Chess players have been debating the best openings (for Black and White) for years. If you ask five different players what the best opening for Black is, you could easily come away with five different answers. The fact is, deciding what the best opening for Black is depends on several different factors, including what kind of player you are, how you like to learn, and who you are playing against, to name a few.
Some openings are more solid and lend themselves to principled, dignified opening exchanges, while others are more aggressive. Similarly, some openings are easy to pick up and play the same day, while others require years of experience to master. It all depends. With this article, we’ll break down the very best of thousands of years’ theory of hard-earned experience into digestible and handy introductions to help you decide which opening is for you, and to help you learn how to turn your second-move disadvantage into pure chess opening gold.
The best chess openings for Black are:
- The French Defense
- The Caro-Kann Defense
- The Scandinavian Defense
- The Sicilian Defenses (Najdorf, Dragon, Classical, Scheveningen)
- The Double King’s Pawn Game (1.e4 e5)
- The Queen’s Gambit Declined
- The Slav (and Semi Slav) Defense
- The Dutch Defense
- The Nimzo-Indian Defense
- The King’s Indian Defense
OK, that looks like a lot, but don’t worry. You don’t need to learn them all; you can pick and choose your favourites, especially when you are starting out. The only thing to remember is to make sure you know at least one opening facing 1.e4 and one against 1.d4 (and for bonus points, maybe one for 1.Nf3 and 1.c4).
Let’s get into it.
1.The French Defense
According to super-GM, Dutch #1, and lifelong French player, Anish Giri, the French Defense is: “compact and correct.” Not to mention combative! A good option for beginners and super GMs alike, the French Defense begins from the following position:
The French Defense has a lot going for it:
- It undermines White’s centre, and creates a solid one for Black.
- It allows you to quickly mount a queenside counterattack.
- It is *relatively* easy to learn and play.
As we’ll see in this article, there are a few ways for Black to respond to 1.e4. If you don’t want to play 1…e5, and want to avoid getting bogged down in endless Sicilian variations, the French is a fun and predominantly solid alternative that you can start playing without the need for too much study. From a beginner’s perspective, it also provides great learning potential around key topics such as developing a strong pawn structure (you typically control the light squares, while your opponent controls the dark squares), dealing with a “bad” piece (your French bishop on c8), and how to coordinate and improve your pieces with slightly less space than your opponent.
As is to be expected, there are a few variations that could follow on from your first two moves. One of the most common is the Advance Variation:
The French Defense: Advance Variation
(1.e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5)
This is a very common continuation from a French Defense. White would like to maintain their centre and grab space, and so advances the pawn further with 3.e5. After this move, play will often revolve around control of the d4 square. Black can grab the initiative and play moves like c5, Nc6, Qb6, as well as working their kingside knight to f5 (via h6). If White captures on c5, the dark-squared bishop is ready to recapture and join the fray at the drop of a hat. While White has responses to these moves, after 3.e5, Black can have a pleasant enough time developing around the d4 focal point and gradually building a coordinated setup.
Of course, there are other ways the game could go, some of which can lead the game into very sharp territory. Other variations to consider include the Exchange Variation, the Classical variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6), the Winawer (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d53.Nc3 Bb4), the French Tarrasch, and more… Depending on how deep you want to go into the French, we’ve got the resources for you:
2. The Caro-Kann Defense
The Caro-Kann is one of the most popular defenses to a king’s pawn opening, and for good reason! Besides a reputation for serious solidity, in the mainline of the Caro-Kann, Black is considered equal or even to have a slight advantage over their opponent (unlike the majority of chess openings for Black). The opening is reached after 1.e4 c6:
By starting with 1…c6, Black prepares to support their next move, 2…d5. This allows Black to establish a strong central foothold that will serve as a springboard for the rest of the game. If after White’s usual second move (2.d4), they then decide to consolidate with 3.exd5, we see the role of 1…c6 straight away: Black should be happy to recapture (3…cxd5), trade a wing pawn for a central one, and set up camp in the centre of the board.
