English Opening

The English Opening is a flank opening that starts with the move 1.c4 and exhibits characteristics of a hypermodern opening as white often tries to control the light squares of the center from the wing. The English chess master, Howard Staunton from the 19th century was one of the early proponents of this first moves, which subsequently became known as the “English” Opening.

English Opening

Former World Champions such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, and Magnus Carlsen have all utilized the English Opening in their world championship matches.

Winning percentages on both sides

Results Rate
Win for white 34%
Draw 43%
Win for black 23%

Main Ideas

In terms of its positional nature, the English Opening has much more in common with 1.d4 than 1.e4. However, one advantage of the English Opening, which makes it an attractive choice for many players, is that it allows White to avoid specific responses to 1.d4, such as the Nimzo-Indian or Grünfeld Defense. On the other hand, the English does not challenge the center as much as 1.d4 or 1.e4 does, which allows black to have a wide range of setups. As a result, so many patterns or structures may arise, which might make the opening seem a bit confusing at first.

There are two main ways to play the English Opening: The first approach is to develop the knights with Nc3 and Nf3, which is also called “Two Knights Variation”. Another standard idea that applies to a wide range of setups possible in the English Opening is to fianchetto the light-squared bishop on the kingside to exert pressure (as in King’s Fianchetto Opening) on the long-diagonal (a8-h1) and the central d5 square in particular, and place the knights on c3 and e2 with Nc3-Nge2. Oftentimes it leads to closed positions with a solid pawn structure in the center with c4-d3-e4, so white will typically seek an expansion on the wings and a pawn breakthrough with Rb1-a3-b4-b5 or with Ne1-f4. To neutralize the power of white’s light-square bishop, black may try to close the long-diagonal with pawns, e.g. …c6, or fianchetto the bishop on the queenside.

English Opening Theory

In the English Opening black has various viable options as a response, which often leads to different kinds of pawn structures, such as Hedgehog, hanging pawns, Maroczy Bind or even an isolated queenside pawn (IQP). But in all those possible setups black can choose from, the focus of the game often revolves around the control of the central squares. The most standard replies by black for that purpose are as follows: 1.c4 c5, Symmetrical English, where black basically tries to copy white’s setup, and 1.c4 e5, known as Reversed Sicilian, where white plays the Sicilian Defense-like structure with a tempo up.

Alternatively, White can decide for the Botvinnik System, which is characterized by the pawn chain in the center with c4-d3-e4 and a fianchettoed light-square bishop on the kingside with g3-Bg2. While the Botvinnik System setup might arise from variations such as Symmetrical English and Reversed Sicilian, it can be played against black’s King’s Indian type of setup. One possible line leading to such a structure is 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 0-0 5.d3 d6 6.e4 (Botvinnik System). It is important to note that move orders in the English play a big role in deciding the type of positions, which means minor changes in certain sequences can transpose to a position with a completely distinct character.

Symmetrical English: 1.c4 c5

Symmetrical English Opening

It is fair to say that the Symmetrical English, 1.c4 c5 is one of the least fun responses for white, as black can keep copying white’s development ideas. This can then lead to symmetrical and dry positions where it will be hard to find a way to gain a structural advantage. In the vast majority of the lines in the Symmetrical English, it is typical for both sides to have a fianchetto on the kingside, so for example: 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 (Four Knights Variation) 4.g3 g6 5.Bg2 Bg7 6.0-0 0-0. At this moment, white gets a chance to create an imbalance in the position and play 7.d4, which breaks the symmetry as 7…d5 favors white due to 8.dxc5 dxc4 9.Qa4.

So after 7.d4, black can either play 7…d6, which allows white grab more space in the center with 8.d5 Na5, attacking the c4 pawn, 9.Nd2 and black will try to undermine white’s strong pawn chain in the center with 9..e6.

