The End of 1.e4 in World Championship Matches?

The End of 1.e4 in World Championship Matches?

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Jaxxson asked:

Why don’t we see 1.e4 in Championship matches anymore?

Dear Mr. Jaxxson:

That’s an excellent question. Of course, any answer I give is subjective – others might come up with an equally valid viewpoint. But, for all it’s worth (or not worth), here we go.

LET’S BEGIN WITH THE KASPAROV - KARPOV MATCHES. Those matches started at a time when Karpov still played 1.e4 regularly, and Kasparov also employed 1.e4. Thus there were quite a few 1.e4 battles:

In their 1984, forty-eight game match, there were only three games with 1.e4 in the first twenty-five, but ten in the final twenty-three!

The 1985 rematch had twenty-four games, with ten starting with 1.e4.

After this, Karpov pretty much gave up 1.e4 and so the number of 1.e4 games in their matches tapered off:

The 1986 Match (twenty-four games) only featured three games with 1.e4 (all by Kasparov).

In the 1987 Match (twenty-four games), there were just two 1.e4 games, with Kasparov again using it as White.

Their 1990 Match (twenty-four games) featured very distinct theoretical battlegrounds, with Kasparov playing 1.e4 in his first eleven games with White. These featured heavy theory in the Ruy Lopez, Petroff, and Scotch game. Karpov used 1.d4 in all his games, and every game featured massive wars in the King’s Indian Defense and Grunfeld.

1.e4 was alive and well in the twenty-game KASPAROV - SHORT MATCH (1993), where sixteen of the twenty started with 1.e4! This wasn’t a surprise since Kasparov had already signaled his desire to milk 1.e4 theory for all it was worth in his 1990 match against Karpov, and Short was a lifelong 1.e4 player. 

The 1.e4 trend continued in the KASPAROV - ANAND MATCH (1995): of the eighteen games played, no less than sixteen started with 1.e4! Kasparov had been successful with 1.e4 in his previous two matches and saw no reason to stop, while Anand was (at that time) also pretty much devoted to 1.e4.

The hegemony of 1.e4 came to an end in the KRAMNIK - KASPAROV MATCH (2000). Kasparov continued to employ 1.e4, but Kramnik refused to enter the sharp lines Kasparov coveted and instead defused the whole opening by resurrecting the Berlin Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8). Of the five games where Kasparov used 1.e4, the Berlin occurred in four games, with Kasparov being completely unable to dent black’s position. In Kasparov’s three other games with White, he used the English twice and 1.d4 in the final game.

Looking at this match, one gets the impression that Kasparov intended to play 1.e4 (and the Ruy Lopez) in every game and, when that ran into the Berlin Wall, he didn’t have any plan B. Thus we ended up with the only World Championship match in a zillion years where the loser failed to win even one game.

In 2004, the new champion (Kramnik) played a fourteen-game MATCH VS. LEKO. Here Kramnik played 1.e4 in every game – an odd decision since that move really isn’t compatible with his style. He didn’t win with 1.e4 until the final game, when he pretty much avoided theory in Leko’s Caro-Kann and managed to outplay his opponent in a quiet technical battle, thereby retaining his title.

It’s interesting to note that Leko also used 1.e4 in his first two Whites, but gave it up (for 1.d4) when he couldn’t scratch Kramnik’s Petroff Defense. Overall, 1.e4 was played in nine of the fourteen games.

At this point 1.e4 pretty much faded from World Championship matches. Why? Because theory had marched ahead and shown that lines like the Berlin Defense and Petroff Defense were almost impossible to tear down (at this level), while the Caro-Kann was also an extremely hard nut to crack. Since drawing with Black is huge in these kinds of matches, players with Black stopped entering sharp 1.e4 variations and just went out of their way to kill white’s play with the lines mentioned.

As a result, 1.d4 became the go-to choice in modern matches. This not only avoided the previously listed drawing systems, but tended to give White at least a small edge (in black’s most solid lines) that could be massaged in a more or less risk free manner. Of course, Black could meet 1.d4 with other, more combative systems (Semi-Slav, KID, Grunfeld, etc.), but then White could be happy to carry the first move into a battle, while having successfully avoided the Berlin/Petroff/Caro draw death.

The next three World Championship matches seemed to follow this logic:

KRAMNIK - TOPALOV, 2006, didn’t even have one game with 1.e4!

ANAND - KRAMNIK, 2008, only had one game with 1.e4.

ANAND - TOPALOV Match, 2010, didn’t even have one game with 1.e4!


From laedryn: 

I would very much like to begin building an opening repertoire using the opening tree you described in a recent article, but my study time is limited and I would like to make the very most of it by focusing my efforts on only one or two openings as white and black until I reach a higher level of proficiency. You have recommended in previous articles that players, especially amateurs, not interested in memorizing many variations or spending a lot of time dealing with opening theory, select openings where the ideas are more important than the particular move order. What openings for white and black focus primarily on ideas and not theoretical memorization?

Dear Laedryn:

Let me clarify something right away: there is ALWAYS reams of analysis to memorize IF you wish to do so. And, as you move up the rating ladder, the demands of memorization grow.

