An Introductory Guide to Chess Openings for White & Black

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opening guide
Table of Contents

Quick overview

  • 1.e4 openings, or King’s Pawn Games, are often the starting point for many in their chess careers, with many sticking with these openings forever. They tend to offer dynamic and tactical play, and attacking chances tend to arise quickly.
  • 1.d4 openings, or Queen’s Pawn Games, comprise the other main beginning openings in chess. These openings, generally speaking, and with exceptions, tend to be more positional in nature, and long-term strategic planning is key in these openings.
  • Flank openings are any other openings than 1.e4 or 1.d4. They are considered “hypermodern” openings in which the first move attempts to control the center from the flank, either by first developing a piece or by developing a flank pawn. There are several flank openings that have substantial amounts of theory behind them.

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Tournament Ready: The Opening

Introduction to Chess Openings

Chess openings are a crucial part of chess theory. Openings are where the game begins, where you choose your style of play. The possibilities are endless in the opening.

Games can be won and lost right away from the opening. Brilliant opening traps can be set up to trick your opponent.

The openings we choose say a lot about us as chess players. They are in a way our chess personality. You can tell a lot about someone by the opening they play.

There are 20 possible first moves in chess, and the possibilities exponentially multiply from there. In this article, we take a look at the main opening moves, their subvariations, and even the subvariations of the subvariations. The common, the sound, the offbeat, and, the risky, we try to tackle the basics of them all.

This video is from our “Tournament Ready: The Opening” course

The First Move

By far the two most important first moves in chess are 1.e4 and 1.d4. With these moves, White occupies as much of the center as possible (a key component in opening principles). Lines are opened for the queen and one of the bishops, and a potential square to develop a knight is made.

In addition to these first two moves, we have 1.c4 and 1.Nf3. White forgoes immediately occupying the center squares (e4, d4, e5, and d5), but they are nevertheless controlled from the flank, which is strategically just as important.

These four moves comprise the lion’s share of opening theory. Established opening theory also exists for 1.g3, 1.b3, 1.f4, and 1.Nc3, while the rest remain in dubious terrain.

The King’s Pawn Opening

1.e4

The most popular first move in chess. This move was described by Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest players to ever play the game, as “best by test”.

Popular at all levels, everyone has played 1.e4 at some point in their chess career. It has been the most popular first move for centuries.

Though it may be a severe generalization, King’s Pawn games are often considered more tactical and attacking than Queen’s Pawn games.

King’s Pawn games are further divided into open games, in which Black plays the symmetrical move 1…e5 and Semi-Open games, in which Black plays anything other than 1…e5.

We will start now by looking at the open games.

Check out of 1.e4 repertoire for beginners.

The Ruy Lopez

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5

This is without a doubt the most studied and theoretical opening of the Open Game, if not in all of chess. This is an ancient opening whose opening theory dates back to around the time of the codification of the modern rules of chess in the mid-16th century, and it is still the top variation of the Open Game in master play to this day.

While the theory on this opening may seem daunting for beginners, this should not mean you should shy away from learning the Ruy Lopez; the ideas and tactical motifs are more natural than in other heavy theory openings, making it a great opening for both beginners and masters.

The Marshall Gambit

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 O-O 8.c3 d5

Venturing into the subvariations of the Ruy Lopez (and there are many), we have the Marshall Gambit/Attack. This has proven to be a highly effective weapon for Black against the Ruy Lopez, so much so that much of modern Ruy Lopez theory revolves around Anti-Marshall lines today.

Having been first played in 1918 by Frank Marshall against José Raúl Capablanca, the Marshall came back into fashion when Boris Spassky played it in his match against Mikhail Tal in 1965. Spassky did not lose a single game in which he played the Marshall Gambit, which really speaks for its powerfulness.

The Italian Game

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4

Before the Ruy Lopez came to dominate the modern Open Game, there was the Italian Game. For centuries, this was the chess opening, in fact, it did not even have a name for a long time. Although the Ruy Lopez has overtaken it in popularity, it still remains a bastion of sound, principled chess.

White immediately placed pressure on Black’s vulnerable f7 square, and almost all beginners have fallen for traps surrounding this. Many masters still use this opening, while it is probably the single best Open Game opening to play for beginners to learn the principles of tactics and strategy.

The Jerome Gambit

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Bxf7+ Kxf7 5.Nxe5+ Nxe5

This unsound and wild gambit might be a fun try in casual bullet or blitz games, but it is completely refuted. White gives up a whole two pieces to try to have the initiative and maintain an attack, but Black must play inaccurately for this cavalier opening to work. Black does not even have to play the correct move to be better off.