But the more common response against 7.d4 is to capture the pawn 7…cxd4 8.Nxd4 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 d6

White will typically move the queen away from the diagonal of black’s dark-squared bishop, usually to d3, because Qd2 blocks the bishop, while d1 square is ideally reserved for Rd1. The game might continue: 10.Qd3 a6 11.Bd2 Rb8 12.Rac1 Bf5 13.e4. White will bring the other rook to d1 and play e4 to strengthen his grip on the central squares. On the other hand, black does not have any major weaknesses to target and will seek a counterplay on the queenside with b5 ideas.

The Hedgehog Pawn Structure

The Hedgehog Pawn Structure

After 2.Nf3 Nf6, white can accelerate the development of f1-Bishop with 3.g3, from where the fianchetto bishop will exert long-term pressure on the queenside. Instead of continuing to copy white’s setup, black may try to actively neutralize white’s powerful light-squared with queenside fianchetto: 3…b6 4.Bg2 Bb7. This strategy often leads to the so-called Hedgehog pawn structure. For example: 5.0-0 e6 6.Nc3 Be7 7.d4 cxd4 8.Qxd4 d6 Rd1 a6.

The Hedgehog pawn structure is regarded as a solid and flexible defensive formation for black, with a slightly cramped position as there is little room for pieces to maneuver. Black’s pawns on the 6th rank form a strong barrier and control the 5th rank, while white enjoys a space advantage in the center. Both sides will maneuver their pieces to optimal positions before attempting a pawn break, e.g. …b5 or …d5.

Isolated Queen’s Pawn

As an alternative to adopting the fianchetto strategy, white may try to build a strong center quickly with: 2…Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 g6 4.e3 Nf6 5.d4 cxd4 6.exd4 d5

English Opening - Isolated Queen’s Pawn

The position is reminiscent of the positions in Grünfeld Defense with minor differences. After the exchange on d5, 7.cxd5 Nxd5, white will have the so-called isolated queen’s pawn on d4. While the pawn on d4 might turn out to be a liability in the long term, in the middlegame it provides white space for mobility of the pieces and dynamic play.

Reversed Sicilian: 1.c4 e5

English Opening - Reversed Sicilian

In the Reversed Sicilian, the resulting positions often resemble variations of Sicilian Defense, such as Rossolimo or Accelerated Dragon, so some of the strategic ideas from those openings might apply. One such position would be reached after: 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 Nc6, controlling the d4-square, 4.Nc3 Bb4 and the position is very much like a Reversed Rossolimo.

White is controlling the d5-square with three forces, so 5.Nd5 is logical and attacks black’s bishop at the same time. 5…Bc5 6.e3, closing the bishop’s diagonal, and preparing d4, 6…0-0 7.Ne2 with the idea to play d4 next.

5.e3 is also a viable option for white with a similar setup. 5…0-0 6.Nge2 d6 7.0-0 Bf5. White’s main idea is to complement the light-squared bishop and expand on the queenside with a3-b4 and Nd5. Meanwhile, black has the idea of trading off white’s powerful fianchetto bishop with the thematic Qd7-Bh3. A useful maneuver for white to know is to play Re1 in order to reply ….Bh3 with Bh1, avoiding the trade.

Just as in Symmetrical English, the mainline of Reversed Sicilian has its own version of the Four Knights Variation: 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6

White can now either continue with 4.e3 with the idea to play d4 or fianchetto the bishop as usual, which is also the most commonly played move: 4.g3 d5 (4…Bb4 would lead to similar positions as the Reversed Rossolimo) 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Bg2 Nb6 7.0-0 Be7 8.a3, white is preparing b4 and wants to expand on the queenside. 8…0-0 9.b4 Be6 10.d3 a5, undermining white’s pawn chain to force them to advance and weakening certain squares at white’s camp. Now 11.b5 might look like winning a pawn after 11…Nd4 12.Nxe5 but black gets a great compensation after 12…Bf6. So playing 12.Be3 instead is a better approach for white. The position has some imbalances, where white is putting pressure on the b7 pawn while black has more control in the center.

