Choosing the right chess opening to learn can be a taxing process. Some are fun but too dubious, others are solid but lack excitement, and worst of all, there are those that are frustratingly dependent on your opponent playing into your preparation. But what if I told you there was another way: a highly respected and theoretically sound opening that will surprise your opponents and reliably grant you a rock-solid centre, all without dampening your winning chances? Sounds too good to be true, right?

Wrong! We covered 1.e4, we covered 1.d4. Now —you may have guessed it— it’s time for the ultimate guide to a 1.c4 opening (the English Opening). Played by chess greats throughout the ages from Staunton to Botvinnik to Carlsen, it even tempted Bobby Fischer to stray from his hallowed 1.e4 (check out game 6 of the 1972 Spassky match). In this article, we will explain how to play a 1.c4 opening, cover Black’s four best possible responses, and go over thematic plans and fundamental ideas that make the English Opening so formidable.

Top 3 Advantages of Playing 1.c4

But first, why play the English Opening instead of 1.e4 or 1.d4? Well, with its solid base and concrete attacking ideas, the English gives you the best of both worlds! Here are just three advantages that may turn you into an English Opening fanatic:

1. Sidestep the mainstream

If you play 1.e4, you could face a French, Pirc, Modern, a Caro-Kann, a Scandinavian… the list goes on, and it’s not much better after 1.d4. Alternatively, with the English, Black’s responses can be narrowed down to three main branches (which we will cover later), and it is much harder for Black to steer the game into the territory of their preference. So, while you do have the flexibility to transpose to a 1.d4 opening from an English if you want to (this is an advantage when you become a stronger player), equally, if you don’t want to play a Grünfeld, a Budapest, or a Nimzo-Indian that’s no problem. All of these openings are avoidable for White in the English. In fact, for this very reason, 1.c4 has been deployed in tournament play at the highest levels (check out Yasser Seirawan here talking about how he avoided facing the Nimzo-Indian early on in his career).

2. Deliver a rock-solid surprise

Even better (for those of us with slightly lower ratings than Yasser), it is almost guaranteed that your opponent will be significantly less prepared for an English opening than they are for a 1.e4 or 1.d4 opening. And, unlike other openings that might surprise your opponents, like Bird’s Opening or other chess opening oddities, the English Opening is not dubious or refuted! It is a universal, principled, and (if played right) watertight chess opening. There’s nothing better than putting your opponent into a deep think on move 2, especially when you know that there is no definite refutation of your opening strategy. So, once you know the fundamental ideas behind the English, you can reliably get a rock-solid foundation and a telling middlegame advantage.

3. Learn the English, learn an opening for life

As he explains in his excellent Chessable course, the Iron English: Botvinnik Variation, GM Simon Williams learned the Botvinnik English Opening from his dad, at the age of 6, and played it almost exclusively on the way up to becoming an IM and beyond. An opening for a 6-year-old that can also be used to win an IM norm? Not bad. Best of all, because it is an opening that is based on a set of fundamental ideas rather than hundreds of lines that need to be learned by rote, it is an ideal opening to learn, start playing, and gradually build experience in until you have become an English master.

How to Play the English Opening

In a nutshell, the English Opening for White revolves around building a central stronghold to maximize space, cramp your opponent, and slowly but surely organize your forces until your pieces crescendo into an unstoppable attacking force. 

First of all, let’s look at how to play it. To kick off a game with the English Opening, the first thing you have to do is play the first move, 1.c4: 

White plays the English Opening with the move 1.c4
The English Opening is reached with the move 1.c4

Instead of occupying the centre with your pawns (as with 1.e4 and 1.d4 openings), a 1.c4 opening is a flank attack in which White will look to initially contest this key ground from further afield. Before any other moves are made, the move 1.c4 achieves the following for White:

  • It lays claim to the d5 square (and the light central squares).
  • It kicks off a flank attack and grabs space on the queenside.
  • It rules out several of Black’s most typical forcing lines (after 1.e4 or 1.d4). 