The key benefits of a Caro-Kann Defense will be familiar to those of you studying your chess opening principles: you get a clear and principled path to central control, rapid-fire development, and the flexibility to weather basically any attack from White out of the opening… with plenty of opportunities to turn around and start an attack of your own!
Let’s look at just one of the more common continuations: the Caro-Kann Exchange Variation.
The Caro-Kann: Exchange Variation
(1.e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5)
From this position, an extremely normal continuation could see Black develop their knights to c6 and f6, bring the bishop out to f5 or g4, followed by e6, Bb4, and castles short. The upshot of this would see you reach a position in which Black’s pawn structure is strong, you get your bishop outside the pawn chain and free to roam the dark squares, and you boast two central pawns to White’s one. Solid as a rock, just as promised.
To learn more about the Caro-Kann, take a look at the Lifetime Repertoires: Caro-Kann course, in which GM Erwin L’Ami takes you on a tour of this bulletproof opening, including model games by proponents such as Tigran Petrosian, Garry Kasparov, and Anatoly Karpov. Alternatively, The Caro-Kann Starter Kit, available for free from Theoryhack, offers the basics, delivered with “short, concise, and to the point” instruction.
3. The Scandinavian Defense
Next up, the Scandinavian Defense! Much beloved, played, and recommended by #TeamScandi leader, IM John Bartholomew (aka the man in the corner of your Chessable dashboard telling you to study every day), this opening has seen a resurgence in recent years, especially among beginners and intermediate players looking for a quick and trusty weapon to shut down White’s ideas after 1.e4. The Scandi starts after 1.e4 d5:
Black meets White’s king’s pawn opening head on, pushing their queen’s pawn to d5 and immediately creating tension in the middle of the board. White will usually take the pawn, and Black will continue by recapturing with their queen:
Now, I know you just finished reading about the essential chess opening principles, which told you never to bring your queen out in the opening, but this is an exception. After White’s next move — often Nc3, attacking the queen — Black has three valid options: drop the queen back to d6, retreat to its original square, or swing it over to a5. In all these variations, the queen is more than likely to be safe from harm (if the queen comes to a5, you can play c6 to provide a retreat for your queen). And, even better, Black has a great shot at waltzing into the middlegame with an unblemished pawn structure, easy development, and several opportunities for dynamic play.
If you don’t want to contend with a bunch of theory and are looking for a shortcut to a super-solid, positional game, the Scandinavian provides Black with just that. You give up a tempo by moving your queen twice, but in return you get a well-trodden road to equality, with simple and easy-to-remember sidelines if you feel like starting a fight later on in the game (many Scandi games end up with opposite-side castling and/or opposite-colored bishops on the board).
If that sounds like your kind of opening, there is absolutely nobody better equipped to guide you to Scandinavian mastery than IM John Bartholomew. Check out his (3.Qd8-recommending) course: IM John Bartholomew’s Scandinavian Defense, also available as a free version, here.
4. The Sicilian Defenses (Najdorf, Dragon, Classical, Scheveningen…)
Welcome to the world of the Sicilian. This is one of the most illustrious and highly-regarded openings for Black in chess. It is a fiery, combative, and assertive response to 1.e4 that has been used throughout history by the game’s best and most brilliant players. It is also one of the most complicated chess openings for Black that exist. In fact, there are so many variations of the Sicilian (including but not limited to: the Najdorf, Dragon, Classical, Scheveningen, Modern Scheveningen, Taimanov, Kan, Kalashnikov, Sveshnikov, Four Knights, and more, not to mention the various anti-Sicilian systems that White may decide to employ…), that it would be madness to try to cover them all here. But, for all their differences, all of these openings start after the moves 1.e4 c5:
The point of 1…c5 from Black is that, while it declines to tackle White’s central advance head-on and grants White the opportunity to build a lead in development, it creates an imbalance in the position. This means that, unlike in a symmetrical game, each side can claim to have a different set of advantages to their opponent, and the game will tip in favour of the player who can show that their advantage is greater. In other words, it’s a fight.
