Chess Psychology Openings Strategy

The Best Chess Openings for White (With Data)

Many chess player ask: What are the best chess openings for white? — I did the research to give you an answer.

All chess openings for white score approximately equal for players under 2000 and hover around a 50% win rate. The Reti opening, 1. Nf3, scores the best with a win rate of 52% for white. For masters, the win rate of openings hover at around 33% due to the higher amount of draws in master play. Surprisingly, the Hungarian opening, 1. g3, has the best win rate with 36% for masters.

What’s the best first move for white?

Win rate for white after the first move for players under 2000 ELO

First MoveWin Rate
1. Nf352%
1. d450%
1. c450%
1. e449%
1. f449%
1. b349%
1. g348%
1. e345%
Data Source: Lichess Player Database

Win rate for white after the first move for master players

First MoveWin Rate
1. g336%
1. d434%
1. Nf334%
1. c434%
1. e433%
1. b333%
1. f429%
1. Nc330%
Data Source: Lichess Master Database

Let’s give more context to this data: The “best first moves” 1. Nf3 and 1. g3 are both played less frequently than the most popular moves 1. e4 and 1. d4.

For players under 2000, 1. e4 has been played 75.720.002 times, 1. d4 36.406.545 times, while 1. Nf3 has been played only 5.621.658 times. Still, the data set is big enough that all numbers are statistically significant.

For masters, the database lists 1,038,423 games that start with 1. e4, 826,559 games with 1. d4, and only 18,614 games started with 1. g3!

So why do so many players play 1. e4, when it doesn’t seem to be the objectively best move at a first glance of the data?

First, the difference is minimal. If we take the under 2000 data set, it really means that white “only” wins 3 more games if he starts with 1. Nf3 (52%) than 1. e4 (49%) over the course of a hundred games. At a difference this small, the individual win rate depends on the skill of the player.

Second, 1. Nf3 and 1. g3 are unusual moves that will surprise opponents due to their rarity. If these opening moves would appear more often, opponents would be better prepared and the win rate may change. As it stands today though, these moves appear to be powerful surprise weapons.

Third, the nature of the game changes with the opening. 1. e4 is known to create an open and tactical game, while 1. d4 creates positional games. Players might not like the type of games that appear after 1. Nf3 or 1. g3 and therefore these moves are played less regularly.

Fourth, the different first moves all branch out in different variations that each may have better or worst win rates. I found this illustration on chess stack exchange, which highlights the different variations that can arise in the Sicilian – and this is just one opening! Each of these variations will have differences in terms of win rates.

sicilian
Sicilian Opening Tree

Why are the best chess openings for white important?

The best chess openings for white determine the course of the game. If you feel comfortable in the opening, you’ll flow to better middle games where you’ll already know the strategic and tactical plans.

For example, even though the data doesn’t consider 1. e4 to be one of the best chess openings for white, my performance with 1. e4 in my online games is pretty good and even scores at 61% for the most common replies (1. e5 and 1. c5).

Bildschirmfoto 2020 09 03 um 12.51.27
My win rates with 1. e4 online according to Lichess data

One of the reasons for this is that I spent a lot of time studying my favorite blitz openings, the Scotch Gambit and the Grand Prix Attack. This is why I think that on an individual level, the data doesn’t matter and the time invested to learn the opening theory is more important.

If you have a solid chess opening repertoire, you’ll approach games with more confidence. I still remember the times when I was afraid of facing the Caro-Kann or French Defense – I simply didn’t know how to play against them and I would already feel demoralized as soon as my opponents would play 1. … e6 or 1. … c6.

After I spent some time studying how to play against these openings, this feeling has completely shifted. I now look forward to facing these openings, because I know exactly how to play against them! And contrary to other popular opinions, I think that studying chess openings teach you important strategical concepts.

How to Study Chess Openings

If you’re a busy person like me, you’ll want to improve at chess as time efficient as possible.

Therefore, I want to give you some tips to make your opening study as easy as possible.

At the beginning, before you decide to study and play an opening, take a look at the main positions and ideas and ask yourself if you intuitively understand the opening and would like to play it. If that’s not the case, the study will be tiresome and results will be lackluster.

When I was a young chess player I tried to play the French Defense because it seemed hard to play against. However, I never truly understood the opening and hated to play with the lack of space. The French Defense is a reasonable opening, but it simply didn’t suit me and I quickly dropped it.

After you looked at some main moves and ideas, go play a few blitz games and try the opening out! The effectiveness of blitz games is controversially discussed, but I think it’s a great tool to learn the best chess openings for white due to the volume of games. Also, you have enough time in the opening phase of the game!

After you played an opening for a few games, you’ll already have made the decision if you would like to keep playing this opening or not. If you do, I recommend that you analyze every game you play and look for improvements in the opening. You can either do so with the engine or take an opening book to help you (I prefer opening books because they give more context of ideas than the engine). That way, you’ll improve step-by-step with each game you play.

As the last step, you can create a study on Lichess or a data base on Chessbase and create a file with the different branches of variations. I found that this helps me to memorize lines.

I hope that you enjoyed these insights on the best chess openings for white. I will release an article about the best chess openings for black, too, here on this blog.