Crucially, with 1.c4 White seeks to control the d5 square, and give White dominion over the light squares for the rest of the game. There are various ways the game could develop from here depending on how Black responds, but a popular and common continuation for White in the English opening is the Botvinnik English variation. Often in this setup, White can follow up with several moves designed to reinforce this square, including a kingside fianchettoed bishop, a pawn push to e4, and even a knight hop to c3. After castling kingside, White retains the flexibility to expand on either side of the board, with f2-f4, d2-d4, and b2-b4 all available to further squeeze Black and look to press their home space advantage. Here is a Botvinnik English by way of explanation:

A Botvinnik English Opening with a strong center for White, restricting Black’s space and preventing a d5 pawn break.
A Botvinnik English Opening with a strong center for White, restricting Black’s space and preventing a d5 pawn break.

A Botvinnik English Opening with a strong center for White, restricting Black’s space and preventing a d5 pawn break. 

Here the combination of White’s bishop on g2, pawn on e4, and knight on c3 give White a strong grip on the d5 square. Thanks in no small part to the iron-clad central pawn structure, this Botvinnik English structure severely restricts Black’s activity and possibilities for counterplay.

Additionally, in the above position, a key benefit of deploying the knight to e2 is that it keeps the path open for your f-pawn to advance, looking to grab even more space for White, as well as starting to place Black’s kingside defenders under pressure.

In time, you’ll see that this is a characteristic English attack; the structure you achieve with the English allows you to patiently build on your rock-solid position, with the flexibility to expand on either side of the board. Look at this similar position:

 

Patience is a virtue in the English. Here White should not allow the exchange of bishops on h3.
Patience is a virtue in the English Opening. Here White should not allow the exchange of bishops on h3.

A clued-up player with the Black pieces may look to set up a queen-bishop battery to exchange White’s fianchettoed bishop on g2 and diminish White’s grasp over d5. This may not always be favourable for White; with your space advantage and growing attack, there is no reason to accept this trade and relieve the pressure. You could play Re1 and drop the bishop back to h1, or by playing h3, you take away g4 from the f6-knight and keep black cramped, and lay the ground for a later g2-g4 push and ideas of f2-f4 and f5 for White. Black has a tough time untangling here; if White succeeds in getting a pawn to f5, Black’s fianchettoed bishop is in danger of getting trapped out of the game by White’s storming pawns. One common method for Black is the f7-f5 push, but this allows White to get in exf5 and open up your strong bishop.

This is another typical attack from an English Opening, but it is far from the only way to proceed! You could just as easily focus on the other side of the board, pushing e3 instead of e4, breaking with b4-b5, and looking to complement the g2 bishop’s pressure on the long diagonal. The point is, from White’s solid base, you use your space advantage to develop and expand until you are in a winning position. But, unfortunately, it’s not all plain sailing, and Black does have some responses to 1.c4 that you should know.

Black’s Top 4 Responses to a 1.c4 Opening

As mentioned above, one of the main benefits to the English Opening is that, once you know the fundamental ideas behind the structure you want to achieve, it is pretty easy to set up! As mentioned before, the simple fact of not playing 1.e4 or 1.d4 removes several of Black’s favourite tries for counterplay based around immediate challenges to these central pawns. For this reason, there are just three main branches available to Black after 1.c4 that you really need to know about: 

1. Symmetrical English

(1.c4 c5)

The Symmetrical Defense or Symmetrical English is, as the name suggests, an opening for Black in which your opponent plays the mirror image of your moves and, irritatingly enough, can reach a good position for themselves in the process. Here’s how it starts:

 

The Symmetrical English is reached after 1.c4 c5.
The Symmetrical English is reached after 1.c4 c5.

The Symmetrical English can undermine some of the advantages that White set out to gain with 1.c4. This move replies to White’s advance in kind, and looks to control the dark squares, and in particular the d4 square.

A Symmetrical Four Knights English Variation, with White breaking on d4
A Symmetrical Four Knights English Variation, with White breaking on d4

 At some point, White can break the symmetry, often with a pawn break on d4 or b4. Logically enough, while White has control of the light squares in this position, Black has good control of the dark squares. While Black has a very flexible setup here, your fundamental plans do not alter if Black meets your English Opening in this manner, and White’s first move advantage gives you a slight edge in this position. Before you play 1.c4, you should know that Black can continue mirroring your set up for 5 or 6 moves without going wrong! While we’re at it, check out this particularly tricky line in the Symmetrical English.

For more ideas about how to play or face the Symmetrical English, check out IM David Vigorito’s advice on how to counter 1.c4: Lifetime Repertoires: Symmetrical English. 