For example, in an Open Sicilian (after White plays Nf3 and d4), the general consequences of 1…c5 from the Black perspective include:
- Serious kingside attacking ideas and an ominous lead in development from White to contend with
- More space for Black on the queenside and the opportunity for counterplay on this side of the board
- A central pawn advantage after Black’s c5 pawn is traded for White’s d4 pawn and an open c-file to support said counterplay.
As you can see, the Sicilian Defense is not for the faint-hearted. There are so many possible variations and complications that can arise from a Sicilian that it is simply impractical to tackle them here. One of the reasons the Sicilian is so favoured by GMs and Super GMs is that it is so complicated. Especially with the possibilities of computer preparation, it is a practically endless well of devious complication.
But that shouldn’t put you off trying it out for yourself! It is highly likely that your opponent will not know every variation under the sun, and with as few as 20 core lines, you can start playing the Sicilian with aplomb. For more advanced players, the Sicilian is one of the most interesting and rich opening systems out there and the higher your rating, the more booked-up Sicilian players you will face.
Wherever you are in your Sicilian journey, we have the resources you need to shine, including Short & Sweet: The Najdorf Sicilian by GM Alex Colovic, Short & Sweet: The Sicilian Dragon by IM Ahmad Alkhatib, IM Christof Sielecki’s Short & Sweet: The Magnus Sicilian, or Short & Sweet: Classical Sicilian by GM Sam Shankland.
5. The Double King’s Pawn Game
Also known as the Open Game – this is one of the most played responses to 1.e4 out there. Recommended to beginners and employed by top players, 1.e4 e5 is a staple of chess openings for Black, and leads in several different directions. The good news for Black is: it is a dynamic, simple, and flexible path to dealing with whatever White throws your way:
The game can take several turns from here, mostly depending on how White decides to play, whether with 2.d4 (the Center Game), 2.Bc4 (the Bishop’s Opening), 2.f4 (the King’s Gambit), 2. Nc3 (the Vienna Game), or 2.Nf3 (usually leading to a Spanish, Italian, or Scotch Game…).
Whatever White’s second move, Black has several tools at their disposal on move 2, including but hardly limited to: Petrov’s Defense, the Four Knights Defense, the Philidor Defense, and several gambits (Stafford Gambit, Latvian Gambit, Elephant Gambit) that are well worth looking into. Here we’ll take a brief look at the Philidor: one of the most classical and simple responses for Black after White’s 2.Nf3: 2…d6.
The Philidor has been around for a long time (named after François-André Danican Philidor, chess pioneer of the 18th Century), and while it is no longer played at the very top levels of the game, it is a handy tool indeed for amateur and beginner players who want a no-fuss response to one of White’s most common openings.
2…d6 is a patient and primarily defensive move, simply reinforcing the central pawn. Though obstructing the bishop on f8, this pawn gives Black a straightforward way to avoid suffering weaknesses (or quick blunders) from the opening, and time to calmly develop your pieces (often with Nf6, Be7, and O-O), while inviting White to tie themselves in knots trying to build a premature attack. The mainline continuation is 3.d4 exd4: White takes the centre but Black comes away with a solid, though defensive, position. But there are also more attacking tries for Black after 3.d4, including the Philidor Countergambit (3…f5).
For more on how to master Philidor Defense, check out Pepe Cuenca’s Lifetime Repertoires: Philidor Defense – you won’t regret it! For more on general responses to 1.e4 – it’s worth taking a look at what White is planning with 1.e4, for which we can recommend Lifetime Repertoires: Sethuraman’s 1.e4 – Part 1.
6. The Queen’s Gambit Declined
(1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6)
Moving into 1.d4 territory, this is a must-include for any repertoire for Black. If you’re planning on playing any amount of chess, you’ll need to prepare a response to the famous and much-used opening, the Queen’s Gambit. And since we’re compiling the BEST chess openings for Black, we’re going with the favoured route among World Champions: the Queen’s Gambit Declined (QGD). This defense is reached after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6:
So why play the QGD? By playing e6 instead of taking on c4 (the Queen’s Gambit Accepted), you make a strong claim on the central ground as Black. After your next couple of moves, which often include Nf6, Be7, and castles, Black’s position is strong. There are drawbacks to the QGD, including a slight space disadvantage and a troublesome bishop to develop on the queenside, but on the other hand, once your king is safely tucked away and d5 sufficiently reinforced, Black has queenside expansion ideas, including useful pawn pushes like c5, or c6 combined with b5.
