Openings

English Opening

1.c4

The English Opening is a flank opening where White advances their c-pawn two squares instead of the d- or e-pawns. The English is a highly transpositional opening, meaning that in many cases the game will reach the same position that arises from other openings and through different move orders. The English Opening is most suitable for intermediate and advanced players and demands more understanding of positional concepts.

A respectable opening, the English has been adopted by several elite players. Among them are former world champions GMs Mikhail Botvinnik, Garry Kasparov, and even the 1.e4-devotee Bobby Fischer.


Starting Position

The English Opening happens when White starts the game with the move 1.c4. White refrains from moving their d and e-pawns and instead uses a flank pawn to control the center.

English Opening
The starting position of the English Opening.

White's first move allows for more versatile play with the center pawns by both sides. The game mainly revolves around who will get to solidify their grip over the center of the board.

Usually, White will play with a Sicilian-like setup with colors reversed or the game will transpose into a queen's-pawn opening. The latter is another reason behind White's move: it avoids or limits Black's responses to some defenses against 1.d4 openings.

Pros

  • Fights for the center with a wing pawn
  • Can lead to queenside pressure
  • Takes many Black players out of their comfort zone

Cons

  • Slower development
  • Less direct attacking chances
  • Allows Black to put a strong pawn on e5

Main Variations Of The English Opening

As mentioned, the English is a highly transpositional opening. For this reason, it has few independent variations. However, that doesn't mean that it is light in theory. Due to its positional nature and the many transpositions that can occur, White must know what they're doing to employ this opening successfully. Below you can see the main variations in the English Opening.

Reversed Sicilian

Reversed Sicilian games start after Black plays the move ...e5, either after 1.c4 e5 or after delaying the e-pawn thrust for a few moves. As the name suggests, White will play a Sicilian-like setup with an extra tempo.

Four Knights' Variation

The Four Knights Variation happens after the moves 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6. Black's setup is flexible and allows for counterattacks. They will usually exchange their dark-squared bishop for White's c3-knight or play against White's Sicilian Dragon setup down a tempo.

Bremen System

The Bremen System occurs after 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3. White accelerates the development of their light-squared bishop, trying to increase their control over the central light-squares. They can also use this variation to limit Black's options and later transpose to other lines of the Four Knights'.

Botvinnik System

The Botvinnik System is a development setup that White can adopt when playing the English. As a system, this development scheme works against many different moves Black chooses to play in the opening.

Its basic setup involves building a pawn triangle on the c4, d3, and e4-squares, controlling the d5 square, and tying up Black's pieces. White also places a knight on c3, fianchettoes a bishop on g2, and castles kingside. Move order is not as important in this system as long as White reaches the final setup.

The Botvinnik System is easy to learn but still has some sting. White can go for a kingside mating attack, playing in the center with a powerful knight on d5, or even play on the queenside. On the other hand, Black can get a good game if they can exploit the holes left by White's pawn play, especially in the d4-square.

Closed Variation

The Closed Variation starts with the moves 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 when Black plays as White would play a Closed Sicilian. White usually dominates the queenside while Black gets counterplay on the kingside. The way players develop their kingside knight impacts the rest of the game significantly.

Symmetrical English

The Symmetrical English is the umbrella of openings that arise after 1.c4 c5. From there, the game can transpose into numerous variations of the Sicilian Defense or other openings.

Symmetrical Four Knights'

The Symmetrical, Four Knights' Variation starts after 1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6. In this variation, one of the players will usually push their d-pawn forward two squares, and players will battle for the control of the central squares.

Ultra-Symmetrical Line

The Ultra-Symmetrical line starts with the moves 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7. Both players fianchetto their kingside bishop to discourage their opponents from pushing the d-pawn. This variation usually leads to slow, maneuvering games.

Hedgehog Defense

The Hedgehog Defense is a solid way for Black to deal with the English. It starts after the moves 1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.g3 b6 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.O-O Be7, when Black accepts a cramped position to later counterattack at the right moment. Black usually exchanges their c-pawn for White's d-pawn, lines up a queen and rook on the semi-open c-file, and develops their pieces behind their pawns. Black's play revolves around making use of their pieces' dynamic potential.

History Of The English Opening

The English Opening receives its name from Howard Staunton, the famous English master. Staunton played 1.c4 six times against Pierre de Saint Amant in their unofficial world championship match. However, the opening didn't become popular until Botvinnik started using it in the 1930s.

English Opening
Botvinnik in 1933. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC.

The English hit its peak during the 1960s through the 1980s after elite players started using it regularly. Some of its adopters were GMs Tigran Petrosian, Jan Timman, and Kasparov. Even Fischer, who almost always preferred 1.e4 openings, employed the English to win a game against GM Boris Spassky during their world championship match.

From the 1990s onward, the popularity of the English has slightly declined. However, the opening is still played frequently and is part of many world-class players' opening repertoire.

Lesson
English Opening

English Opening

The English Opening, 1.c4, mostly leads to quiet maneuvering games where tactics recede to the background, at least till the middlegame is in full swing. But even in 'quiet lines' tactics lurk just below the surface, waiting to pounce.
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