Arising out of the Italian Game, this unsound gambit has never been popular, and for good reason. White will have a very hard time getting compensation for sacrificing two pieces.

The Lolli Attack

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 Nxd5 6.d4

The Lolli Attack is a subvariation of the Italian Game, particularly of the Fried Liver Attack, an aggressive attack on Black. The Lolli Attack ups this aggression by quite a bit with a piece sacrifice.

The Lolli Attack was first pioneered by renowned chess theoretician Giambattista Lolli, who lived in the 18th century. The attack shows the aggressive potential of the Italian Game. The opening was played by Bobby Fischer in several games in a simul.

The Scotch Game

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4

The Scotch Game is a fantastic opening for beginners. Less played, but just as playable, as the Ruy Lopez or Italian Game, the Scotch makes a direct strike on the center.

Players looking to really learn chess tactics and development will adore this opening. Lines can get quite aggressive. The only drawback is that the opening offers Black the same positives it offers White; chances to take advantage of open lines and develop rapidly. The player with better tactical vision and positional awareness often comes out on top in the Scotch Game.

Chessable has a free starter course on the Scotch.

The Four Knights Game

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nf3 4.Nf6

This is another great opening choice for beginners as development is natural, and theory is minimal. This opening has been played since the mid-19th century and was a favorite of Capablanca and Tarrasch.

The Four Knights game is still popular, even at the top level. Today it features in the opening repertoires of Shirov, Ivanchuk, and Glek.

The Belgrade Gambit

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.Nd5

The Belgrade Gambit may arise after out of the Scotch Game or the Four Knights Opening. It is a rare, yet sound opening gambit that will surely take opponents out of their prep.

Black may sidestep this gambit with a move like 5…Be7 and thereby avoids complications. If however, Black takes the knight with 5…Nxd5 White recaptures with the pawn, and games can get very interesting and tactical.

The Petrov Defense

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6

Also known as the Russian Game, the symmetrical Petrov Defense has a reputation of being dry and drawish, but this does not have to be the case.

Development is natural in this opening, and theory is minimal. If Black wants to spice things up, they have some gambits at their disposal as well. Many beginners also fall for traps in this opening, so it is a good idea to acquaint yourself with it.

The Stafford Gambit

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nc6

An exciting subvariation of the Petrov Defense, the Stafford Gambit has risen massively in popularity in online chess over the last few years due to it being a mainstay in streams of Eric Hansen.

The gambit is slightly dubious, but many a player have been caught out by this trick. If White does not know what they are doing, they may find themselves in a dizzying fight trying to hold on for dear life.

The King’s Gambit

1.e4 e5 2.f4

Back in the 19th century the notion of romantic chess dominated the game, typified by this double-edged fighting opening.

In today’s positional and engine-tested understanding of the game, the King’s Gambit has fallen out of favor at the top level because it is so dangerous. However, those with a fighting spirit will take a shine to this swashbuckling opening. It makes for some seriously interesting games.

The Vienna Game

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3

An opening played in only 5% of games at the top level, but this is a great secret weapon to employ. It can be sort of a beefed-up King’s Gambit as oftentimes White will play 3.f4, known as the Vienna Gambit.

2.Nc3 looks like a quiet move, but the Vienna Game leads to very complex tactical games. Black is often immediately taken out of their prep.

The Vienna is best summed up as a flexible opening and a sound one at that. It has something for everyone. Aggressive players and positional players alike will find something in it for them.

The Bishop’s Opening

1.e4 e5 2.Bc4

This is an ancient opening that many times brings Black out of their preparation as it is only played in 5% of games. The opening has seen a resurgence in popularity, as White’s setup with a quiet d3 has a lot to offer.

The opening can also transpose to other more mainline openings such as the Italian Game. 2.Bc4 is a natural developing move and targets the f7 square. It is completely sound, and it is not bogged down with heaps of theory featured in other mainline Open Games.

Semi-Open Games

Semi-Open Games are games that begin with 1.e4 but do not follow with the symmetrical 1…e5.

Any move other than 1…e5 is a Semi-Open Game, but there are three principal moves making up a bulk of the theory of Semi-Open Games. These are 1…c5, 1…e6, and 1…c6. We will take a look at all of them and their subvariations below.

The French Defense

1.e4 e6

The French Defense is an opening in which Black lets White occupy the center with pawns as 1…e6 does not stop 2.d4.

