e4 or d4?

e4 or d4?

Oct 8, 2016, 5:33 PM |

I recently read a thread where someone asked the age old question whether to play 1. e4 or 1. d4. Personally, I have wrestled with this question time in and time out because being the ambitious chess player I was, I wanted to play the opening that would guarantee me the best results. Many of the top players provide their own contrasting views on this complicated question because it is simply that, a very complicated question. Rather than throw another discrete opinion into the jar of unknown possibilities, hoping some random individual picks my view out of it at random, I will simply guide you all along the journey I took.

When I first began playing chess, I opted for 1. e4. Not because it was the best, not because it was even viable, just because it was a way for me to get my foot into the door. From tournament to tournament, I stuck with this opening time and again, analyzing not my opening flaws, but rather my flaws with the rest of the game. To be completely honest, I didn't even have a great grasp of theory. I just went in to the games, opened up with 1. e4, and hoped for the best. What this ended up doing was it greatly increased my appreciation for the game. These days, way too many people are focused on the perfect start for their game, that they forget that it is the appreciation for the game that gives them the motivation to constantly want to get better at it. My game wasn't perfect, but it definitely was a start.

After playing e4 for several years, I switched over to d4. It wasn't to get "perspective" or surprise my opponents, I just felt like it was the next logical step for me to get better aquainted with the game. Whether it was an innate curiosity for this new "world" of chess or whether it was just my frustration with the road blocks I was hitting with 1. e4 I still don't know. But I desired something new.

As someone who didn't study a lot of theory, I initially thought that 1. d4 would be a safehaven for me. But I soon realized I was wrong. In fact, what I found was that in my tournament games, d4 was the more "honest" way of opening up. If I was playing someone who was better than me at the game, e4 still offered that chance to upset them or use complications as a way of masking their positional superiority. Yet with d4, because tactics are far less, those who have a greater grasp of the subtle positional themes and strategy in general tend to come out on top.

Each way of opening up made me appreciate completely different things. There was indeed overlap but that overlap is hardly noticeable when there are so many differences. 1. e4 tends to favor creativity, those who are artists in positions, and those who want to come up with unique plans. Those who have played e4 for many years will continue to find new ideas within the variations for a long time to come. 1. d4 still will always have its flavor, but the ideas are far more concrete. Openings such as the exchange QGD or the main line King's Indian set in stone a particular plan for both sides that must be followed. The reason why tactics play far less a role in games opening with d4 as opposed to e4 is because in those types of games the plan is so straightforward that tactics are put on the backburner. Whereas with 1. e4, so much energy is put into finding the best plan that players become weary and cave to the complexity of the varying positions.

I am by no means saying that one way of opening up is better than the other. In fact, I encourage you all to look at the possibilities of both openings, and to conduct your own investigations of them. A great e4 specialist is Rublevsky, and a great d4 specialist is Yusupov. Kasparov regularly entertained both sides of the coin. However, from toying with both, I have come to realize this.

Start off with 1. e4 because it will give you a better appreciation for the fundamentals of chess. 1. d4 does this too but not as well as 1. e4 does. Through 1. e4 you will build an intuition that has a better aquity for tactics, finding plans, and a dynamic strategic sense. 1. d4 tends to hand all of these important skills to you on a silver platter. Once you feel you have amply developed these skills, then I suggest dabbling in d4, to appreciate the positional and nuanced nature of chess. With 1. e4 you tend to get so caught up in the big picture of things that you forget about the little parts that make up that big picture. 

Chess is ultimately a journey, and looking at both of these ways of opening will shape you into a better player overall. Great players such as Kasparov, Carlsen, even Botvinnik all did this. I believe that the best players are those that have the most complete picture of the game. Like Kasparov, you may choose to switch back and attack away, but you will do so with a refined understanding. Or like Carlsen, you may figure out that you actually like d4 more than e4.