When it comes to chess improvement, you don’t need to memorize the opening.
That said, you should have a basic familiarity with chess openings so you’re not surprised by them.
I put this list of chess openings together to help other chess players learn basic chess opening theory.
You’ll learn the main ideas behind some of the best & most popular chess openings, all in one place.
If you’re looking for a new opening to try you’ll find a great jumping off point here.
This article is really long, so here are some quick links to the best parts of this chess opening article that I’ll be discussing.
Let me know in the comments if there is anything you’d like me to shed more info on:
Table of Contents
- How Many Openings are Possible in Chess?
- E4 Openings for White
- Answers to E4 for Black
- D4 Openings
- Answers to D4
- Indian Defenses
- Non E4, D4 Openings
- Opening Gambits
Why Study Chess Openings?
Studying chess openings is important is because it will help you understand what your plans are, what your opponent wants to accomplish and it will give you more time to think later in the game.
It’s easy to tell when a player is seeing an opening for the first time. They often spend minutes thinking about their first few moves rather than seconds.
That being said, I don’t want you to get the idea that you should memorize every opening 10 moves deep, at least not if you are under 2000 elo.
Instead, focus on understanding the ideas behind specific openings you run into so you are more prepared to face them head on. This involves knowing when to push certain pawns, where the pawn breaks are, and where your pieces are ideally placed.
Studying Allows You To Take Less Time in the Opening
Taking less time in the opening is important to save you precious time whether you are participating in over the board tournaments or playing speed chess online.
Even in longer games where you have an hour and a half or more of time, you still don’t want to focus too long on the opening when you could have memorized basic chess openings and opening chess traps.
When you first start playing, you may find your opponents using the same openings over and over.
1. e4 is the most popular opening out there. But one day, you may run into someone starting the game by moving their knight to the f3 square (1. Nf3, or the Reti).
You might be seeing this opening for the first time and spend more time trying to think of what to do and get into time trouble later.
This is why basic opening theory is so important: it saves you time later.
Chess Openings Can Transpose Into One Another
I know I’ve had someone open with 1.B3 (the nimzowitsch larsen attack) and I just thought, what the heck is this!
Just because they play 1.b3, this doesn’t mean they’re only going to play one specific line. This opening could transpose into an English if they play c4. Aron Nimzowich often played 1 b3 followed by 2 nf3.
All chess openings are flexible and it’s important to understand that you could start with one chess opening but find yourself in another quickly.
Remember, openings don’t win games, tactics and strategy win chess games.
Above all else, don’t worry about losing.
Practice your most comfortable openings over and over via speed chess to help you see multiple variations of these openings.
When you feel you have mastered a ton of concepts behind one opening, move on to another opening to learn it and expand your chess horizons.
How Many Openings are Possible in Chess?
There are so many possible openings in the chess universe.
In the first move of chess, there are only 20 possibilities that white can make. However, after white’s first move, there are now 400 possible chess positions, followed by 5362 after White’s second move, then 4,897,256 after 5 moves.
You get the idea that there are a ton of positions to think about.
While not every one of these moves will be even close to the best move, it goes to show that you have to consider more than just what is going on in front of you.
In fact, it is suggested there are more legal chess moves than there are atoms in the universe (known as the Shannon Number). This estimates there are 10^120 possible chess games while the number of atoms is observed to be 10^82.
E4 Openings for White With Black Playing e5
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4
The most common opening is e4 for white.
This is because white follows the main principles of chess by attacking the center and preparing to develop the light squared bishop to squares such as c4 and b5, depending on the opening.
Of course black or white could play outside of the scope of these openings you will see in this section, but doing so would be going against hundreds of years of theory by superior players who have studied these games and played them at World Championships.
It’s also important to note that just because moves are not played in a specific order does not mean they are not considered a core aspect of the openings described.
In the Ruy Lopez (shown below), I could play e4 first while black plays nc6 on their first move. As long as the position ends up with the Bishop coming to the b5 square and attacking the knight on c6, it will be considered the Ruy Lopez, but could be a variation of it.
Ruy Lopez Opening
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5
The Ruy Lopez opening follows the main principles of chess by developing both the knight and bishop for white. The difference in this opening is white offers to trade, or at least threaten, black’s knight on c6 with a bishop.
Traditionally, bishops are slightly better than knights, depending on the situation. Bishops do well with long diagonals, and in the opening bishops have less power.
The idea of trading off your white bishop for a knight that is attacking the center is so you can remove a defender of the center and allow the possible capture of e5, if black does not defend it.
Depending on your response to seeing white open with the Ruy Lopez, you will want to consider how you will defend e5, and how you can trade off material more quickly now that you have an endgame advantage.
It’s tough to think about the endgame on move 3, but you will want to think about the structure of your pawns and what pieces you will have left if you make it to an even end game.
