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Every First Move For Black (Against 1.e4), Tiered and Ranked

Every First Move For Black (Against 1.e4), Tiered and Ranked

NathanielGreen
| 164 | Fun & Trivia

You sit down at the board or your computer and wait to see how your opponent will start the game. As they reach for the e-pawn, in your mind you roll your eyes and mutter, "Here we go again."  

With that quick sulk out of the way, it's now time to choose how to meet the most popular opening move, 1.e4. As I discussed in my previous article about White's 20 options, you have 20 options with the black pieces, but some are better than others. (In parentheses is the name of each move.)

Check out FM James Canty's awesome video:

(*Names for B and A tier technically borrowed from a WKUK comedy sketch.)


Free Pawn! (And Other Bad Moves)

These moves either displace a pawn that was just fine where it was or, even worse, gives it away for free.

20. b5

A move so bad it doesn't even have a unique name. Maybe we can start calling it the "Hang A Pawn For No Reason Opening."  

Wait, where did the pawn go? "Oh, whoops!" "Whoopsie!"

19. f5 (Duras)

Also hangs a pawn, also for no reason. It's like a worse version of the Latvian Gambit... and the Latvian is already pretty bad.

18. f6 (Barnes)

The Barnes belongs in a barn, with certain other farm animal byproducts.

17. a5 (Ware)

A disaster in slow motion for anyone planning to play Ra6 next, when White's bishop on f1 already attacks this square. Named for Preston Ware, not short for "Beware this move."

16. h5 (Goldsmith)

At least maybe your opponent won't play d4 before you play Rh6. Not enough to save it from the F-tier, though. And while it's not named after composer Jerry Goldsmith, here is some nice background music for the rest of this article anyway.

Don't (Just Don't)

These moves aren't good, mind you, just slightly less bad than those earlier ones.

15. h6 (Carr)

I'd rather play the Carr Defense than get hit by a car... but it's close.

14. Nh6 (Hippopotamus)

"Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus or a really cool opotamus?" - Mitch Hedberg

Either way, it's not a very cool chess move.

Even this actual hippo is judging you for playing Nh6. Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia, CC.

13. Na6 (Lemming)

If all your friends were playing Na6, you wouldn't play Na6 too, would you?

12. g5 (Borg)

You will be assimilated... into other bad openings. (Actually, this move gets its name from being Grob, the name for 1.g4 by White, spelled backward.)

Come On (You Can Do Better!)

Pretty clear demarcation we have between C and D tiers. You can now start playing these moves without inducing total anarchy in the kibitzing section. Just some anarchy.

11. a6 (St. George)

In 1980, GM Anthony Miles slew the dragon that was world champion GM Anatoly Karpov with this move, but it was more of a don't-try-this-at-home play.

10. b6 (Owen)

Yes, if you want to develop your bishop this way, please only move the b-pawn one square. It's better to self-Owen (b6) than to self-own (b5).

9. Nc6 (Nimzowitsch)

Aron Nimzowitsch is also the namesake of the Nimzo-Indian Defense, which in movie award analogies would win an Oscar, while Nc6 would earn him a Razzie.

"Hi Aron, big fan of that queen's pawn idea. But Nc6 against 1.e4... With all due respect, what the hell were you thinking?" Photo: Wikimedia, public domain.

Better than Average

There's a pretty clear line to this tier as well, where the moves are no longer "weird" and can now be considered "normal."

8. Nf6 (Alekhine)

In the Alekhine, Black basically begs White to push all the pawns. It had its day when GM Bobby Fischer won a world championship game with it, but there's a reason that's still the only world championship game anyone has ever won with it.

Not kidding about White pushing all the pawns.

7. d5 (Scandinavian)

In days past, some would relegate "the Scandi" to C or even D tier, but it has gained respectability in past decades. Yours truly is a fan. It's a serious opening, although you wouldn't necessarily know it from this video.

6. g6 (Modern)

The opening that GM Hikaru Nakamura has used to perfection in Titled Tuesday and other blitz events. That doesn't mean that you will have the same results.

5. d6 (Pirc)

On the borderline between A and B tier. We rank it here for a simple yet totally unfair reason: very many chess players can't pronounce it. GM Vasja Pirc, for whom it's named, was from Slovenia. "Peerts" is the closest English pronunciation while those who learned it as "Perk" learned wrong.

Sorry, Vasja, B tier for you. Photo: Wikimedia, public domain.

However you pronounce it, the move is solid.

Awesome

Now we get to the juiciest openings. You may have realized there are two pawns we haven't even touched yet with four moves to go. Yes, the best ways to face e4 all begin with the c-pawn or e-pawn.

4. e6 (French)

3. c6 (Caro-Kann)

It's a close call between the French and the Caro. The French is more popular and helps develop the f8 bishop, but the Caro-Kann performs slightly better in practice and keeps the c8 bishop unblocked after d4 and d5 happen. It's that ability not to immediately shut in one of your own pieces that gives an edge to the Caro, which also gives Black somewhat more flexibility than the French.

Strongest Moves Available

As with White's first move, there is essentially a two-way tie for first place. However, it is a bit easier to pick a winner this time.

2. e5 (King's Pawn)

And the symmetrical response isn't it. That joke from the earlier article about e4 flaming out into a draw is really about games that start with both e4 and e5.

This common and dead-drawn position that arises out of 1.e4 e5 is a bane to any player seeking a fun, competitive game.

It is important to note, however, that e5 is the best response to e4 for beginners. That's the main reason it ranks as highly as it does, otherwise, it might fall as low as fifth. Once you've gotten used to the game, you may want to try the French, the Caro-Kann, or even...

1. c5 (Sicilian)

The king of king's pawn openings, the Sicilian. Gotham said a while ago (those forever-ago days of... June 2020) that you should only play it with a 2000 rating, but that's an exaggeration. It still is the opening that most tells White, "I know what you want to do, but I have my own plans." Objectively, it is Black's most combative reply to e4. Does that make it the best? Here, yes.

What is your favorite move against e4? Where did it finish on our list? How would you rank things differently? Leave a comment and let us know!

NathanielGreen
Nathaniel Green

Nathaniel Green is a staff writer for Chess.com who writes articles, player biographies, Titled Tuesday reports, video scripts, and more. He has been playing chess for about 30 years and resides near Washington, DC, USA.

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