If you spend enough time reading chess articles, tuning into chess streams, or attempting to study with a chess book (hint: it’s easier with Chessable), it won’t be long until you are sagely advised: “Never play a chess opening named after an animal.” See also: “Don’t move your f-pawn too soon”. And maybe you take these nodding heads at face value, resolve to play only the London System, and reduce your chess universe to a handful of solid, stolid, and same-ish positions. Alternatively, you could break all the rules and play Bird’s Opening! Also known as a reverse Dutch, or Dutch Attack (as the mirror image of the Dutch Defence, 1… f5), the Bird is an aggressive, uncommon, and downright rebellious way to kick off a chess game, starting with the move 1.f4.
So, want to know how to play Bird’s Opening? Read on.
How and Why to Play a 1.f4 Opening
Bird’s Opening is named after English master player, Henry Edward Bird, who first played the opening in 1855. Asked how his love affair with 1.f4 began, Bird said:
“Having forgotten familiar openings, I commenced adopting KBP [1.f4] for the first move, and finding it led to highly interesting games out of the usual groove, I became partial to it.” – Henry Bird
So partial, in fact, he played it almost exclusively for the following 40 years, until the opening was named after him. So what’s so appealing about 1.f4? Let’s take a look at how Bird’s Opening sets up the game:
After 1.f4, the game’s direction is often determined by the following characteristics:
- White has a space advantage on the kingside, and lays the ground for a timely pawn storm.
- 1.f4 exposes the White king along the dangerous e1-h4 diagonal.
- White often has strong control of the dark central squares.
If Black responds with 1…d5, the game becomes a reversed version of the Dutch Defense (1.d4 f5). As mentioned, this can give the White player strong control over the central dark squares, thanks to pawns on e3, f4, the knight on f3, and a super-powered dark-squared bishop. For example, look at this position after a relatively common continuation in Bird’s Opening:
White has good central control here, and can continue by developing their other bishop to g2 or e2, castling short, and starting to think about launching a quick kingside attack. White’s dark-squared bishop is ominous on this long diagonal, and the b-knight will often work its way over to the kingside to join in on the attack. After castling, White can also consider Qe1 then Qh4, g4 (preparing to go full pawn storm with f5 or g5), and hopping the f-knight to e5.
While Black has time to set up a fairly solid structure and perhaps grab more space centrally or on the queenside, White’s direct approach allows you to build towards a targeted and irresistible attack here before your opponent has time to get organized. Although there are threats to be navigated if Black plays precisely, if you are the type of chess player who is perhaps partial to neglecting solid, defensive play for an opportunity to seize the initiative, the Bird may be the opening for you. And if that’s not enough, did I mention that the Bird also leads to serious opportunities for eye-catching sacrifices and glorious wins? If you don’t believe me, take a look at Emanuel Lasker’s famous double bishop sacrifice win from a Bird’s Opening or watch Mikhail Chigorin handily dismantle Alexander Sellman’s kingside in 1883; if played right, the Bird gives you great chances to play great chess games you will remember.
Is Bird’s Opening Bad?
The Bird is not bad. Like any opening, the Bird has its downsides. While it is indeed possible to mount a beautiful flank attack after 1.f4, this is a double-edged move. That means there are also certain pitfalls to avoid for White, and definite possibilities for counterplay for Black.
For example, it is important as White to note that you should beware pushing e4 or d4 too soon. Though these can seem tempting breaks at times, the pawn on e3 is both a weakness and an often crucial defender of f4; if this pawn falls, White’s king can quickly become dangerously exposed. To avoid problems like this, here’s a quick overview of the main responses Black has to 1.f4, and one must-know gambit to avoid.
Black’s Responses to Bird’s Opening
The first response to consider is the one mentioned above, 1…d5. This move, combined with fianchettoing on the kingside is perhaps the reply you are most likely to encounter after 1.f4. The bishop is a good defensive resource in front of the Black king, and this setup allows Black a sound route to get developed, take over the light squares, and expand on the queenside with c7-c5:
In this position, Black has an idea to disrupt White’s pawn chain and so expose the king. White has to be careful here; if Black pushes d4, taking with the e3 pawn would leave f4 weak, and playing d2-d4 is no good as it invites cxd4, which leads to the same dilemma. The best plan for White in this situation may be to let Black capture on e3 and recapture with the d2 pawn, offering a queen trade but maintaining support of f4.