Doubled pawns and the types of pawn islands you create in the opening can dictate what type of pawn endgame you might find yourself in later. Structurally, you’ll want to make sure your pawns are prepared for all types of endgames.
Allowing white to take your knight means doubling up your pawns on the c-file and you will have to think about how to undouble those pawns (d5 comes to mind, but white doesn’t have to take back).
At the same time, trying to kick back the bishop by moving a6 and subsequently b5 means you will have a strange pawn structure that white could potentially exploit down the line. This is a main theory however and can occur frequently.
Ruy Lopez is one of the most common openings encountered with new players and is also played at high caliber levels.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4
The Italian game is my personal favorite game and opening to play as white.
To me it feels the cleanest game and perfectly abides by all opening principles.
- Knights before bishops
- Attack the center
- Don’t move your queen
All of this is common play and allows me to not think when I play until I see how black responds.
The ideas of the Italian Game are to develop strongly, but keep and eye on the f7 square, which is very weak for black.
It is the only pawn in the game that is only protected by the King (f2 for White).
Since white can move first, white has the better starting position to capitalize on that position first.
Should black decide to mirror white’s moves with nf6 followed by bc5, white will be allowed to start the attack first, if an opportunity arises.
When playing against the Italian Game opening as black, you will want to know what goes into the game.
If you play Bc5 and completely mirror white, you want to know going in that white will always be one step ahead and can attack the center first with either Evan’s Gambit (4. b4) Giuoco Piano (4. c3) or Giuoco Pianissimo (4. d3) (all of these are shown below) and you will be one step behind.
Black is always one step behind in o
penings which is why a lot of more advanced players opt to play non e5 variations when encountering e4.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3
Giuoco Piano allows for white to take advantage of his central position first by backing up the eventual d4 pawn push.
In some cases, white would like to castle first, and of course many variations can ensue.
The advantage for white is that black does not have the ability to push c6 unless he first moves his Knight from c6 first, thus giving white more of an edge on the central attack.
Black can slow down white’s tempo with nf6 to cause white to consider if they are ready to push d4 right away knowing that black has an attacking piece on e4 with his knight.
White, in this variation, has opted to forego strengthening the defense on e4 with nc3 to instead strengthen the d4 pawn push and possibly open the e file for their rook once castled.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. d3
This is a quieter variation of Giuoco Piano where white pushes d3 to protect the e4 pawn first before c3. It leads to quieter play from white where some variations of the d4 push allow black counter play.
In general, white will try to play on the queenside and gain space with their pawns. After c3, white will push b4 and a4 with tempo on the knight and bishop.
Eventually b5 can create weaknesses in the center (e4) which white’s knight is attacking.
Black will often counter with either a5 or a6 to protect the knight, and give a safe space for the bishop.
The black bishop will continue threatening the f2 square as long as it stays on the g1-a7 diagonal.
These games are call slow for a reason, and often can lead to “boring” play.
If you know the positions and ideas, you can cause your opponent to spend more time in the opening if they are not prepared.
The Fried Liver
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5
This is an attack the follows after black decides to play nf6 after Bc4.
Instead of playing the slow italian game (guicco pianissimo above) white can be aggressive in the opening with 4. Ng5, attacking f7.
As we know from our opening principles, playing ng5 moves a piece twice. This is part of why the attack is not common at the high level.
This was one of the first attacks I learned to play and have since stopped playing the game. Black even has a super strong counter attack known as the Traxler Counter Attack. This attack is so powerful I stopped playing the fried liver altogether.
In the Fried Liver, white is completely acting on the weakness of f7 and looking to fork the queen and rook with Nxf7. Blacks best defenses to this are Na5 and D5 (which temporarily blocks the Bishop from the Nxf7 line.
This is often met with the Traxler attack or Ke6 after the knight sacrifice.
It is often better for black with correct play.
Famous game with Morphy vs A Morphy
Four Knights Game
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6
The four knights game is a very standard game in which both white and black develop their knights and attack the center of the board.
The name of the opening makes sense as all four knights are developed before anything else.
The principle of developing knights before bishops is strictly adhered to in this opening and allows both players an equal attack on the center.
When chess has perfect symmetry, white is generally at an advantage as they can attack first.
However, the same can be true that symmetrical games can be more likely to draw.
Some players transition into the Scotch Game with d4 being the next move.
Should black recapture and trade off the nc6 knight, the queen for white will be centralized before the bishops are in play (See Scotch Game below).
You can also transition into an Italian-esque game (above) with Bc4, or fianchetto your light squared bishop with 4. G3.
In either case, white’s main goal is to castle within 5 moves and continue pressure on the center.
Generally the four knights game leads to quiet positional play and can lead to a ton of trades in the center of the board, or general development with increased pieces focused on the board. The latter will cause more beginning players to think longer as each capture must be calculated.
Three Knights Opening
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Bc5
A similar opening to the four knights game where black may or may not choose to place his second knight on f6.