While play will often revolve around control of the d5 square, and time is also an important factor. If White plays Be2 or Bd3, then dxc4 can gain Black a valuable tempo by forcing White to move the bishop twice to recapture, otherwise it is usually not a good idea to belatedly accept the gambit and cede the centre to White. But it’s not all a positional grind in the QGD! There are various fun traps to know and employ, including the Elephant Trap, the Rubinstein Trap, and more! Let’s take a quick look at the Elephant trap, reached after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Nbd7:
If White considers the knight on f6 to be pinned to the queen and greedily tries to win a pawn with 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Nxd5, Black loses a queen then immediately wins White’s queen with 6… Nxd5 7. Bxd8 Bb4+. White has to block with their queen with the sad 8.Qd2, after which 8…Bxd2+ 9.Kxd2 Kxd8 leaves Black smiling, and up a minor piece.
For more on how to play the Queen’s Gambit Declined, look no further than the free mini repertoire from GM Alex Colovic: Short & Sweet: Queen’s Gambit Declined
7. The Slav (and Semi-Slav) Defense
(1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6)
Next up in our guide to the best chess openings for Black, we have another rightly-vaunted response to 1.d4: the Slav Defense! After the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6, we have a Slav Defense on the board:
Again, there are different variations of the Slav, including the Semi-Slav (reached after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 e6) and the Chebanenko Slav (1 d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 a6). Despite their differences, all variations of the Slav Defense are characterized by the move 2…c6, declining the Queen’s Gambit by lending support to Black’s central pawn with the c-pawn, rather than the e-pawn (although in the Semi-Slav you also play e6).
As opposed to the QGD, with the Slav you can develop your queen’s bishop unimpeded by a pawn on e6 – usually to f5 or g4 (or, in the Semi-Slav to b7). This is one of the main benefits of the Slav over the QGD, and should be put to use (although in some lines you may need to find a work-around to dull White’s threat of Qb3, attacking your b7 pawn). Once your bishop is deployed and making a nuisance of itself on the kingside, a mainline continuation in the Slav (after dxc4) leads to a pawn structure of e6-c6 on the Black side vs d4 on the White side. Here is a typical Slav position if White opts for a Catalan structure:
Here, Black can play e6, reaping QGD-like solidity, without the hassle of a bad bishop on c8! As noted in our free course, Short & Sweet: The Slav, in playing Bf5 before e6, you also deprive White of their main idea (e2-e4) in the Closed Catalan (as above).
For more information, tips, and theory in the Slav, head to GM Sam Shankland’s Lifetime Repertoires: Semi-Slav or more gold from GM Alex Colovic, with his course: Lifetime Repertoires: Chebanenko Slav.
8. The Dutch Defense
What’s that? You want a chess opening for Black that’s playable against anything that isn’t 1.e4? OK – meet the Dutch Defense, most commonly reached after 1.d4 f5, as shown below:
Very similar to the Sicilian after 1.e4, the Dutch instantly kicks the game into imbalanced territory and more often than not leads to breathless, do-or-die middlegames, strong kingside attacks for Black, and low, low probabilities for a draw.
There are several systems and variations of the Dutch, including the Leningrad Dutch, Stonewall Variation, the Killer Dutch, and the Classical Dutch (which we’ll take a look at later), but generally Black’s idea is to castle quickly and decide where to put their bishop (on g7, e7, d6 or c5) before thinking about ways to attack on the kingside. Here’s a mainline position in the Classical Dutch:
Although the move 1…f5 weakens the diagonals around the Black king, it sets the scene for an almighty battle in the centre and guarantees a dynamic game that denies White the easy ride they may have been hoping for when they played 1.d4. In the above position, Black may play d6 and Nc6 to prepare the key pawn break, e5, before looking to attack White’s c-file weaknesses and unleashing hell on the White kingside.
