A chess opening is the first couple of moves both players make at the start of a chess game. White always starts with the first chess move, and Black follows. This phase usually takes around 7–13 moves. There is no distinct line between it and the middlegame (the game’s second phase). The middlegame often starts after both sides have followed some chess opening principles and created what they sought.
Opening moves and principles are essential at the learning stage. It establishes the foundation for a player’s learning curve. Several basic principles help players develop a solid understanding of how not to play and think before committing to a plan later on.
Learning a particular opening helps to understand subsequent moves and determine the overall course of the game. Once the players improve their understanding, they seek longer and more challenging routes to go for. These routes are called ‘variations’ of the different types of chess openings we will discuss. Many of the expert players have analyzed and improved them throughout the years, until today.
You can choose chess opening to learn:
- Types of Chess Openings
- 1. Open Games
- 2. Closed Games
- 3. Semi-Open Games
- 4. Semi-Closed Games
- 5. Gambit Openings
- 6. Flank Openings
- 7. Symmetrical Openings
- 8. Classical Openings
- 9. Positional Games
- 10. Tactical Games
- Chess Opening Principles
- 1. Developing the Pieces
- 2. Taking Over the Center
- 3. Castling is the First Thing to do
- 4. Avoid Using Valuable Pieces Several Times
- Chess Opening Theory
- King’s Pawn Opening
- Queen’s Pawn Opening
- Flank Openings
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
- What Chess Openings Should I Play in Chess?
- How to Learn Chess Openings?
- What is the First Opening to Learn Chess?
- What is Magnus Carlsen’s favorite chess opening?
Types of Chess Openings
Every chess opening can transition to every sort of game. The nature of the opening moves helps us determine the probable outcome once we reach a certain number of moves.
In this section, we divide the openings into several categories. The most helpful ones to start with will be Open Games and Closed Games because they are the most played ones.
1. Open Games
Open Games often occur after sides play the 1.e4 e5. The nature of the moves come from the idea that both e-pawns are not protected. And if both sides follow the casual routes, they will likely exchange a couple of pawns. The ‘Open’ refers to these swapped pawns. This brings more tactical scenes rather than strategic ones. This type of opening is the complete opposite of Closed Openings. 1.e4 players are hence, considered quite familiar with the tactical nuances of this game.
As shown above, the classic e4-e5 setups lead other pawns to swap. This allows both players to improve their pieces rapidly. Both c1- and f1-Bishops are available to go out and scope a good diagonal. Once they improve, Knights can jump to squares like g5 and create problems nearby the enemy King.
2. Closed Games
On the other hand, Closed Games mean that both sides lock the d-pawns. These games are often reached after 1.d4 d5 because both d-pawns are guarded by their Queens. These types of pawn structures often lead to more strategic games. Both parties aim to maneuver their minor pieces to optimal places.
As shown above, the d4-d5 setups lead to closed scenes since the classic e5 break is impossible immediately. These fixed pawn structures can lead to very long and positional games. White can play e4 and try to open up the position at some point. Black can do the same thing by improving pieces for either c5 or e5. It is important to note how the pawn structure shapes the course of the game for both sides.
3. Semi-Open Games
There are also openings that only occur with one pair of pawn swaps. This pawn exchange often occurs in the center of the board. We call these first moves Semi-Open Games because they’re neither open nor closed. 1.e4 c5 often reaches these sorts of games, where both sides have a semi-open file for them. These games often turn out to be double-edged in both tactics and strategy.
As in the upper diagram, both sides have two semi-open files. The c-file is open for Black to put their pieces (such as Rc8 and Qc7) to oppress the c2-pawn. Whereas the d-file is open for White to put one of the Rooks to d1 and prevent the e-pawn from going forward. If the e7-pawn ever moves, the d6-pawn will be backward and targeted by the White pieces.