He may instead opt for Bc5, which could be met with nxe5 for some central play as nxe5 would be followed by d4.
This doesn’t give an advantage to white in pieces, but gives white a Scotch game-esque opening with a nice open position.
Black can also choose a more popular d6, going for pinning the knight on nf3 with bg4 in an attempt to open up the king’s side pawn structure.
This opening is also seen a lot with beginners as they learn the structure of the game.
It may end up turning into the four knights game, but is dependent upon blacks 3rd move.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4
A popular opening in the 19th century, where it got its creation.
The Scotch game focuses on white pushing d4 before developing all of their minor pieces in an attempt to open up the center and retake the pawn with a centralized queen.
Should black decide to not capture the pawn on d4 and instead protect it with d6, black would be giving up his castle after just a few moves.
Because d4 is played so early, black does not have time to recapture the queen sacrifice with anything besides their own king as capturing with the knight on c6 allows Nxe5 and white is up a pawn in the exchange.
I would recommend this opening if you are starting out as it helps limit black’s quality of moves in the beginning of the game and gives white a more open position.
Even with the queen out early, white is in a great position and has free reign of the board and can easily castle and get their rooks into the game.
What is the Best Response to e4 When Black Doesn’t Play e5?
There are plenty of ways to approach 1 e4 as black. Here are some of the top played openings and their winning percentages for white and black. (These are drawn from the master database on lichess.org)
Best statistical chess openings
|Opening||First Move||Number of Games in Database||White Winning Percentage||Drawing Percentage||Black Winning Percentage|
|King's Pawn Game||e5||228471||31%||48%||21%|
There isn’t one opening that’s better than others, but top players are more likely to win as white when they play the Scandinavian. However, there are a lot more games played that involve other answers to e4 like the Sicilian or the French.
It’s also worth noting that black is most likely to draw (48%) when they respond to e4 with e5. Generally, symetrical games can lead to more draws than games with an imbalance.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 c5
The Sicilian Defense is arguably the best opening for black when encountering e4.
It provides a more equal counter play in an attack on the center while also allowing the queen to come into the game at a great angle against white’s eventual king side castle.
Moving the c pawn to attack the center rather than the e pawn leads to a better center in many cases.
Black opts to attack the center from the side rather than with a central pawn.
The c pawn is also used to attack the d4 square to create a semi open file for the rook on the c pawn.
Qb6 against the castled king for check if the angle is clear, and Qa5 for the un-castled king.
The first move of the Sicilian is c5 which allows black to completely avoid any games above that start with e5. After playing c5, there is almost no variation that would allow black to transpose back into e5, but of course you wouldn’t want to because of the gap between the pawns on d5.
The most popular variations for the Sicilian include the classical variation, dragon variation (also accelerated and hyper-accelerated dragon), and the najdorf defense (a6)
The Najdorf Defense
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6
The Najdorf variation is played when black defends against any ideas of Bb5 or nb5, continuing attack on the center.
It also allows for …b5 in which black can attack the c4 square while simultaneously developing the bishop to b7.
To continue challenging the center, black may opt for e6 or e5, depending on how aggressive they want to be.
Pushing e5 creates a permanent weakness on d6 unless black can break through with an eventual d5 push.
Black will generally try to counter attack on the queenside and advance pawns with a minority attack (2 pawns vs 3).
This will prove stronger if white has castled queenside.
The Dragon Variation
Check out this article for most of the main ideas of the sicilian dragon
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf65. Nc3 g6
Named because the pawn structure slightly resembles a dragon, the Dragon is a popular variation in which black decides to fianchetto the kingside bishop by pushing g6.
White can choose to castle queenside or kingside with plusses and minuses to each.
I have found that dragon openings are either a win or loss because it is aggressive on both side.
White often counter attacks with the Yugoslav Attack and creates a big attack on the kingside, aiming at the weakness of pawns because of g6.
Black’s plan is to create pressure on the queenside since all of its forces are aimed in that direction.
The accelerated and hyper-accelerated dragon are where black looks to fianchetto their bishop quickly and more quickly, respectively.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 g6
In this variation, black has skipped the d6 pawn push in an attempt to achieve an extra tempo.
Black’s main plan to equalize is to achieve d5 to break in the center.
In theory, not wasting a tempo on d6 because you know you want to push d5 is a risk black can take with this opening.
The risk is white can potentially push e5 if black develops their kingside knight too soon.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 g6
The hyper-accelerated dragon speeds this process up even further, but can often be punished with the suffocating Maroczy Bind.
A very strong opening for white will be to counter with c4.
Since black’s plan is to push d5 to equalize, playing c4 makes this extremely hard.
White often dominates the center in this opening, but that is not to say that the hyper accelerated dragon is bad, you just need to be able to deal with the Maroczy Bind.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e6
The french defense had been my go to response against e4 for years.
The quiet opening move of e6 allows for d5 and c5 almost immediately.