Instead of striking at the center with 3…d5, black may also fianchetto the bishop for a more solid position: 3. g3 g6 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. Bg2 O-O 6. O-O d6 7. Rb1 a5 8. a3 h6, preventing Ng5 in order to play Be6 comfortably, 9. b4 axb4 10. axb4 Be6 11. d3 Nc6 12. b5 Ne7 and we reach a very standard English Opening position.

White is exerting pressure on the b7 pawn and might try to take control of the a-file. A knight maneuver from f3 to d5 via e1-c2-b4 or e1-c2-e3 is also a common idea for white in such positions.

Botvinnik System: 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 g6

English Opening Botvinnik System

Another viable setup for white is the Botvinnik System, which might be achieved via different move orders. One example line would be: 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 0-0 5.d3 d6 6.e4

This is the standard setup of the Botvinnik System. After 6…c5 (this position could also arise from Symmetrical English) 7.Nge2 Nc6 8.0-0, both sides will look for a way to expand either wing. 8…a6 9.h3 Rb8, white has different options such as 10.a4 to stop …a5 or 10…Rb1 with the idea of a3-b4, as well as 10.f4 to expand on the kingside.

However, against 1.c4 Nf6, white can keep their options more flexible by playing 2.Nc3. If black plays 2…g6, now white claims the center with 3.e4 d6 4.d4, which allows white a straightforward attacking chance after 4…Bg7 5.Be2 0-0 6.Be3 followed by g4-h4-h5 and Qd2-Bh6. So black should avoid insisting on the King’s Indian Setup against the English and fight for the center.

Common Traps

Trap №1

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 g6 4.d4 exd4 5.Nd5 Bg7 6.Bg5 Nge7? (6…f6 7.Bf4, threatening Bxc7, 7…d6 8.Nxd4 and white is better) 7.Nxd4, now capturing d4 either way is problematic for black, 7…Bxd4?? (7…Nxd4 8.Bxe7 traps black’s queen) 8.Qxd4!! Nxd4 9.Nf6+ Kf8 10.Bh6#

Trap №2

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 Bb4 5.Nd5 Nxd5 6.cxd5 Nd4 7.Nxe5? Qe7, now the knight cannot retreat back because 8.Nd3?? (8.f4 f6 and black is much better) Nf3#

Pros and Cons of playing the English Opening



Via move orders, white can avoid formidable openings like Nimzo-Indian or Gruenfeld Defense.

Black can usually copy white without getting into too much trouble.

Solid and very flexible.

Slower development due to closed positions.

Clear plans like queenside pressure and control of the light squares in the center

Black can dictate the structure of the game and claim control of the dark squares of the center, e.g. with ..c5 or …e5


In conclusion, the English opening is flexible yet fairly complex. Due to its flexible nature, players of English need to have a broader knowledge of it, as they must be prepared for various lines and setups. This might make the opening less suitable for beginners. At the same time, such a challenge may turn out to be beneficial for developing a broader sense of chess and positional skills.

Written by
Deniz Tasdelen, National Master
National Master with over 20 years of experience. He has participated in many prestigious tournaments, including the European and World Youth Chess Championships.
Ask Question


What is the concept of the English Opening?

The English Opening in chess is characterized by the move 1.c4, aiming for control of the center (d5 square) indirectly, promoting a flexible pawn structure, and facilitating piece development. It often leads to diverse and strategic games.

Is the English Opening strong?

Yes, the English Opening is considered strong and reputable. It offers white a solid, flexible position, often transitioning into various types of middle games and structures. It’s a popular choice at all levels, including professional play.

Who uses the English Opening?

The English Opening is used by players of all levels, including world champions and grandmasters. It’s favored by those who prefer strategic, less-theoretical battles over memorized lines, and is a common choice in high-level tournaments.

Can beginners play the English Opening?

Yes, beginners can play the English Opening. It’s a good choice for learning strategic principles and pawn structures, though it might be less straightforward than openings like the Italian Game or the Spanish Opening. It encourages understanding over memorization.

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