It has to be said that the Dutch is no walk in the park. Besides navigating White’s various counters, including the Staunton Gambit (2.e4) and the Korchnoi Attack (2.h3 and 3.g4), there are serious chances of the game heading from stability to double-edgeness, to sheer madness; it is not an opening for the faint of heart. But, if you can handle the heat, it’s one of the most exciting chess openings for Black out there.
If you’re interested in some inspiration in how to attack with the Dutch, take a look at the Polish Immortal chess game between GM Miguel Najdorf and a White player named only ‘Glucksberg’, in which Najdorf plays the Dutch, sacrifices all of his minor pieces, and checkmates in fine style. Pretty nice! If you want to dive into the Dutch, head to Chessable for instruction form none other than the world’s leading authority on the Dutch Defense, (Ginger) GM Simon Williams, with his courses: The Killer Dutch Rebooted or Short & Sweet: The Dutch
9. The King’s Indian Defense
(1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6)
Cooling things down a notch, the following two setups for Black fall into the same family of openings, known as the “Indian Defenses” or “Indian Games”, in which Black responds to 1.d4 with 1…Nf6. The King’s Indian Defense (KID) can be reached by a variety of move orders, but is considered reached after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6:
The KID is another flexible opening that can be played against basically any first move from your opponent (it’s so flexible, in fact, it can also be played with the White pieces). Typically, Black intends to fianchetto their kingside bishop (Bg7), castle, and play d6. The KID is, like all Indian Defences, a hypermodern defense. This means that instead of fighting for the centre by occupying it with pawns, you allow White to do so, inviting them to overextend their position before later attacking and dismantling it. Let’s look at a mainline position in the KID:
From this position, Black has plenty of options. With d6 guarding the e5 square, after castling and setting up a strong kingside fortress, Black can look to go on the attack. Part of the fun in the KID is its flexibility: depending on how the game goes, you can look to break on the queenside with b5, or on the kingside, kicking off a fight with f5. Often enough, the game ends up with both sides mounting their own attacks on opposite sides on the board…
The KID has an interesting contradiction at its heart: on the one hand you can start playing it and enjoying good positions and results with relatively little study (as few as 25 lines in the course below…) — in that way it is similar to the London System for the White pieces. On the other hand, it has an extremely deep theoretical background and, if you enjoy booking up and putting in some hours, it is one of the richest opening systems in chess, so your study will be well-rewarded.
To get started playing the KID, check out FM Kamil Plichta’s course: Short & Sweet: The King’s Indian, which will have you up and running in as few as 25 lines. If you want to go deeper, FM Marko Makaj has you covered with his course: The Fighting King’s Indian Defense, which includes over 400 trainable variations designed to lead you to KID mastery.
10. The Nimzo-Indian Defense
(1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4)
Finally, we will finish this guide with the (more than worthy) Nimzo-Indian Defence. Another Indian Defense, this opening for Black can also be reached from a variety of move orders, all of which end up with a super-solid position for Black after 1.d4, that looks like this:
Another hypermodern opening, the Nimzo-Indian sees Black respond to a Queen’s Gambit from afar. Play in the Nimzo-Indian often revolves around control of the e4 square, so Black often fianchettoes their queen’s bishop, and a primary benefit of Bb4 is the pin of the c3 knight, removing this defender from that key square! However, if White pushes a3, Black is usually happy to give up the bishop pair, taking on c3 and inflicting doubled pawns on their opponent (although in some games White will play Qc2 in order to recapture with the queen and avoid structural damage). After bxc3, one of the game’s main themes will be Black trying to exploit these weak pawns, likely keeping the position closed, and looking to prove compensation for the lost bishop pair.
Flexible, dependable, and sharp, the Nimzo-Indian is a highly-regarded response to 1.d4 that preserves fighting chances for Black and puts White’s knowledge to the test (the Nimzo is not far behind the KID in terms of potential for deep study and endless variations). By keeping their pawns out of the line of fire early on, Black maintains a solid pawn structure and prevents White from going for easy simplifications. One of White’s most common responses to the Nimzo, the Rubinstein System, sees White play 4.e3, develop, and look to prepare an e4 pawn break. Black, in turn, has a plethora of options at their disposal, including either pushing pawns to d5 and c5 to grab central space and open up their pieces, holding back with b6 and d6, and (in some lines) looking to saddle White with an Isolated Queen’s Pawn.
