A Beginner's Garden of Chess Openings

A guide by David A. Wheeler.

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.

This document briefly lists a few of the more well-known chess openings, so that when you see the first few moves you can at least say "Ah! That's the X!", where X is some well-known opening. Many books and encyclopedias give "how to play" information on each opening; here, we'll concentrate on at least knowing some common approaches to starting chess. This is a small subset of well-known openings; many others are not covered here. Before you play a particular opening, you'd be wise to study it in more depth than given here. Pictures show the opening position; selecting the picture will show the opening moves animated one move at a time if you have a PGN viewer installed.

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 these goals.

There are three groups of openings covered here:

  1. 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:
    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". One example is the English Opening.

Each of these openings is briefly described below.

Ruy Lopez

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).

[Ruy Lopez]

Giuoco Piano

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.

[Giuoco Piano]
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. [Evans Gambit]

King's Gambit

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.
[King's Gambit]

Sicilian Defense

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 retribution.

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.

[Sicilian, Dragon Variation]
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!".

[Sicilian, Najdorf Variation]

French Defense

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).


Center Counter

The Center Counter starts out as:

  1. e4 d5
This opening is also called the "Scandinavian" opening. A common continuation is exd5 Qxd5.
[Counter Center]


This opening goes by various names, such as "Pirc" and "Modern". It starts:
  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).

Queen's Gambit

Now we look at openings other than "1. e4". The Queen's Gambit starts with:
  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 Defense).
[Queen's Gambit]

King's Indian Defense

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.
[King's Indian]

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

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.
[Dutch Defense]

English Opening

The English opening is a "flank" manuever. It starts very differently:
  1. c4
Here White hopes to control the center by first gaining support on the side. A common response for Black is "c5".
[English Opening]


(C) 1997-2002 David A. Wheeler. Released under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).