Some thoughts on the moves 1 c4 and 1 Nf3 for White

The moves 1 c4 and 1 Nf3 have often been misrepresented in opening books. The assumption seems to be that when White plays 1 c4 or 1 Nf3, he is intending to adopt one of the formations characteristic of the English Opening, Reti, or King’s Indian Attack. However, this ignores one of the key ways these moves have been used over the years, in particular by top players.

This was first drawn to my attention when I started looking at the games of Victor Korchnoi, my first chess hero. Korchnoi would often open with 1 c4, particularly in his World Championship matches. If Black played …e5 or …c5 before he played d4, the game would naturally move into English Opening territory. However, many of his opponents, not least Anatoly Karpov, would look to direct the opening in other directions. In their 1981 World Championship match, Karpov would meet Korchnoi’s 1 c4 with 1 …e6, and the game would proceed 2 Nc3 d5 3 d4 Be7, transposing into the Queen’s Gambit.

The opening books I had access to on 1 c4 were not much help on the topic of such transpositions. They seemed to assume that White would want to religiously avoid transposing into 1 d4 openings if he opened with 1 c4. However, in many cases such a transposition is the strongest option. For instance, if Black adopts the King’s Indian formation with …Nf6, …g6, …Bg7, …0-0 and …d6, White really has nothing better than playing a line with d4. Also, if Black plays …e6 and …d5, as Karpov did, I couldn’t see anything better than transposing either to the Queen’s Gambit or possibly the Catalan.

I tried 1 c4 a number of times myself, but I became frustrated with the lines after 1 c4 e5. Even though I have played the Sicilian in over 100 tournament and match games with Black, I found it less satisfying playing it as White. Perhaps the explanation is that when playing White against the Sicilian formation, players tend to be more aggressive, which gives Black in turn more chances. When playing Black, they tend to be more conservative, and White’s extra move is of no particular value. In any case, I turned back to 1 d4, and most of my experimentation of move one centred on the main alternative 1 e4. Perhaps somewhat ironically, my score against the Sicilian with 1 e4 c5 was much better than my score with the English after 1 c4 e5.

However, in the mid to late 1990s, I started to observe the games of rising star Vladimir Kramnik, whose repertoire at that time was based around the move 1 Nf3. It was immediately clear that he played the move much as Korchnoi played 1 c4. The main idea was to avoid the Nimzo-Indian, which has always been regarded as a tough nut to crack, while allowing more amenable openings, such as the Queen’s Gambit, King’s Indian and Dutch.

One big plus point of 1 Nf3 for me was that it avoided the lines after 1 c4 e5. White still needed to be prepared to play the Symmetrical English, for instance after 1 Nf3 Nf6 2 c4 c5, but I had always been happy to play that line. Admittedly, White is committed to playing 1 d4 systems with Nf3, but I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t a problem, as most of the lines I played already involved that move anyway. There was also the advantage that the move order eliminated many of Black’s sharper defences, such as the Gruenfeld, Modern Benoni and Benko Gambit, which made preparation easier.

I soon started playing 1 Nf3 almost exclusively with White, with good results. Although I have dabbled with other moves since then, this has been my main opening move as White for over a decade.

In some of my subsequent posts, I am going to look at the business of building a repertoire based on 1 Nf3 and the above principles. I don’t intend at this point to look at any of White’s systems in detail; rather, my aim is to outline what move order White should use against Black’s various possibilities, and what lines he should be aiming for. In some instances, I shall indicate more than one possibility for White; after all, one of the merits of 1 Nf3 is its flexibility.

Visit the Bibliography for recommended reading relating to the 1 Nf3 Repertoire.
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