The moves allow for a strong counter attack towards the center with strong development on the queenside.
The advanced variation for white (e5) is often played, but f6 allows for black the chance to have an open file for the kingside castled rook.
The queenside ends up having a lot of play for black, which often results in white playing towards opening up the kingside.
With Qb6 or Qc7, black is often unable to bring the queen over to help and often white is better with minor piece sacrifices to open up black’s kings side.
Since e5 is often advanced, this kicks the defensive knight away from the kingside as well.
The main goal of black in the French defense centers around the e5 pawn in the advanced variation.
I prefer to bring my knights to c6 and e7 to have a double attack on that e5 pawn.
White is often focused on defending d4 and can sometimes miss the attack in e5 if unaware of the opening.
Black is also generally stronger if white develops their light squared bishop to b5 to try to pin the nc6 knight.
This many times can allow black to gain the e5 pawn.
The French is a very closed game with careful calculation on both sides on the best way to open up the center.
Black can also be very cramped as white doesn’t have to take back to open up the game.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 c6
The Caro-Kann is similar to the French defense but allows for a less cramped position.
The immediate c6 move allows for a similar attack on the center with d5, but also allows your queen to move out in a similar fashion to the Sicilian.
This allows for surprise checks in the back of white’s mind, but also play on the queenside with Qb6 or Qa5.
The troublesome aspect of the Caro-Kann is the limitation of the knight on the queen side.
Often black prefers to bring the knight to d7 and link it up with the knight on c6 for a stronger hold on the center.
While similar to the French Defense, the Caro-Kann doesn’t revolve around pushing c5 to open up the center. This can be an idea in some situations, but not as often as the French.
You don’t want to make this mistake when starting off. Doing so would result in the loss of a tempo when you could have played the French Defense to begin with if chess openings were studied first.
The Caro-Kann is more centered around the idea of protecting the center and alleviating a weakness in many black openings: the queen being stuck behind the c file pawn.
In the more popular Three and Four Knights Openings, black defends the center with nc6, but cannot easily plan to move the c pawn to help attack the center or bring the queen out for an attack.
It keeps the Queen’s moves limited and more predictable, which makes the queen weaker.
The Caro-Kann is a nice alternative that helps answer a common problem for black in many other openings.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 d5
The scandinavian is an opening where black counters e4 with d5, an immediate attack on the center and forcing white to make a more immediate decision right out of the gate.
At first glance, this opening seems to be neglecting the basic principles of chess because right after white takes the d5 pawn, the obvious response is Qxd5, moving the queen before any other piece, and right into the center where it can be pushed around.
However, if white takes this pawn, more advanced players choose to develop their knight to f6 rather than take back immediately.
This gives more black pieces in the center and avoids the queen in the center without first deflecting the knight should it move to c3.
White of course doesn’t have to take and can instead push to e5 or develop the c3 knight right away. This can create some trouble for white however because the d pawn can be advanced to d4, forcing the knight from it’s strong position.
You wouldn’t want to protect the e4 pawn with d3 because you would be giving up your castling position or a pawn after dxe5 and dxe5 then QxQ+.
The Scandinavian offers a quick way to throw white off their expected gameplay.
I know it has certainly thrown me off when I was first starting off, but by following the basics of the opening, you will be prepared.
This opening often turns into an isolated queen pawn for white, which can be favorable for either side, depending on how many pieces there are.
The isolated queen pawn is good for white when there are a lot of pieces, but becomes a liability as more and more pieces are traded off.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 Nf6
The Alekhine Defense revolves around nf6 in response to e4.
The idea is to attack the center, but also provoke e5 as white’s second move, leading to a weakened center and distraction.
While knights can move back to a previous move, pawns can never go backwards, so it’s important to understand white sacrifices their central attack in hopes of chasing the knight aware from Nf6.
This opening is for players who like to be quick on the attack as e5 will allow black’s knight to immediately be in the center with Nd5, but will usually be chased over to Nb6 after c4.
White gains a stronger center for the moment while black repositions their knight to the queenside and still strong open play.
Pirc Defense (pronounced peertz)
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 d6
After white plays e4, black answers with d6.
This is unusual in comparison to other openings as it doesn’t prepare for an immediate attack on the center.
With the French, e6 prepares to attack the e4 square with d5, but the Pirc’s d6 only tells white that you don’t wish to immediately attack the center, but would rather prevent e5 ideas and fianchetto your kingside bishop.
The Pirc defense is very similar to a King’s Indian set up.
If you see 2…d6, you should react the way you would if you saw 2…nf6.
Black is choosing to delay an attack on the center right away in preparation of developing pieces before a major attack.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Be7
The hungarian defense tells white that you don’t wish to play the fried liver. Even though in most cases, players who understand the opening will actually be better off as black with careful play, the safer Be7 is played in this variation.
Black avoids any chances of Evan’s Gambit or Guico Piano while giving a more open position to white.
