How Do You Play Against 1 h3?

When I was 10 years old in 1980, shortly after playing in my first couple of rated tournaments, I came under the influence of the then-current Michigan Open champion, a master who changed the course of my life by introducing me to the bizarre in chess and therefore stimulating my imagination, resulting in my developing a taste for the unorthodox (for both better and worse in my chess development). In particular, he showed me Grob’s Attack, the opening in which White plays 1 g4 as the first move, a move that violates all the conventional principles that most chess players are taught when first learning the game. I never actually played this opening, because to his credit, he not only showed me the traps White can set for Black, but also how Black can sidestep the traps and get an advantage.

Knowing how to face unorthodox openings in chess, both technically and psychologically, is an important part of growth for a serious student of chess. It is extremely easy for chess players to fall into an unthinking automatism in the opening stages of a game, following some pattern of moves without understanding what their purpose is, or without doing at least some rudimentary calculation when the position starts becoming unfamiliar and out of the scope of memorized patterns.

In particular, many chess players as Black behave in a reactive way rather than an active way, because of the fact that many mainstream openings involve White placing considerable pressure on Black from the outset, such that Black is essentially forced to defend. But what if White plays in a less aggressive way? This is when true understanding and creativity are demanded.

I believe that every player as Black should have a prepared personal plan against each of White’s twenty possible opening moves (eight possible Pawn advances of one square, eight possible Pawn advances of two squares, and two possible moves of each Knight). The plan should be not just some new memorized pattern, but one that can be explained in terms of strategic and tactical factors, whether general or specific. I find that being able to confidently verbalize one’s reasoning (even if it is not necessarily entirely correct) is important.

1 h3 as an example

I’m not going to give a Black recommendation against 1 h3 here; instead, I want you to come up with your own, by considering some of the following questions, and answering them for yourself. Even better, go further by adding your own questions and answering them as well.

What is White’s purpose?

The first step is to ask what purpose White has in making the move. There must be some objective to it (even if you can calculate that you can prevent White’s plan from having an advantageous outcome). What squares are now attacked (or protected) that were not, before the move? What squares have been, by contrast, unprotected or weakened? What lines of development or attack have been opened, or closed?

In the case of 1 h3, by thinking about such questions, you might observe:

  • White has not made any progress in developing pieces, either by actually developing a piece or by opening a line to enable development of a piece.
  • White still does not have any control over the center squares.
  • White does control the g4 square now.
  • White has weakened the g3 square, which is now only protected by the f-Pawn.
  • White has made space on the h2 square for a piece to possibly be moved there.

Then you might hypothesize that perhaps:

  • White may be planning to support a g4 Pawn advance.
  • White may be thinking way ahead, in anticipation of Black wanting to eventually put a Bishop or Knight on g4, but is preventing it already.
  • White may be thinking way ahead, preparing to eventually develop the dark-squared Bishop to f4, and then having h2 as an escape square in case the Bishop is attacked.

If you considered the last two of these possibilities, you are probably an advanced player who already has a grasp of mainstream opening theory and are able to relate it to unorthodox moves.

What is your purpose as Black?

Let’s say that you usually play the standard move 1…Nf6 as Black against mainstream opening moves other than 1 e4. Maybe you are used to playing for a Nimzo-Indian or Queen’s Indian type of setup with 1…Nf3, 2…e6. If you went on autopilot, you might quickly play 1…Nf6 against 1 h3 only to be faced with 2 g4. And then if 2…e6, 3 g5 might follow, chasing your Knight away. Now, it’s not the case that White actually has any advantage even if you played on autopilot; in fact, frankly, White still has a worse position despite autopilot. But if autopilot is a symptom of not thinking, you could quickly find yourself in a bad position after all, after several more indifferent moves.

You should probably question why you would play 1…Nf6 against 1 h3 at all. One observation you could make is that you are actually playing White in this game. For example, if you normally play 1 e4 as White, why not consider 1…e5 against 1 h3? Or if you normally play 1 d4 as White, why not consider 1…d5?

Against passive or slow moves by White, consider thinking in terms of actually “playing White”, with reversed colors. Also, even one tempo down, there may be benefits for that missing tempo. For example, might it be possible to exploit White’s weakened dark squares g3 and h2?

Conclusion

I believe there is considerable valuable in devoting some serious time thinking about and writing down your thoughts about how you would approach playing against an opening move like 1 h3. It will expose assumptions you have about the nature of the delicate balance between White and Black in the initial board position, and what you expect to happen in the middlegame when it comes to King safety, weak squares, and a head start in either defense or attack.

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.