2. Reversed Sicilian 

(1.c4 e5) 

Alongside the Symmetrical Defense, the Reverse Sicilian (1.c4 e5) is another popular route for Black to take in response to the English. It is also one of the most principled responses to 1.c4. As you can see below, this opening means that White is essentially playing a Sicilian with an extra tempo:

A Reversed Sicilian position after the moves 1.c4 e5.
A Reversed Sicilian position after the moves 1.c4 e5.

The Reversed Sicilian, also referred to as a King’s English, is one of the most intriguing openings in chess, taking one of the most complex opening families in chess and turning it on its head. While the normal Sicilian Defense is regarded as a dynamic and testing try for Black (especially in an Open Sicilian), in this case White’s first-move advantage nullifies a lot of Black’s typical Sicilian ideas. Here, Black contests the central squares that White neglected to claim. Let’s look at a mainline going into an Open Reversed Sicilian, with 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.e3 d5: 

Here Black breaks early with 4...d5
Here Black breaks early with 4…d5

In typical Sicilian style, Black breaks with 4…d5, inducing 5.cxd5 Nxd5 and heading into an Open Reversed Sicilian. In this version, a recommendable move for White is 6.Bb5, threatening to win Black’s pawn on e5. The game is not lost for Black by any means, but this is one example of how the extra tempo can tilt the position in White’s favour.

For this reason, some players favour other continuations for Black that are more long-term and strategical in nature, such as a Reversed Rossolimo Sicilian:

A Reversed Rossolimo Sicilian from the English Opening
A Reversed Rossolimo Sicilian from the English Opening

Here Black is threatening to take the c3 knight and slightly compromise White’s pawn structure. As a pawn remains on d2 and the knight is not pinned here, a recommended move for White here is to play knight to d5. If Black captures with the f-knight, White can recapture with the pawn, and get pressure along the semi open c-file against while kicking the c-knight merrily around the board. 

Of course there are other variations the game could go into, including (commonly) a Reversed Open Sicilian from a Four Knights English Opening, with Black instigating trades on d5 to open up the position. For any Sicilian players out there, several of the positions and themes will be recognizable from your games as Black, but there are crucial differences based around the fact that White has an extra tempo that are worth studying if you want to dive deeper into playing the English.

For more detail about how a Reversed Sicilian could affect the game after 1.c4, consider reviewing GM Dejan Bojkov’s dedicated Reversed Sicilian repertoire from the Black point of view:, Beating the English. Or, from the White perspective, IM Christof Sielecki and FM Carsten Hansen go into great detail in their joint endeavor: Short & Sweet: 1.c4 / 1. Nf3. For advanced players who really want to go the distance, our recommendation is to purchase the course, Lifetime Repertoires: Reversed Sicilian (again for Black) from GM Arturs Neiksans.

3. A Fight for d5

(1.c4 e6, or 1.c4 c6)

Beyond those two branches, an important option available to Black is playing to immediately contest the d5 square. This plan, which you need to know about, can be achieved by Black with the move 2…d5, supported by a previous pawn move to c6 or e6, which could see the game transpose into a Slav-like or Queen’s Gambit Declined position:

After the moves 1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 d5, the game could transpose to QGD territory.
After the moves 1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 d5, the game could transpose to QGD territory.

This is a potential drawback to be aware of for would-be English players, as the right move order could see Black take the game away from English territory. In the above position for example, after 2…d5, you could play 3.d4, heading into a Queen’s Gambit Declined position. But you don’t always have to cede to Black’s will! If you want to remain within the English, you can reply here with g3 and Bg2. If Black takes on c4, you have Qa4+ and can pick up the pawn again, or Na3, gambiting the pawn in exchange for Black giving up the bishop pair. Alternatively, there is the option to exchange on d5 first and then leave d4 unoccupied (avoiding a transposition into a Carlsbad structure).

 

4. The King’s Indian Defence vs the English Opening

The last response to 1.c4 to consider is if Black plays a King’s Indian setup with, say, g6, d6, Bg7, Nf6, and castles:

A King’s Indian Defense position against the English Opening
A King’s Indian Defense position against the English Opening

From this position, White has plenty of options, but it is important to pay close attention to how Black sets up. If Black plays e5, you can continue the plan detailed in the first section, letting your f-pawn loose and wreaking havoc on the kingside. If they play c5, you may want to consider expanding on the queenside as your f-pawn will be better marshalled by Black’s e-pawn. And if Black finds their way to playing c6, your bishop will be less effective on g2, so in this case you may want to consider a plan featuring b4, a4, and b5 to undermine on the queenside!