It should be noted that in this opening, your position as black is very cramped as your queen has nowhere to go, d5 cannot be pushed right away, and the light squared bishop is also two moves from development.
This passive opening doesn’t see too much play at the highest level, but it pops up here and there.
Two Knights Defense
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6
The two knights defense can of course lead to the Fried Liver opening for White, but after careful play, this is easy to defend despite bringing your king into the center of the board.
The two knights is a pretty solid defense as your Queenside knight is unable to be kicked from its position right away and your kingside knight can be kept on its position defending the center after h6.
Generally leading to careful central play, or a quick exchange of pieces, this opening is very common to be seen for beginner style play as both sides are playing into all opening chess principles.
While e4 is the most popular opening for newer players, D4 is pretty common for players who want to change their game up as they start to advance to higher levels.
Since most new players are taught the basic e4 openings and responses, D4 can catch a lot of players off guard.
It’s important to note that just because you don’t play d4 right away, does not mean you might not end up in a queen pawn opening.
For example, the French defense can be played out as 1. e4 e6 2. d4 and you’ve just played a d4 opening.
There are a lot of different ideas behind d4 as opposed to e4.
D4 still attacks the center, but it does not give your queen the range and potential on black’s king like e4 does.
D4 is generally followed up with ideas like C4 for the Queen’s Gambit and strong play for white.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. Bg5
Black starts off with nf6 to begin one of the indian defenses and white immediate jumps on it with Bg5.
It is done in response to some King’s Indian variations for black and provides an immediate attack on black’s knight on f6. Think of it like a queen’s pawn version of the Ruy Lopez where you can potentially double up your opponent’s pawns.
Like most openings that threaten a knight, it’s not designed for white’s bishop to take the knight right away, but more so forcing black to make a decision.
In the same respect, not taking the knight after a move like h6 means you waste more tempo with the same piece.
It’s a sacrifice giving up the bishop pair to double pawns, but can pay off in the long run.
Playing h6 also forces your opponent to make this decision quickly.
Queen’s Pawn Opening: London System
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Bf4
The London System revolves around bringing your queenside bishop to f4 quickly.
It creates additional pressure on e5 and means black cannot easily push e5 right away as his knight is on f6 and preventing the additional defense of f6.
Should the knight decide to move twice and attack your bishop with h5, the white bishop should retreat to g3 and allow the knight to take should black decide to do so.
This opens up the h file for the white rook and creates kingside pressure once white castles queenside.
Think of the London System as a Queen’s Pawn version of the Italian Game.
Magnus Carlson, the current world chess champion, has been known to play the opening often and helped popularize it.
Answers to D4
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6
When white attempts the queen’s gambit, a strong response is c6 by black. The structure looks like the Caro-Kahn defense, but white’s position is different.
What is strong about the Slav defense is that it helps reduce the annoyance that the C pawn can create for black. It’s nice to be able to bring your Queen to the C file or B file for a Queenside attack, and c6 helps allow this. The development of the knight to c6 isn’t able to be achieved unless white exchanges their C pawn on d5, allowing black to open up.
Generally, white will choose to keep black in a cramped position and will not take unless it creates a beneficial position or piece exchange. Because of this, black will often find themself moving their Queenside knight to d7, which pairs strongly with the kingside knight on f6.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 f5
The Dutch Defense is a response to white’s D4 with f5. While a bit of a strange opening, the dutch is not without its advantages. Pushing f5 allows the black kingside rook to look towards an open or semi-open F file which will be very strong later down the line. The great thing about playing f5 after d4 is that there is no immediate queen check available and black seemingly has time to develop their kingside knight to c6 to prevent it. Afterwards, black is only 3 moves away from castling and developing an attack on white’s kingside. It is also worth noting that if black plays c4, which is common in queen’s pawn openings, black helps to limit white’s eventual movement of their king. Black cannot easily castle queenside with the c pawn exposed (and they are several moves away from this at this point) but with the F pawn so far up after move 1, white has to consider black’s eventual threats on the kingside.
This opening is certainly able to surprise your opponent and give black more lively play in the center and into the midgame. Just be careful of the e5 gambit attempting to open your kingside wide open with the eventual Qh5!
Indian defenses revolve around the idea of controlling the center without black pushing their central pawns.
White generally gets full control of the e4 and d4 squares without contest for the first few moves, creating a deceiving edge in white’s mind before black pounces.
Using minor pieces to control the center instead of the central pawns allow more control and flexibility since pawns cannot go backwards once pushed, but minor pieces can.
Some variations do so with fianchettoing your bishop (king’s and Queen’s Indian defenses) while others opt for distracting the center of white’s pieces.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2
The king’s Indian is an opening where black gives up the center attack in exchange for a fianchetto’d kingside bishop and eventual attack on the center. This opening is especially popular with Hikaru Nakamura, one of the top speed chess players in the world.