4. Semi-Closed Games
There are also Semi-Closed openings where one side doesn’t bother to control the center. It often occurs once White plays 1.d4 and the opponent don’t reply with 1…d5. This leaves the White side with a solid pawns in the middle. These games tend to be more positional because the side without a pawn in the center has to strike the rival’s pawn structure to claim something.
As seen above, Black didn’t respond by 1…d5. This gives the center to White, but the game’s nature is not yet determined. Black will probably fianchetto the f8-Bishop to g7, play Nf6 and short castle. Then, they will decide whether to strike White’s central pawn majority with e5 or c5. Meanwhile, White will try to consolidate their pawn structure and enjoy their extra space. This vast space they have will provide them with easier development opportunities.
5. Gambit Openings
Gambit is another type where one side voluntarily sacrifices one or a couple of pawns to gain fast development and activity. If they can pressure the enemy, the game can end in the opening stage. If not, the rival can consolidate and win the game with the extra material they have.
This specific Opening is called the Smith-Morra Gambit. White already gave up two pawns, but all minor pieces can be located in their ideal squares. White often places the f1-Bishop to c4 to look out the ‘a2-g8’ diagonal. The other Bishop can also land on f4. The c3-pawn can be taken by an improving move (Nxc3). If White can claim an edge in the next ten moves, they might be marginally better. If not, Black will exchange pieces and win with the extra pawn in the ending.
6. Flank Openings
There are also Flank Openings where one side begins with something other than the traditional e- or d-pawn. Instead, they often start with c- or f-pawns. The main idea is to take the opponent’s central pawn with a flank pawn and then establish their central pawn. Games starting with f-pawns can often lead to very tactical games because the King resides on that side of the board. On the contrary, games that begin with c-pawns can lead to more strategic games.
In the diagram above, White started with 1.f4. This already created an imbalance in the pawn structure. Since the f-pawn is crucial for the White King (the e1-h4 diagonal can be subject to many tactical themes), this creates a double-edged game for both sides. Objectively, this opening is considered bad for White at the high level.
7. Symmetrical Openings
Once Black replicates White’s first moves, we reach the Symmetrical Openings. These games are often very balanced, but since White is up one tempo, only they can claim an advantage if there is any.
These games are considered super solid for both sides. Black has to break the symmetry at some point, or they can drastically lose. White will never be worse, but it’s hard to claim anything. Positionally superior players can play like this and outsmart their rivals.
8. Classical Openings
Another type we might confront, Classical Openings, refers to games where both sides follow the principles. Both parties develop the pieces quickly, trying to control the center and protect their King. These openings can be played commonly at the lowest and highest levels.
The Italian (as shown above, Guioco Piano Variation) is one of the most played openings among new players. The beginners don’t necessarily know the all-heavy theory but reach this position after following the opening principles. These variations might give a difficult time creating plans.
9. Positional Games
Positional games are often closed openings where both sides slowly maneuver their pieces and create plans in harmony with their pawns. High-level players are almost always preferred against lower-rated players in these games because their experience and knowledge of strategic expertise will never give the rival a chance to strike back.
The above diagram shows a typical Slav Defense. Black has a solid pawn structure, but the c8-Bishop behind the pawn chain pays the price. White can expand on the Queenside by going a3-b4 pawn pushes. Black usually develops the pieces (Be7, Nd7) and castles on the short side. Then, they deal with the c8-Bishop. They can either free it after exchanging a couple of pawns or choose b6 and Bb7.
10. Tactical Games
Tactical Games, however, are often open positions. Both sides seek to exploit the vulnerability in their opponent’s position. Every move is crucial and decisive. Someone with outstanding tactical practice can beat a much higher-rated rival in these sorts of games, unlike positional games. These games often last shorter than positional games because someone eventually blunders.
These games offer a delightful finish for whoever is assaulting. The attacking side should refrain from trading, especially heavy pieces like the Queen. Once the Queens are off the board, the tactical games lose their violent nature. It is crucial to involve as many pieces as possible in the action. One slip in these positions can turn the game upside down. Playing these kinds of games also increases pattern recognition and calculation abilities.