Calm as this move may seem, there is a lot to it. Black will invariably strike directly at this pawn center on the next move with 2…d5, and a battle ensues. By playing 1…e6, White has no targets Black sacrifices space for security, but Black by no means is passive!

The Caro-Kann Defense

1.e4 c6

This move can be considered a cousin to French Defense, as it has the same purpose, though with a different outcome. Black cedes the ideal pawn center to White but props up the d5 push with the c-pawn.

This opening is as ancient as the French, but it did not get recognized until the 19th century and only became popular in the 1920s due to play by Aron Nimzowitsch and José Rául Capablanca.

The Caro-Kann, simply put, is one of the most important and respectable replies to 1.e4. It has an advantage over the French in not closing in the light-squared bishop.

The Sicilian Defense

1.e4 c5

The Sicilian Defense is maybe the most important of all chess openings. There is probably no other opening with more material written on it in all of chess, and study of this fighting opening is constantly growing. The Sicilian Defense deserves its own library in the realm of chess openings.

The move 1…c5 prevents the ideal pawn center. The Sicilian is a fighter’s weapon. It is the way to fight for a win at the top level as games result in highly imbalanced positions. Tomes of volumes have been written on Sicilian subvariations alone.

The Sicilian Najdorf

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6

The Sicilian Najdorf is a subvariation of the Open Sicilian. Known as the Rolls Royce or the Cadillac of chess openings, this is maybe the richest variation in all of chess.

Theory is heavy in this one. Beginners are often encouraged to shy away from it, as the ideas are not as clear-cut as in many Open Game openings. Advanced theoretical study is almost a must for the Najdorf.

That said, players that decide to dedicate some time to Najdorf study will find one of the most beautiful and complex variations in the game. The opening is constantly evolving and new sublines of sublines are found regularly.

The Closed Sicilian

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3

Less played than the Open Sicilian and thus containing less theory is the Closed Sicilian. The Closed Sicilian is considered an “Anti-Sicilian”, i.e. not an Open Sicilian.

The Closed Sicilian scores just behind the Open Sicilian (51% vs 53%), though it has the advantage that players are far more likely to book up on Open Sicilian Theory rather than Closed Sicilian, so this opening may well be a nice surprise weapon.

The Grand Prix Attack

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4

A subvariation of the Closed Sicilian, the Grand Prix Attack is a great weapon for beginners to use against the Sicilian Defense. White employs a kingside attack from the getgo, sometimes getting very aggressive and sacrificing their f-pawn to target Black’s weak f7 square.

This ambitious opening has just a 44% win rate for White, so it entails a bit of risk. However, with risk comes reward for those willing to put in the time to learn it.

The Alapin Sicilian

1.e4 c5 2.c3

Perhaps the most formidable of the Anti-Sicilians is the Alapin. 2.c3 prepares a d4 push for White, and many beginners may play a seemingly natural developing move like Nc6, which will allow White the ideal pawn center.

The Alapin has been played by former World Champions Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. Garry Kasparov lost his first game against the supercomputer Deep Blue against an Alapin.

The Smith-Morra Gambit

1.e4 c5 2.d4

In contrast to the Alapin, the Smith-Morra throws positional considerations out the window and is a tactician’s dream. The opening is far from refuted, though this gambit must be played with a keen tactical eye.

Extremely exciting games arise from this opening, and while it probably has the most value at fast time controls, it may certainly prove rewarding for those brave enough to employ it at classical time controls. One small misstep by either side can see evaluation swing wildly and lead players into a dark and sharp forest of tactics.

The Accelerated Dragon

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6

Another opening for tacticians is the Accelerated Dragon. This is an opening to light fire on the board, and those looking for sharp, tactical combinations with a relatively easy-to-understand setup will take a shine to this opening.

This combative approach is a great way to learn tactical chess for beginners.

The Scandinavian Defense

1.e4 d5

If Black wants to make an immediate fight for the center then the Scandinavian Defense is maybe the best way to do so. White basically must take the pawn here and Black is in the driver’s seat.

The Scandinavian Defense has many devotees, though it lags behind other mainline responses to 1.e4. For those not wanting to learn heaps of theory, the Scandinavian can be a great option for those that like the resulting structures.

Alekhine’s Defense

1.e4 Nf6

This odd-looking opening remained in the shadows of opening theory for many years until Alexander Alekhine began to play it in 1921. From then, it has received some serious consideration.

Most players are taken immediately out of their preparation upon seeing this move. White in this position basically must play 2.e5, meaning Black is basically in the driver’s seat from move one.