The first few moves as you can see allow white a strong center, but black has ideas behind attacking it. Very similar to the Sicilian Dragon variation only black has yet to commit to c5 and can attack the center with c6 instead of chosen.
White can even achieve the dream pawn structure with c4, d4, and e5, all uncontested immediately. This is strong for white, but not impossible to break. Black simply creates a more destructive bishop that can’t easily be kicked around by being fianchetto’d on the kingside.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4
The difference between the King’s Indian and the Nimzo Indian is the fianchetto’d bishop on g7. In the Nimzo indian, black doesn’t completely give up the center as e6 is played after nf6, helping attack the center and potentially push d5, while of course allowing the bishop to move to b4 and pin the knight.
The Bishop takes a less hidden role in the Nimzo Indian defense and instead offers itself in exchange for the knight on c3, giving more strength to the knight on f6 attacking the e4 square.
Queens Indian Defense
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6
While the King’s Indian implied a fianchetto’d bishop on the kingside, the Queenside takes the opposite approach. After pushing e6 to defend the center, black opts to start with a kingside attack and fianchetto the queen side bishop. With a strong sight on the king side, this light squared bishop helps prep for long term strength and attacks. E4 and d5 are directly in this bishop’s line of sight and help to defend or attack two out of four of the strongest squares to control in any opening.
Generally, the Queen’s Indian is played after Nf3 is played by white instead of nc3. White can choose to counter black’s queenside fianchetto with a kingside fianchetto. This helps protect the king with more pieces and avoiding the threat that black’s bishop imposes on white’s rook and kingside.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5
The Grünfeld Defence is a variation of the King’s Indian in which black still wishes to push their pawn to g6, leading to a fianchetto’d bishop, but black more quickly plays d5 to challenge the center. If white allows black the chance to take on c4 instead of trading away pieces, white has the opportunity to push e4 and gain full centralization control.
It is worth noting, like other openings, just because white gains the ideal squares of e4 and d4, black still has many opportunities to challenge the center immediately, especially with 1 or 2 fianchetto’d bishops.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 Bb4+
The bogo-Indian defense is a variation of the Queen’s pawn opening where white opts to play nf3 instead of nc3. Black can choose the queen’s indian, or the Bogo-indian. Instead of b6, black opts to gain a tempo by developing their dark squared bishop with check to Bb4.
Play can often end up with white trading the dark squared bishop off and fianchettoing the kingside bishop. The remainder of the game is highly focused on queenside pawns and the game can follow smoothly to the mid and endgame for both players.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 c5
The Benoni Defense leads to a strange queen’s pawn advanced variation where black can then play the Benko gambit (b5) and attempt to gain control of the center with a tempo to develop the queen side bishop, leading to an attack on the kingside. Because e6 has not been played, black can open up the center should white take the b file pawn.
If white takes the pawn on c5, black has a strong center attack and development with e6 and will be able to gain control of the pawn or center rather easily.
The Benoni gives black a rather strong equalization effort and can lead to more victories for black. This opening can lead into similar King’s Indian variations after some queenside pawn play with the fianchetto of the king side bishop.
Non E4, D4 Openings
Standard Game Annotation: 1. c4
Among the most common openings after e4, d4, and nf3 is the English. The main goal is to create pressure on the d5 square and based on black’s first move as a response, which can fianchetto his kingside bishop with g3.
The English is a very versatile opening that allows the knight to be easily developed to c3 without the annoyance of keeping your pawn on c2, preventing attack on the center and preventing the Queen from moving easily. Surprise queen attacks are definitely possible if black does not castle or defend quick enough.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. Nf3
The Reti opening is a very widely played chess opening that starts with Nf3. It is a combination of the Hungarian opening and the English as it combines similar ideas such as c5 and g3 followed by Bg2.
The Reti also has transpositions into D4 or E4, depending upon what black plays. It gives more variety and unexpectedness to white’s opening and prevents traditional black openings like the Sicilian or the French. If you don’t like traditional black openings and you wish to almost surprise black, then consider the Reti opening as it is very versatile.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. f4
The Bird’s Opening is a strange opening that offers black the game immediately by pushing f4 on the first move. Surprisingly enough, this is an actual opening that has been used in competitive chess tournaments, though much less than other openings. The reason it can be seen as giving black the game is because should white decide to play 2. g4!?, an idea that beginner players might do, black can immediately checkmate with Qh4#, a very quick fools mate. I had this happen to me when I was 9 years old and learning chess.
Of course, if you stick to the opening principals, you would never push g4, but the Bird’s opening exists nonetheless. Some high caliber players have used it in high level play to confuse their opponents, but they know advanced mechanics to turn it into something great. It isn’t something they would play continuously.
