As a chess player, you have to know your openings.
Not only is it possible to lose a game in less than 10 moves (think of Scholar’s Mate), but the moves you make in the opening set the course for the rest of the game. You don’t want to enter the middlegame hobbled with some handicap you incurred in the opening, only to be cursed with it for the rest of the game!
The nice thing about chess openings is that with some study and practice, it’s not too difficult to play the first few moves of a game exactly like a grandmaster would – giving up zero advantages to your opponent and heading into the rest of the game completely equal or better.
But there are so many openings to choose from. In fact, the Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings lists 500 codes denoting significant openings and their variations!
Fortunately, you don’t need to learn even close to that many to become a good chess player. As a beginner, as long as you have an opening for each of the following major scenarios, you’ll be in great shape:
- An opening to play as Black against 1.e4
- An opening to play as Black against 1.d4
- An opening to play as Black against the 1.c4
- An opening to play as Black against 1.Nf3
- An opening to play as White (whether you’re a 1.d4 or 1.e4 player – since this is a beginners’ guide, we won’t cover 1.c4 and 1.Nf3)
That last one, the opening for White, is a bit more complicated because you’ll have to deal with a wide range of defenses from Black. And indeed, each opening consists of a few, if not many possible variations.
But don’t worry! With this guide, you’ll get a list of 10 openings you should know that will equip you well for all the scenarios outlined above – study these, and you’ll be much more prepared than the majority of chess players!
#1 – The French Defense
Defense for Black against 1.e4
Opening moves: 1.e4 e6
The French Defense is a great opening for beginners for many reasons. First of all, it’s a very solid and challenging opening against 1.e4 (the most common first move). If you play the French Defense and like it, you can easily stick with it your entire chess career. In fact, it’s the preferred response to 1.e4 for many legendary players past and present – Mikhail Botvinnik, Viktor Korchnoi, Tatev Abrahamyan, and Georg Meier just to name a few!
Second, the French Defense teaches many fundamental chess principles very well. You’ll learn much about pawn breaks and pawn structure, fighting for the center, attacking on the wings, and improving pieces. It will also give you insight into dealing with it as White if you play 1.e4, as the French is one of the most common defenses against 1.e4.
White has several ways to play against the defense, but for now you should focus on the most common: the Advance Variation (3.e5) and the Exchange Variation (3.exd5).
Chessable has many great courses on the French – try it out for free with Short & Sweet: French Defense by USCF National Master Bryan Tillis.
#2 – The Sicilian Defense
Defense for Black against 1.e4
Opening moves: 1.e4 c5
If you watch any major chess tournament, you’ll get the impression that the Sicilian Defense is the favorite defense of seemingly every grandmaster out there. And for good reason! The Sicilian is one of the most combative ways to play against 1.e4.
If you’re not afraid of more aggressive and tactical play, it’s a great substitute for the French Defense as Black. But for the same reasons, you’ll definitely want to know how to handle this opening from White’s perspective, as it is one of the most common and challenging.
The tricky part about the Sicilian for beginners is that there are a plethora of variations – the Najdorf, Dragon, Sveshnikov, Kan, Taimanov, Scheveningen, Classical, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are also anti-Sicilian systems, such as the Closed Sicilian, Alapin Sicilian, and Smith-Morra Gambit.
With all these variations out there, it sounds like a real chore. But if you learn the solid Najdorf Variation (3…a6) as both Black and White, you should be playing the Sicilian with success in no time.
You can learn the Najdorf for free with Grandmaster Alex Colovic’s Short & Sweet: The Najdorf Sicilian.
And if you’re feeling ambitious, you can learn how to deal with the anti-Sicilians with this free course.
#3 – The Queen’s Gambit Declined
Defense against 1.d4 as Black, common starting point for a 1.d4 repertoire as White
Opening moves: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6
Whether you’re on the White side or Black side, the Queen’s Gambit is an essential opening to know.
As White, the Queen’s Gambit (1.d4 d5 2.c4) is recommended opening for the 1.d4 player. Solid yet ambitious, it can serve as a backbone to any queen’s pawn repertoire. Black has a multitude of defenses at his disposal, but one of the most common and most solid is the Queen’s Gambit Declined, where Black responds 2…e6 (just like in the diagram).