Here we see both the flexibility of the English Opening in action and the need to be vigilant and open to adapt different plans according to how your opponent responds. For more ideas and concrete plans to employ against the KID and other lines after 1.c4, check out that man GM Simon Williams’ brilliant course, Short & Sweet: Botvinnik English, designed to deliver an iron grip on the center with just 24 core lines.

Is 1.c4 a Good Opening for Beginners?

There are those who say that absolute beginners should only play 1.e4, in accordance with the essential chess opening principles by which a beginner player should probably abide. And, they may be right. For the simple reason that the English Opening tends to lead to games of a more closed nature, it is often harder to grasp good and purposeful moves compared to more open positions, where what should be played is more clear.

But that’s not to say that the English is not good for beginners! As it is an opening that rewards the application of themes and ideas rather than memorizing specific lines, it is an ideal training tool for players looking to understand an opening, not just remember one. For the same reasons, it is also an excellent way to get practical experience in handling strategic middlegames, a part of the game that is usually difficult for beginners. 

Best of all from a beginner’s perspective, an essential part of successfully playing an English Opening is the ability to maintain your central grip and use it to frustrate your opponent’s ideas. This is great news for developing chess players as it forces you to pay close attention to your opponent, consider their plans, and learn how to shut them down — a key discipline for any chess player.

A Classic English Opening Game

Now let’s look at a classic game from an English Opening. Heading back to June of 1936, when at the tender age of 68, the Second World Champion Emanual Lasker faced off against Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, and played 1.c4. The game began with a Closed Reverse Sicilian, after the moves 1. c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3:

Emanuel Lasker plays an English Opening 
Lasker played an English Opening

Here we see typical development from both sides, Lasker patiently reinforces his central control of the light squares while Alexander has claimed some central space and focuses on the d4 square in particular. The game continued 5…Nge7 6.Bd2 O-O 7.Nf3 Nd4 8.O-O c6 9. Rc1:

On move 7, Alexander prevents a pawn push to d4 by occupying the square with his knight.
On move 7, Alexander prevents a pawn push to d4 by occupying the square with his knight.

With 7…Nd4, Alexander blockades a possible pawn break, but Lasker is in no hurry to kick the knight. Instead he castles and plays the positional Rc1, settling in for the long haul. The game continues with Alexander opening up his bishop with 9…d6, queenside expansion from Lasker with 10.b4, then 10.b4 Nxf3+ 11.Bxf3 Bh3 12.Re1 Qd7 13.b5 c5 14.Ne4:

After trading knights on f3, Alexander sets up a battery with the queen seeking to weaken the White king, but Lasker’s Ne4 prevents an h6 pawn advance.
After trading knights on f3, Alexander sets up a battery with the queen seeking to weaken the White king, but Lasker’s Ne4 prevents an h6 pawn advance.

After dislodging the fianchettoed bishop from g2, Alexander may be entertaining a kingside pawn advance, but 14.Ne4 prevents h6 as after Bxh6 Bxh6 White would have the winning Nf6+, picking up the Black queen. So, Black plays 14…Qc7, avoiding this fork, then 15.Rb1 Bd7 16. Qc1 b6?:

With 16...b6, Alexander prevents any further pawn advance along the b-file, but makes the game’s critical mistake.
With 16…b6, Alexander prevents any further pawn advance along the b-file, but makes the game’s critical mistake.

In Alexander Alekhine’s excellent notes on this classic game, the fourth World Chess Champion added a question mark to 16…b6, along with this deliciously scathing critique: “One might call this tempting providence in the most definite way. Why leave the rook on the diagonal of the hostile bishop?” As the game progresses, we can see how the White bishop’s influence along the long diagonal eventually decides the game. The point is that after 17.Bg5, Lasker takes away the possibility of f6 for Black, as White can win the exchange after 18. Bxf6 Bxf6 19. Nxf6+, with a discovered attack on the a8 rook, with check. If Black had played f6 or f5 earlier, the f6 square would be unavailable for Lasker’s e-knight. As it happened, the game continued 17…Nf5 18.Nf6+ Bxf6 19.Bxf6 Rab8 20.Bg4 Ng7 21.Qh6:

After removing the Black bishop from g7, Lasker pounces on the dark square weaknesses around Alexander’s king.
After removing the Black bishop from g7, Lasker pounces on the dark square weaknesses around Alexander’s king.