Chess Opening Principles
There are several opening principles players need to follow. Many experts developed these key points through the trial and error method over the decades. Since we humans need some guide to help us with what to do, these recommendations help us avoid any traps that might be there.
1. Developing the Pieces
As the name tells us, developing pieces is our priority. We want to improve as many pieces as possible in a short period of time. We can think of this as gathering our army and positioning them before a great battle.
The Knights can be developed before the Bishops because they are harder to hunt. Squares like c3-f3 for White (and c6-f6 for Black) are optimally developing squares for the Knights. Putting the Knights into corner or edge squares like h3-a3 is considered a terrible idea because it controls very minimal squares. We need our Knights to cover all eight possible squares they can control. Hence, central squares are great for them. Once the World Champion Kasparov said Knight on f5 is as valuable as a Rook.
Bishops can then be improved to help us put our King into safety. Squares like c4 and f4 (and symmetrically c5 and f5) are good places for them to scope long diagonals. It is important not to trap them behind our pawn structure.
Most importantly, we must improve these pieces to be able to castle (Knight and Bishop).
Then, we can connect our Rooks by moving our Queen to a square that cannot be targeted easily. The Queen should be behind pawns and constantly watch the board.
The Rooks should be connected (meaning there is no other piece in between) for the best practical use. Then, we can play them into open or semi-open files to target the enemy.
2. Taking Over the Center
The center is essential because most pieces are stronger when we rein there. The squares e4-e5-d4-d5 are the game’s center. Developing the pieces to their ideal locations often automatically controls the center.
Pawns also play a vital role in this principle. If we can stop our opponent from pushing forward, we dominate all the squares the rival doesn’t reach.
Imagine we have a pawn on e5; our opponent cannot develop their g8-Knight to f6 (it’s the most natural square). By controlling the center, we stop our opponent from developing.
3. Castling is the First Thing to do
Putting the King in safety is the priority. Players at the low level tend to delay the castling, and this causes them to lose the game in a short period of time. The King can quickly get into trouble once it loses its castling rights. To avoid this, improving two pieces on the short side (f-Bishop and g-Knight) will get the King ready for a safe spot.
4. Avoid Using Valuable Pieces Several Times
Playing with the same piece too many times gains almost nothing for that side. Meanwhile, the rival will improve each piece once, and they will all be ready to march up to the next step. Also, playing with the same piece often ends up with exchanging it for an equal minor piece of the enemy. This wastes all the time of that piece’s journey and gives the upper hand to the rival.
Once everything is improved (when the opening stage ends), the pieces can be played several times to locate a better square.
Chess Opening Theory
There are two umbrella terms for the most common chess openings:
1) King’s Pawn Opening contains all the 1.e4 openings. These lines often transition to open positions.
2) Queen’s Pawn Opening includes all the 1.d4 openings. These lines often transition to closed positions.
3) The Flank Openings include all other openings played with a-b-c or f-g-h pawns. These lines can lead to various games.
King’s Pawn Opening
King’s Pawn Opening starts with 1.e4, and the Black side decides the flow of the course. If the enemy chooses to go for the 1…e5 lines, White has several options:
1) White can play 2.f4, also called the ‘King’s Gambit’, and play an aggressive game. This often weakens the ‘e1-h4’ diagonal for White. White aims for an early Kingside attack by improving the Bishop to c4 and opening up the f-file.
2) White can also choose to proceed normally and go for 2.Nf3. This is the most common choice at all levels.
Then, if the enemy chooses to go 2…Nc6 (improving the Knight to c6), 3.Bb5 (assaulting the improved Knight and increasing the pressure on the e5-pawn) enters the ‘Ruy Lopez’. This opening is quite principled and typically gives both sides strategic fighting chances.
3) After 2…Nc6 occurs, White can choose to improve the f1-Bishop to c4 and follow the chess principles. This enters the game as the ‘Italian Game’ where both sides improve their pieces and castle. The Italian game is easy to reach but requires highly positional understanding in the middlegame.