Fianchettoing your bishop is a risky venture that can pay off by giving your bishop longer sight of the board. The two ways to fianchetto your bishops would be queenside and kingside. Depending on where you castle, your king may or may not be protected, or in some cases, weakened by a fianchettoed bishop. There are some games where both bishops are fianchettoed, giving a strong sight of the board for both bishops and more protection. The idea behind the Hungarian and Nimzowitsch-Larsen Attack are to expedite the action of fianchettoing your bishop.
Because your mission is to attack the center, both of these openings do so strongly and provide strength to castling in either direction. You will want to remember to keep your bishop safe and not to trade it away if it is protecting your king, even for a similar squared bishop. The reason is that you created weakened squares next to your pawn that was pushed on either g3 or b3 and removing the bishop removes a protector for those squares.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. g3
The Hungarian revolves around the immediate fianchetto of your kingside bishop (light squared bishop). The opening prevents the main ideas of pushing e4 and d4, but instead attacks the center in a less obvious, forward way.
Because the bishop is on the kingside, it is much less likely to be traded off, at least not immediately. Some players opt to castle queenside to allow the ability to trade their fianchetto’d bishop if needed.
You’ll want to understand that trading off the bishop, regardless of which side of the board your king ends up on, makes f3 and h3 very weak squares.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. B3
This version of a fianchetto opening allows for white to create an immediate attack on the black kingside, should he choose to castle this way. It is considered more offensive than the Hungarian counterpart with g3.
Like the Hungarian, black will usually opt to push d5 and e5 as white takes more of a defensive position, at least on paper. The power of the fianchetto’d bishop means that in the back of black’s mind, there is always another piece attacking to look out for. Generally, the knight, if developed to nc3 allows for a discover attack should the knight move, often on the black kingside rook on h8.
If playing against either of these variations as black, remember to defend the center and keep the bishop’s long line of sight in mind when defending.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. b4
This opening is a bit of an irregular one. It really doesn’t follow any main ideas of chess opening theory and instead opts to confuse your opponent. You will occasionally see a super strong grand master such as Magnus Carlsen play this opening to prove their vast knowledge of the game and confuse their opponent. Since Magnus fully understands the game of chess, he can prove that he can play any opening and be able to defeat his opponent.
B4 helps accomplish more than simply confusing your opponent. It allows your bishop to be semi fianchetto’d while also creates pressure on black’s Queenside knight. As the center position opens into opening tactics, white will have b5 in the back of their arsenal of tricks to push the knight from its position. B4 also attacks the c5 square immediately.
Additionally, white creates an additional attacker on the b5 square should black play a6. After e3 or e4, and nc3, white will have multiple pieces able to move to b5, creating even more pressure on white’s queen side.
The b4 pawn also does not always need to be defended. Like many other gambits, white can opt to focus on development and let black recapture with Bxb4 while white confinues an attack.
Since some players will play f6 to defend e5 being taken by whites dark squared bishop, this opening creates a weakened kingside for black almost right away just with the threat of capturing the center. If white played d4 instead, the threat is not as prevalent and most players won’t count d4 with f6. The fianchetto’d bishop creates a different illusion of an always attacking bishop.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. g4
The grob is even weirder as you directly open up your king side for an eventual attack on the center (g5 to kick the knight away) and Bg2 to attack the center. Since you can always castle queen side, albeit in more moves, this isn’t necessarily giving up the game on the first move. Again, you’ll want to play this opening a few times and understand chess basics to pull this one off in high level play. You’ll certainly get some weird looks and props for trying it.
Aggressive Opening Gambits
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. b4
I play Evan’s Gambit every chance I get.
The reason is I like the idea of a Gambit, which is to give up a piece (generally a pawn) for a position.
In Evan’s Gambit scenarios, you are offering your b4 pawn to be able to push c3 (Guico Piano) with a tempo on the bishop.
Because black won’t want to lose his bishop, he will move it for a 3rd time in the opening (an opening no-no).
If he moves it back to c5, then he will be forced to move it a 4th time before move 10 after d4.
The main ideas behind Evan’s gambit are to immediately castle (to keep your king safe so you can focus on the attack) after you push d4, oftentimes giving up a third pawn on c3, but maximizing your position.
Black has 2 minor pieces on the back ranks in most scenarios while you have full vision on f7, the weakest square in the game for black.
For a full in depth guide to how to play all variations of Evan’s Gambit, check out this definitive guide.
I also created specific lines for the main variations
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 e5 2. f4
The King’s Gambit is a very risky opening, especially for newer players who don’t understand the ins and outs of it.
I have never played it myself in a tournament because I haven’t studied it in depth enough to trust it.
The idea revolves around e4, e5, followed by f4.
This immediately gives up a pawn if black accepts the king’s gambit, but it also allows white to capitalize on the f7 pawn, similarly to the Italian game, except in this case white can more easily get his rook on the F file and attack f7 by castling thanks to the semi open file.
Some things to note are black can threaten Qh4+ if white does not play carefully by forgetting to develop the nf3 required move by the knight, or if their knight is moved away to attempt an additional attack on f7.
