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Chess opening

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The first moves of a chess game are termed the "opening" or "opening moves". A good opening will provide such advantages as better protection of the King, control over the board, rapid development, greater mobility for pieces, and possibly opportunities to capture opposing pawns and pieces. In all openings there is a struggle for key territory, in particular the center squares, and an effort to deploy pieces and pawns in useful positions. Some approaches are direct, while others are more subtle and indirect means toward these goals. The possible opening moves of chess have been extensively studied for hundreds of years, and many of these sequences have been given names to simplify discussion of chess games and strategy.

In tournament play, the moves of the opening are usually made relatively quickly. A new move in the opening, one that has not been played before, is called a novelty. Novelties in grandmaster games receive much analysis and contribute to opening theory.

This section briefly lists a few of the more well-known chess openings, emphasizing common approaches to starting chess (currently or historically) and their purpose. Algebraic chess notation is used throughout.

Since White always begins first, openings can be grouped according to White's first move. For the purposes of this section, openings will be grouped into the following categories:

  1. White starts by playing "e4" (moving his King's pawn 2 spaces). This move has many strengths - it immediately works on controlling the center, and it frees two pieces (the Queen and a Bishop). This is a popular first move, leaving Black with two options:
    1. Black may choose to mirror White's move and reply with "e5" for the same reasons, leading to openings such as the Ruy Lopez, Giuoco Piano (including the Evans Gambit variant), and King's Gambit.
    2. Black can also try something other than mirroring White's "e4" move, leading to openings such as the Sicilian Defense, French Defense, Caro-Kann, Center Counter, and Pirc/Modern.
  2. White can start by moving the Queen's pawn to "d4". This leads to openings such as the Queen's Gambit, King's Indian Defense, Nimzo-Indian, Bogo-Indian, and Queen's Indian Defense, and Dutch Defense.
  3. White can start with some other move than "e4" or "d4", such as "c4", the English Opening, or "Nf3", the Réti opening.

Some of these openings are briefly described below. For a more comprehensive description of openings see the list of chess openings.

Table of contents

White Opens with "e4"

Ruy Lopez

(ECO codes C6 to C9)

The Ruy Lopez (also called the "Spanish" opening) starts out as

 1. e4 e5  2. Nf3 Nc6  3. Bb5

The Ruy Lopez is an old opening; it is named after Ruy Lopez, a 16th-century Spanish clergyman and chess enthusiast. He made a systematic study of this and other chess openings, which he recorded in a 150 page book. However, although it is named after him, this particular opening was known earlier; it is included in the Göttingen manuscript, which dates from 1490. Popular use of the Ruy Lopez opening did not develop, however, until the mid 1800s when Jaenisch, a Russian theoretician, "rediscovered" its potential. The opening is still in active use as the double king's pawn opening most commonly used in master play; it is a favorite of Gary Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. In it, White creates a potential pin of the d-pawn or Knight and starts an attack immediately, while simultaneously preparing to castle.

White generally directs pressure on Black's e-pawn and tries to prepare for a pawn on d4. It's believed by many that Black's best reply on move 3 is a6, which attacks White's attacking bishop. After that, White can back up (Ba4) or exchange pieces (Bxc6).

Giuoco Piano

(ECO Codes C51 to C54)

This "Quiet Game" has White performing a mild attack with his Bishop, but Black is often able to even up the game with his defenses. It starts as:

 1. e4 e5  2. Nf3 Nc6  3. Bc4 Bc5

If White then replies "4. d3", you have the "Guioco Pianissimo" ("The Quietest Game") - a very passive game.

If White replies with "4. b4?!", you have the "Evans Gambit", in which White offers a pawn in exchange for a powerful center and possibly opening his Queen Bishop.

Latvian Gambit

An aggressive gambit by Black develops after

 1. e4 e5  2. Nf3 f5

See Latvian Gambit for the details.

King's Gambit

(ECO Code C3)

This opening was the most popular opening in the 1800s. White offers a pawn in exchange for rapid development. It's rarely seen now at the master level; according to Keene it's been found that Black can obtain a reasonable position (with White not obtaining sufficient compensation for the sacrificed pawn).

 1. e4 e5  2. f4

A natural following move is "2. ... exf4" accepting the gambit.

Sicilian Defense

The Sicilian starts as:

 1. e4 c5

The Sicilian is popular at the master level. Black immediately fights for the center, but by attacking from the c-file (instead of mirroring White's move) he creates an asymmetrical position that leads to lots of complicated positions. Black tries to attack White's e-pawn, often through a Knight at f6 and Bishop at g7. Black would like to make the move "d5" without retribution. Typically, white has an inititative on the King side while black obtains counterplay on the Queen side, particularly on the "c" file after the exchange of Black's "c" pawn with White's "d" pawn.

The Sicilian has been extensively studied, and there are many variations. A popular variation is the "Dragon" variation, which starts as:

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6

In this variation, Black finachettos a bishop on the h8-a1 diagonal. This is called the "Dragon" variation because Black's pawn structure is supposed to look like a dragon. Another reason for the name could be that a very aggressive middlegame usually develops following opposite side castling.

Another variation that's quite popular is the "Najdorf" variation. It starts just like the Dragon, and diverges on Black's move 5:

 1. e4 c5  2. Nf3 d6  3. d4 cxd4  4. Nxd4 Nf6  5. Nc3 a6

White's most common response is "6. Bg5", another being "6. Be2". According to Grandmaster Daniel King, the latter option allows Black to attack the center with "6. ... e5!".