From Black’s perspective, it can be a strong response to both the Queen’s Gambit and even the English Opening (1.c4). In the latter’s case, you would transpose (i.e., reach the opening through a non-standard move order) to the Queen’s Gambit by 1.c4 e6 2. d4 d5. As a “buy-one get-one defense”, it’s definitely a useful opening to know! You may even see the Queen’s Gambit pop up as a transposition from other chess openings as well, such as the Reti (1.Nf3).
With the Queen’s Gambit Declined, you’ll specifically want to prepare for the Exchange Variation (cxd5), a very popular continuation.
Much like the French and Sicilian, you’ll find a lot of great Queen’s Gambit courses on Chessable – try out the Queen’s Gambit Declined from Black’s perspective with Short & Sweet: The Queen’s Gambit Declined.
#4 – The Slav Defense
Defense for Black against 1.d4
Opening moves: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6
If you ask 1.d4 players about the opening they hate to see over the board, much of the time you’ll hear “the Slav”!
Although the Queen’s Gambit Declined is a very suitable response from Black to 1.d4, the Slav is a strong alternative. For that reason, this opening makes the top 10 list of openings beginners should know, if nothing else for the fact that they’d better be prepared to face it after playing 1.d4.
With early grabs on White’s c4 pawn and a free light-squared bishop, the Slav tends to be much more combative than the Queen’s Gambit Declined. For that reason, many White players try to pacify it with the Exchange Variation (cxd5) to avoid the more theoretically complex and tactically wild lines.
Try learning the Slav Defense with Short & Sweet: The Slav.
#5 – The Italian Game
Starting point of a 1.e4 repertoire for White
Opening moves: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4
If you’re an 1.e4 player, one of the most common responses from Black will to meet your 1.e4 with 1…e5 – the Double King’s Pawn Opening. You’ll always want to continue 2.Nf3, attacking the e5 pawn and developing a piece, but from that point, the opening can branch into many different directions.
Typically, Black will respond in kind with 2…Nc6, defending his e5 pawn and developing his own piece. White now has three major openings to choose from: The Ruy Lopez, Scotch Game, and Italian Game.
As I did in my post The Ultimate Guide to 1.e4, I recommend the Italian Game for beginners. With rapid, active development and a fight for the center, you’ll definitely get a good game against Black in the Italian. And as it sees a resurgence in top level play, spearheaded by strong grandmasters like Wesley So, you can be sure the Italian Game will give you many years of fun over the board.
You’ll want to study the two most popular continuations, the Giuoco Piano (3…Bc5) and Two Knights Defense (3…Nf6), which are covered in this free introductory course.
#6 – The Caro-Kann Defense
Black defense against 1.e4
Opening moves: 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5
As one of the most solid defenses in chess, the Caro-Kann is both a great alternative for Black to the French Defense and Sicilian against 1.e4. Therefore, it is important to know from White’s perspective as well.
In the Caro-Kann, Black sets up a solid pawn structure that controls the center, much like the French Defense. Unlike the French Defense, however, Black will typically have a more active light square bishop, leading to interesting thorns in White’s side.
White has several weapons against the Caro-Kann at his disposal, the most common of which are the Advance Variation (3.e5), Exchange Variation (3.exd5), Classical Variation (3.Nc3), and Panov Attack (3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4).
You can learn the Caro-Kann for free with Short & Sweet: Caro-Kann.
#7 – The London System
Opening after 1.d4 for White
Opening moves: 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 Nf6 3.Nf3
The London System can arise through various move orders, though it typically arises from the move order above. White will almost always continue with moves like e3, c3, Nbd2, Bd3 and O-O. In fact, the reason it’s referred to as the London “system” is because it is played that way almost regardless of what Black plays.
Though not particularly ambitious, the London System is an easy way to get a comfortable game as White after 1.d4. I do not recommend the London System as White (there are much better chess openings!), but since many players elect to play the London System, you should definitely know how to play against it with the Black pieces.
One good way to play against it is taught in this course, which is based on the playing style of famous chess streamer Agadmator (see his original video on the subject here) – however, the London System is often covered in many courses offering complete Black repertoires against 1.d4.
