The first opening to learn

Sep 15, 2011, 10:21 AM |

In my earlier post, 80 percentile openings, I looked at the 15 most common four half moves. All these 15 lines begin with either e4 or d4, as these two first moves are used in 46 % and 35 % of all openings, respectively. After systematically going through all these 80 percentile lines, I now easily remember them all. So, I decided the next step would be to dive into one of them, and learn a little deeper. But which one?

Being someone who prefer more objective criteria, rather than just going at random, I've decided to dive into the King's Knight Opening: Normal Variation. The one that goes 1 e4 e5, 2. Nf3 Nc6. Why? Because, of the 15 lines, only 2 of them, King's Knight Opening: Normal Variation and French Defense: Advance Variation, Steinitz Variation didn't expand after four half moves. What I mean by that, is that these 2 lines had only one 80 percentile move after their second half move, and until the forth. And being rather new to all this opening theory, I though I'd better choose a line with not too much to remember.

So why not the French Defense? Well, for two reasons. First, the King's Knight Opening is more common, so there is a higher chance of seeing it at the chess board. Secondly, while there are two 80 percentile replies to the forth half move in both of these openings, the most common reply to the King's Knight Opening is almost 5 times as likely to occur as the second most common, whereas the most common reply to the French Defense isn't even twice as likely to occur as the second most common reply. This means that, with the King's Knight Opening, we can justify looking at only the main line, and - for now at least - neglect the second most common line. Doing this with the French Defense, and we could easily find ourselves in unknown territory after just 5 half moves. So, the King's Knight Opening it is. Let's dive in! 

The first four moves goes like this: 1. e4 e5, 2. Nf3 Nc6, and looks like shown below: 



And in this position we are seemingly at cruising altitude, and can almost turn on the automatic pilot for the next 6 moves (12 half moves). The most common reply by White in this position is 3. Bb5, which occurs in no less than 68 % of all master games in the database. So, this is the line we will look at. It's called the Ruy Lopez (C60)

After 3. Bb5, we will likely see 3...a6, as this is the reply in 77 % of all cases. And with the White Bishop of Vanity now threatened, the next move is as good as obvious. It's 4. Ba4. The only other move really worth considering is 4. Bxc6, but this only occurs in 11 % of all games, compared to 88 % for 4. Ba4. With 4. Bxc6 we would be on our way down the Ruy Lopez: Exchange Variation (C68), but we are sticking to 4. Ba4: the Ruy Lopez: Columbus Variation (C68)

What's Black's reply? 4...Nf6, of course! Developing a piece, while threatening to capture the White pawn on e4. This is the reply in 87 % of the games in the database. So, will White defend his central pawn on e4? The answer is: most likely not! The 3 moves defending the pawn on e4 - 5. d3, 5. Qe2 and 5. Nc3 - only occur in 11 % of all the games, added together. Instead, expect White to play 5. O-O, leaving the fate of his e4 pawn in the hands of Black's Knight. There is an 86 % chance of seeing this move, and the position is now called the Ruy Lopez: Morphy Defense (C78)

And now, another surprise. Just as White didn't care to defend his e4 pawn, allowing Black's Knight to kick the poor fellow off the board, so Black's Knight will most likely not even bother. Only in 14 % of all master games does Black capture on e4 with 5...Nxe4. Much more likely is 5...Be7, which occurs in 70 % of the master games and brings us into the Ruy Lopez: Closed Variation (C84)

And now what? Well, ever since Black moved 4...Nf6, White's silly little pawn on e4 has been kicking and screaming like one of the silly little piggies he is supposed to take care of. And while the White Knight and Queen have been partying in the castle, and his friend on d2 has been busy reading opening theory, luckily the Rook who just came out heard him, and decided to rush to his rescue. So, 6. Re1 it is, in all but 17 % of all master games. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the board, White's Bishop on a4 has fallen asleep, while playing in the fields all by himself. Unfortunately for him, Black's pawn on a6 has noticed this, and has called for help for a surprise attack on the slumpering Bishop. So, his friend on b7 rush out to beat down the Bishop with his stick. Seemingly, this happens all the time, in no less than 97 % of all games. So, 6...b5 it is! 

As the b-pawn rushes out he tips over a bucket filled with donuts standing in the field. It clings and clangs, and the Bishop leaps back. "I told you not to rush!" the a-pawn yells, and shock his head, "Why don't you ever listen!" A good question indeed, since the Bishop has been jumping back to b3 in more than 20,000 master games, and only once did he not. That was in 2003, when Hannes Stefansson's Bishop of Vanity stood firm on a4, frightening Johann Hjartarson's clumpsy b-pawn so much that although he did reach b5, he didn't dare touch the Bishop. In fact, Stefansson brave Bishop stayed on the board for no less than 24 moves. But just 10 moves later, White, having lost the brave Bishop, had to resign. Anyway, back on track! So, 7. Bb3 it is, bringing us into Ruy Lopez: Closed (C88)

Now Black has a choice to make, since we now have the first move since we started down the Ruy Lopez path, where the most common reply doesn't appear in at least 2/3 of all cases. But, it's close. The most common reply here is 7...d6, which occurs in 63 % of all games in the database. The only alternative really, is 7...O-O, occuring in 37 % of the games. Well, a few other moves have been seen, but they account for just 0.5 % of all replies. However, the most common White reply to both of these Black moves is one and the same, namely 8. c3. This move is as good as certain the reply to 7...d6, appearing in 95 % of all games. After 7...O-O, it is still the most popular reply, seen in 48 % of the master games. Other replies to 7...O-O are 8. a4, 8. h3, 8. d4 and 8. d3, all accounting for a fair share of the remaining 52 %. So, for the sake of simplicity, I think 7...d6 is a better choice than 7...O-O, for the beginner, since there is less chance of getting oneself into unknown territory. 

Black's reply to 8. c3, after the main line 7...d6, is - in 95 % of the master games - 8. O-O. And Black's reply to 8. c3, after the alternative, 7...O-O, is - in 91 % of the games in the database - 8...d6. So, most likely we will reach the same position after the 8. move, only the move order being slightly different. However, by playing 7...d6, we reduce the risk of facing one of the four just mentioned alternatives. 

And with that, both sides have castles, and we conclude this post - ladies and gentlemen, kings and queens, pawns are priests - on the first opening to learn, the offspring of the King's Knight Opening. The beautiful Ruy Lopez




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