Many years ago Reuben Fine wrote a book called “Ideas behind Chess Openings”. If you know what you are aiming for, it becomes easier to reduce the number of candidate moves after all. In the following essay I am trying a similar approach, except I am trying to break it down to general concepts. Black is a tempo down and has to react. On the other hand, black also has more information, so he can try to exploit the possible downsides of white’s first move in a very concrete way.
Best by Test?
We will start our discussion with the move 1.e4. The key concept for black is trying to exploit the fact that the e4-pawn is unprotected. One could make an argument that the black strategy has triumphed once the pawn-e4 vanishes from the board, unless white got some other advantage in return.
A. Black can try to trade off the white e4-pawn for his d5-pawn.
1. The immediate d5 (Scandinavian).
Problem: Black loses a tempo with the recapture.
2. Improved d5 (French, Caro Kann)
Problem: Black has to make a pawn move that impairs the natural development of his pieces. White on the other hand has the option to preserve the e-pawn by advancing it. This is indeed the most principled approach, but as usual in chess, abstract concepts may fail for concrete reasons. Especially in the French we can see rules and exceptions at work, because the “principled” Rubinstein-Variation isn’t that good for black and the “principled” Advance-Variation doesn’t seem to be that hot for white either.
3. Blockade of the e4-pawn, followed by d5 at a later stage (e.g. Elephant Gambit, Marshall Attack).
B. The same concept, just with the f5-pawn (e.g. Latvian, Schliemann Gambit).
C. Black can attack the white e4-pawn with Nf6 and ideally force white to spend a tempo on defending it. In certain lines black can even capture the e-pawn with the knight. It looks like Kramnik favors this approach.
1. The immediate Nf6 (Aljechin).
Problem: The knight is instable and can be attacked with tempo.
2. Improved Nf6 (Pirc).
Problem: White can play f4 to renew the thread of advancing the e-pawn.
3. Blockade of the e4-pawn, followed by Nf6 at a later stage (e.g. Petroff, Berlin Defense)
D. Asymmetrical approach (Sicilian)
Through the looking glass: 1.d4!
After 1.d4 black’s task doesn’t look easy, because none of the methods that were successful against 1.e4 seem to work anymore.
A. The “scandinavian” counterblow with e5 is simply bad.
B. The “Alekhine”-provocation of the d4-pawn leads nowhere.
C. The Sicilian is a fearsome weapon for black, the Dutch is not.
If we look at it more closely though, we can also notice some factors that make a positive difference for black.
Amazingly Nf6 gains strength while after 1.e4 the Nimzowitsch Defense is regarded as a more or less excentric sideline.
The same goes for the push 1…c5, when the mirror-concept of answering 1.e4 with 1….f5 looks even more absurd.
Advance-Variations not only lose their bite, they actually become positional blunders.
Some concepts that look bad on the first move, can be improved upon. Morozevich did quite some work in this area.
There exists even an improved version of the Englund Gambit:
We can conclude that black usually equalizes once he managed to trade either his c-pawn or his e-pawn for the white d4-pawn, unless white gets something very concrete in return. In contrast to 1. e4, this is more difficult to achieve though, simply because the d4-pawn is protected.