For this reason it becomes a race to castle for white to protect their king and put a strong attack on f7 with ideas such as Bc4, Ng5 and d4 (to take out the black knight if it decides to move to h6 to protect f7).
Queen’s Gambit Accepted
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4
The Queen’s Gambit offers the C pawn right away on move 2. While black can hold onto the pawn with b5, it is generally not advised as it creates an awkward struggle to hold onto the pawn advantage at the cost of position, which is the main idea of playing a gambit in the first place.
The Queen’s Gambit is usually the main idea of playing d4 in hopes of d5. The idea the queen’s gambit is to play c5 in hopes black will play dxc4. This allows white to play e4 and have the ideal pawn structure with black able to use one less piece to overtake it. E4 is also a move with two ideas behind it as it opens the bishop’s attack on c4.
The bishop threat to retake on c4 can cause some opening players to panic and rush to defend the pawn by playing b5. This ends up putting black’s development behind and shifts their focus to the queenside of the board. White can continue with ideas like a4 or nc3 to develop the knight and bring more pressure on black’s pawns. In any case, the position is more important than the pawn and can cause black to overcompensate. In many cases, if you decide to play the Queen’s gambit accepted, it is generally best to develop instead of retaking the pawn. After all, the pawn wasn’t a gift, it was for position and if you don’t let white have that position advantage, then the pieces can stay the same for your best gameplay.
It is for these reason that the gambit is the most played gambit; white is able to reclaim the pawn rather quickly if black is not careful, thus claiming the position and equal pieces. This is great because most gambits you would need to traditionally be down a piece for said position.
However, black does not have to take the pawn and can instead play something like Nc6 of b6 and then Bb7 to reinforce an attack on the center.
Queen’s Gambit Declined
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6
There is equal play for both white and black in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, but black does not have to take on c4 and can instead opt for the Queen’s Gambit Declined. This denies any main ideas of the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, but can transpose into it should black decide to later take the c4 pawn.
Instead of taking the c4 pawn, black can transpose into other variations like the Slav with C6, or instead opt for e6. This helps defend the d5 square while also allowing the kingside dark squared bishop to develop when ready.
Black will have dxc4 in their back pocket if it ends up giving them a piece or positional advantage.
Black also has the option for the Austrian Defense in which black copies white’s development with c5 in an attempt to create a black version of the Queen’s Gambit Accepted if white decides to take. However, most variations can end up in perfect symmetry (like below) or end up opening the center with black playing for a draw over counter play.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 b5
This variation of the Benoni defense allows black to give up pawns on the queenside in exchange for an open and central controlling minor pieces with an attack on the kingside.
Because of the strong advantage black will have on the center, it is similar to the Evan’s Gambit where you may end up giving up 2 pawns to create a great attack and position.
Standard Game Annotation: 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3
I used to have a golden rule of not playing the Smith-Morra Gambit against anyone above a 1700 rating because they always knew the line in and out and knew how to maintain their pawn advantage.
I recently learned that a specific chess master I have met and played against, Leroy Dubeck, prefers the Smith-Morra. If a chess master prefers it, there must be more to it than I first imagined.
The Smith-Morra was my first gambit I even played and I used it in tournaments because I was taught the basics of the attack and I was able to maximize my time against opponents quickly, often not using more than a second of my time before move 8, which allowed me more time to think about variations that came up later.
There are a lot tricks to this opening that black has to be careful of.
This can sometimes include sacrifices on the f7 square with your light squared bishop.
Here’s an example of a great scenario for white because of how far ahead in development they are, with a rook on the same file as the queen. White is ready to push e5 and create disruption on black’s center.
Blackmar-Diemer Gambit: Ryder Gambit
Standard Game Annotation: 1. d4 d5 2. e4 dxe4 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. f3
This is a gambit revolving around d4 openings.
Most players start with the queens gambit of c4, while the Ryder Gambit takes the opposite side with 2. E4.
It creates an immediate attack on the center and gives up a pawn for strong development. This game also creates a quick queenside castle with a quick attack on white’s king before he has the chance to castle.
This is a great example of this opening that includes a queen sacrifice!
While a lot was covered in this article, it is of course impossible to give an assessment of the best possible opening, or which you should study first. In all honesty, it comes down to what style you are most comfortable with.
I highly recommend playing one opening for black in every game possible, and one opening for white in every game possible. For me, starting off I played the Italian Game as white and the French Defense as black until I memorized most variations. This allowed me to better understand the midgame tactics after the opening, and ultimately I became better at the end game because I had more time to study it.
A common mistake for new players is to memorize openings and I don’t want anyone to fall into that trap. Since time is precious, focus on what you are good at now, and expand on it once you have the basic mechanics down.
Best of luck! If you have anything to add, please let me know and I will add more content to this article over time. However, if you’re looking for more advanced lines of play for a specific opening, I will be adding to these openings over time and can prioritize them based on what you’re looking for.