However, don’t despair! Players under 2000 can get by quite well with minimal memorization, and there are even very strong players that avoid massive theory and the memorization that comes with it. One example of a grandmaster that doesn’t want to do the memorization tango is the Czech GM P. Blatny. As White, Pavel creates tense strategic positions that demand far more understanding than memorization via opening with 1.b3, 1.Nf3, 1.g3, 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.c3, 1.d4 Nf6 2.e3, 1.f4, etc.

As Black it’s harder to play from “scratch”, but Pavel usually remains true to his philosophy by using lines like 1.e4 b6, 1.d4 b6, 1.e4 g6, 1.e4 c6 2.d4 g6, 1.c4 e6 2.Nf3 b6, 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 d6 3.Nc3 Bf5, etc.

A very strong IM that took his opponents on an opening ride to the unknown was Cyrus Lakdawala. He would sometimes play strange stuff (his own private lines featuring his original views about various positions), and at other times he might simply follow theory and force a quiet position that suited his positional talents, while also avoiding all sharp (memory-intensive) lines. For example, as White against the sharp Jack Peters he played 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.c4 Bg7 4.Nc3 0-0 5.e4 d6 6.Be2 e5 7.dxe5 (denying Black his usual kingside attacking chances that arise in the mainlines after 7.0-0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7) 7…dxe5 8.Qxd8 Rxd8 9.Bg5 c6 10.Nxe5 Re8 11.0-0-0 Na6 12.Rd6 and went on to win. However, on many occasions he just tossed normal theory out the window and forced his opponents to play non-memorization chess via lines like, 1.Nf3 c5 2.c3, 1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 e6 3.Bf4, 1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.Nbd2 c5 5.c3, etc.

As Black, Cyrus can throw anything and everything at you: 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c6, 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e3 g6, 1.e4 d5, 1.e4 c6, 1.e4 Nf6, etc.

Returning to your question, you can make use of a lot of theoretical lines but kill off slick theory by playing an early sideline that leads to some position that’s to your taste (a la Lakdawala), or you can follow Mr. Blatny and leave most theory behind in the first few moves. Again – though I say you’re leaving most theory behind, there is always theory in just about every line, but much of it isn’t anything you need to know if you’re a non-master (or you can slowly learn it over time).

Here are a few systems that avoid main lines (which most people know), and also avoid endless hyper-sharp variations:

For White

COLLE: 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e3 e6 4.Bd3 c5 5.c3 Nc6 6.Nbd2 Bd6 7.0–0 0-0 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.e4 (IM Doug Root played this for years with excellent results). Palliser’s book, STARTING OUT: THE COLLE (Everyman Chess, 2007) is the best I’ve seen on this opening.


LONDON SYSTEM: 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bf4. Lakdawala, in his new book (PLAY THE LONDON SYSTEM, Everyman Chess 2010), has this to say about the London: “The London System is one of the safest and most solid methods of handling the White pieces. Basically, we play a Slav a move up, erecting a pawn wall on c3, d4 and e3, and developing a Bishop to f4. We don’t care how Black sets up. Our structure is preordained and takes on all comers. Don’t get fooled by the solidity. This isn’t just an opening for the chicken-hearted. From my experience, most London’s begin slowly and then erupt in a clash down the road, often ending with a mating attack for White.”


Lakdawala’s book shows how to play the London against 1…d5, Grunfeld setups, KID setups, Dutch setups, and Benoni setups.

ENGLISH OPENING: After 1.c4 you usually aim to dominate the d5-square via Nc3, g3, Bg2 followed by queenside play by a3 and b2-b4 or kingside play by e4, Nge2, g3, Bg2, 0-0, f2-f4-f5 etc. There are actually many ways to play the English and very few players with Black are prepared for it. In general, you can get by with a firm knowledge of the opening’s plans. For example, USCF Master Jerry Hanken (recently deceased) played 1.c4 all his life. He would toss out the first 15 moves in just a few seconds since he knew the general setups he was after (memorizing real variations rarely crossed his mind!). A very good book for this opening is THE DYNAMIC ENGLISH by Tony Kosten (Gambit Publications, 1999).



For Black

THE STONEWALL DUTCH: The Stonewall (1.d4 f5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 d5 5.c4 c6) is an easy opening to learn, and it’s both solid and dangerous. Also, it can be played against everything but 1.e4. A very good book on this opening (from black’s point of view) is WIN WITH THE STONEWALL DUTCH by Sverre Johnsen and Ivar Bern (Gambit Publications, 2009).


FRENCH DEFENSE: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2/3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Nxf6+ Nxf6 is an easy way to play the French – it avoids the many hyper-complex lines, and gives Black a sound, fully playable position with no muss or fuss. This position, which is a favorite of legions of grandmasters, is very much idea/plan driven, and those plans are easy to learn and retain.


1…b6 is one of those things that you can pick up rather quickly. You learn a few setups, find out what traps to avoid, and away you go. The beauty of this opening (aside from it being relatively easy to learn) is that you can play it against almost everything, and none of your opponents will be very familiar with it! The best book on this system is PLAY 1…b6 by Christian Bauer (Everyman Chess, 2005).

1…g6 is another one of those “do it against everything” moves. It leads to crazy positions that will confuse almost any opponent you face, and once you get used to the rather alien setups/plans/ideas, you can move on autopilot in the opening and still do reasonably well. My favorite book on this system is TIGER’S MODERN by Tiger Hillarp Persson (Quality Chess, 2005).

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