Going “off piste” or “off the beaten track” in the opening has its merits. For a start, you get your opponent thinking earlier, which is no bad thing if you’re fed up of 10-20 opening book moves being fired at you in the first 10 seconds of a game. You can explore the positions that occur after your opening at your leisure at home, while your opponent will most probably have to sweat at the board trying to fathom what the heck is going on in the position. At the very least you are going to get a time advantage, and that puts your opponent under pressure.
The opening after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 is very well-known. The most common moves here are by far 3.Bb5 (Ruy Lopez), 3.Bc4 (Italian Game), or 3.d4 (Scotch Opening), and to a lesser extent 3.Nc3 (Three Knights/Four Knights).
What about other options on move 3? Well, there are a number of reasonable alternatives to consider. Top of the list is perhaps the Ponziani (3.c3), which Carlsen has used as a surprise weapon. Or perhaps it isn’t that much of a surprise – he is becoming famed for his use of unpopular, but perfectly reasonable openings, with the aim of getting a playable position out of the opening, and just outplaying his opponents from an equal position in the middle game and/or ending. Below is an example of Carlsen’s use of the Ponziani:
Another line worth considering at this juncture is 3.Be2. This goes by the name of the Inverted Hungarian Opening. So called, because White’ s bishop on e2 resembles Black’s bishop on e7 in the Hungarian Defence. It doesn’t look like that much, but it seems fine. Below is a recent game from the Bronstein Memorial Open, which saw it adopted by a 2700+ player, Baadur Jobava. Presumably he didn’t fancy seeing his lower rated opponent’s opening preparation, and played something unexpected, but perfectly playable, and consequently won very quickly. A lesson to us all.