5, threatens 4.Bxc6, followed by 5.d4 or 5.Nxe5. In fact, neither threat is considered dangerous by experts in this opening, leaving Black with many responses to 3.Bb5. The most popular is 3...a6, leading to the following position.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6

This opening has been played hundreds of thousands of times, by some of the greatest players that the game has seen. In spite of so much practical experience, we still don't know if 3...a6 is the best move in the position and we may never know.

Pawn breaks

The move d4 is an example of a break : an opening of the position. A Pawn break is a move which leaves the moving Pawn under attack by an enemy Pawn : the Pawns attack each other.

Breaks must be prepared properly. If a break is played too early, it loses much of its force and may even lead to a disadvantage.

Continuing from the previous diagram, White will continue to prepare the break d4 until it is supported by the maximum number of pieces. This often occurs around moves 10-12 of the game, which is the time it takes to develop the White pieces which support the break.

White always has another possibility. Instead of playing d4, White can play d3, avoiding the break. This leads to positions where both players maneuver to prepare Pawn breaks on other squares.

Sicilian Defense

The most popular response to 1.e4 is 1...c5. Innocuous on the surface, the move is in reality extremely profound. It develops nothing, unless you consider that opening the a5-d8 diagonal develops the Queen. The main purpose of 1...c5 is to weaken the force of 2.d4 by trading Black's c-Pawn for White's d-Pawn -- a side Pawn for a center Pawn.

If White insists on playing 2.d4, Black replies 2...cxd4. Once again, White has the choice between an immediate recapture with the Queen or a gambit. The diagram shows a typical position after the gambit.

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6

The most popular continuation after 1...c5 is 2.Nf3. This is an excellent move which develops the Knight and prepares 3.d4.

After 2.Nf3 Black has at least three good moves

  • 2...Nc6
  • 2...e6
  • 2...d6
plus a few others which may be just as good. In all cases, White usually continues 3.d4, followed by 3...cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3.

The resulting positions are dynamic and double-edged. White's lead in development often results in an attack against the Black King. If Black survives the attack, the extra Pawn in the center will be an advantage in the endgame.

Center Counter Game

After 1.e4, another move which delays an immediate 2.d4 is 1...d5. This is because 2.d4 is a blunder which fails to 2...dxe4. White plays 2.exd5 instead, and after any response of Black, continues 3.d4. The move 1...d5 is related more to the moves in the following section.

Responses to 1.e4 which allow an immediate 2.d4

Black has a second strategy to counter 1.e4 and 2.d4. This is to allow White the d4-e4 center Pawns, and then to challenge their authority.


The most popular response to 1.e4 using the alternate strategy is 1...e6. This is usually followed by 2.d4 d5, producing the following position.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5

Black has a firm foothold in the center, and even threatens 3...dxe4, which White must counter. The price is that the Queen's Bishop has been shut in behind its own Pawns by the move ...e6. White often emphasizes this disadvantage by pushing the Pawn on e4 to e5, creating a Pawn chain in the center. Like 1...c5, this opening leads to dynamic, double-edged play, where the subsequent plans revolve around Pawn breaks on the c- and f-files.

Another response to 1.e4, somewhat less popular, is 1...c6. Once again, this is almost always followed by 2.d4 d5, shown in the following diagram.

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5

Here the Black Queen's Bishop is not shut in, but 1...c6 has developed nothing and has even blocked the Queen's Knight from moving to its best square. This opening is a favorite for players who want to avoid giving too many active possibilities to White.

...d6 and ...g6

Black has other strategies to counter 1.e4 and 2.d4. A pair of related possibilities are 1...d6 and 1...g6. When either of these moves is played early in the game, the other move soon follows, reaching positions like the following.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7

Black plans a long-term undermining of the White center by moves like ...c5 and ...e5. This opening is a distant cousin of the King's Indian Defense.


Finally, in addition to Pawn moves on the first move, Black has the option of developing one of the Knights immediately. Both moves challenge White to establish a Pawn center and then attempt to undermine that center.

The more popular Knight move is 1...Nf6. Although it is used occasionally by very strong players, it is nevertheless considered slightly dubious. White has several good ways to meet it, one of which is the following.

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 Bg4

The least popular of the acceptable responses to 1.e4 is probably 1...Nc6. After 2.d4, Black has the choice of continuing 2...e5 or 2...d5. In the following sample position, the Black Queen's Knight usually emerges somewhere on the Kingside.

1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 e5 3.d5 Nce7


That completes our tour of the responses to 1.e4. None of the moves leads to a won game for Black, and none of them loses outright. They all present various difficult problems to both players. Don't be afraid to try them and don't let any of them stop you from playing 1.e4!

 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