In fact, Black has various options to counter Bird’s Opening that revolve around exploiting or undermining the f4 pawn, or the weaknesses that 1.f4 induces in the White position. Examples include starting with d6 and orchestrating a pawn break with e5, or to play b6 and fianchetto on the queenside, taking advantage of the fact that White can no longer play f3 and blunt the Black bishop. Black can even start with 1…c5 and try to take the game into Sicilian territory (the game will transpose to a Sicilian if White pushes e4). You get the idea: it’s not all plain sailing. The Bird may not be as watertight as some 1.d4 openings, in fact often enough the game depends on who can force their opponent onto the back foot first. The above ideas are a good starting point to avoid getting exposed in the centre, and you can often do well by simply playing logical moves. Also, studying ideas in the Dutch Defense and some lines after 1.b3 will help! But, by far the most important response to Bird’s Opening that you need to know before pushing 1.f4 is the venomous From Gambit.
How to Survive Against From’s Gambit
Before playing the Bird, you need to know what to do about From’s Gambit. Otherwise you might end up on the receiving end of some short and painful games. The gambit starts after 1.f4 e5 – with an immediate pawn sacrifice from Black:
The continuation for Black if White accepts this pawn is to immediately gambit another pawn, with 2…d6. This might seem a little dubious from Black, as if White takes again, Black will have already lost their two central pawns. However, if the below position is reached, Black has serious compensation, all of it based around the weakness highlighted above: the e1-h4 diagonal.
If White doesn’t immediately play a move that prevents Qh4 (Nf3 or g3), Black has forced mate, with, for example 4…Qh4 5.g3 Qxg3 6.hxg3 Bxg3#. Ouch.
Even if you do play Nf3 on move 4, Black has a continuation 4…g5, looking to kick the knight and continue attacking! White has to tread carefully here: the only good continuations after g5 for White are 5.g3 g4 6.Nh4 or 5.d4 g4 6.Ne5 Bxe5 7.dxe5 8.Qxd1 Kxd1. After both of these lines, White ends up surviving and up a pawn, though in the second line especially Black will likely equalize… but hey, at least you didn’t get checkmated in 6 moves. The From Gambit is so deadly that often White will respond to 1.f4 e5 with 2.e4, transposing into a King’s Gambit. For that reason, it is highly recommendable to check out 2021 World Championship Challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi’s course Long Live the King’s Gambit before you play 1.f4.
Other helpful resources that will help you excel with Bird’s Opening include The Art of Attack in Chess from Dutch Defense (and attack) maestro, GM Simon Williams, Antidotes to anti Dutch-systems by Chessable community author, FM Till, and – if you really want to go deep and learn how to dominate the center with a queenside fianchetto – IM Ahmad Alkhatib’s course, Fight like Nakamura: Play 1. b3! You may also find it useful to learn how to learn a chess opening properly.
Bird’s Opening FAQs
What is Bird’s Opening?
Bird’s Opening is a chess opening in which the White player’s first move is 1.f4. White’s fundamental plan is to launch a flank attack on the Black kingside.
Is Bird’s Opening Good?
In a word, yes. Although it is rarely played at the top levels, Bird’s Opening is a direct, challenging, and off-beat try for White that can quickly lead to a quick and strong advantage if Black does not respond with precise, optimal play. Another reason the Bird is good is that with 1.f4, White usually has greater control over the destiny of the game as a whole. After 1.e4, for example, White could face a Sicilian, a French, a Pirc, a Scandinavian… the list is almost endless. Alternatively, after 1.f4, Black’s responses are much more limited. And, since it’s a much less common opening than 1.e4, it’s a handy surprise weapon that will allow you to take many opponents out of their comfort zone.
Is Bird’s Opening for Beginners?
Bird’s Opening is not recommended for absolute beginners due to the weakness it creates around your king, the attacking possibilities it gives your opponent, and the complexities of the positions that derive from it. That said, it is a lot of fun to play.
Is the Bird’s Opening Aggressive?
Yes. At the cost of weakening your kingside defenses, the move 1.f4 gives White a headstart on a flank attack. By starting with f4, the opportunity to develop the g-knight behind the f-pawn also adds another attacking resource to White’s kingside arsenal.
How to Play the Bird’s Opening?
All you have to do is play 1.f4 and you have played the Bird’s Opening. Before you do, though, it will help to study the resources listed in the article above, and learn how to respond to Black’s most menacing response: the From Gambit.