English Teaching Tournament

Apr 12, 2008, 5:36 AM |

The English Opening 1.c4 is the youngest of the established openings - it was taken seriously only after Mikhail Botvinnik used it with great success in the 1950ies, although it has already featured in the repertoire of world class positional player Howard Staunton in the mid-19th century.

At lower skill level it is still some sort of exotic in that many players have a response ready for 1.e4 and maybe 1.d4, but often are unprepared against such moves as 1.c4 or 1.Nf3, which after all are the 3rd and 4th most common options to open the game as White. The prospect of taking your opponent out of book early in the game may be an incentive for taking up the English as White, but I wouldn't accept that as the only reason to do so. After all, 1.c4 is a fully acclaimed first move with some theory behind it, which you should strive to understand if you want to use this opening successfully. Like with 1.e4 or 1.d4, it is possible to do interpret it in a very active way or in calm positional style. To some extent this depends on your personal preferences, although of course the first move indicates a tendency to take play to the queenside. I will give a first example:


















There are a few remarkable things about this line: First of all, both sides have managed to play full seven moves without making any contact with the enemy army. This slow build-up has given the English a reputation of being calm and even very drawish, which is definitely not true in many lines, as can be shown in this very line: As I mentioned before, White has a tendency to play on the queenside in many variations of the English, which he certainly has to do here with moves like Rb1, a3(if necessary) and b2-b4-b5 or c4-c5. Black will counter on the other side of the board, for example with ideas like Nh5 and f7-f5(-f4), possibly h6 and g7-g5(-g4) as well. In that case will need a well-timed strike in  the centre, opening diagonals towards the black king. Additionally he often uses the d5 square for his knight. Obviously play will become very sharp and un-drawish at a later stage, defying the reputation of "boring". This is typical of the English: although the game began with only little contact between the parties, it can explode in tactical fireworks at a later stage. Here is an axample from a blitz-game(!) of two famous players:



















Apart from this example line there are quite a lot of different systems for both sides in the English opening. Just remember that virtually everything beginning with 1.c4 is called an English opening, whereas after a move like 1.e4 you can still get various 1.e5 systems like the Italian, the Ruy Lopez, the Scotch or the Petroff, only to name the most famous, or the Sicilian with its vast body of therory, or the Caro-Kann or the French or the Scandinavian or the Pirc or some less known defences.

Obviously I lack space here to describe all the various Black defences and White's no less various attempts to crack them, but apart from reposting my article "meeting 1.c4" here, I will try to characterize a few typical white strategems which pop up repeatedly:

-White's kingside fianchetto is by no means passive. As White often attacks on the queenside, the bishop is perfectly placed to support that attack, on the way monitoring the important central squares e4 and especially d5. A further advantage (which can be seen as a slightly restrained kind of play, if you want) is that the bishop takes a safe post for itself where it won't be harrassed by enemy pieces early on. Also the white king's position is strengthened, as after castling short he has not only the knight f3 to protect him, but the bishop as well.


-The d5 square is of outmost importance to White. From the beginning of the game his pieces are aimed at it: the c4 pawn, the c3 knight and the bishop g2. If he can safely land and maintain a piece here, he will be better in most cases. Here is a rather stark example of what Black needs to avoid:



















-Transpositional options: Because play tends to be less forcing at the beginning than in the open games, both sides have a huge variety of available options at virtually every move. That said, it seems evident you don't have to expect a tactical knockout after careless play, but the weapons of the English player can be similarly devious: Move order tricks, which help to avoid certain systems or transpose into others normally reached by different roads. This is not only true for interconnections of various English systems, but also for many transpositions to the Réti or into Indian or Catalan systems if White plays d2-d4 at some stage. I have referred to a few basic transpositional ideas in my "meeting 1.c4" article, especially you need to make sure that your defences against the English are compatible with those against 1.d4, as play tends to transpose between these quite easily!


-English endgames are sort of a counterpart to the tactical knockout in the open games: If neither side has attacked the opposing king and Black has been content to defend against your central and queenside threats, it can happen that many pieces get exchanged and you land in an endgame, which may seem more or less level. Many games are drawn at this point, adding to the drawish reputation of the English Opening. However, if you are confident in your endgame skills, you should definitely carry on, as White often still has a pull in these endgames and defending them can be a cumbersome task for Black. As an experienced player of English positions I often refuse a draw even as Black, because I am familiar with both sides of the position and feel that there is still enough play left to even generate winning attempts.


Well, now I have come to the conclusion of my overview of the English opening, and I hope this is of some use to you. Enjoy the English Teaching Tournament, although from the point of my running games it can hardly be called that as almost all of them have already transposed to something else! :o)