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Chess opening

The first moves, of a chess game, are the "opening moves", collectively referred to as "the opening". There are a number of openings, some defensive, and some offensive; some are tactical, and some are strategic; some openings focus on the center, and others focus on the flanks; some approaches are direct, and others are indirect. Opening theory is sufficiently complex that it can take many years of study to master.

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 said to be a "novelty".

For a list of openings as classified by the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings, see List of chess openings.

Table of contents
1 Aims of the opening
2 Common openings
3 Classification of chess openings
4 References

Aims of the opening

Although a wide variety of moves are played in the opening, the aims behind them are broadly speaking the same. First and foremost, the aim is to avoid being checkmated and avoid losing material, as in other phases of the game. However, assuming neither player makes a blunder in the opening, the main aims include:

  1. Development: the pieces in the starting position of a game are not doing anything very useful. One of the main aims of the opening, therefore, is to put them on more useful squares where they will have more of a say in the game. To this end, knights are usually developed to f3, c3, f6 and c6 (or sometimes e2, d2, e7 or d7), and both player's e- and d-pawns are moved so the bishops can be developed (alternatively, the bishops may be fianchettoed with a manoeuvre such as g3 and Bg2). The more rapidly the pieces are developed, the better. The queen, however, it not usually played to a central position until later in the game, as it is liable to be attacked otherwise, when its value means it has to be moved, which can waste time.
  2. Control of the center: at the start of the game, it is not clear on which part of the board the pieces will be needed. However, control of the central squares allows pieces to be moved to any part of the board relatively easily, and can also have a cramping effect on the opponent. The classical view is that central control is best effected by placing pawns there, ideally establishing pawns on d4 and e4 (or d5 and e5 for black). However, the hypermodern school showed that it was not always necessary or even desirable to occupy the center in this way, and that too broad a pawn front could be attacked and destroyed, leaving its architect vulnerable: an impressive looking pawn center is worth little unless it can be maintained. The hypermoderns instead advocated controlling the centre from a distance with pieces, breaking down one's opponent center, and only taking over the center oneself later in the game. This leads to openings such as the Alekhine Defence - in a line like 1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4. c4 Nb6 5. f4 White has a formidable pawn center for the moment, but Black hopes to undermine it later in the game, leaving White's position exposed.
  3. Getting the king safe: in the middle of the board, the king is somewhat exposed. It is therefore normal for both players to castle in the opening, putting the king to the side of the board (and simultaneously developing one of the rooks).
  4. Maintaining a good pawn structure: this is perhaps not so important as the other aims, but it is something which should be borne in mind. A number of openings are based on the idea of giving one's opponent an inferior pawn structure. In the Winawer Variation of the French Defence (1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e5 c5 5. a3 Bxc3 6. bxc3), black gives up his pair of bishops (which, other things being equal, it is usually best to hang on to) and allows white more space, but damages white's pawn structure in compensation by giving him doubled c-pawns. Similarly, in the Nimzo-Indian Defence (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4), the Classical Variation (4. Qc2) is specifically designed to avoid a similar fault in white's pawn structure (he can recapture on c3 with the queen rather than the b-pawn). (It should be noted that doubled pawns are not all negative for their holder: doubled pawns on one file mean a half-open adjacent file which can be used for an attack.)

In more general terms, many writers (for example, Reuben Fine in The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings) have commented that it is White's task in the opening to preserve and increase the advantage conferred by moving first, while Black's task is to equalise the game. Many openings, however, give Black a chance to play aggressively for advantage from the very start.

Common openings

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 moves 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", after which things often turn into one of the d4 openings by a different move order (this is known as transposition), but which can also develop into unique openings of its own, such as the Réti Opening (after 1.Nf3 d5 2.c4, for example).

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

White Opens with "e4"

Ruy Lopez

(ECO codes C6 to C9)

The Ruy Lopez (also called the "Spanish" opening) starts with the moves

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 has been adopted by almost all players at some point in their careers.

At the most basic level, white's third move attacks the knight which defends the e5 pawn attacked by the f3 knight. However, the pawn is not in fact in any danger: if the white tries to win it with, for example, 3... a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. Nxe5 black can just win it back with 5... Qd4. 3. Bb5 is still a good move, however: it develops other pieces, prepares castling, and sets up a potential pin against black's king.

White generally directs pressure on Black's e-pawn and tries to prepare for a pawn on d4. The most usual reply is 3... a6, attacking White's bishop. After that, White can back up (4. Ba4) or exchange pieces (4. Bxc6). See Ruy Lopez for more details.

Giuoco Piano

(ECO Codes C51 to C54)

"Giuoco Piano" is Italian for "Quiet Game", and by the standards of the 19th century when the opening was most popular, it is indeed quiet. However, several lines can be quite violent. It starts as:

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

White's third move hits black's weak f7 square (weak because it is defended only once, and by the king at that), and simultaneously discourages black's d5.