The Nimzowitsch Defense

1.e4 Nc6

This unusual and rare opening is not bad per se. It usually takes White out of their usual preparation, though many times this opening transposes to more mainline openings.

The move is kind of a waiting move in the opening which asks White what their intentions are. Black may be looking for a d5 push resulting in a sort of delayed Scandinavian Defense.

 

The Queen’s Pawn Opening

1.d4

This is the second most popular first move in a game of chess, but this does not mean it is the second-best.

Today, choosing between 1.e4 and 1.d4 is a matter of taste. Again, speaking very generally, this is considered a more strategic-oriented first move. White’s plans are slower. They set out to devise a long-term positional strategy. As such, 1.d4 did not become a mainstream move until the 19th century.

Black has two main responses. 1…d5, the symmetrical approach, is called the “Closed Game”. All other moves fall under “Semi-Closed Games”, including the most popular response to 1.d4, 1…Nf6, a category of Semi-Closed Games called the Indian Game.

Take a look at Chessable’s 1.d4 repertoire for beginners.

The Queen’s Gambit

1.d4 d5 2.c4

The Queen’s Gambit is basically the opening of the Closed Game. White may play something other than 2.c4, but White chooses it in 55% of games after 1…d5. Even if White plays something else, they will usually play c4 later.

This is a great opening for players looking for a positional game. Ambitious without sacrificing safety, this is the opening masters and beginners have chosen for hundreds of years to learn classical strategic chess.

The Queen’s Gambit Declined

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6

This is one of the sturdiest defenses against the Queen’s Gambit. Whether you’re rated 1000 or 2800, you will find this opening. It does a phenomenal job of teaching beginners the principles of strategic chess.

By the turn of the 20th century, this became the most important opening in all of chess. Today it remains one of them, without a doubt.

The Semi-Tarrasch

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c5

This subvariation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined is about as positional as an opening can get. For those looking to shy away from dangerous and sharp tactical games, this can be a good option.

Players that like to reach the middlegame by simply developing naturally may like this opening. At the top level, it has the reputation at the top level of being a drawing weapon. Positions resulting from the Semi-Tarrasch are generally fairly equal.

The Queen’s Gambit Accepted

1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4

In the other camp of Queen’s Gambit responses is the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. Like the Queen’s Gambit Declined, this opening is suitable for all levels and teaches a great deal about positional play.

The opening dates all the way back to the 15th century, though it received more recognition in 1886 when the first-ever World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz played it against Johannes Zukertort. Since then, the QGA has remained a mainstay in 1.d4 theory.

The Slav Defense

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6

The Slav Defense is an excellent opening played by beginners up to Super-GMs. It is similar to the Queen’s Gambit Declined, but Black tends to be more active and does not enclose their light-squared bishop.

While not as old as the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Slav has an excellent record and is considered one of the classical replies to the Queen’s Gambit. Black scores similarly with the Slav as with the Queen’s Gambit Declined.

The King’s Indian Defense

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7

If you are looking for an opening as Black to fight for the win against 1.d4 and are willing to take risks, then the King’s Indian Defense is a great option.

This opening is not an attempt to maintain equality, it is a violent option to seize the initiative for White. It has been played since the 19th century, but it only began to become popular in the 1940s after play by David Bronstein and Isaac Boleslavsky.

The Nimzo-Indian Defense

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4

This can be savage torture for 1.d4 players, so much so that many times White will attempt to completely avoid it by playing 3.Nf3.

It’s flexible for Black, and can really leave White with problems if played inaccurately. After 3.Bb4 Black scores an impressive 48%. By playing this move, Black prevents White from playing e4 and threatens to saddle Black with doubled c-pawns.

The Benoni Defense

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5

The Benoni is an aggressive opening that allows Black to launch a counterattack as soon as move two. The Benoni can be risky, but as with other risky openings, it can be rewarding. Players looking for dynamic positions and to avoid mainline 1.d4 theory will take a shine to the Benoni.

The Benoni sacrifices space for a chance to seize the initiative.

The Benko Gambit

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5

The Benko Gambit differs from other gambits in that it does not sacrifice material for immediate attacking chances. Rather, this is a positional gambit in which Black hopes to open the queenside and have long-term attacking possibilities.

If there was ever a gambit for positionally-minded players, then this is it.

The Trompowsky Attack

1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5

Named after a Brazilian chess player who used it in the 1940s and 1950s, the Trompowsky Attack is a good way to deviate from mainline 1.d4 theory.