From this position, there is no way for Alexander to avoid giving up the exchange, which Lasker eventually wins after 21…Ne8 22.Be7 Ng7 23.Bf6 Ne8 24.Be7 Ng7 25.Bxf8 Rxf8. After winning the exchange, Black has little opportunity for counterplay, and Lasker shows perfect technique, retreating his queen and bishop, trading bishops on b7, and eventually ending the match with a final pin of Black’s remaining minor piece: 26. Bf3 Nf5 27. Qd2 Nd4 28. Bg2 Bc8 29. e3 Ne6 30. f4 Bb7 31. a4 f5 32. Bxb7 Qxb7 33. Qg2 Qe7 34. Qd5 1-0:

After 34.Qd5, Alexander resigned.
After 34.Qd5, Alexander resigned.

There is little hope for Black in this position. White has a few options, including breaking through on f5 and starting to bring his rooks into the game, or if Black captures on f4, recapturing with the e-pawn will double pin the knight to the queen and the king! As White also has the firepower to break on the queenside, Alexander resigned. So, without a single pawn leaving the board, Lasker won this classic English Opening game, thanks largely to his strong bishop that never left the h1-a8 diagonal.

Conclusion and Further Study

So that was the ultimate guide to playing a 1.c4 opening. We covered how to play the English Opening, the responses you are most likely to face, and some common plans for both Black and White. Now, it’s up to you! The best advice for anyone considering a new opening is often to jump straight in, play a few games with an open mind, and see if the English Opening is the one for you.

As well as consulting the provided links to resources for how to play the English and how to respond to it (from the Symmetrical Defense, to the Reversed Sicilian, or King’s Indian Defense), it will also be extremely worthwhile to consider how exactly you can optimize your study time to best learn a new chess opening. And, if you have any questions or specific doubts, it can be helpful to find a committed, knowledgeable, and supportive chess learning community.

 

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Is the English opening good?

The English Opening is one of the most respected and feared chess openings out there. Not only is it theoretically sound weapon used at the all levels by White players looking for a win, but across several databases it is also one of the statistically highest-scoring openings for White

2. Is the English opening for beginners?

The English Opening is not considered an optimal choice for absolute beginners, as it is a hypermodern opening that (partially at least) neglects the opening chess principle of occupying the center with your pawns as soon as possible. It also has the possibility to transpose into other openings, including a QGD, a Slav Defense, or a KID. However, it is a playable and enjoyable opening for advancing beginners and casual players upwards!

3. What are the fundamental ideas behind English opening?

The key ideas behind the English opening are to control the central light squares, using your pieces and pawns in combination to establish a strong foundation in the middle of the board and gain a telling space advantage over the Black pieces, and restrict your opponent’s possibilities for counterplay. Once this is achieved, White can often choose on which side of the board to expand and attack.

4. Is the English opening aggressive?

The English Opening is very aggressive. Although the English Opening avoids sharp lines in the opening exchanges, this does not mean it is a passive opening for White. It should be enough to say that Kasparov, one of the most aggressive players of all time, played it. Once White has set up their position and maximized their space advantage, White’s flexible pawn structure allows for several breaks and there are plenty of tactical and attacking possibilities at their disposal, including a kingside pawn storm, or a central break often delivered with the move d4.

5. How can I study the English opening?

The best way to study the English Opening is to get a dedicated introductory course from a lifetime expert, and start playing. By learning the core ideas on which to base this opening, you can start to build your experience safe in the knowledge that you are following the correct ideas and principles that make this opening so successful. Our recommendation is this free Short and Sweet course on the Botvinnik English.

6. How popular is the English opening? 

According to a variety of databases, the English Opening (1.c4) is the fourth most popular opening to a chess game, after 1.e4, 1.d4, and 1.Nf3. It is played at all levels, and should be a fixture in any aspiring chess great’s repertoire.

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