All in all, it’s a fascinating opening that leads to high-energy positions, great chances for both sides, and beautiful complications that favor any draw-averse player with the Black pieces, and it is well worth its place on any best chess openings for Black list. To learn more about how to deploy the Nimzo-Indian, Chessable’s own VP of Content (and resident WFM), Maaike Keetman’s course,
Conclusion and Further Study
So that concludes our list of the 10 best chess openings for Black, from the French to the Nimzo-Indian, veering from the super-solid and positional to the rambunctious and gambit-packed; we hope that you found the Black chess opening for you. Besides the mentioned resources for each opening, you may be interested in reviewing your essential chess opening principles, brushing up on how exactly best to go about learning a chess opening, or to take a breather and consider some valuable lessons about the science of learning in chess. Alternatively, feel free to just jump into some blitz games and see how you fare… enjoy!
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Which chess openings as Black are most solid and reliable?
Against 1.e4, the Caro-Kann and French Defenses are famously solid and reliable responses for Black. Against 1.d4, replying with 1…d5 is recommendable, as is continuing with the Queen’s Gambit Declined if White follows up with 2.c4. While these openings are perhaps not the most combative options for Black, they feature some of the most well-trodden paths to a solid position for the Black pieces.
2. How to equalize as Black during the opening phase?
Each chess game is different, and equality should be measured holistically, considering different strategic elements including piece activity, material, pawn structure, and more… Time is also an essential commodity in any chess opening. For this reason, there are various ways for Black to equalize in the opening. This could be achieved by methods including but not limited to: taking advantage of a wasted move by White with quick development (in this way, Black can effectively cancel out White’s first-move advantage); by a tactical manoeuvre forcing White to make a concession (either retreating a piece, ruining their pawn structure, or making an unfavourable trade); or by instigating a series of trades that nullifies the threats or positional gains that White had played for.
3. What is the difference between classical and hyper-modern openings?
The difference between classical and hyper-modern openings lies in how the two players contest control of the centre of the board. In a classical opening, this goal is achieved by occupying this territory as quickly as possible with pawns, and supporting these pawns with pieces. Contrarily, a hyper-modern opening is characterized by the attempt to control the central squares from a distance, with pieces, rather than occupying these squares with pawns. In fact, in the latter type of opening (for example a King’s Indian Defense) Black invites their opponent to advance their pawns into the center, planning to undermine and dismantle their central control if White’s forces become overextended.
4. How many hours per day to study chess openings?
The answer to this question depends on another couple of questions: how many chess openings do you want to learn and how deep do you want to go? With as little as one hour a day, you can quickly become proficient in one particular opening, its main ideas and its sidelines, (especially if you take advantage of the spaced repetition technique). For top players it is not uncommon to study for several hours a day (although this is unlikely to be all openings-related), but for lower-rated players, you would do well to read out our advice on how to learn a chess opening properly.
5. Who are the best chess opening experts among top level players?
At the top levels especially, there are different types of opening expertise that count. Some top players are renowned experts in a specific opening, like Anish Giri, Peter Svidler, or Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the Gruenfeld, for example. Alternatively, an openings expert could be considered a player who can excel in any opening. Former World Champion Garry Kasparov was famous for the breadth and depth of his openings repertoire, which made him infamously difficult for his opponents to prepare for. The same could be said of the current champ, Magnus Carlsen, who once said that: “Having preferences means having weaknesses”. Perhaps one of the main reasons that he is the world’s current no.1 player can be attributed to this ability to play whatever the position calls for.
6. How many chess openings for Black are there?
The exact answer to this question depends on how you count them. According to the Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings, created by Chess Informant, the most significant openings and their variations (for both Black and White) can be separated into 500 different codes!
Lifetime Repertoires: Wesley So's 1. e4 - Part 1