It was not taken seriously until the 1980s when it underwent a reappraisal, and since then its value has only grown. World Champion Vishy Anand successfully played the Trompowsky against another World Champion, Anatoly Karpov.

The Torre Attack

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5

The Torre Attack is named after Mexican player Carlos Torre, who had much success with it in the 1920s, and even beat World Champion Emanuel Lasker with it in 1925.
The ideas in the Torre Attack are quite simple, pinning Black’s knight on f6. It is an opening with a lot of attacking potential. Chessable has a free Short & Sweet course on the Torre Attack if you are interested in this Queen’s Pawn sideline.

The Grünfeld Defense

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5

An extremely theory-heavy opening, the Grünfeld is often not recommended for players rated below 2000.

The ideas in the Grünfeld are very complex, and beginners may have a hard time grasping them. Sacrifices and counter-sacrifices are common in many variations of the Grünfeld Defense.

Players that enjoy a tactical battle and who are willing to put in some deep study may find the Grünfeld rewarding. The positions reached can be highly imbalanced and sharp. The Grünfeld Defense is a favorite of French Super-GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

The Colle System

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3

The Colle System is one of several systems to take a setup-based approach to chess. This means that whatever your opponent plays.

In the Colle System, theory is minimal and you keep the opening as simple as possible. This has advantages for beginners as they do not have to memorize specific lines of theory.

The Colle System has been advocated by the mysterious Spanish chess Youtube phenom, the “Rey Enigma”.

The London System

1.d4 d5 2.Bf4

The London System is quite possibly the most popular of the system-based openings. Like other systems, the London is played against virtually anything Black plays, so it may be reached via various move orders.

What the London does feature is an early Bf4 with pawns on e3 and c3.

Some describe the setup as boring and uninspired, while some players as Black find it to be a nightmare to play against.

The Dutch Defense

1.d4 f5

The Dutch Defense is a divisive opening in chess. It is like a reversed Sicilian Defense against 1.d4 but entails a significant amount of risk for White as their kingside is immediately opened up.

It is for this reason that the Dutch remains relatively rare at the top level. That said, exciting and attacking games arise from the Dutch where equality is a mere afterthought and imbalances are a main feature. Some lines can get very theoretical in the Dutch.

Flank Openings

While 1.d4 and 1.e4 comprise the bulk of opening theory, there is a significant amount of theory regarding Flank openings. Some of these openings have just as much theory as Queen’s Pawn and King’s Pawn openings, while others do not deserve much more than a mere mention, if even that.

Flank openings, in the end, try to do what 1.d4 and 1.e4 do, they fight for control of the center, but “from the flank”, i.e. from a distance with pieces or flank pawns. Let’s take a look at some of the more important flank openings.

The English Opening

1.c4

The English Opening is maybe the most important of the flank openings. It was popularized by Howard Staunton in the 19th century when 1.e4 was considered to be the main (and practically only) firsts move in the game.

It did not become accepted as a mainstream opening until the 1920s however, and since then has been played by many World Champions. The English Opening can provide many attacking chances, and the nature of the opening depends on whether Black plays a Symmetrical English (1…c5) or a Reversed Sicilian or King’s English (1…e5).

The Reti Opening

1.Nf3 d5 2.c4

This is the starting position of the Reti, though many people believe that 1.Nf3 by itself is the Reti, that opening is actually the Zuketort Opening.

The Reti is somewhat related to the English Opening, and it even helped to revolutionize the English Opening. The ideas of hypermodern chess advanced significantly with the Reti. The move showed what flank openings were capable of, that pieces could control central squares from the outset, and that pawns were not necessary to do this.

Larsen’s Opening

1.b3

About as hypermodern as hypermodern openings get is Larsen’s Opening, or the Nimzo-Larsen Attack.

1.b3 intends to fianchetto the dark-squared bishop to b2, which will serve as a long-range cannon controlling the central squares from afar. Bobby Fischer won all five games he played with Larsen’s Opening in 1970.

FAQs

What are the best opening moves in chess?

There is no single best opening move in chess. Even engines do not fully agree on what the best opening moves are. However, moves that control the center, allow for development of pieces and attack your opponent are the best moves.

Is there a perfect chess opening?

Simply put, no there is not. If there were a perfect chess opening that could not be defeated, the game would have lost its appeal.

What are the 3 basic principles of opening in chess?

The three basic principles of openings in chess are to control the center, develop your pieces, and get castled.

What is the most unique chess opening?

Out of the 20 possible first moves in chess, 1.Na3 is the least played, and thus can be considered the most “unique”.

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Tournament Ready: The Opening

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