Beginner's Chess Openings
The first moves of a chess game are termed the "opening" or "opening moves".
A good opening will provide better protection of the King, control over an area
of the board (particularly the center), greater mobility for pieces, and
possibly opportunities to capture opposing pawns and pieces.
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 a game.
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 are direct, while others are more subtle and indirect approaches toward
There are three groups of openings covered here:
- White can start by moving his King's pawn 2 spaces, i.e. playing "e4".
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:
- Black may choose to mirror White's move and reply with "e5" for the same
reasons, leading to openings such as the
Giuoco Piano (including the
Evans Gambit variant), and
- Black can also try something other than mirroring White's "e4" move,
leading to openings such as the
Center Counter, and
- White can start by moving the Queen's pawn to "d4". This leads to openings
such as the
King's Indian Defense,
Nimzo-Indian, Bogo-Indian, and Queen's Indian Defense, and
- White can start with some other move than "e4" or "d4". One example is the
Each of these openings is briefly described below.
|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 Gottengen manuscript, which dates from 1490.
Popular use of the Ruy Lopez opening did not develop, however, until the mid
1800's when Jaenisch, a Russian theoretician, "rediscovered" its potential.
The opening is still in active use; 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 known 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).
|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 "d3", you have the "Guioco Pianissimo" ("The
Quietest Game") - a very passive game.
|If White replies with "b4?!", you have the
"Evans Gambit", in which White offers a pawn in exchange for a powerful
center and possibly opening his Queen Bishop.
|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 (giving nothing for White's pawn).
1. e4 e5 2. f4
A natural following move is "exf4" accepting the gambit.
|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 b7. Black would like to make the move "d5" without
|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 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
According to Grandmaster Daniel King White often responds with "Be2",
permitting Black to attack the center with "e5!".
|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".
|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).
|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
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).
|Now we look at openings other than "1. e4". The Queen's Gambit starts
1. d4 d5 2. c4
White offers up a pawn in exchange for rapid development. 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
|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.
|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
|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.
|The English opening is a "flank" maneuver. It starts very differently:
Here White hopes to control the center by first gaining support on the
side. A common response for Black is "c5".