4) If the enemy chooses not to follow the symmetrical 1…e5 and selects one of the following:
4.1) 1…c5 transitions to the ‘Sicilian Defense’, where the game is completely imbalanced. This opening would be double-edged and highly tactical for both sides. White typically aims to strike on the d-file after several exchanges occur. Meanwhile, Black puts the Rook and Queen to the c-file to assault the enemy.
4.2) 1…e6 leads to the ‘French Defense’ where Black voluntarily allows the opponent to push the d4-e5 pawns so that they can assault these advanced pawns with c5. These games are double-edged, and both sides play on the other side of the board. White typically goes for the Kingside expansions, and the enemy seeks to advance on the Queenside.
4.3) 1…c6 leads to the ‘Caro-Kann Defense’, where Black aims to support the d5-push with the c-pawn. This opening is very solid for Black but gives many options for White to proceed.
Queen’s Pawn Opening
Queen’s Pawn Opening starts with 1.d4, and Black has several options.
If Black chooses to play 1…d5, White can go to ‘Queen’s Gambit‘ territory by pushing the c-pawn to c4. This opening is quite popular, and White wants Black to take the c4-pawn so that they can control the center. Then, the enemy’s weak c4-pawn can be captured in many ways. Black can decline the gambit by playing 2…c6 or 2…e6.
If White plays this d4-c4 pawn push regardless of the opponent’s opening moves and plays g3, Nf3 with the idea of Fianchetto the f1-Bishop to g2, it is called the ‘Catalan System’. White typically aims to control the long ‘a8-h1’ diagonal in this system.
If after 1…d5, both sides develop their Knights to f3 and f6, and White improves the Bishop to d3, it is called the ‘London System’. White typically aims to castle long by playing Nc3 and e3 and putting the f1-Bishop to d3 with ideas of a pawn storm in the long side.
If the opponent responds with 1…f5, it leads to ‘Dutch Defense‘. Like the f4, this weakens the ‘a2-g8’ diagonal and the ‘h5-e8’ diagonal for Black. In return, they aim for rapid development and attack.
If 1…c5 is chosen, the game enters the ‘Benoni Defense‘ after a 2.d5 pawn push. It is objectively not great for Black due to the lack of space. However, they can rule the game if Black can have the proper pawn breaks (such as b5 or f5). Also, the pawn structure often favors Black in the endgames.
The ‘English Opening’ starts with 1.c4, often leading to very positional lines
The ‘Bird’s Opening’ starts with 1.f4. It is considered a very aggressive approach. It is rarely chosen at a high level because it creates long-term weaknesses.
The ‘Reti Opening’ starts with 1.Nf3, and after Black pushes the d-pawn to d5 (1…d5), White assaults the center with the c-pawn (2.c4 – Reti Gambit). It is considered a solid and strategic opening.
The ‘King’s Indian Attack’ is a system where White plays Nf3, d3, g3, Bg2, and e4 in different lines. White typically gives up the center to Black to strike back.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What Chess Openings Should I Play in Chess?
It depends on your level and play style. It is important to play sharp openings like King’s Indian Defense and Sicilian Defense to increase tactical and calculational abilities. It is also important to play some solid openings like Ruy Lopez to see how the endgame works.
How to Learn Chess Openings?
It depends on your learning curve. If you like watching videos, you can start watching some educational content. If you learn better interactively, various websites teach and give you quizzes. You can also read from many resources and try to understand yourself.
What is the First Opening to Learn Chess?
Italian, or Ruy Lopez, is good because you can reach most variations by following the principles. As Black, you can learn the King’s Indian Defense after you have enough practice with Ruy Lopez & Italian.
What is Magnus Carlsen’s favorite chess opening?
Players like Magnus Carlsen probably don’t have any favorite openings because this would make them vulnerable. His opening repertoire is capable of playing almost everything with high accuracy. If we had to give a guess, Ruy Lopez and Catalan could be good ones.