An Opening Overview

| 3 | Opening Theory


Hi everybody,

being a member of the All Nations Chess League (located on, I used our team forum to post a few brief overviews of the most common chess openings last year. My intention was not to give a fully detailed review of these openings, but rather to sketch a few typical ideas and plans which could be helpful for intermediates looking for a reliable opening to suit their style. I concentrated on defining the common black defenses to the most frequent White 1st moves 1.e4, 1.d4 and 1.c4, also touching lightly upon 1.Nf3. 

I noticed that in the opening forums on  there is one question which gets frequently asked: "Does anyone know a good chess opening?" The answers to such a general question vary according to the preferences of those replying, but don't necessarily suit the players who started the respective threads. So I would like to share those articles I wrote for my team with you. You will find the information I gathered in my other articles titled "Meeting 1.e4", "Meeting 1.d4" and so on.

Here I will give a few thoughts on picking your openings as White:

I think every player should start his career by playing 1.e4 for some time, following up with some crazy gambits like the old masters did. This gives you a feeling for the dynamic possibilities and the game's ultimate aim: the king hunt. If you don't develop this feeling to a certain degree, you will feel it hard to improve past a certain point, even if you are a positional player preferring calm positions.

When building such a repertoire, I would recommend taking up even gambits of questionable reputation, the main objective always being to incinerate a lively game. I am thinking of something like the King's Gambit 1.e4 e5 2.f4 or the Smith-Morra 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3. Against Black's other choices it's a bit harder to find a suitable gambit, so maybe I would go for the advance variations against the French (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5) and the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5) and attacks involving an early f2-f4 against almost everything else. I think against the French there even is some sort of Wing Gambit, but I am unsure as to how recommendable that is. If you don't like the King's Gambit in response to 1...e5, there is a vast number of other gambits available: the Danish Gambit 1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Bc4 or the Scottisch Gambit 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 (or 4.c3, which is called the Goering Gambit), the Kaidansky 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nf6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Qxd4 or the venerable Evans Gambit 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4.

If you refine this a bit, you can even get a repertoire which carries you quite some distance.

Maybe you will want to go a bit more sophisticated at some point, this would be the time to have a look at openings like the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) or the Scotch (3.d4), and some main lines in the other popular openings Sicilian, French, Caro-Kann etc. There can be found extremely sharp lines requiring tactical skills, as well as calmer but very venomous ones for more positionally inclined players.

1.d4 and 1.c4 can be interpreted very actively, too, if you prefer, but here the scope for the positional player is considerable: If you don't want to permit counterplay, you don't have to, although that usually means that you will face considerable toil before you can extract a full point from the game. Probably the danger of losing is smaller than with 1.e4, but your wins will be less frequent, too, with quite a few draws thrown in.

As a player with distinct positional preferences you can go for a Réti/English repertoire as well (1.Nf3 or 1.c4). Even here play doesn't have to become boring, the clash will just happen later in the middlegame. The advantage of this approach is that theory doesn't develop all that quickly, so you won't have to update your opening repertoire all the time. Evidently this gives you more scope for other training matters at hand, like tactics, middlegame strategy or endings, which in my opinion are underrepresented in most players' training times anyway.

Another attempt to cut down opening theory in your repertoire would be „system play“. Thereby I mean using the same setup against every possible black answer. Typical examples would include the Colle System (1.d4, 2.Nf3, 3.e3, 4.Bd3 with c2-c3, Nbd2 and 0-0) (almost) regardless what Black does, the Stonewall (1.f4, with Nf3, e3, d4 and c3 to follow) or the King's Indian Attack (1.Nf3, 2.g3, 3.Bg2, 4.0-0 following up with d3 and Nbd2 aimimng for e2-e4). Of the systems mentioned, the KIA is probably the most interesting one, but all of them have some major disadvantages: Always playing the same type of positions will only help you to understand a limited amount of available plans, which in turn most probably hampers any general chess improvement you might still want to achieve. Additionally I don't think that systems applied to any black setup work equally well for every single one of Black's possible answers. This isn't likely to get you into an outright bad position, but it could mean that you can bury any attempts for an opening advantage prematurely.

The last possibility of avoiding much theory is even less recommendable: Some players rely on so-called creative openings outside the normal repertoire, like 1.g4, 1.b4 , 1.a3 or something like that. Although not every move discarded by a grandmaster has to be bad (even they are subject to fashion!), there are some moves like the aforementioned ones which aren't part of the normal repertoire because they are inferior, full stop. You can still find some examples where such systems are successfully used even among relatively high rated players, but I suspect the reason for White's success in such cases is rather better preparation or larger experience with the arising sort of position than an objective merit of the opening employed. I for one would hate playing a system where I have to be afraid of my opponent finding the best move because it would render my position next to hopeless, or at least quite bad.

So how should one learn an opening?

When you are just starting out, I wouldn't attempt to memorize too many opening moves, but instead to play along lines I have seen in some game I liked and heed a few general principles:


Occupy the centre with pawns and pieces or at least execise some control over it with pieces. Try to place your pieces so that they have central influence.

2. Development

Get a number of your pieces or – even better – all them out before starting an attack or trying to win material.


Make sure you can evacuate the king from the centre, where sooner or later the action will take place, in time. Spend some thought on which side to castle so you don't castle into an oncoming attack. Ensure that your other pieces are reasonably safe on the squares where you develop them, too.

With these guidelines you can come pretty far without having to know a tremendous amount of theory.

Of course, when you improve in play, there will be a day where you have to work seriously on the openings you want to employ. For doing this, I believe in model games: They don't just show you the first moves, but typical middlegame and endgame plans in action as well. Fortunately there is an increasing number of books or training cds working with just this approach. Only after having worked through a number of such model games you should decide on exactly what line you would like to learn.

Ok, I think this is about it for this post. You will find short sketches of the opening systems which can arise from various black defences in my other articles labelled "Meeting 1.e4", "Meeting 1.d4" and so on. Obviously I don't play all the systems I describe there, so my knowledge may be a bit more detailed in some cases and even more superficial than usual in others ;) If you find I have wronged any of these systems by either treating it too briefly or assessing it incorrectly, please drop a note and give your own assessments!


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