The most common first move for White is 1. e4. But is it the best? No, it's not. And this is not a matter of opinion, it's a statistical fact (using data in the Game Explorer here on Chess.com).
1. e4 is played in no less than 46 % of all master games in the database. But there are actually 8 moves that are more successful. Here is a list of these 8 moves, as well as 1. e4, ordered by success rate.
- 1. Na3 (4.00)
- 1. h4 (1.50)
- 1. a4 (1.50)
- 1. c4 (1.29)
- 1. d4 (1.27)
- 1. Nf3 (1.27)
- 1. g3 (1.25)
- 1. f3 (1.20)
- 1. e4 (1.19)
The number written after the move is the success rate, calculated like this: (White wins + ½ draws) / (Black wins + ½ draws).
So, what can we learn from this? That we should play 1. Na3 all the time? No, not really. But why not? The success rate for 1. Na3 is more than 3 times the rate for 1. e4, so it seems to be a much better opening move. Well, the thing about 1. Na3 is that it's only been played in 5 of the 1.3 million games in the database, so although it won for White in 80 % of all the games, it's not really statistically significant. The same goes for 1. h4, 1. a4 and 1. f3, played in just 20, 10 and 11 of the games in the database, respectively.
That leaves us with 5 moves worth considering: 1. c4, 1. d4, 1. Nf3, 1. g3 and 1. e4. Except for 1. e4 (King's Pawn), 1. d4 (Queen Pawn Opening) is the most common opening move, played in 35 % of the games in the database. And, as can be seen in the list above, it's a great opening move, with a success rate 7 % (1.27 / 1.19) higher than 1. e4. The least common of these 5 moves is 1. g3 (Hungarian Opening), which is only played in 1 % of the games in the database. It too is showing a higher success rate than 1. e4. In fact, all these moves scores better than 1. e4. The best being (according to the data, not opinion): 1. c4 (English Opening), scoring slightly better than 1. d4, 1. Nf3 (Zukertort Opening) and 1. g3.
Does this mean we should never play 1. e4? No, it doesn't. The reason why 1. e4 doesn't have the same success rate as the other four first moves mentioned is primarily due to the strong 1...c5 (Sicilian Defense) reply from Black. Most other replies to 1. e4, and White will be fine (more on that in a later article). So, by all means, do play 1. e4, just remember to discretely cross your fingers under the table while doing so, and hope Black will reply with 1. e5, or something even worse.
So, Fischer was wrong when he called 1. e4 "best by test". It really is 1. c4.