A normal move now would be 4. c3, preparing d4. If White instead replies 4. d3, you have the Guioco Pianissimo ("The Quietest Game"), which can often become very passive.

If White instead plays 4. b4?!, you have the Evans Gambit, in which White offers a pawn in order to gain time to build a good centre: the normal continuation is 4... Bxb4 5. c3 Ba5 6. d4.

Two Knights Defence

A rather more aggressive way for black to meet 3. Bc4 than the Giuoco Piano, the Two Knights Defence begins

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6

White can reply quietly with 4. d3 (when play sometimes transposes to the Giuoco Pianissimo), or can continue aggressively with 4. Ng5. The usual reply is 4... d5, although 4... Bc5 (the Wilkes Barre Variation) is a complicated alternative.

Latvian Gambit

An aggressive gambit by Black develops after

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 f5

The opening is rarely seen and generally thought to be unsound. See Latvian Gambit for details.

King's Gambit

(ECO Code C3)

This opening was the most popular opening in the 19th century. White offers a pawn in exchange for rapid development. It is now rarely seen at the master level, it being generally thought that black can obtain a reasonable position by giving back the gambited pawn at the right moment.

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 the most popular response to 1. e4 at 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. 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 for White's d pawn.

Black can adopt a variety of set-ups, among them the Dragon variation, which begins

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

In this variation, Black fianchettos 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 popular system is the Najdorf, which begins

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

White plays a variety of moves here, including 6. Bg5, 6. Be2 and 6. Be3.

Black can adopt a number of other set-ups, including the Scheveningen (1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6) and the Sveshnikov (1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5), which as of 2003 is very fashionable at the top level.

To avoid giving black this choice of systems, white can adopt a number of so-called "anti-Sicilian" lines, including 2. Nc3 (the Closed Sicilian), 2. c3 (the Alapin Sicilian), 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 (the Morra Gambit), lines with an early f4 (the Grand Prix Attack) and various lines with an early Bb5.

French Defense

(ECO Codes C0 and C1)

In the French Defense, Black lets White have more control over the center in exchange for a solid position and chances of a counter-attack later in the game. The French Defense starts

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5

Games generally involve jockeying for position. The center usually becomes closed after white plays e5 (a move which arises in most variations), two competing pawn chains arise, and each player tries to outflank the other. Black tries to play the freeing moves c5 or f6. Black's queen Bishop often becomes trapped and useless, and is known as the "French Bishop".

3. e5 is the Advance Variation, 3. Nd2 is the Tarrasch Variation, 3. Nc3 Bb4 is the Winawer variation, and 3. Nc3 Nf6 leads to the Steinitz, Classical and Burn variations. See French Defense for more details.


The Caro-Kann is similar to the French defense - Black lets White build an "ideal" pawn center with pawns at d4 and e4, but then breaks it up. The Caro-Kann starts out

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5

The main line of the Caro-Kann is

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4

Black gets to eliminate one of White's central pawns and because he has not played e6 does not have the hemmed in c8-bishop of the French Defense (on the other hand, he has not opened a line to develop the f8-bishop). 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).

Common continuations after the above line are 4... Bf5 (the Classical Variation), 4... Nd7 (intending 5... Nf6 6. Nxf6 Nxf6) which is sometimes known as the Karpov system, and 4... Nf6 5. Nxf6 after which black can play safely with 5... exf6 or more riskily with 5... gxf6.

White can vary early on in a number of ways, including the Advance Variation (3. e5) and the Panov-Botvinnik Attack (3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4).

Center Counter

The Center Counter starts out as

1. e4 d5

It is also called the Scandinavian Defence. A common continuation is 2. exd5 Qxd5, though 2... Nf6 is also possible.


The Pirc and the Modern Defences are both based around black playing d6, g6 and Bg7. The main difference is that in the Modern, Black delays playing Nf6. Both systems are introduced with the moves

1. e4 d6 or

1. e4 g6

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 (the Queen's Gambit Accepted) or can decline with 2... e6 (the Orthodox Defence) or 2... c6 (the Slav Defence) - if black plays both e6 and c6 it is known as the Semi-Slav. Less commonly, Black plays 2... Nc6 (the Chigorin Defense), 2... e5 (the Albin Counter-Gambit) or 2... Nf6 (the Marshall defence).

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, which has been a favourite of aggressive players such as Kasparov and Fischer.

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

Black often continues with d6 and e5, and attacks on the king-side, while white attacks on the queen-side.

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 3. Nc3 Bb4. In the Nimzo-Indian, White tries to create a pawn center and mass his pieces behind behind them for attack.

The Bogo-Indian is 3. Nf3 Bb4+ and the Queen's Indian is 3. Nf3 b6.

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).

If White does play d4, then the English can transpose into either the Queen's Gambit or an Indian Defense.

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.