French Defense

(ECO Codes C0 and C1)

In the French Defense, Black lets White have more control over the center, in exchange for which he builds a (hopefully) safe wall of pawns. The French Defense starts as:

 1. e4 e6  2. d4 d5

Games generally involve jockeying for position. The center usually becomes closed, two competing pawn chains arise, and each player tries to outflank the other. White generally tries to play e5; Black tries to play c5 or f6. Black's queen Bishop often becomes trapped and useless, and it's known as the "French Bishop".

"3. Nc3 Bb4" leads to the Winawer variation, and "3. e5" is the advance variation. See French Defense for more details.


The Caro-Kann is like the French defense - Black lets White build control of the center, and Black tries to get a pawn at d5. It looks like a "wimpy Sicilian". The Caro-Kann starts out as:

 1. e4 c6  2. d4 d5

The main line of the Caro-Kann is

 1. e4 c6  2. d4 d5  3. Nc3 dxe4

Black gets to eliminate one of White's central pawns and can get his pieces developed, which is an advantage over the French Defense. However, Black's pieces end up with more of a passive defensive role, so players of this opening are often looking for White to make a mistake (however slight).

Center Counter

The Center Counter starts out as:

 1. e4 d5

This opening is also called the "Scandinavian" opening. A common continuation is exd5 Qxd5.


This opening goes by various names, such as "Pirc" and "Modern". It starts:

 1. e4 d6


 1. e4 g6

Keene labels the "Modern Defense" as the sequence:

 1. e4 g6  2. d4 Bg7

This is a relatively new opening. In the 1930s this was considered inferior, but by the 1960s it was found to be quite playable. Black lets White take the center with the view to undermining and ruining White's "wonderful" position. This opening is tricky to play and correct play of it is counter-intuitive (immediate center control is not a goal, since Black is trying to undermine that control).

White Opens with "d4"

Queen's Gambit

Now we look at openings that begin "1. d4". The Queen's Gambit starts with:

1. d4 d5 2. c4

White offers up a pawn in exchange for rapid development. His aim is to tempt Black's center pawn away and thus make c4 and e4 accessible for his own forces. Black can accept the gambit with dxc4, playing "Queen's Gambit Accepted", which is a risky way to play this gambit. Black can also play Nc6 (the Tchigoran Defense), e6 (which leads to the Tarrasch Defense), or play e6 (the Orthodox Defense). Not Nf6 (Marshall defence) because of 3. cd Nxd5 4. e4 driving the knight away and opening White's game.

King's Indian Defense

(ECO codes E6 to E9)

This is a "hypermodern" opening, where Black lets White take the center with the view to later ruining White's "wonderful" position. It's a risky opening, a favorite of both Kasparov and Fischer.

 1. d4 Nf6  2. c4 g6  3. Nc3 Bg7

Black will be interested in playing c5, and when White plays d5, reply with e6 and b5.

The main variations of the King's Indian are the Classical, the Samisch, the Averbakh and the Four Pawn Attack.

Nimzo-Indian, Bogo-Indian, and Queen's Indian Defense

All of these "Indian" defenses start with:

 1. d4 Nf6  2. c4 e6

The Nimzo-Indian continues with "Nc3 Bb4". In the Nimzo-Indian, White tries to create a pawn center and mass his pieces behind behind them for attack. [Indian Defenses]

Dutch Defense

The Dutch defense starts as:

 1. d4 f5

The Dutch defense is an aggressive counterplay by Black. Black immediately begins to move toward White's kingside in an attempt to crush White. However, it also creates weaknesses in Black's position from the beginning - this move of the f-pawn weakens Black's defenses and doesn't help develop pieces.

White Opens with Something Other Than "e4" or "d4"

English Opening

The English opening is a "flank" maneuver. It starts very differently:

 1. c4

Here White hopes to control the center by first gaining support on the side. Common responses for Black are "e5" (which can lead to positions similar to the Sicilian defense but with opposite colors) or "c5". White has the option of opening the game early with "d4", or to prepare with a fianchetto of the king's bishop ("g3" and "Bg2").

Classification of chess openings

Various classification schemes for chess openings are in use. The ECO scheme is given on the page List_of_chess_openings.


  • How to Play the Opening in Chess. 1993. Raymond Keene and David Levy. ISBN 0-8050-2937-0.
  • The Encyclopedia of Chess Openings - This is a very technical advanced work in 5 volumes published by Chess Informant of Belgrade. http://www.sahovski.com/ It analyzes openings used in tournament play and archived in Chess Informant since 1966. Instead of the traditional names for the openings, it has developed a unique coding system that has also been used by other chess publications.
  • Batsford Chess Openings 2. 1989, 1994. Garry Kasparov and Raymond Keene. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-3409-9.
  • A Beginner's Garden of Chess Openings by David A. Wheeler http://www.dwheeler.com/chess-openings
  • Nunn's Chess Openings. 1999. John Nunn (Editor), Graham Burgess, John Emms, Joe Gallagher. ISBN 1-8574-4221-0.
  • Modern Chess Openings: MCO-14. 1999. Nick De Firmian, Walter Korn. ISBN 0-8129-3084-3.

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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