#8 – The Nimzo-Indian Defense
Black defense against 1.d4
Opening moves: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4
After 1.d4, Black doesn’t have to respond with 1…d5. In fact, there is an entire branch of opening theory devoted to 1…Nf6. From this family of openings, Black can choose many great defenses against 1.d4 – The King’s Indian Defense, Queen’s Indian Defense, Benko Gambit, Benoni Defense, and so on.
In this beginner’s guide, it would be impractical to cover all these openings – at the beginner level, you will probably not face them too often anyway, at least compared to openings such as the Slav and Queen’s Gambit Declined.
The point of “the Nimzo”, like the other Indian Defenses, is to forgo defending the center with pawns and control it indirectly with pieces – in the case of the Nimzo-Indian, by taking out the defender of the important central e4 square (the knight on c3) and controlling the center with a future bishop on b7.
You can learn about the Nimzo-Indian for free in this course, Short & Sweet: Nimzo-Indian.
#9 – The Scandinavian Defense
Black defense against 1.e4
Opening moves: 1.e4 d5
Yet another tricky defense to 1.e4 is the Scandinavian Defense. At first glance, this opening may look very odd – White will capture the pawn on d5 and Black will have to re-capture with the queen to avoid losing material. But then the queen is in the center of the board, making it a target for attack! Why would Black play such an opening?
The point of the Scandinavian is not just trickery (although beginners like to play it because it is tricky!). In fact, strong players use it to get an open game where White can’t use his pawns effectively in the center, while Black will set up very strong control of the center with his own pawns. White’s d-pawn will always be a little awkward in this opening, and Black will use that to his advantage by eventually placing a lot of pressure against it with rooks and his queen.
To understand the Scandinavian better, try this free course: IM John Bartholomew’s Scandinavian.
#10 – The King’s Indian Attack
Opening for White
1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.O-O
So far, we’ve covered all the major scenarios I’ve listed in the introduction, except one: what if you’re Black, and White plays 1.Nf3?
This move, known as the Reti, is a tricky move. Just like 1.d4 and 1.e4, it opens up a whole slew of opening possibilities, much of which are beyond the scope of this article (and for that reason, I don’t recommend playing it as White until you are at least an intermediate player).
The most common continuation of 1.Nf3 is the King’s Indian Attack, a system where White fianchettoes his king’s bishop (see the diagram) and develops his king’s knight to f3 so he can castle right away – typically with the move order listed above the diagram.
As another type of Indian Game, the King’s Indian Attack forgoes immediately grabbing the center with pawns for quick development of pieces, king safety, and indirect control of the center through piece activity and wing pawn breaks.
For that reason, it’s logical to grab the center with your own pawns, capitalizing on the vacuum your opponent has created. As such, I recommend 1…d5, then fianchettoing your own king’s bishop like White, followed by a quick …e5 getting lots of control of the “sweet center” with pawns.
For a complete guide to this approach and how to handle other “sideline openings”, I highly recommend Grandmaster Sam Shankland’s course on the subject.
Planning Your Study Time for Chess Openings
By knowing these chess openings, you will be able to play a decent game in almost any scenario you find yourself in – at least as far as the opening is concerned. Of course, at the beginner level, the play of your opponent will often deviate from these tournament openings, but by studying them, you’ll be armed with the principles grandmasters use to win their games against any opening.
But ten chess openings can be a lot to study at once, so how should you plan your time? I definitely recommend learning the French and Queen’s Gambit Declined as priorities, because those are the openings you will use in the plurality of your games. Simultaneously, you should also focus on your desired White opening – whether that be the Queen’s Gambit after 1.d4 or the Italian Game after 1.e4.
As for the other openings, they are basically to be considered as responses from Black to your White opening, and I would study them accordingly – most while analyzing your games where they are featured. Of course, if you don’t like the French Defense as Black, you can swap it out for the Caro-Kann, Sicilian, or Scandinavian and be just fine. Everyone has a different taste, and that’s what makes chess interesting.
With that, I recommend you to get studying with those free courses, play some games, and have fun! I think you’ll discover, like I have, that learning chess openings can increase your general chess knowledge and get you quick improvements in your own games.
Lifetime Repertoires: Wesley So's 1. e4 - Part 1